Under The Dome Review: “Thicker Than Water” (Season 1, Episode 8)

Natalie Martinez and Dean Norris in Under the Dome

Seeing as we’ve just passed the midpoint of Under the Dome’s first season, it seems about right that we’ve reached the third of five stages that come when grieving a show thats promise has been draining out of it since episode two, like gore from a bullet wound to the gut. Bargaining is the phase where you try to stop focussing on the show’s flawed whole, and just start being thankful for when things go right on occasion. The more distance we get from those (probably unrealistic) expectations for what a show centered around a giant dome could possibly achieve, the easier it can be to enjoy parts of Under the Dome without feeling like you have to take the experience with enough grains to salt a farmer’s field.

For instance, an episode like “Thicker Than Water,” which invests heavily in having the younger cast mourn parents long and recently lost, sounds like just about the worst 42 minutes to end your Monday evening with, as the show’s record with exploring familial relationships is about as sketchy as the actual material making up those familial relationships. Smartly then, the episode covers its bases by quickly pushing the main plot in the direction of another ridiculous shootout, one of much bigger proportions, at that. Sure, we might have to put up with Norrie regressing to a state of overabundant (and legitimate) angst, and Alexander Koch spends most of his scenes giving that creepy, dead-fish-face as Junior, but forget about that: Big Jim’s rounding up a posse to go take Ollie’s well by force, and Barbie wants to MacGyver up a pipe bomb! Guns! Explosions! Dome!

Surprisingly, despite the anticipated firefight at the farmhouse being as impeccably awkward as you’d dare hope (typically sure-handed director Jack Bender can only do so much with the resources provided), the emotional beats worked in and around Jim and Ollie’s showdown aren’t half so bad as you’d rightly fear them to be. After praising the unexpected surge in chemistry between Joe and Norrie that was making their scenes recent standouts, it was a bummer to see the pairing temporarily torpedoed, by having Norrie petulantly shift blame for Alice’s death onto her mothers, Joe, and pretty much everyone else under the sun (and dome). Having your mother suddenly die of a heart attack gives you perfectly sane grounds to get in a huff and drive away those close to you, but dramatically, none of Under the Dome’s characters are nearly well-rounded enough for us to want to watch them on their own, let alone when they’re mostly just moping around.

Angie manages to save the day with the help of her snow globe collection, first rousing Norrie out of her funk so that she may make it crystal clear to every audience member that the dome is, in fact, not unlike a snow globe. More productively though, the pair quickly, and gleefully rid us of the hackneyed symbolism, while also giving Norrie the opportunity to accept her guilt over being the reason her family came through Chester’s Mill in the first place. Much like how I appreciated the levity the Joe-Norrie pairing added to these last two weeks, seeing these two characters actually enjoying themselves for a brief moment, smashing globes against an invisible barrier (still the show’s coolest visual effects trick), makes for a nice change of pace. Sloppy execution often cuts Under the Dome’s dramatic aspirations off at the knees, but when it takes a moment to loosen up, and have fun with its own conceit, the improvement is measurable.

On occasions where that execution is actually well handled, it’s usually because the strength of an individual performance has fought tooth and nail against the show’s weak material. Junior and Jim having it out over the true cause of Momma Rennie’s death was top ten material on a list of excruciating scenes we’d have to see eventually. But credit to Dean Norris: he sold the hell out Jim tearfully taking some of the blame for Junior’s mommy and daddy issues -while also trying to avoid having buckshot tattooed to the back of his skull. The monologue revealing the circumstances of Jim’s widowing was the first really meaty scene Norris has gotten to chew on all season, and between that, and last night’s stellar performance in the Breaking Bad premiere, you remember why it was something of a big deal that he was cast in this show to begin with.

Getting to that scene still involves Under the Dome having to play fast and loose with its established rules, like just how populated the town is supposed to be, and what exactly the motivations of the side characters are. Ollie rebounds from Jim killing his lone goon last week by rounding up an army of heretofore unmentioned, and unseen farmers to his side. Jim’s initial attempt to take the sole reliable source of water in town by force ends in spectacular failure, with Junior going turncoat, and Ollie’s men putting a bullet in deputy Carter (who, again, I can’t say I remember ever seeing before). Jim’s solution? Round up a posse (which we all know he’s great at), and try, try again. Ever positioned in such a way as to throw a wrench in Jim’s ambitions, Barbie elects to instead blow the well to hell, in the hopes of diverting its reservoir across the town. Niggling plot and logistic questions abound in the rampup to things getting all shooty, such as why Bushey is suddenly involving himself in anything unrelated to the radio station, and why Barbie doesn’t even consider Jim’s very consideration-worthy worry that throwing explosive fertilizer down the well might be the quickest way to poison the town’s remaining water supply.

There aren’t any attempts to handwave away such questions, because getting things into place for the explosive and emotional fireworks is all that really matters. Jim somehow only notices Barbie’s absence at the last moment before his assault, and both sides of the battle collectively say “screw this, I’m going home,” just as soon as Barbie’s bombing run is successful, because Junior, Jim, Ollie, and two guns sharing company in a living room is the point B the whole hour is about getting to. But again, part of bargaining means you just sorta have to ignore the hows for the whys, and getting rid of Ollie, who never registered as anything but a paper villain the show needed in a pinch, was a necessary objective that “Thicker Than Water” accomplishes. Ditto for putting Barbie and Jim back at odds with one another, as Rennie’s real reason for opposing Barbie’s plan has more to do with maintaining control of the water itself, instead of just its purity. (I’ll even admit, that despite calling Junior’s betrayal as a “Trojan horse” immediately, I like that the show flips this notion a bit, later suggesting that Junior rewrote his motivations after deciding to save his father from Ollie).

So, with two of its three main storytelling pillars (drama, action) making out serviceably tonight, does it really matter how bad the third, dome-shaped pillar of Under the Dome turned out this week? Well, yes, because as the dome’s permanence becomes more and more apparent to the characters, it starts begging the question of what exactly the mythology is supposed to be adding to the show. Julia continues to serve her story function as all-purpose Tag-Along, returning to the mini-dome with Joe. Upon touching it, she sees a phantom Joe that’d like to give us a new cryptic phrase to puzzle over, as the egg is shown flashing the kind of pink, aligned stars Joe and Norrie used to mutter about. These scenes kill the episode’s modest momentum, as the show is mostly flatfooted when it comes to delivering exposition, with Julia and Joe in scenes designed to swap information between the two, but information even barely attentive viewers are already well aware of.

The water and food crisis may have passed for the time being, but the next approaching storm Under the Dome has to navigate is making viewers actually wonder what “the monarch will be crowned” is supposed to mean, as opposed to why we should care it’s the new secret phrase of choice. As if the show’s butterfly fixation didn’t already give you a hint, the episode ends on an ominous shot of Angie’s tattoo…and then has Julia repeat the phrase AGAIN, just in case you’ve decided to tune in for only the final two minutes. All of which implies….what exactly? It’s not as though we’ll be leaving the dome anytime soon (unless the mini-dome is suggesting that this is a Russian nesting doll-style phenomena, and an even BIGGER dome is surrounding more than Chester’s Mill), so how long can the writers string out the main mystery for? While it’s nice that this week of Under the Dome managed to eke out a little pathos, and some amusing action scenes, the actual core conceit of the show needs to start contributing something more constructive, or at least, more tantalizing, to this story, than a couple half-assessed riddles, and an unbreakable window to throw shit at.

  • Stray Thoughts

-Why was Bushie a part of Jim’s mob? Answer: so we can address his wound next week, probably. This is circumstance dictating character development, which is kinda the opposite of what makes for good drama.

-Barbie’s “there’s two sides to that coin,” was certainly no “tread lightly.”

-Did I just not see it, or did no one on the production team think to have a crossbow featured in tonight’s armaments? Half of The Walking Dead’s ratings are due to the presence a loveable, crossbow-toting redneck in a poncho, and Chester’s Mill probably has plenty of the last two ingredients. It might be a rain poncho, but we’ll work with what we have.