Mania Grade: B+
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- Episode: Exigent Circumstances (Season 1, Episode 12)
- Starring: Mike Vogel, Dean Norris, Rachelle Lefevre, Natalie Martinez
- Written By: Adam Stein, Caitlin Parish, based on the novel by Stephen King
- Directed By: Peter Leto
- Network: CBS
- Studio: CBS Television Studios
Under the Dome: Exigent Circumstances Review
By Michael Henley
September 10, 2013
“Exigent Circusmtances” is one of the finest episodes of Under the Dome’s first season, and it couldn’t have come at a better time. After weeks of doing the television storytelling equivalent of twiddling one’s thumbs, the showrunners have decided to up their game and deliver a good example of the kind of stories that Under the Dome should be telling, and hopefully next week (and next season) will be telling more often. Make no mistake; this is not superlative television. But by the grading-curved standards of Under the Dome, this is pretty strong stuff.
“Exigent Circumstances” wisely eliminates one of the elements the series has consistently fumbled throughout its run: world-building. Frustratingly, Chester’s Mill has been treated over the course of this season not as a plausible community brought to the brink of an existential crisis, but instead as a giant version of Mary Poppins’ carpetbag, where anything that the plot requires can be revealed. Things such as a drug kingpin supervillain we’d never heard of before, or a faceless mob that suddenly materializes to attend fight clubs (and then disappears the next day) or protect the property of a water-hoarding old coot. While a mob does appear in a few scenes of “Exigent Circumstances,” they are more elegantly folded into a plot that is essentially about Big Jim conjuring the threat of Barbie on the lam as an excuse to curtail civil liberties, cover up his tracks, and attempt to locate the mini-dome. Rather than telling a town-wide story involving dozens of extras, this is instead about our main characters picking sides in a serious power struggle. Simple as that.
It’s hard to quite connect the Big Jim Rennie of this episode with the one in every episode previous. Though he was always hungry for power and willing to commit murder to achieve it, this is the first episode we’ve seen him be comfortable in his role, for the most part. It’s a bit clunky; what could have felt climactic feels instead like an unexpected gear shift. But I won’t quibble, because for the first time in a while, Big Jim is really entertaining to watch. Whether he’s gloating to a captured Barbie and blackmailing him with a horror scenario of framing practically everyone in town or when he’s sparring with the children, Big Jim finally steps into the role of head villain, and it’s a treat to see. I have a weakness for stories about people wielding fascist power and rebellious individuals who use their heads, and there’s a good amount of that cat-and-mouse gameplay present here. It’s a little moment, but I love the weight beneath the scene where Jim and his cronies illegally search the McAllister barn after arguing with Carolyn (a lawyer, remember), so that she effectively bears witness to his betrayal of every principle. And then he discovers there’s nothing in there, having tarnished himself for nothing. I love scenes like that; the reversals throughout the whole episode are quite satisfying.
Even the other characters seem to find new freedom and intelligence in what they’re asked to do here, perhaps because they’re aided by a storyline that cleanly pits Barbie, Angie and the kids against Jim, Junior, and an unwitting Linda. With the sides well-drawn, almost every character surprises us this week. Linda acts as a pretty competent cop, Angie shows some nice strategies and proves she’s not just a pretty face, and Barbie smartly moves to protect Julia, since she is a liability to Big Jim’s plan, being the only person who knows that Barbie didn’t shoot her. Dodee correctly surmises that Big Jim is the actual murderer (and gets killed herself for her trouble). And Norrie, one of the most uneven characters on the show, gets to have a great moment when she actually squares off against Big Jim, both physically and ethically.
Even Junior shows discomfort with all this and gets confrontational with his father; though Angie does raise the point of how strange it is that Jim wants to be notified the second Julia regains consciousness, the suspicion does stay with him. Junior even correctly guesses Angie’s attempt to distract him from Julia’s room at the clinic as a ruse, angrily saying she “tastes like cigarettes,” and her smoking means that Barbie is near. That’s a very odd callback to the pilot, but he happens to be right, so I’ll give it a pass. Though there are some hiccups here and there, it’s very encouraging to see an episode of the series where the characters make decisions based on who they are, not what reductive labels they have.
Maybe I just enjoyed this episode because it’s essentially a political thriller. It’s a solid structure to hang an episode of Under the Dome on, and I hope we get more of that, because it allows the characters not to just move at the whims of the plot, but actually stand up for things they believe and trust in. Linda shows reluctance to shred civil liberties but she gives in to Big Jim because the used car salesman is exceptionally good at manipulation. The kids move the mini-dome to protect it but also because they believe Big Jim has no right to take it, and as throwaway and cliché a moment as it is, when Carolyn is forcibly moved by two of Jim’s thugs and Norrie tries to help, it’s a nice little moment. Under the Dome was originally pitched as a morality tale with a sci-fi bent, something in the tradition of Rod Serling. So it’s very pleasing to see characters take a stand on moral topics and profess their values; it provides the whole enterprise a spark it has been desperately missing.
It’s no coincidence, too, that this episode goes very light on the dome mythology. We get a couple scenes as Ben (temporary keeper of the mini-dome during the house searches) freaks out at some weird noises emanating from the egg. But for the most part, the dome and mini-dome are treated as a pair of MacGuffins that propel the action but do not define it. This is how it should be. Although much time has been spent (wasted?) on showing the kids deciphering things about the dome, they aren’t of much interest, because the dome is just a device to influence the action in Chester’s Mill, and apply some heat to this pressure cooker. The more time they devote to the mysteries and not on the characters, the more the ultimate “reveal” will most likely disappoint, especially since the dome is so fantastical and improbable it could have almost any arbitrary, meaningless solution. The best way to avoid this unpleasantness is to dial down the mystery and focus on the characters trapped within it. Which they seem to be learning. I hope.
It’s been a very bumpy ride, this first season of Under the Dome. But “Exigent Circumstances” is the first entry in a while to make a strong case for Under the Dome being more than just a cheap attempt at a Lost-style mystique. Next week will bring us a season finale and the trial of Barbie, which probably means a courtroom scene, which I can’t wait for. You can keep your dome tornadoes and fight clubs; I’m more interested in learning about the people. Perhaps the writers of Under the Dome are finally starting to think the same.