I’ve always been a physically small person. As I’m sure many of you can imagine, that led to being bullied quite a bit as a younger person. In fact, I’d dare say that it wasn’t until my sophomore year of college that most of the folks around me matured enough not to engage in such behavior.
I think one of the reasons I’ve always liked science fiction, fantasy and superheroes is because the heroes of these stories stand up to bullies. They stand up for the little guys. In one instance, the victim becomes the superhero: nerdy, little Peter Parker becomes the Spectacular Spider-Man.
So, you’ll forgive my eager anticipation for tonight’s season finale of CBS’ "Under the Dome," and what I expect to be a wonderful comeuppance of its main antagonist, James "Big Jim" Rennie Sr. You see, Big Jim is a bully. As portrayed onscreen by Dean Norris, Big Jim is a middle-aged, bald man with a winning smile. He’s a politician who owns a car dealership. In the original Stephen King novel, he’s one of three selectmen (similar to our councilmen) from the town of Chester’s Mill, Maine. On screen, the other two selectmen either die or out of town when the titular dome comes down over the town, cutting Chester’s Mill off from the rest of America.
I’ll stick with the TV version of the character, although most of what I’ll mention applies to the novel version, too. Here’s Big Jim’s thing: he says that everything he does is for the good of the town and that it will make it through anything as long as they stick together. In reality, he’s not just beefing up his own power base -- he’s making life hell for anyone who gets in his way.
There are moments when you think maybe, just maybe, Big Jim might really be trying to do the right thing. By these last episodes, however, it’s more than plain to see that’s never really been the case. As he says in the early pages of King’s novel -- a thought that is not expressed on screen -- he’s a pusher, not a "pushee."
I’m really not giving much away to folks who want to watch the show or read the book by saying that Big Jim takes a number of steps to keep the power that he ends up with. He uses his position to manipulate people into thinking he’s doing them a favor, or doing something for him they think is good, when all he’s doing is looking out for himself. The bullying comes into play when folks don’t fall into his line of thinking.
(Spoilers on, here, but I don’t think they’re too huge.)
Big Jim does this by finding out their secrets -- many of which are his, too. He’s protecting himself, as most bullies try to do, by making everyone else the fall guy. Now, this is a Stephen King story, even if toned down on television, so Big Jim does kill several people along the way. He makes it look like the main protagonist, Dale "Barbie" Barbara, did the deeds. He’s so convincing that Barbie gets arrested and almost the entire town -- including some people he’s become friends with -- turns against him.
As the kind of politician he is, Big Jim offers Barbie a way out for some of his true friends that are in trouble: plead guilty to the murders in exchange for his friends’ freedom.
In a way, that’s the ultimate kind of bullying. What better way to lord over somebody than to say, "I’ll do this great and wonderful thing for the people you care about if you agree to cop to all the bad things I’ve done? Otherwise, they’re finished and so are you."
Of course, this is fiction. In real-life America, most people don’t do this sort of thing. At least I hope not. The worst we usually hear about are back room deals. "You do this for me, and I’ll do this for you." Most politicians drunk on power don’t murder other people to get what they want. They don’t manipulate people’s lives to the point where they’re hauled off to jail for things they didn’t do.
But some of them do lie, and some of them do cheat, and others do deals that are really for themselves and not the people they represent. Big Jim Rennie is just a caricature that wonderfully exemplifies how some bullies do get their way -- at least for a while.
Some of the other residents of Chester’s Mill do figure out what Big Jim really is like, just as most people do in real life. Even in real life, some bullies do rise to the top. Look at the dictators leading any number of countries in the world today. In most of our lives, most bullies don’t have the kind of protection they do and aren’t cunning enough to evade our internal truth detectors, if you will. We know who the bullies are, we recognize them for what they are and we usually don’t put up with their nonsense.
Sometimes we do, though -- at least for longer than we should -- and that’s too bad. In "Under the Dome," Chester’s Mill has put up with Big Jim for way too long. Most people have decided to ignore his ways either because they’re scared or because they’re too much like him themselves. Others, quite frankly, are too unsophisticated to notice in the first place.
Not anymore. I know what happens to Big Jim in the book. It’ll be very interesting to see what happens on screen, since the series veers quite strongly from the novel (in a good way, though; a strict interpretation of the novel would have been too much for TV).
I think it will also be very instructive for those who bother to tune in. Bullies never really win in the end. They are found out. And dealt with. Perhaps not the way the series or King’s book deal with Big Jim, but they are dealt with.
I, for one, am usually pretty happy when that happens.
(Martin L. Cahn is the editor of the Chronicle-Independent, Camden, S.C. Email responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.)