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- Episode: Let The Games Begin (Season 1, Episode 10)
- Starring: Mike Vogel, Dean Norris, Rachelle Lefevre, Natalie Martinez
- Written By: Andres Fischer-Centeno, Peter Calloway, based on the novel by Stephen King
- Directed By: Sergio Mimica-Gezzan
- Network: CBS
- Studio: CBS Television Studios
Under the Dome: Let The Games Begin Review
Play It To The Dome
By Michael Henley
August 27, 2013
“Let the Games Begin” is perhaps the worst episode so far of Under the Dome, a series that has taken quite a bit of potential and has relentlessly squandered it. This is one lousy episode of television, filled with bad choices: acting-wise, direction-wise, dialogue-wise, storytelling-wise. And what’s worse is that this is the first episode in a while that has its hands on an intriguing character arc for good ol’ tortured Barbie. But it’s buried under counterproductive plot twists, lousy acting, several non sequiturs, and repetitive dialogue that restates revelations and goals so often that it’s like they’re trying to pummel us into submission.
Did I say pummel? How appropriate for our central plot of the week, which takes a page from Fight Club, even though the last fourteen years have left Fight Club with no pages left to spare. I am so very tired of the “underground fight club” trope in genre TV series, but I’m even more tired of Under the Dome appropriating wheezy clichés and doing nothing with them. This fight club, which is organized by the evil Maxine nominally as a release for the pent-up frustrations and boredom of Chester’s Mill (and in actuality is a scheme for her to tighten her grip on the town’s resources, cash and people) is a bargain-basement affair, shot without style or flair, even when Max ups her blackmail of Barbie by forcing him into the ring.
What’s especially frustrating about this is that Max’s notion that the frightened townspeople would turn to vices and violence is a believable one. But unfortunately, Under the Dome has shown time and again that it’s uninterested in dramatizing anything beyond what’s going on with the main cast. The entire town has been swallowed up by an invisible dome, there are endless battles for resources and people are dying, and yet we’re never shown the common man’s reaction to any of this. Here, they’re delegated to being a cheering, soulless mob in the background of tepid fight scenes, which is all so reductive and shallow. I buy that this would happen, but it’s so lazy to reveal simply by Maxine telling us how people are feeling, rather than actually show us. Max’s plan to bring the town to its knees by using its own thirst for vices and brutal “entertainment” against it is a fascinating, morally icky premise that no one on the writing staff seems willing to deal with in any way. What’s the point?
The juiciest character work in this entire episode is of Barbie, who feels his soul slipping away a little bit and then decides he’s had enough of Maxine’s manipulations, even if that means telling Julia the truth. These are heavy stakes (more Barbie’s sense of self-worth than his relationship with Julia, because their progression as a couple has been unconvincing and superficial). But I don’t really think we’re told much of a story with Barbie here after all. Barbie throws his fight in order to rob Max of satisfaction, while unbeknownst to him she’s bet heavy against him. And so his surrender actually makes her a lot of money, and while that weighs heavy on his conscience, the underlining of his no-win situation makes his ultimate decision to get from under her thumb a pragmatic one rather than ethical, which actually isn’t very emotional or dramatic.
But if you want something that kills drama, look no further than the final confrontation between Julia and Barbie. First, let’s backtrack. Julia has her own Nancy Drew adventure with Linda piecing together the propane stockpile with Max’s drug empire with Duke’s complicity in the whole sordid affair, courtesy of some friendly safe deposit boxes. Their discoveries paint Duke as a man who made a deal with the devil in order to keep drugs out of Chester’s Mill itself, but the emotional fulcrum here, let’s be mindful, is the tortured conscience of a dead man, so it’s hard to get too worked up about it (not enough is made of Linda’s complex disillusionment regarding her mentor). Some adjoining evidence shows that Linda’s husband took an empty revolver to his meeting with Barbie, and left a new insurance policy back in the deposit box. The implication is that he wanted Barbie to kill him, which ends up in her mind completely overshadowing the fact that Barbie did actually kill him.
What? This makes zero emotional sense. None. And what’s worse is that it completely undermines the story the episode—hell, the series—has been trying to tell with Barbie. Here’s a complicated man with a shady past catching up to him, who falls in love with the wife of the man he murdered. When the truth comes out, it should be explosive. But no, he ends up mostly off the hook, because Julia can apparently forgive him since her husband was actually seeking his own death. It’s not quite 100% as clear cut as that (Julia injects a grain of ambiguity in her discussion of her and Barbie’s future), but come on. People don’t behave this way. The idea that Barbie’s murder of Peter can be so effectively downplayed and excused is absolutely baffling, if not perverse. Under the Dome has always had problems imagining emotions and feelings that actual human beings have, process, and express, but this is taking it to a new, stunningly inept level. Who in the world thought this was a good idea?
Another subplot this week involves the kids trying to find the Fourth Hand for the mini-dome, and they’re spurred by the discovery of a caterpillar inside the mini-dome. The Fourth Hand ends up being…are you ready? Junior. Because the show needs more reasons to bring Angie and Junior together, albeit this time with chaperones (yes, I realize that Joe and Norrie are younger than Angie and Junior, but in the maturity department they’re leaps and bounds beyond). Angie eventually spills the beans to Joe about what Junior did to her, and so Joe promises he’ll kill Junior, but then he sorta forgets about that, just like he forgot that Angie was missing in the early episodes. Junior pressing his hand against the mini-dome reveals a cool 360 degree star map (“Pink stars!”). The episode’s last line has Junior staring and saying “But what does it mean,” which only forwards my theory that Under the Dome has become an elaborate round-robin writing exercise gone berserk.
Oh, right. I forgot about Big Jim. You see, while Barbie is swept into Max’s fight club, Big Jim is curiously unobserved, and so he escapes into an episode of Miami Vice, stealing a motorboat and travelling to Max’s island mansion, looking for the “insurance policy” she mentioned last week. He bumps into Max’s insane mother, who brandishes a rifle and tells her sad story about how she dropped out of high school after getting pregnant, and so she became a prostitute and Chester’s Mill was mean to her and now she hates this town and wants it to suffer and…guys…just wondering… do you care? I mean, does anybody? This motivation is so shoehorned in and ultimately meaningless that it almost plays like parody. Her monologue even begins with “You don’t know who I am, do you?” which is usually what villains say right before they launch into stories more interesting than this one. When last seen, Big Jim lets her drown, because it’s so unique to see Big Jim kill somebody, even though he’s killed several people already.
The acting doesn’t help. As I discussed a few weeks ago: to see Dean Norris so underserved every Monday when on Sunday nights he’s killing it as the troubled Hank Schraeder hurts to watch. And then there’s Natalie Zea. She doesn’t improve upon last week’s introduction of Max: she still plays her with the airy sneer of someone from a romantic comedy. She has no menace, no vindictiveness, and even her attempts at playful, sexy opportunism are dead in the water. I don’t think its miscasting so much as Under the Dome is revealing with each episode that its own tone, mythology, logic and general point of view on anything has not been thought through. How appropriate for this week’s fight club episode that I end with this conclusion: what a bloody mess.