Under The Dome Review: “Imperfect Circles” (Season 1, Episode 7)

Dean Norris in Under the Dome

Maybe there’s no magical secret to having the high ratings CBS regularly trounces other networks with. From where I’m sitting, their most successful shows have at least one common factor: making sure that somebody gets killed every week. It works for NCIS, it works for Survivor and Big Brother (with exile being about as close to death as reality TV allows…for now) and it’s worked well enough for Under the Dome to earn it a second season. Cable dramas like The Walking Dead and Breaking Bad might get all the attention for the violence inherent to their vision, but death is no stranger to the FCC-regulated networks either.

All these other shows have natural methods for filling the spaces left by those characters that wind up biting the dust, the transition being more or less organic depending on the premise. So long as there’s murder in the real world, people are going to expect the NCIS crew to find another recently deceased cold body to investigate every week. Ditto for the more serialized Walking Dead, which does a mass hiring of fresh faces at the beginning of every season, before seeing a good chunk of them dispensed of by season’s end. Heck, even Survivor and Big Brother don’t have to gin up too much of an excuse to reinstate once banished contestants, or bring in an unexpected new contender.

One of many problems Under the Dome continues to grapple with is that it’s the longest bottle episode in television history, seeing as nobody can get in or out of the dome yet. Being the folks most aware of this fact, you’d think the writers would have devoted more time in the season’s first half to fleshing out a deep bench of residents in Chester’s Mill before starting to off them at a breakneck pace. It’s bad enough that we’re seven episodes in, and still sorely lacking in a rooting interest in many of the main characters, beyond the general sense that, yes, we’d rather not see bad things happen to them, but the speed with which named characters are getting bumped off is pretty alarming, both for how desperate a ploy for insta-drama it is, and how concerningly short term the strategy is for solving the show’s broader issues.

Unless some fresh, interesting blood is added soon, I’m thinking that we’ll be down to just the dome, and a drunken Dean Norris by the season 2 premiere (which, hey, might be an improvement). Introducing that fresh blood is becoming increasingly awkward though, as evidenced by Harriet, Julia’s absurdly pregnant neighbour, who just happens to show up for the first time tonight, interrupting some maddeningly mandolin-heavy post-coital bliss between Julia and Barbie. The dome’s only been around for about a week, so for this episode, Harriet only now making her presence known doesn’t rankle too badly, but the further out from Dome Day we get, the more hand-waving gymnastics will be required to justify why we’ve waited so long to finally meet any newbies.

Granted, the episode does actually have a bit of fun with this notion, by having Harriet’s navy husband appear out of the clear blue sky, only to prove an apparition designed to lure Harriet into contacting the dome, thus inducing premature labor (add that to the ever-growing list of side effects that result from dome contact). I’m giving the show the benefit of the doubt here, because it might have honestly been trying to convince us that the guy in the dollar store sailor costume was anything more than a hallucination, but the means of initiating Harriet’s labor don’t matter all that much, seeing as the labor itself is just a time killer meant to keep Julia, Barbie, and Norrie’s mothers busy.

And busy work was something “Imperfect Circles” had in spades, as Junior and Linda spend the hour hunting down those troublesome Dundie boys, while Big Jim disrupts his struggle with Ollie over the town’s precious supplies by making sure there’s a hell of a lot less of those supplies left to struggle over. Linda and Junior’s sideplot is nothing but mop-up from last week, though it mercifully clarifies that, no, despite how suggested it was, Angie was not raped in Rose’s diner. We also got a rather hilarious shootout sequence, with Angry Stupid Redneck Kid (not to be confused with his brother, Stupid Redneck Kid) deciding to exploit a momentary upper hand on Linda by staggering out of cover, and limply firing off rounds in her general direction, like a drunk trying to give directions after taking a few too many spins on the Tilt-A-Whirl. At least with the Dundies dead, we didn’t have to endure more than one scene of Linda and Junior debating the ethics of police work with as much impassioned affect as you’d expect to hear from Microsoft Sam.

Jim’s plot involves a bit more literal mop-up, as he has Angie and Ben (formerly known as Beanie Kid. The renaming is due to his lack of a beanie this episode, not due to him becoming an actual character) tend to Rose’s body, and ransacked restaurant. He’s got no time to take care of the place, as water baron Ollie has quickly expanded his monopoly to include Chester’s Mill’s other vital, non-insulin-related liquid: propane. How, you might ask? Well, I know it involves Ollie convincing a single goon to keep Jim from accessing the stores of the stuff he brought in before the dome came down. How does Ollie know where Jim’s supply is? And why does silver-tongued Jim prove so ineffective at swaying the goon to his side, instead of Ollie’s? Well, doesn’t really matter, because Jim does to the propane and the goon what the show has been doing to a lot of its barely-connected weekly plot elements, and just violently disposes of them.

Barely connected thoughts and ideas would make for a great transition into Joe’s stunner of a theory about the dome being structured like an atom (why, because it’s round, and maybe has something in the center? Maybe then it’s more analogous to an organic cell? Or a Tootsie Pop?), but let’s instead barely connect these paragraphs by mentioning a surprising positive to come out of the last two weeks: the Norrie/Joe stuff is becoming pretty enjoyable. Joe, as shown by his inexplicable theorizing about the dome, is still a complete goober, but his gooberdom makes for a nice yin to Norrie’s more assertive, confident yang. Allow me to officially offer props to actress Mackenzie Lintz, who’s managed to turn Under the Dome’s most one-note archetype (angsty teen with a rebellious streak) into about the only character interested in getting things done, and having a bit of fun while doing so.

Bear in mind, what she and Joe accomplish this week doesn’t amount to much, as their discovery of a dome within the dome (BWAAAAAM), and the dragon egg on loan from HBO that’s contained within, doesn’t do much to pique interest. The dome’s mechanics are still mostly ill defined, so finding anything vaguely mysterious-looking under that pile of CG leaves would have made the reveal about as thrilling as it actually was. While the show has smartly ditched Big Jim’s drug business as being a conspiracy worth teasing out, the mysteries of the dome itself will hopefully start to take a more clear shape soon. In addition to causing seizures, labor, and dramatically-timed rainfall, “Imperfect Circles” teaches us that the dome can act as not just a Ouija board for communing with the dead, but a fortunetelling Ouija board, one capable of summoning the ghostly visages of the soon-to-be deceased.

But really, why even have a prescient mini-dome, when Norrie’s mom, Alice, was clearly doomed pretty much from the moment she and Caroline decided to have a conversation that actually fleshed out their relationship, and deepened their characters. If Rose’s unceremonious bludgeoning last week is proof of anything, it’s that the show would rather build up periphery characters just to the point where killing them matters a smidgen, rather than actually use them for such laborious things as world-building and character arcs. It’s a shame, because Alice and Caroline occupied a unique position on Under the Dome: despite being a homosexual couple, they were the only established romantic pairing on the show that had any measure of history (other candidates are invalidated based on the recentness of their relationship, or the tendency of that relationship to involve one half of it being chained up in a bunker).

Harriet announcing her newborn’s name as being Alice is the television equivalent of reading out a death sentence, and sure enough, Dr. Alice kicks the bucket before the hour is up. Once more, Under the Dome proves itself more than ready to run away from a potentially interesting long-term conflict (being a diabetic in a resource-strapped environment), in favor of the cheap drama that comes with unexpected death. Perhaps hearing early Twitter buzz that screeners advertised this episode as a game changer unfairly boosted my expectations, but it’s not as if the last five or six episodes have led me to believe I can expect much more than fleetingly genuine, but mostly ironic entertainment out of Under the Dome. “Imperfect Circles” marks the halfway point of the first season, and if the show was living up to its potential, it’d be easier to feel anxious about that notion, instead of kind of relieved.

  • Stray Thoughts

-Apologies for the lack of coverage on last week’s episode, as a largely internet-free vacation made getting a recap up in a timely fashion unfeasible. It’s a shame, because last week’s entry was a fair bit more competent than the two sandwiching it. Please enjoy this calming picture of a lake as compensation.

-Favorite Dome-Related Dialogue: “The dome was making her sick!” “I touched the dome, and think it did something to my baby!”

-Wait, wasn’t everything immediately in the dome’s vicinity burnt to a crisp by the MOAB from a couple weeks back? So, why does Harriet see perfect greenery just out of reach when she approaches the barrier? Guys, I’m starting to think that not every single detail of this show was planned out with careful forethought.

-If King of the Hill has taught me anything, it’s that propane is contained in a liquid form, but is released as a gas, and that it takes more than just shooting propane tanks to get them to explode. I have to wonder if Hank Hill would approve of the show’s depiction of propane, and propane accessories.

-“From what I understand, the show has done a great job of not doing a lot of flashbacks.” My occasional Under the Dome-viewer of a roommate, focussing on the positives.