Under the Dome: Outbreak Review (Mania.com)

By:Michael Henley
Review Date: Tuesday, July 16, 2013
Source: Mania.com

“Outbreak” is the title of this week’s installment of Under the Dome, and it’s one of those cases where a title perfectly reflects the amount of thought put into the plot of said episode. In this episode, a whole bunch of Chester’s Mill residents contract a particularly virulent and rapid strain of meningitis, and soon the sole hospital is swarming with patients. One would think that this would be sufficient fuel for a drama about sacrifice and moral quandaries, as medicine is scarce and certain members of the community must be prioritized. Or, at very least, one would suspect the sickness plot would provide a sufficient structure to build character development and significantly forward storytelling. Guess what. It doesn’t.

“Outbreak” feels very much like a contrivance to confine everyone to a hospital for a majority of the episode, and for what? To save money, I guess. It’s bad news when we’re on episode four and we’re already getting something that feels painfully akin to a lazy bottle episode. The meningitis story lends no new insights into the notion of life (and death) under the dome, and it fails to exploit the dramatic potential that one would think would be inherent in a hospital-centric narrative. Aside from shots of lots of sick people in the same redressed corridor, as Alice (pressed into service with her small medical experience) administers to the ill, nothing much happens. The episode’s logic for why certain characters are immune is also suspect: army and college vaccinations, they say, which would explain Barbie, Big Jim and possibly Norrie, but Joe? Oh, whatever.

There’s one emotional beat in the entirety of the meningitis sequence. Linda is given antibiotics and an elderly neighbor (and former teacher) of hers is not, and Linda feels perfunctorily bad about it. The ordeal is given such little weight that it barely registers. It’s the very definition of going through the motions. I’m not saying that we need to tug at the heartstrings over every single death that happens on the show, but these characters really need to have nuanced reactions to their problems, or we’re going to have trouble buying them. Like we still do, to this day. 

All the other character movements this week happen at an odd remove from the meningitis story, even though that should be everyone’s most pressing concern. Everything that happens feels awkwardly jimmied into the cracks. The big piece is Julia’s venturing out of the hospital, effectively ignoring instructions to minimize the threat of further infection (why do we like Julia again?) She’s suspicious of Barbie after her talk with Junior last week, and is determined to find the truth about her husband. She does—mostly. Her husband was involved in a shady deal that emptied the couple’s accounts. She discovers everything except for the detail that Barbie murdered the poor guy, and Barbie—in self-preservation mode the entire episode—steers her towards concluding that he fled. Julia nevertheless kicks Barbie out of the house. 

It’s nice to see Julia deepen as a character here, somewhat, but she’s still weakened by putting so much stock in Junior’s poking holes in Barbie’s story. Since Julia is meant to be a smart reporter, it’s ironic that as of yet I haven’t seen her do anything that suggests she’s very bright. I criticized Rachelle Lefevre’s acting a few weeks ago, and my remarks still stand, but it certainly doesn’t help that Julia is written as a character who clomps around town after having read too many Nancy Drew books without really quite understanding them.

Then there’s Junior, who takes the charge to keep everyone confined to the hospital so seriously that he brandishes a shotgun, earning the respect of Big Jim. Junior is a complete mystery in this show, and he’s now getting to be a very tiresome one. Alternately manic, collected, insane, erudite, wimpy and strong, he’s not a complex character….he’s a guy that changes on the arbitrary whims of the writers, even going so far as to drop a few pearls of wisdom in Linda’s lap as she recovers, which inspires her to deputize him (shudder). Junior is just a deeply problematic character, which is probably why his relationship with Big Jim lacks punch (and unfortunately, their scenes together give Dean Norris an excuse to overplay everything). It’s perhaps ironic that the Alice character (we’re reminded this week) has a background in psychology, because that’s one particular area that this show is terrible at representing. The biggest problem so far with Under the Dome is that this is a series about characters being pitted against each other, and yet four hours in, I haven’t been made to sufficiently understand who these people are. Maybe because the writers don’t seem quite certain, either.

Big Jim this week is relegated to chasing down prescription meds that have been stolen by the Reverend, leading to an anticlimactic confrontation and then an even more anticlimactic one later on Big Jim’s front porch (the Rev is out of Jim’s propane-stockpiling business, FYI). It feels like they’re marking time before they can really get the ball rolling on Jim; so far on this show he’s done a lot of standing around and sneering things that sound like they might evolve one day into threats. Thrilling.

There’s more movement on the kid front this week, as Joe and Norrie are sequestered in a part of the hospital, uninfected. They attempt to recreate the mysterious seizures (don’t try this at home, kids), and do so by simply touching each other. They collapse into a heap of spasms that are—honestly—horribly acted, and made so much worse by a later reveal that halfway through Joe sits up and gives a shushing gesture to a nearby video camera. It’s meant to be creepy, and in actuality it looks ludicrous. No wait. I meant “funny.” In fact, it’s really funny.

The single worst aspect of “Outbreak,” however, is the plot of young Angie McAlister. For four episodes (days) now, she’s been chained to a dirty mattress in a dusty cellar: barefoot, starving, and fending off the unwanted attentions of Junior. And what’s more she has to tolerate being opposite against Alexander Koch’s acting as crazy Junior. The kid brings her a dress to wear and sniffs it before handing it off, because Junior just wasn’t unpleasant enough so far. Poor Britt Robertson. I’m reasonably certain she deserves better than this.

And so what does this episode do? Her plan to stab Junior with a confiscated knife and escape is quickly foiled by the boy, so improbably it beggars belief. Then Angie, alone, dumbly breaks a water pipe. It knocks her unconscious and almost drowns her in a flood of muck, before she wakes, drenched, and screams for hours, eventually leading to Big Jim discovering her down there (cliffhanger!). So disturbingly blasé is the episode’s attitude towards her plight that it only lackadaisically checks in with her throughout the whole show, because apparently a character who is seconds away from downing just isn’t worth mustering the energy to travel back to often. Forget the weird time discrepancies going on here, why does the episode treat a major character’s possible death as “eh, a thing that may happen, who knows?” It’s as if they don’t really care whether Angie dies, and don’t want you to, either. Such apathy towards any character would be bizarre; when you factor in that Angie is a young, pretty girl chained quite literally to a subplot that borders on exploitation, it becomes downright twisted. All of Angie’s scenes are deeply gross this week, and I only pray Big Jim’s discovery of all this bring out the captivity subplot to an end. Because enough already.

Is there much left to say about “Outbreak?” Not really. It’s a very dull, generic episode of a series that, I’d like to remind everyone, is intended to be about earthshattering events. Much speculation has been made about Under the Dome’s high ratings which might create demand for a second season. After all, wouldn’t extending the series cause the writers to run out of ideas? It’s touching, this idea that they haven’t started to do so already. A notion that I’m finding myself less and less inclined to share.

Mania Grade: C-
Episode: Outbreak (Season 1, Episode 4)
Starring: Mike Vogel, Dean Norris, Rachelle Lefevre, Natalie Martinez
Directed By: Kari Skogland
Written By: Peter Calloway, based on the novel by Stephen King
Network: CBS
Studio: CBS Television Studios