One of side effects to the storytelling deficit seen in the last two episodes is that as Under the Dome progresses, there will be a natural inclination to simply compare each new episode to the last, in terms of quality, rather than focusing on the big picture at hand. In that regard, 'Outbreak' is a slight improvement over the disappointment that was 'Manhunt,' but the series still hasn't managed to move the story past the concept phase.
Although there were glimpses of Chester's Mill townsfolk expressing displeasure over their current predicament, by peppering the dome with eggs and trying to communicate with the military positioned on the other side of the invisible barrier through a few painted cries for help, the general mood of the series continues to feel off. It's one thing to show a group of citizens demanding a response from the government, or worried that the bacon supply is going to run out before the dome comes down or, finally, actually concerned that lifesaving supplies like antibiotics or, in the case of Samantha Mathis' Alice Calvert, insulin, may soon be in short supply. But when the overall level of concern feels only slightly above unresponsive, then the inherent tension of the story as a whole is completely lost.
And so, once again, rather than work to build up a sense of purpose and consequence to the overall story line, Under the Dome provides snippets of information as to the larger issue, but takes a step back to focus on an immediate crisis that winds up being resolved at an accelerated pace. In that regard, most of the episode has to do with the titular outbreak – which, in this case, is spinal meningitis – that first hits Linda and then spreads like wildfire through the town, inundating the understaffed and undersupplied medical facility.
The crisis unfolds in a fairly typical fashion, with people being brought into the ER so rapidly the only conclusion anyone can make is that they have an epidemic on their hands. This affords the writers the chance to bring Alice into the forefront of the story, as her background in medicine – although she's a psychologist – allows her to diagnose and begin treating the afflicted with such alarming ease and precision, the only real source of drama and conflict is the lack of supplies and threat that those exposed will wander outside the clinic and begin infecting everyone else.
Naturally, the solution to both of those problems involve Big Jim, who posts Junior at the front door of the clinic, armed with a shotgun and given orders to prevent any and all from leaving, while he and Barbie head off in search of the pharmacy's supply of antibiotics – which Rev. Collins has recently absconded with, as he's come to believe that the dome is the manifestation of God's will.
There is still the usual bouncing from character to character, slowly developing what subplots currently exist, and, to the writer's credit, they are certainly handled far better than last episode. In fact, there is some actual progression seen in a few of the plots. Julia learns the truth about her husband's dealings (though not his demise); Joe and Norrie attempt to discover the reason behind their shared seizures; and Big Jim stumbles across the captive Angie in his bomb shelter. Clearly, the latter is the most pressing, as Jim wasn't immediately compelled to free the young woman, and Junior has shown enough initiative to be deputized by Linda.
It doesn't add up to a truly compelling story just yet, but it could be argued that because the length of the series may wind up being much longer than perhaps the producers originally thought, the urgent story line depicted in the novel is now going to have to be decompressed to accommodate what will conceivably become a bigger series. The only problem is that at this point in the show, the writers haven't convincingly expressed why anyone should care. This weakness in tone and character is exemplified in the kindly old teacher who sacrifices her life, so that Linda can be given lifesaving antibiotics. Not only is this a contrived way to convey emotion, the audience has no idea who this woman is – or Linda, for that matter – beyond some brief exposition about her being a teacher and Linda being a bad student who wound up making something of herself. For there to be something worth investing in, these characters need to be developed beyond mere two-point arcs that cash in on easy emotion to heighten a dangerous situation.
Sure, there's a weird situation with a dome over a small town and some of the people stuck inside are not exactly what you would call average citizens. There's some interest there, so hopefully the series will find a way to give the audience a reason to be truly invested, other than to see how it all pans out.
Under the Dome continues next Monday with 'Blue on Blue' @10pm on CBS. Check out a preview below: