Mania Grade: C-
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- Episode: Curtains (Season 1, Episode 13)
- Starring: Mike Vogel, Dean Norris, Rachelle Lefevre, Natalie Martinez
- Written By: Brian K. Vaughan, Scott Gold, based on the novel by Stephen King
- Directed By: Jack Bender
- Network: CBS
- Studio: CBS Television Studios
Under the Dome: Curtains Review
Dome With Puns
By Michael Henley
September 17, 2013
The most frustrating things about Under the Dome’s first season were its sloppy handling of characters, it’s completely uninvolving mystery, and, most crucially, it’s network-TV-approved “safeness.” So it only fits that its season finale, “Curtains,” is a perfect storm of all those elements, delivered in such a faux-triumphant manner it feels like a bizarre victory lap. Like a band being urged to play the greatest hits, here for one more time are all the Under the Dome trope classics: characters making decisions that make little sense, completely arbitrary mythological wheel-spinning, a miniscule sense of scope, and an abrupt cliffhanger ending that doesn’t do much of anything.
Like everyone’s mother used to say, I’m not angry. I’m just disappointed. No, I take that back. The ending made me angry. One of the least effective cliffhangers I’ve seen in a good long while, “Curtains” introduces a new threat to the town in the form of a blackness swallowing the dome and blocking the sun, and then expects us to be thrilled by a climax that replaces that threat with some other, more nebulous threat (the dome was black, now it’s super-bright!). In fact, is it even a threat? And honestly, the final show it so abrupt for all we know the dome is either fully opaque or it’s still settling and will soon be black to clear. But anyway…cut to black. Yup. That’s it.
Yes, Barbie is also standing on a gallows about to be executed, his fate resting in Junior’s psychotic palm. But Barbie was awaiting this danger before the episode began. And plus, Barbie isn’t dying; if the finale was interested in shocking us, they would have actually killed him. Instead, they want to string us along, which is fine. Most TV shows do that. But to effectively tie it to the one-step forward, two-steps back ebb and flow of the dome kills any suspense or drama…and to what end? It’s such an odd experience to watch this episode, because it’s so crassly designed to jerk us around, to brazenly manipulate us. And yet I still don’t know what I’m supposed to be feeling. Happiness that now the dome is back to where it was one episode ago? Fear that Junior’s going to pull the lever? What? And if the show had not been picked up for a second season, would it have been better? (The episode feels borne out of a desperate desire to simulate arc movement, but not actually have it.)
So that part made me angry. Everything else just made me disappointed, and that includes the scenes involving the mini-dome and the special prize inside. I mentioned last week that the mini-dome works best as a MacGuffin, a trigger for conflicts that come from character. It doesn’t work as a puzzle, because it’s made up of such arbitrary pieces, like a trapped butterfly that will anoint a leader to protect the egg inside. This is nonsense, which isn’t a problem, but it also isn’t very compelling in and of itself, and none of the actors are skilled enough to elevate it beyond what feels like sci-fi/fantasy mad libs. Poor Colin Ford as Joe, in particular, sounds like a crazy person whenever he shouts about the dome’s needs and wants, and we, the audience, know everything he does.
Things pick up a little bit when the kids and Julia make contact with the dome builders and have a chin-wag with one of their captors, personified by a returning Samantha Mathis, taking the form of Norrie’s deceased mom. It’s fine to see her back and get something that promises to be an answer, but even the revelations here are far too cryptic to chew on in any significant way. What is she? Who knows (and no one ever speculates). Why did they build the dome? To protect Chester’s Mill. From what? “You’ll see.” Whoever these creatures are, they apparently love the dialogue from Lost. And how do they get rid of the darkness on the dome? Protect the egg, Samantha Mathis Alien admonishes, thankfully without telling them they must also carry it with a spoon and not drop it. Julia puts the egg in the lake, causing a chain reaction that Windexes the dome, finally ending a storyline based on the producers’ strange conviction that we’re interested in seeing a story about people passing around, protecting and following the orders of a bossy psychic egg.
For every character, the episode is a drag, as it’s purely plot-driven, and the plot, as I just alluded to, is silly. Junior slowly turns against the other dome protectors when they talk trash about his dad, even though Junior himself was questioning some of Big Jim’s actions just last week. He recaptures and escaped Barbie and tearfully embraces his dad, in a scene of “I’ve done bad things, but we’re family” that is seriously, unfortunately trite (and unfortunately timed, given what happened this week on the other show Dean Norris stars in). It’s problematic to thrust so much moral choice in the direction of Junior, since this is the guy who kidnapped a girl and imprisoned her in episode one. It’s intriguing to see Big Jim sway people to his corrupt cause, and Junior can still be part of it, but how about showing him manipulate someone with half a brain? Same goes for Linda. The only people on Big Jim’s side are essentially dummies, which weakens him as a villain, gallows or no gallows.
That goes doubly so for the rest of the Chester’s Mill population, who materialize for a public hanging as easily as the town of Springfield. And when townspeople gather in a church to pray, Jim hijacks the service in a display of phony piety, effectively taking the role of the dear departed reverend. It’s a move straight out of the Stephen King playbook, an echo of the villainous Mrs. Carmoody from “The Mist,” but while that story is actually about the pitfalls of mixing mortal danger and vengeful religion, here it feels just like a shortcut to get more people on Jim’s side. “The Mist” may have a low opinion of people who would listen to such sermonizing, but this usage feels much more cynical, as it once again reduces the townspeople of Chester’s Mill to plot devices, easily swayed by a loudmouth. Once again there are no attempts made to give any sense of character to the extras in Chester’s Mill. They’re even reverent and quiet at Barbie’s execution, as if they’re still in church. I’m not saying it’s unbelievable that the townspeople would rally behind Jim, but by making them such silent, bland partners, the show is short-circuiting a big piece of the drama, and effectively sweeping the disturbing ramifications under the rug. It’s just very dull, small and…again, safe.
The episode is low on inadvertent laughs, although I have to admit I did get a chuckle out of Joe’s encoded transmission to Angie: telling her (on an open line) to meet him in the place where they hid as children. This turns out to be the cement factory, because of course there are only five or six places in Chester’s Mill, anyway. And it is funny when Junior calls Barbie a psycho, for obvious reasons. But for the most part, the episode’s dialogue is fine if unmemorable, which is a step up from previous weeks. But still. Season finale, guys. Where’s the dressing to impress? Where’s the ambition. I’m not sure I can accuse Under the Dome of trolling its audience, but while a typical finale is usually brimming with a sense of crucial things happening or about to happen, “Curtains” feels so low on urgency and energy it’s hard to get worked up about it. Even Barbie’s impending execution, forgone conclusion that it is, is handled with an apathetic shrug, as is the cliffhanger. It’s as if they don’t care at all whether we tune in next year, which I’m pretty positive is not the case.
I don’t like beating up on Under the Dome, truth be told. I’m as hungry for a solid sci-fi/fantasy/horror/whatever show to be on the air as anyone is. But as I look back on season one of Under the Dome, I see a lot of questionable choices and unfortunately not enough entertainment value, especially given the people involved behind the camera. The show is not unfixable, but my advice remains, frustratingly, the same. Beef up the characters. Make us understand why they do things. Improve the show’s scale and thematic depth. Dial down the mysteries of the dome in favor of the things I just mentioned. And no more mini-domes and psychic eggs, please. Have a nice fall, encapsulated city of Chester’s Mill. See ya next summer.