Mania Grade: B-
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- Episode: Thicker Than Water (Season 1, Episode 8)
- Starring: Mike Vogel, Dean Norris, Rachelle Lefevre, Natalie Martinez
- Written By: Adam Stein, based on the novel by Stephen King
- Directed By: Jack Bender
- Network: CBS
- Studio: CBS Television Studios
Under the Dome: Thicker Than Water Review
Eminent Dome Main
By Michael Henley
August 14, 2013
Dean Norris is a really good actor. Too good, I often think, for Under the Dome, in which he basically plays a power-hungry creep with aims for shallow despotism. To see his incredible performance last night on Breaking Bad and then see him go through the motions here as Big Jim Rennie is both impressive and depressing, like seeing a performer do Shakespeare one night and then tear tickets at the box office the next.
I just couldn’t shake that feeling while watching “Thicker Than Water,” a Big Jim-centric episode that is one of those pieces of TV where nothing ever convinces you that anything is actually happening. There’s something about the writing, acting, gaps in logic and disaffected performances that makes everything just feel kinda flat. It’s the kind of episode where characters say and do things that leave you, the viewer, unconvinced. Case in point: the opening scene, which shows Big Jim confronting Junior in the wee hours of the morning as the lad tries to return to the home he was kicked out of last week. Big Jim confronts Junior on the murder he committed last week, taking the moral high ground, in a moment that is played for absolutely zero irony, despite the fact that Big Jim killed someone himself last week. Big Jim’s hypocrisy could be dramatically interesting, but it’s totally inert here.
The central plot, which is a battle for control of Ollie’s well, suffers from the same problems of just overall flatness. This well, which is the town’s sole source of drinking water, is a big deal. This is huge. And yet it boils down to a simplistic gunfight between and unconvincing betrayals and double betrayals. A lot of this hinges on Junior, a character and actor who just does not have the gravitas to carry the burden of so much drama. When he switches sides from Big Jim and the sheriff department to Ollie and his band of backwoods cronies, he seems like a child having a tantrum, not a troubled man seeking solace in rebellion. And when he promises an all-too-welcoming Ollie that he’ll kill Big Jim himself, the result is laughable. With his hair trigger temper, pathetically obsessive love life and silly dialogue to recite, Junior has pretty much made camp far within Anakin Skywalker territory.
The episode turns to focusing in the last act on the disintegrating Jim/Junior relationship, as the boy holds his father at gunpoint and demands to know the truth of his mother’s death, a breadcrumb tossed to him by Ollie, as just another example of his over-the-top loathsomeness. As Big Jim tells the story of his wife’s suicide, a story never heard before by the son, Norris does a decent job of unloading a huge emotional burden…and Alexander Koch finally seems to register an emotion besides sociopathy…but…where do we go from here? If the two men’s relationship still falls apart afterwards, than this was pointless, and if it’s now repaired, then it’s pretty frustratingly simplistic.
If there’s been one inadvertent recurring theme in Under the Dome up till this point, it’s been extreme discomfort in navigating shades of grey. Certainly the show’s very premise lends itself to some examination of moral complexity, as people get more desperate, but such hasn’t really been the case. “Thicker Than Water” is the series’ first real example of true civil war breaking out amongst the dome residents, but it gets no juice out of the fact that the forces of “good” are being marshaled by an anti-hero, because they’re fighting against a sneering hick with bad teeth and a dutiful posse straight out of a terrorist action movie. This episode’s plot is about two ambitious men who pit pawns against each other under a semi-false flag of town security, and the fact that this leads to deaths is tragic…but that doesn’t really register in any significant way. Barbie does take Jim to task for five deaths, but this lacks punch because it’s Barbie, who is a murderer himself.
There’s just something off about all this. I think what it really comes down to is that Under the Dome frequently tries for complexity and ends up establishing inconsistency. There’s nothing wrong with the idea of Barbie, a murderer, trying to atone and avoid more deaths, even going so far as to call out a man who led people into a needless skirmish. But Under the Dome has retreated from subtext so often (this is a show where every motivation is highlighted with unnecessary dialogue) that whenever it doesn’t mention something, it feels less like they’re suddenly giving us credit, and feels more like they forgot that something. That may seem unfair, but when I study the show’s moral complexity, so far I just see a lot of ideas that don’t connect.
Speaking of missed connections: the episode’s other subplot centers on the McAlister home, which is getting pretty full, come to think of it (we open with Angie, Joe, Julia, Barbie, Norrie and Carolyn all there). Joe greets his sister and the next morning she’s needling him over not having bought any food while she was away. Norrie, mourning Alice’s death, blames everyone including, eventually herself. We see it in a scene of bonding between Norrie and Angie, where Angie destroys her prized (and prominently displayed) collection of snow globes, and they do hit us over the head with the idea that Hey, Chester’s Mill is now a huge snow globe, if you think about it. (See what I mean about subtext?) It’s nice to see previously separated characters pairing off, but they lay it on pretty thick.
Joe, after being rebuffed by Norrie, leads Julia on a trek into the woods to find the mini-dome. Well, eventually. For some reason, he’s tight-lipped about the mini-dome, and while Norrie seems to hold it partially responsible for Alice’s death, Joe doesn’t seem to be on that wavelength. He just wants to keep it a secret, despite the fact that it may be the key to understanding the bigger dome. Why don’t characters on this show tell the truth to each other more often? Julia visits the mini-dome, touches it, and has her own vision, this time of Joe saying “The monarch will be crowned.” And yet when lying in bed with Barbie, how does she summarize this event when he presses her for information? “Nothing,” she says. Uh...huh. The whole Joe/Julia subplot is another heretofore unseen pairing, and it doesn’t quite work because Rachelle Lefevre is still seriously wooden and can’t wrap herself around the clunky dialogue she has as Julia. (Example: “I can’t imagine losing a spouse like that,” she says, to Barbie. Oh, irony!)
We do end with a final reveal: as Julia ponders the meaning of “The monarch will be crowned,” we go in close on Angie’s butterfly tattoo, which means…I don’t know, actually. I understand the reference, but so what? It’s not new information that the dome show different people different things, and I guess the reveal is it’s now referencing them in oblique ways. The line about the monarch is a TV writer’s dream: a prophecy that’s worded so vaguely it can mean anything, as if that makes it more interesting. I lament that now in a post-Lost world a series is content to just throw a puzzle in our faces with a self-satisfied smirk, as if it’s a given that we care enough to work at it.
We’re now more than halfway through the first season of Under the Dome, and I have to say I’m starting to get worried. The characters have not fully come into their own yet (some of them are still depressingly two-dimensional), the writing still creaks, the premise and logic don’t seem to have been fully thought through, and now our first major taste of conflict has been artificial and unsatisfying. I’m still in, but I don’t think I’m alone in wishing we were in a much better place than we are.
But Dean Norris is a really good actor. That much is certain.