Man, how great was Dean Norris this week? The subtle emotion betraying a deep inner turmoil. The slow build to a heartbreaking revelation. And that payoff — yup, Breaking Bad sure was great, and it’s a reminder of how much better Norris and indeed the medium of television can be than the meandering mess we have on CBS on Monday night.

Is it fair to compare one of TV’s most ambitious shows with one of its least? Probably not. But if you’re a serious, avid TV watcher, then the fall TV season has arrived with a vengeance, and Under the Dome’s summer laziness feels less justified than ever. We’re all remembering what Norris can do with a good script an an assured authorial vision. We’re engaging with stories that don’t rely on mumbo-jumbo mystery phrases to build suspense. And while I’m not entirely proud to open this recap with a hacky, predictable bait-and-switch, Under the Dome isn’t the least bit ashamed to end on one.

Militias and Monarchs

Much like last week, Big Jim opens the hour by trying to negotiate with his old rival Ollie, arguably the most idiotic villain of the summer season. Ollie owns all the water and seems to think that if he deprives the town of his plentiful resources, they’ll blame the chief executive and put him in charge — call it the House of Representatives strategy.

It does not occur to Ollie that the volatile citizenry of Chester’s Mill might kill him to keep from dying of thirst, nor does it occur to Under the Dome‘s writing staff: when Big Jim shows up to claim eminent domain on behalf of the townsfolk, Ollie has a small militia of anonymous henchmen defending him. Junior is quick to switch sides; wonder how that’ll play out.

Joe, meanwhile, decides to let Julia in on the mysterious egg brain power source he found in the woods. The egg has turned pink now and is triggering hallucinations in its visitors: Julia sees Joe saying that “The monarch will be crowned.” So, that’s a fun bit of trivia; thanks for sharing, dome!

Norrie, meanwhile, is the worst. She blames Joe for Alice’s death, then Alice herself, then herself — I get it, Brian K. Vaughan, you think teenagers are awful. She and Angie have an excruciating little bonding session where they throw snow globes at the dome wall for some reason, because I guess she collected snow globes and I guess she hates them now — go ahead and chalk that up with pink stars and monarchs on the show’s running list of mysterious non-sequiturs.

Tears of a Councilman

While Big Jim plans an attack on Ollie’s well, Barbie conceives an alternate plan to avoid bloodshed by rerouting the well with explosives — yup, he’s a demolitions expert, too. When Big Jim is unwilling to risk potentially compromising the town’s only water supply, Barbie does it anyway and it works because he’s handsome. Big Jim, meanwhile, is taken in by Ollie’s men and made to answer to his turncoat son.

The following scene is pretty rough for me. As I said last week, I think Big Jim has become the hero of this show — while all the other characters are sleepwalking through shallow romances and lightweight pontifications about destiny, Big Jim is cutting deals and kicking ass. This week, he cries. It doesn’t feel like the cathartic release of long-gestating conflict, it isn’t a human moment of sensitivity against the backdrop of a cruel world. He cries because we’ve reached that point in the episode where something emotional is supposed to happen, and man, I’ll take not giving a damn about Alice’s death over this utter letdown of a character stretch any day.

To be entirely fair, Junior’s pointing a gun in his face and the conversation is getting pretty heavy, so I understand getting emotional. Big Jim reveals that his wife, Junior’s mother, committed suicide, and that he concealed that fact so that Junior wouldn’t be hurt by her choice. But that’s just the problem: this is the first we’ve heard of it. There hasn’t been the slightest build-up to this revelation, and out of nowhere my whiskey-swilling, propane-exploding Jim is suddenly a sobbing wreck on the floor. I don’t have any objection to him harboring a sensitive side, but a little bit of subtlety would be nice. Long story short, I feel nothing here but slight distaste for the proceedings.

Naturally, Junior reveals himself to be on Team Big Jim and shoots Ollie in the gut. It’s kind of a “Trojan Horse thing,” Junior explains later, referencing a literary trope popularized by Homer in the eighth century BC. Big Jim comes out on top, I suppose, but his exciting new identity of lone wolf badassery has been compromised for the sake of cheap drama. Makers of Under the Dome, take note: if you want your characters to pull on heartstrings effectively, then maybe your best course would be to tread lightly.

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(Image courtesy of CBS)

Ted Kindig

Contributing Writer, BuddyTV