I know this is an incredibly early discussion to be having, what with exactly one episode having aired, but the general discussion around CBS’s Under the Dome this past week has always eventually broached, at least among those who have read the books, the apparently dreadful way author Stephen King explained the origin and nature of the dome. Dan Feinberg of hitfix.com, on his podcast with fellow critic Alan Sepinwall, argued that any ending Brian K. Vaughan and company can come up with will be better than King’s. Zack Handlen over at the AV Club wrote that “the final twist (which seems to be what draws the most ire from readers) was fundamentally irrelevant, a kind of ‘Oh, I guess I should wrap this up, eh?’ conclusion that doesn’t really diminish the madness that came before it.” This discussion got me thinking, does Under the Dome have to explain where the dome came from?
Let me preface this discussion by saying that I haven’t read the book, though I’ve read enough about it to have a vague idea of what the final explanation for the dome involves. I won’t be getting into any spoilers, though, if you care about that sort of thing.
If the last several years of serialized storytelling on television have taught me anything, it’s that when a show has mysteries, no matter how large or small they are, viewers will expect answers to those mysteries that are neither obvious nor out of left field. The most obvious example of this is Lost. Lost was a show built around mysteries and a show that didn’t seem to care which questions the fans wanted solved and often answered questions nobody had ever even though to ask, like where Jack’s tattoos came from. Even their answers usually brought more questions, like the reveals of what was in the hatch or who The Others were. And many times, when mysteries were explained, such as the nature of the whispering voices on the island, the response from many people was, “well that was obvious; we thought of that ages ago.”
Even shows that don’t base their storytelling around mysteries can get caught up in the guessing game. Just look at the craziness that followed Bob Benson and Megan Draper on Mad Men this year. The show introduced a seemingly innocuous brown-noser as SCDP’s new accounts man, but the internet refused to allow Bob Benson to be just an innocuous brown-noser. Depending on whom you asked and when you asked, he was either Don Draper’s long-forgotten son, a corporate spy, an investigator from the SEC, the FBI, the NSA, or the CIA, a serial killer, or a time-traveler. He was none of these things, obviously. It turned out he was Dick Whitman 2.0, a chameleon who ingratiated himself into SCDP through sheer force of will and was created by the writers not as some grand mystery to be solved, but as a foil for Pete, to see what, if anything, the head of accounts had learned from his last encounter with such a character.
Worse still was what happened when a costume designer put Jessica Paré in a white t-shirt with a red star on the front. It was the same t-shirt once worn by Sharon Tate in a photo shoot, prior to her death at the hands of the infamous Manson family. Suddenly, Megan Draper was Sharon Tate and the up-and-coming actress was destined be murdered like the actress whose shirt she wore. Then, Megan had the audacity to spend an entire episode without talking to anybody but Don, which led to the most fantastically ludicrous fan theory in the history of television: In a Shyamalanian twist, Megan Draper was apparently already dead.
The theories were ultimately proven ridiculous of course. This is a show that has had one major character die in the entire six year run and which foreshadowed that death with an entire season of financial trouble and, not one, but two separate suicide attempts. But that’s where television is now. We’re constantly searching for smaller and smaller mole hills that we try to turn into bigger and bigger mountains because one of these days, dammit, just one of these days we’re going to be right and Bobby Ewing will step out of that shower, tell us it was all a dream, and we will raise our fists in triumph because WE CALLED IT!
Because that’s what this is all about. The discussion of wildly insane theories is fun and can be a useful part of the fan experience. But what ultimately drives it, I think, is the desperate need to be right; and, even more importantly, to be right when others are wrong.
So that brings us back to Under the Dome. As I see it, there are basically four explanations for how the dome came to Chester’s Mill: the government did it, terrorists did it, aliens did it, or a mad scientist did it. None of these answers would be particularly shocking and, if done well, could provide a reasonably satisfying conclusion. But none of them are particularly amazing answers and any truly “shocking” ending is probably going to be criticized for coming out of left field. So my solution is simple: don’t explain the dome. Ever. When the series ends, let the dome stay in place or take it away, whichever works best. Just don’t explain how it got there. Make the dome the setting, not the story.
Such a conceit has been done before. I’m reminded of an independent film from a couple years ago called Another Earth. The movie stars William Mapother and Brit Marling and involves a second earth, exactly like our own, appearing in the sky. Your standard science fiction movie would have used this plot device to show us board rooms filled with scientists, politicians, and military trying to figure out a) where the planet came from, b) how to communicate with it, and c) how to destroy it. Our hero (I’m thinking Jeremy Renner) would inevitably end up fighting himself on the other planet (bizarro-Jeremy Renner will have a goatee and facial scar, obviously). And the film would end with the two planets coming to a grudging acceptance of each other’s existence.
Another Earth takes a different tactic however. It actually doesn’t care much about Earth 2 at all. There’s no discussion of the physical effects of an earth-sized planet in orbit. We don’t meet anybody from “over there.” Rather, it’s a movie about two people whose paths have crossed twice with results first catastrophic, then cathartic. The science fiction elements of the movie are not the story, but rather the setting for the story to be told.
Under the Dome can do the same thing. Let the dome be the setting for the story of Chester’s Mill without becoming the story itself. Now, the show would have to be constructed properly to allow this ending. Lost had to explain the island because, by the very nature of the show, the island itself is a character. But Under the Dome is under no such obligation. If they can make the characters and their stories interesting, they can explore what happens to people when they’re thrust into an insane situation without the hassle of having to wrap up every single question with a nice little bow. There are plenty of mysteries still for viewers to obsess over (Why is Barbie burying Julia’s husband? What’s with all the propane?). The dome need not even be a mystery. It’s just there. Let it be scenery, and nothing more.