‘Under the Dome,’ Representation, and Scary Boyfriends

Earlier this week, the pilot for the TV adaptation of Stephen King’s novel Under the Dome aired. Ever since learning that Brian K. Vaughan was developing the series, I’ve been looking forward to it. I’ve never read any of King’s novels, but because I exist in this universe, I’ve seen plenty of the numerous adaptations of his work. In general, I’ve enjoyed them, though there is certainly a wide range of quality. While the better adaptations have showcased the qualities that have made King’s work classic popular fiction, I have always noticed that white men tend to be at the center of his stories. While female characters are often fairly well-developed, they are usually secondary characters, commenting on the action rather than advancing it. And I really can’t think of any significant people of color in any of (the adaptations of) his work, which I’m sure is at least partly due to King’s penchant for stories about rural Maine.

With that in mind, I was curious to see what Vaughan would do with these predominately white, male primary characters. As the writer for critically-acclaimed comics that also have an good track record with gender and racial representation, I was pretty sure that Under the Dome wouldn’t end up being a totally whitewashed show where only the men are active. In interviews, Vaughan expresses a thoughtfulness in his writing decisions, which is always an admirable trait in a writer.  (He also wrote for Lost, which, for all its failings, did a decent job with representation.)

So far, it seems that my suspicions have been correct. While our Chiseled Brooding Antihero, who seems thus far at the center of the story, is as white as can be, other casting decisions have been pretty impressive. So far, we have a Latina cop, who, though she seems pretty tough in her own way, isn’t a Fiery Sassy Latina. We have an alternative radio station operated by a black man and an Asian woman (who is also fat, which is so so great. I have no idea when I last saw a fat woman on TV). We have an interracial lesbian couple with a teenage daughter. We have all this truly diverse representation, with every character so far seeming three-dimensional rather than defined by their race, gender, or sexuality, AND it’s all happening in a rural town. With the exception of the couple with the daughter, all of these people are from Chester’s Mill. Often TV shows think of “rural” as code for “white,” which is both factually inaccurate and just an excuse to keep casting only white people.  (Shout out to my home state, North Carolina, for acting as the filming location. I’m going to just imagine this as Chester’s Mill, NC and no one can stop me.)

Ok, so I’ve established that the quality of representation is good. But what about the actual story? you might be asking. The pilot did an commendable job establishing both the premise of the show (in short: an invisible dome falls over part of a town), and the personalities, situations, and proclivities of the characters. After 45 minutes, I feel like I know some of these characters better than I knew most of the characters after two seasons of The Walking Dead.

While there is a certain hokeyness that is nearly impossible to avoid when the show takes place in Small Town America, I’m hoping that the hints of conspiracy and corruption will manifest in a way that complicates the diners-and-sheriffs vibe of the town. Already, we have been exposed to the idea that not all parts of town are created equal, especially because of the lack of medical care in one section of the town. I’m hoping that, in the future, the show makes more attempts to subtly expose the dangerous, structural inequalities of American life that the show’s premise could easily consider.

The huge black mark on the pilot was the subplot with Junior. (Arr, here be spoilers.) When we first meet Angie and her boyfriend Junior, it seems as though they are two happy young lovers. As the scene progresses, we see that that is clearly not the case. Angie is uninterested in a serious relationship with Junior, who says he loves her and is dropping out of college to stay in Chester’s Mill. He says he has loved her since the third grade and that she’s the only one who knows the real him. She responds, “and that’s why I can’t be with you,” suggesting that Junior is not the sweet romantic he appears to be.

Then come a few moments that are hard to watch. As Angie is walking away from him, Junior grabs her arm, trying to forcibly pull her back to him. She cries out in pain, and hits him. It’s unclear, though seems likely, that this is the first time something like this has happened. Later, Junior sees Angie talking outside of the hospital to our Chiseled Brooding Antihero named Barbie and decides, as all normal boyfriends in healthy relationships tend to, that he should kidnap her and lock her in his father’s underground bunker.

The violence between Angie and Junior was, for me, the most disturbing part of the pilot. It’s the only truly questionable part of the story so far, and, given Vaughan’s thoughtfulness as a writer, I’m hoping that Angie’s kidnapping becomes more than voyeuristic titillation or an opportunity to fridge a female character. I’m also a little worried that the show’s viewers will misread Junior as some kind of misunderstood bad boy, while somehow blaming Angie for her own kidnapping. I’ve already seen reviews that describe Junior as “troubled.” From where I’m standing, he’s an abusive boyfriend.

Uncomfortable subplot aside, I look forward to seeing whether the show lives up to its casting choices and explores structural inequality and corruption through its premise. I’m also hoping for some more snappy, BKV dialogue like this:

Joe: “You think the government built this thing?”

Barbie: “Doubt it.”

Joe: “Why?”

Barbie: “It works.”

-Joanna

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