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In its penultimate hour, The Stand stumbles through its own mess

Illustration for article titled In its penultimate hour, The Stand stumbles through its own mess
Image: The Stand
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Locked up in a cage in New Vegas, Glen Bateman cautions his fellow captives Larry and Ray again being overly simplistic in their views of this society, its leader, and his followers. He suggests that these people are not all that different from the good people of Boulder. They’re just scared. It would be a poignant moment—and a convincing starting point for the doubts Glen goes on to sow in New Vegas—if it did not so sharply depart from everything The Stand has shown of Flagg and his hedonistic society of blood-thirsty zealots. Sure, they do seem to fear him. But they also revere him, revel in the chaos and destruction of moral codes that he encourages. The Stand has arguably gone to exhausting lengths to establish New Vegas and Boulder as very different. To pretend otherwise at the start of this penultimate episode is laughably disingenuous. The writers room for The Stand should have heeded Glen’s advice long ago and not made this post-apocalyptic story so overly simplistic. Of course by this point, it’s far too late.

Glen, Larry, and Ray arrive in Vegas to make their final stand, which Glen initiates during an absurdly theatrical mock trial that ends in his death and Larry continues it by declaring over and over that he will fear no evil while he and Ray are chained to the floor of a pool slowly filling with water as thousands watch and cheer for their execution. Ray, well, doesn’t do much, because The Stand seems wholly uninterested in developing Ray and giving her anything meaningful to do despite making her a part of this critical journey from Boulder to Vegas. But at this point, pointing out The Stand’s shortcomings when it comes to character development has become tiring.

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The mock trial sets the tone for the majority of the episode which could be described, in a word, as goofy. The over-the-top depictions of New Vegas have perplexed me since we first set eyes on it, so it’s unsurprising that an episode that mostly takes place here is so addled. Lloyd and a character named Rat Woman—New Vegas’ own jack of all trades—run the “trial,” which is merely a spectacle for Flagg’s entertainment. Flagg’s followers watch with all the enthusiasm they also display at the nightly death-matches-slash-sex-parties, jeering the Boulder prisoners like a sadistic mob drunk on the promise of violence and punishment.

Glen, ever the astute philosopher, says hey doesn’t it seem like something is wrong here folks. He goads Lloyd into shooting him, saying that Lloyd’s scared, that he’s never had to pull a trigger before. Lloyd shoots him in the shoulder and then half a dozen more times to prove himself. But Glen’s words spark doubt for Lloyd, who goes through the motions as Flagg’s right hand man for the rest episode but not without some reservations and then ultimately refuses an order during Larry and Ray’s execution, indicating a complete crisis of conscience. It is wholly unconvincing, especially since Lloyd hasn’t exactly been a passive followed of Flagg prior to killing Glen. Lloyd has helped facilitate the deaths of, probably, hundreds. He’s haunted by Glen’s face but not all the horrific acts he has seen Flagg commit and instigate during his time in New Vegas? Mass crucifixions were fine with Lloyd but shooting Glen inspires some internal conflict that we’ve never seen even a glimmer of before? It’s not just the gaudy and out-of-place aesthetics of New Vegas that are goofy; it’s these hasty, messily sketched character arcs, too.

Rat Woman sure does have a lot to do in this episode, which is confusing since we know not a single thing about her. We know so little about her that I actually had to look up the character’s name to confirm that it is indeed Rat Woman. Trusty Rat Woman serves as the hammer-wheeling judge at the mock trial, dons a sexy nurse costume to help deliver Nadine’s baby, performs her usual duties as a WWE-style ringleader, and also produces live television (broadcasting Larry and Ray’s execution...even though everyone who would be watching it is there in person). I have to imagine that in life before the superflu, she was an OBGYN who moonlit as a live television producer and also enjoyed costume-based roleplay. The Stand in fact supplies zero answers for who Rat Woman is, how she got here, and why she’s suddenly popping up everywhere in New Vegas.

Now, it may seem like I’m getting a little too knee-deep in the weeds of who is obviously just a set dressing character, but it all points to a larger issue in The Stand’s character tapestry. There are too many characters who serve as mere set dressing. There are too many characters period. And across the board from characters like Rat Woman to characters like Lloyd, Nadine, Larry, etc., the character development has had to be distilled and condensed for time, yielding neatly drawn arcs rather than truly alive ones. For an episode that teems with major character deaths, watching it is an unusually numbing experience, like we’re watching characters go through mechanical motions rather than really sitting inside them.

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Nadine’s death is the closest we get to a big moment with real emotional stakes, because The Stand has done some compelling character work when it comes to Nadine since the beginning. Flagg has long-term groomed Nadine ever since she was a child. It has gotten to the point that he has collapsed her identity, made her truly believe that her only purpose in life was to serve as his queen. To add even more evil to his manipulations: He doesn’t even care if she lives once she serves the purpose of giving birth to his child. She realizes this in an instant as she’s convulsing from the pain of demon labor. Earlier, Larry forces her to look at her own reflection, and there’s a small but powerful hint at her becoming aware of her own undoing.

But Nadine’s horrific realization about her fate all happens within the span of a minute up in the penthouse as the demon inside her threatens to tear her apart. It’s meaningful that Nadine’s last act is one made completely of her own agency. She wrests control of her life back from Flagg, and Larry correctly sees it as the beginning of the fall of his empire. His queen is dead. But this dramatic ending for Nadine is undercut by just how hastily it happens. The episode packs so much in that it’s easy to feel the invisible hand of the writers checking off plot boxes.

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Her death scene is also undercut by its dissonant aesthetics. Nadine’s delivery scene makes the trial scene look understated. The Stand often chooses strange places to deploy camp, and it just doesn’t fit in with the often self-serious show. Lloyd’s death at the end of the episode is played for laughs, which sucks a lot of the vitality out of his recent crisis of conscience. Nadine’s death happens amid what looks like a C-rate horror film. It’s a big character moment stuffed into a sexy nurse costume. It just doesn’t look or feel real.

The Stand has mucked up its character development and depiction of Flagg and New Vegas to the point of turning it all into spectacle. Glen and Larry’s words sow doubt but only for a woman whose face we never even see, a nameless old man who’s merely shown looking concerned in a few shots throughout the episode, and Lloyd whose character arc is tediously scripted. That’s what comprises the big moment of defiance among Flagg’s people. The stakes are microscopic. And then it’s over. A series of coincidences that suggest divine intervention all line up to set off an atomic bomb. With an episode left, nearly everyone’s dead—minus those back in Boulder and Stu and Kojak, who Tom Cullen happens upon. But because of the holes in The Stand’s fabric, this seismic shift barely registers on an emotional scale.

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Stray observations

  • Where to even start? On the topic of the people of New Vegas being scared of Flagg: The book is so much more explicit and effective in cultivating that sense of fear. Dana exposes some of it. Also in the book, the characters are literally scared to get too drunk for fear that they might accidentally slip up and say something negative about Flagg and then find themselves crucified. The Vegas residents of the TV show are drunk all the time so clearly unconcerned in that department. The hedonism of this rendering of Vegas just takes out so much of the stakes, fear, tension. I’ll say it again: It’s goofy!
  • Again, I’m not a stickler when it comes to adaptations, but some of the changes to the story have not sat right with me! It feels so so significant in the book that Flagg is the one who pushes Nadine out the window. Yes, she goads him into doing it, but that’s an even more powerful rendering of the switch in control. She seizes control and pushes him out-of-control. Suddenly, Flagg is less of a mastermind. As with Dana, he doesn’t see this coming. He is his own ruin. That’s more effective storytelling than her just jumping out the window herself.
  • I’m continually upset by Trashcan Man’s lack of backstory. The TV version of Trashcan Man isn’t defined by any details beyond his lust for fire. What a complete misfire.
  • So technically Rat Woman is an iteration of Rat Man from the book, but literally why is this character needed at all? This is an instance where the show lifted something from the book that absolutely did not warrant lifting! There are already too many characters!
  • Why lift Rat Man/Woman but not Whitney—a character whose choices are actually meaningful in the story? Whitney’s stand against Flagg at the end of the book is a significant moment, especially because it goes unheeded rather than inspiring an uprising.
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