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Poorly executed flashbacks plague The Stand

Illustration for article titled Poorly executed flashbacks plague iThe Stand/i
Image: The Stand
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Three episodes in, it’s becoming too hard to ignore the failures in The Stand’s structure. It does make sense that the miniseries would choose a flashback format versus following these characters in real-time. Considering the breadth of the source material, the latter option would yield a multi-season epic versus a more tightly told narrative. But when it comes to a show that relies on flashbacks for the narrative—like Lost or Orange Is The New Black—those flashbacks work best when they service both character development and plot. The Stand is a little wobbly when it comes to both, but its structure especially hinders the plot by removing all sense of suspense and mystery.

Take, for example, Stu and Glen Bateman’s plotline. It’s the first time we meet Glen—played by Greg Kinnear—and he’s the perfect kind of comedic relief character in this sprawling drama. He’s a vaping professor who has all sorts of grand notions about the psychology and sociology of an apocalypse. But that kind of expertise doesn’t have a lot of practical applications in the event of an actual apocalypse. He’s almost like The Good Place’s Chidi Anagonye in that way. So yes, it’s fun to watch him shoot the shit with Stu. James Marsden and Kinnear have easy chemistry. When The Stand takes a pause to really sit inside a scene, the story comes to life. Here are two men who have lost everything. They bond over shared loss that happened to both of them before the plague even happened. They’re an unlikely pair, and they don’t really know what they’re doing, so they drink and chat and speculate about what all of this chaos really means. It’s a deeply human moment. But it’s also wedged into a dizzyingly overstuffed episode that almost feels like a pilot in its laborious exposition. And what does it all lead to? The realization that they’re having the same dreams, that they know things that they can’t possibly know, that they’re being pushed by some sort of cosmic force.

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That would all be a lot more intriguing if we as viewers didn’t already know where it leads. We already know Mother Abagail. We know that the core group of characters make it to her. We’re not unspooling these mysteries alongside the characters. They’re already answered, and that sucks any of the urgency out of their revelations. And I’m not just saying that as someone who has read the book. The answers are all there already in the present timeline. It also means that there’s no real sense of suspense to these flashbacks. We know that they make it to Boulder safely.

There are so many subplots at play: Nadine’s forced betrothal to the devil; Stu and Glen’s friendship; Harold’s possessiveness over Frannie; Nick Andros’ barroom attack and subsequent rejection of Flagg’s offer. There are smaller ones, too, like Larry linking up with Nadine in the wake of Rita killing herself and getting Joe to open up via guitar. We bounce between all these storylines with little by way of coherent connective tissue other than the fact that these are all people who end up main players in Boulder. The episode feels thematically fractured. It’s not all bad, and I promise I’ll get to the good stuff, but the bad really reeks. Before it even aired, The Stand came under fire for casting two non-disabled actors as disabled characters, and that misstep is on full display here. Nick is deaf and mute (and played by hearing actor Henry Zaga) but in his utopian dreams about Mother Abagail, he can speak, which alongside Flagg’s offer to “fix” him plays into the old tropes about disability that are featured in the book. Meanwhile, Nick meets Tom Cullen, played by Brad William Henke, whose developmental disability is played for laughs in the episode. And that’s about all we get from Tom for now.

Sure, the flashbacks are intended to introduce us to who these characters were before the pandemic, and that’s indeed important to the story. We have to understand their motives. We have to have some level of investment in these characters in this grand battle of good versus evil. Seeing Nick reject Flagg outright and nurse his attacker tells us a lot about him.

But the flashbacks do these introductions so hastily that they don’t end up truly pulling off that simple objective. And those slapdash character backstories combined with the lack of intrigue since we already know their short-term fates makes for a truly unsatisfying viewing experience, even when there are flickers that allure in there.

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So let’s talk about those flickers a bit then. There are some good pieces of the mostly messy puzzle in “Blank Pages.” Namely, the episode dabbles in several subgenres of horror quite deftly. Some of the most compelling scenes involve Nadine, because there’s a genuine sense of enigma, strangeness, and horror to her dynamic with Flagg. It seems like he chose her from a very young age, highlighted by young Nadine’s seance gone wrong, which is one of the most disturbing parts of the episode particularly because of her age. In the present, Nadine and Flagg go full psychosexual horror, Nadine able to communicate with him and clearly craving his attention and touch. It’s weird in a way that most of the show isn’t, which isn’t a bad thing at all. This is all a heightened rendering of Nadine in the book, and it’s still a little early to determine whether her arc is going to be effective or not, but her scenes are some of the most engaging parts of the episode precisely because they’re a little vague and mysterious, her intensity, secrets, and motives drawing curiosity whereas too much of the rest of the episode spells things out a little too plainly.

There is also a classic possession sequence in which a man who came to Boulder from Vegas—Flagg’s territory—delivers a message punctuated by full-body convulsions and birds beating themselves bloody against a nearby window. It’s not exactly reinventing the horror wheel, but it’s effective on a stylistic level. On a narrative and structure level though, it falls apart, and that’s really what ultimately plagues this episode! Because sure, his message that Flagg is coming for the good people of Boulder is urgent...but it was also said not long before that by this Vegas defector in one of the first scenes of the episode. Nothing new is really offered up here. It’s just a frightening sequence for the sake of a frightening sequence. Again, where’s the connective tissue? The Stand thrills in bursts, but there’s still so much missing. And yet, there are also too many answers provided to sustain suspense. It’s trapped by its own devices.

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Stray observations

  • Time to talk about the book more explicitly! Here’s your weekly reminder that spoilers live in this section. Also please label spoilers in the comments! Here we go!
  • Okay so there are too many changes to the source material to even list them all, but I’m most interested in the fact that Nadine’s first encounter with Flagg is moved to childhood versus that planchette thing happening in college as it does in the book. There are some hints that Nadine is a more complex and sympathetic character in the show than she is in the book, and I’m intrigued and hope to see more.
  • Is it just me or does it feel like Frannie has been completely demoted in this adaptation? Of course the tension between Stu and Harold over her is a significant part in the book, but it’s kind of all we get from the flashbacks that feature her in this episode.
  • I meant to mention this last week, but one big logistical change that the television show makes is that it seems awfully easy for people to drive!!!! In the book, folks have to come up with more creative ways to travel long-distance because there were so many car pileups on major roads as a result of people dying so quickly in their cars. I understand why the television show would skirt around this logistical issue, especially since it’s operating on such a rapid timeline. But at the same time, it’s sort of a microcosmic example of the show’s often frustrating stripping of the book for parts. These folks are almost having too easy of a time navigating the end of the world.
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