Third fisherman: Master, I marvel how the fishes live in the sea.
First fisherman: Why, as men do aland: the great ones eat up the little ones.
William Shakespeare, Pericles 2.1.27-29
When I’m teaching ancient literature, one of the most frequently repeated patterns I encounter is the love of law and civilization. Whether it be in a mythical work like Gilgamesh, a legal text like the Law Code of Hammurabi, or a religious text like the Bible itself, one need not look far to find praise of Law. Nor is such praise surprising: ancient civilization didn’t need to look far to see what lawless life looked like. They could remember it from the not-too-distant past or see it outside the safe walls that surrounded their cities. American society is so grounded in our network of law and order that we may be tempted to take civilized life for granted. Thus, in American media, one of the most common genres used by storytellers for stripping away such trappings of civilization is science fiction, i.e., envisioning a future bereft of society’s luxuries. CBS’s new summer drama Under the Dome, an adaptation of Stephen King’s novel, is the latest addition to this sub-genre.
Under the Dome‘s basic premise is delightfully and devastatingly simple. One day, in the apparently quiet New England hamlet of Chester’s Mill, a massive transparent dome appears out of nowhere, sealing the town off from the outside world. The people trapped inside can see out, and those outside can see in, but no sound can cross over, nor can any force of impact make a dent in the seemingly electrified barrier. The town can only hunker down, trying to make the most of limited resource and care for those wounded after the dome’s appearance. Meanwhile, on the other side, the military quickly begins quarantining the region. Of course, Chester’s Mill is not the sleepy, simple town it appears, either; it is filled with people (residents and sojourners) who harbor secrets aplenty.
Being a product of Stephen King’s mind, Under the Dome has some signature horror moments: director Niels Arden Oplev’s camera lingers almost compulsively on the corpse of a cow that has been sliced in twain by the dome’s appearance. But more visceral than bovine viscera is the underlying and mounting terror of what people are capable of when the external moral motivations provided by civilized society begin to erode. In perhaps my favorite scene, teenage candy-striper Angie (Britt Robertson) tells an ostensibly heroic stranger (Mike Vogel):
Some of the patients are saying it’s like we’re stuck in a giant fishbowl. I used to have fish… goldfish. But then one of them got sick, and then the other one… the other one ate him. Did you even know they did that? Goldfish?
Angie’s statement demonstrates a recognition of human depravity, but ironically, even she does not know how deep that depravity runs: the stranger to whom she is speaking may be a killer himself, and all the while she is being stalked by her obsessive, abusive boyfriend, Junior (Alexander Koch).
Christian doctrine has long conceived of humanity as a composite entity, wrestling between the majesty of the image of God within us and the depths of human sin to which we have become subject. The former quality may help explain heroic or righteous actions, even in those apart from Christ. Yet sin is a powerful corrosive force, and without certain restraining boundaries (whether external legal boundaries or internalized cultural boundaries), the tendency toward savagery may become increasingly manifest. I haven’t read King’s novel, so I do not know whether his drama ends with the triumph of humanity’s best divine core or the fully destructive manifestation of unchecked sinfulness (or perhaps the introduction of some well-timed external check against the depravity). Whatever the outcome, the show’s scenario promises to be fertile ground for the exploration of the complexities of human nature and a reminder of our innate capacities, for good or for ill.