Under the Dome – Recap: The First Rule of Fight Club
Recap and review of Under the Dome – Season 1 Episode 10 – Let the Games Begin:
Well, this was a marked improvement over last week, on both the character front and in the continued exploration of the show’s mythology. Under the Dome has to walk a tenuous balance as a genre show, making certain not to make the entire series all about its central mystery, yet not giving that mystery short shrift in favor of character stories that don’t always land. “Let the Games Begin” is a strong episode throughout, finding a way to keep the balance in check between genre show and character study.
This week’s episode focuses on a quartet of conflicts that overlap in fairly compelling fashion. In the first, Barbie (Mike Vogel) is tasked with accompanying Maxine (Natalie Zea) on her rounds about town, including visiting the “adult entertainment” club she’s created inside the old cement factory. There, patrons trade valuable commodities (like salt, for instance) for access, and once inside they can enjoy liquor and bare-knuckle boxing to their heart’s content. Maxine sees this as her ticket to living the Queenly life while in the dome, but Barbie sees her methods as barbaric and refuses to allow her to win. Of course, Barbie doesn’t really have the upper hand, as Maxine continues to blackmail him with the threat of revealing to Julia (Rachelle Lefevre) the little tidbit about how he killed her husband, Peter. So Barbie reluctantly steps into the ring when Maxine books him against a former acquaintance whom Barbie had shaken down for money in his days as an enforcer. The man has lost his family, his home and all his money, and he’s out for blood. Barbie’s blood. And Barbie is all too happy to oblige him.
Thinking that Maxine has bet on him, Barbie throws the fight and allows his opponent to beat the tar out of him as a way of screwing her over. But as Maxine reveals after the fight, it was all for nothing: she bet against Barbie and made a killing, because she knew he would throw the fight. She also recognized that everyone else would be too blinded by Barbie’s past as a special forces veteran to bet against him. Everyone loses their ass on the fight while Maxine makes a fortune. Barbie is bitter about the loss, but despite Maxine’s best attempts to comfort him — with promises that, together, they could run this town — he rejects her outright. Barbie tells Maxine that she’ll have to get used to not getting what she wants, and even asks what she’ll do once she realizes she can’t have the town, or him. “I’ll burn this place to the ground,” she responds, and Natalie Zea deserves all the credit in the world for making this line as bone-chilling as it sounded, even if she tends to grate on me as a villain. But Barbie thankfully makes Maxine a little more bearable by removing her one trump card from the equation. Yes, we’ll no longer have to listen to her threaten to reveal Barbie’s secret to Julia because he decides to preempt her by revealing it himself. Yet, as we learn, Julia has already put two-and-two together…
While investigating Duke’s involvement in the drug trade in Chester’s Mill, Linda (Natalie Martinez) discovers a written confession from her former mentor that implicates himself, Maxine, Reverend Coggins, and Big Jim Rennie (Dean Norris) in the crime ring. Linda is initially disappointed, but her feelings are inevitably softened once Julia helps her realize that Duke was doing all of this out of what he perceived to be the good of the town, recognizing that by going along with the plan, he had a chance to keep drugs out of Chester’s Mill altogether. Linda realizes that Duke loved her, and that he was only trying to protect her, a recognition that prompts Julia to suspect that maybe Peter had similarly noble intentions. She looks up his safety deposit box at the local bank and discovers the truth: a lucrative life insurance policy. The wheels begin turning in Julia’s head, and she rushes home to discover Peter’s gun missing, yet all of the bullets remaining in the case. She deduces that Peter committed suicide-by-Barbie, getting the ex-special forces veteran to kill him so Julia could still receive the life insurance benefits. However, the story takes a peculiar turns when Barbie confesses this to Julia and she doesn’t seem angry. She’s clearly hurt, but she understands that Peter goaded Barbie into killing him. I was every bit as dumbfounded as Barbie when Julia talked about how there can be no more secrets between them “in the future,” implying that they do, in fact, have a future together. It’s an incredibly awkward development that doesn’t entirely work, although I’m kind of thankful for it, just the same. It spared us weeks of Barbie and Julia being on the outs, with the two coming to realize that despite the differences between them, there’s still something there. It’s a new take on a standard storyline, and I appreciated the change.
Another change I liked was Big Jim subverting the “all-knowing, ahead of the curve villain” trope. When he goes to visit with a woman named Agatha (Mare Winningham), she gets the drop on him and reveals herself to be Claire, Maxine’s mother. She’s been bitter over how she was shunned in Chester’s Mill after becoming pregnant with Maxine at age 16. She holds Big Jim at gunpoint, disabusing him of the notion that Maxine learned her treacherous ways from her father. Winningham and Norris are both great in the scenes they share together, but I was about ready to roll my eyes once the series introduced yet another villain who is three steps ahead of the other characters, to an obnoxious degree. Yet the episode immediately subverts that trope as quickly as they introduce it. Big Jim basically calls Claire’s bluff, recognizing that she doesn’t have what it takes to shoot someone. He easily snatches the rifle out of her hands and then takes her prisoner. I could have done without another hostage scenario, but it made sense here, since Big Jim seemed intent on using Claire as a bargaining chip with Maxine. Of course, the story once again subverts expectations by never even getting to that point: while Big Jim is taking her back to the mainland on his boat, Claire falls into the lake. With her hands having been tied by Big Jim, Claire is unable to swim, so Big Jim circles the boat around to pick her up. But once he gets there, he makes the startling decision not to help her into the boat. He simply drives away while Claire screams for help, having been left to drown in the middle of a sunny lake. It’s one of the darker turns for Big Jim yet, but it fits entirely within his characters, as we see him get farther and farther away from even the remotest shred of goodness.
But while those stories offer insight into the changes and dynamics among the various characters, only one story offers insight into the mystery surrounding the dome. Luckily, the storyline manages to be tightly focused and pretty interesting this week. Dodee’s (Jolene Purdy) suspicion of Joe (Colin Ford) and Norrie (Mackenzie Lintz) leads her to spy on the pair, tracking them down to the barn where they’ve hidden the mini-dome, inside which they’ve discovered a caterpillar which Joe says will eventually become a monarch butterfly. Dodee sneaks inside and touches the mini-dome and is immediately blasted back with a jolt of electricity. She’s rendered unconscious, but Angie (Britt Robertson) and the others are able to get her to the hospital just in time. Dodee doesn’t remember what happened, so Joe offers up the lie that they found her outside the radio station next to the power generator, rationalizing that she must have electrocuted herself upon touching it. While that solves the Dodee problem (for now), their issues regarding the “fourth hand” only grow more complicated, as a comment from one of the hospital doctors prompts Angie to realize that the “fourth hand” they’re looking for is Junior (Alex Koch).
It turns out that Junior once got a seizure at a tenth grade dance, and this evidence, coupled with the painting Junior’s mother made before her death, cause Angie to become convinced that they’re all connected. However, Joe doesn’t want anything to do with Junior after discovering that the psychopath locked up his sister in a cellar for four days, which Angie finally reveals to her brother. Naturally, Joe’s hot-headedness leads him to a confrontation with Junior that quickly escalates into violence once he discovers them going through his mother’s paintings. But Angie is able to break things up by telling Junior she agrees with him: they’re all connected to something huge, something wonderful. And so they all go back to the mini-dome where it turns out that Junior is, indeed, the fourth hand they were looking for. And hey, the caterpillar is in a cocoon now! (Joe: “Actually, it’s a chrysalis.” Oh, you be quiet, Joe) But what happens next isn’t exactly the barn-burning revelation they might have expected. Once all four hands touch the dome, a holographic cluster of pink stars appear overhead. “It’s beautiful,” Angie says, stunned with wonder. “But what does it mean?” Junior asks, halfway between horror and nausea. The dome piles on one mystery after another, but at least there’s a Scooby Doo-sized team looking into it now.
“Let the Games Begin” finds a way to keep the stories moving by tying them all together: Barbie and Big Jim are linked in their mutual distrust of Maxine, which they discuss at the start of the episode – Barbie’s resentment leads him in one direction, while Big Jim’s leads him in another; meanwhile, Junior’s storyline is linked to the underground “adult entertainment” club when he tries to get in with the salt her took off of a perp; then there’s Julia’s story, which is connected both to Linda’s and Barbie’s. It’s a tight network of narrative, but it works, thanks to the easily-digestible, compartmentalized elements of the story. This is the best the show has been in some time, and it illustrates that the series still has legs, even if it isn’t a homerun every week.