Under The Dome Review: “Outbreak” (Season 1, Episode 4)

Dean Norris and Alexander Koch in Under the Dome

All right folks, I know you’re upset. We all are. These last two weeks being trapped under the metaphorical dome of our commitment to watching Under the Dome haven’t been easy on any of us; our most important resource, good will stemming from the pilot, is running on empty. With all the knife-sharpening critics have been doing the last couple episodes, you’d think they could easily cut through the impenetrable force field surrounding Chester’s Mill. A lot of the more vocal viewers out there have been turning on this thing faster than they can turn off their TV once the show’s over. Sure, that one loudmouth predicted that the ratings would start to falter if things kept going down a bad road, but I’m here to tell you we’ve still got time to right this ship – err, dome, and the answer is simple…

Let’s act like the last two episodes didn’t happen, and completely rewrite a lot of the characterizations that have been established thus far. Cool? Cool.

You’d like to think that by the fourth episode, a show’s starting to find its feet, and figure out what the rest of its run is going to look like, but “Outbreak,” while keeping all of Under the Dome’s major elements intact, has set a lot of them on new trajectories. Course-correcting, even early on, usually leads to a lot of awkward growing pains for a series, and sure enough, for as much of an improvement as tonight is over the last two weeks, those improvements boil down to us basically just accepting episodes 2 and 3 as mulligans.

The big thing that gets “Outbreak” off on the right foot is the immediate sense of urgency that hasn’t been present since planes and cars were splatting into the wall like pigeons on a screen door. Things are finally escalating, including the references to other dome-based fiction, with last week’s not-so-hot nod to The Simpsons Movie leading to a full-blown recreation of the 1995 Dustin Hoffman movie this week. Except with meningitis, not a monkey virus (if this were NBC, then there might have been a monkey).

The townspeople have started getting appropriately stir-crazy, now that they recognize the dome isn’t just giving them an excuse to miss work for a couple days, and the good Reverend Lurch’s newly fanatical views only exacerbate the issue via a fire ‘n brimstone remix of Officer Crazypants’ doom rantings from previous weeks. Maybe he’s right: The dead are rising from their graves to appear in hallucinations! Locals and tourists are living together! Mass hysteria!

And with the help of that panic, Under the Dome is able to elide over the fact that Reverend Lester’s heel-faith turn makes no bloody sense. Maybe, maybe, his attempts to burn the pharmacy’s drug supply was a means of indicating that his brush with death back in “Into the Fire” gave him the holy fervor, but let’s be real here: subtlety got trapped outside of Chester’s Mill along with all the doctors and firefighters. Luckily, the complete character overhaul has happened so early, and is so big, it’s actually a lot easier to swallow, given that putting the reverend in Big Jim’s way now complicates the power structure of the town in some potentially interesting ways down the line (Stephen King’s The Mist mined religious extremism born in isolation for some terrifically terrifying material).

For the time being, though, “Outbreak” as an entire episode outshines everything since the pilot, because it begins the process of making Chester’s Mill feel like an actual place. The outbreak gets all the major players together under one hospital roof, either as patients, or able-bodies desperately trying to keep the sickness from spreading across town. It sets up some much needed development for Norrie’s mothers, one of whom gets forced into the position of town Doc, by virtue of having the only degree in the dome (in psychiatry, at that). Also enlightening is seeing Norrie’s other mom struggling with the temptation to steal insulin for her partner (I incorrectly assumed Norrie was the diabetic in the pilot), as the town continues to divide into two camps: those who think the dome will go away soon, and those setting up for the long haul.

Considering it’s the spine for the entire premise, it’s almost embarrassing the show has waited this long to put its characters in morally compromising positions that don’t require the immediacy of nutjobs and guns. Sure, the only doctor in town is more valuable than just about any other diabetic that might be trapped in the mega-sized Tupperware container, but Dr. Calvert’s wife is thinking about the welfare of her partner, not the town. The same goes for Julia, who once again does something incredibly stupid, by dragging her contagious husk out of the quarantine zone, but it’s out of a concern for her husband, instead of the compulsion to be the best journalist in a town that has even less of a readership now than when she started with. Seeing the characters act outside of the parameters of their broadly defined archetypes shouldn’t have taken this long, but it’s good to finally see it happen.

Again, subtlety is not Under the Dome’s forte. As soon as you hear that there’s only one dose of antibiotics to share between Linda and her elementary school teacher, you know exactly how things are going to play out. Sure enough, the death of Ms. Moore is hokey as can be, but the point of the moment is perfectly sound. There are going to be many bad situations for these characters ahead, and challenging choices are a good source of drama. Sure, the Walking Dead is, 99% of the time, at its best when everyone is shutting the hell up, and just bludgeoning zombies, but that 1% of the time where there’s an interesting, ethically dangerous decision to be made, it’s gangbusters.

The one big 180 that’s going to be harder to buy is Junior’s, as the hole that’s been dug for his character goes a lot deeper than the two flights of stairs leading down to the bomb shelter. But there’s an effort to rectify that tonight, one that also relies on us completely forgetting the fact that Junior and his father were so antagonistic to each other last week, and that Jim would trust his son to be the shotgun-totting bouncer separating the meningitis vectors from the outside world. The folksy cornbread speech he uses to calm down the rowdy locals like his father did earlier in the episode (SUBTLETY) didn’t jibe with anything about Jr. we’ve seen up unto this point, and neither did his willingness to let Barbie use his truck to save Julia from overexposure to the truth behind her husband’s gambling debts, and the crippling virus.

But I went with it, because, good gravy, it’s so much more tolerable than what we were getting before. To bring back The Walking Dead, a big problem with long form pre/post-apocalypse fiction as a setting is that everyone tends to act like assholes. The constant sniping and evil eyeing between Rennie, Junior, and Barbie in episodes two and three was impotent drama, because either these guys were strangers, or we didn’t understand their relationship in a compelling fashion. By seeing these characters work together, even if unwillingly, the episode coheres better around the week’s immediate problem, setting up relationship dynamics that are more complicated than anything we’ve gotten so far.

There’s a lot in “Outbreak” that’s got me feeling at least a little hopeful again, even if looking at the reasons for that hope makes you aware that the execution of Under the Dome is still shaky. We finally get some useful information about Barbie’s job as a bookie’s enforcer, even if getting to that point required Bushey to have an inconvenient bout of exposition-inducing hallucinations (Tell-you-cinations? Let’s workshop that one). And, yeah, you know what, if Angie getting out of the bunker means her deciding to yell at a leaky water pipe at the exact moment Rennie is at the sink, so be it. I’ll even accept that a side effect of meningitis is widespread amnesia to explain the changes in character, so long as it means we can get back to what Under the Dome originally promised: people having to make impossible decisions in an impossible situation. Do that for me, Dome, and you’ve still got my attention.

  • Stray Thoughts

-Favorite Dome-related dialogue: “He’s the one who decides who lives and dies under his dome!” -“Maybe we’re not supposed to tell anyone?” “Why not?” “Because the dome doesn’t want us to!”

-Hey, Joe actually remembered he has a sister! And he’s allowing for character dynamics to develop by inviting Norrie’s family to stay with him! And his beanie-wearing friend is nowhere to be found! Everything’s coming up Joe!

-The initial threat of Angie drowning in the bunker is intriguing, until each cut back to her showed the water rising slower than Batman out of an oversized well. Seriously, there was worse flooding in my office last week after an hour of rain. At least Angie got something resembling a bath out of the whole ordeal.

-Junior getting a gold star from Linda would have worked better if the music didn’t make it so damn ominous at every turn. I like the idea of Rennie finally pulling some strings, though, as having access to the sheriff’s weapons locker will certainly come in handy down the line.

-Is Maine not cabin country? It seems a little weird to me that there would just be one building designated “The Cabin.”

-So what’d Peter need a hitman for, and why did he come to Bushey? I like that the conspiracy teasing this week is mostly just revealed by characters dealing with more imminent issues in the moment.