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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Stand buries its best character moments

The Stand
The Stand
Photo: Robert Falconer/CBS Interactive
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The Stand’s flashback-dependent structure continues to be one of its downfalls. As for “The House Of The Dead,” the central issue mostly amounts to the fact that it’s kind of boring. The stakes just aren’t there, and when they are, they feel too forced and merely plot-driven, leaving character development in the dust.

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As has become tradition for this show, the episode stuffs about as much as it can into one installment and then adds some more. It doesn’t know where to place its focus, diluting the most compelling parts of the story or all out distracting from them. In my mind, there’s one clear and powerful narrative at the heart of “The House Of The Dead,” and yet it doesn’t pack nearly enough of an emotional punch. That one piece of the plot is the committee’s decision to send three of their own to Vegas, to the place where people are crucified, to the place where the dark man presides. This is by far the most potent part of the episode, tapping into all the story’s most important themes about good vs. evil, means and ends, the impossible things they face at the end of the world. But instead of building the flashbacks around the fraught decisions to send Dana Jurgens, Tom Cullen, and Judge Harris into the darkness in the name of the greater good, The Stand barely gives weight to these decisions, the characters seemingly going through the motions and the flashbacks struggling to service either plot or character when really they should be doing work on both fronts. I found myself thinking of Battlestar Galactica while watching this episode, because in that apocalyptic narrative, these kinds of leadership decisions are handled so thoughtfully and thrillingly. But The Stand is still too stuck in its own structure, too reliant on rushed and heavy-handed exposition told through flashback, to really needle into the simple yet meaningful conflict at the crowded heart of this episode.

For Judge Harris, there’s no character development or context at all really. I suppose we’re just left to think she’ll do the right thing because she has retained her judge moniker. And then Dana’s backstory hinges entirely upon other characters. Shortly after Frannie rejects Harold’s advances back when they were still traveling just the two of them, they happen across a suspiciously placed semi-truck that acts as a trap. A man who has seized the apocalypse as an opportunity to enact atrocities and act out his rape fantasies by taking women as prisoners gives Harold the chance to defend Frannie’s honor and save both their lives, goading him into fighting him. Harold can’t, and Frannie is almost raped before Dana and another prisoner as well as Glen and Stu, who have been closely following Frannie and Harold for a while, take action and take out the rapist. Dana finishes him off, letting out a guttural scream that indeed captures the horror of what she’s been through. But that’s just about all we get of her before she rather casually agrees to go through with the Vegas mission even after she has laid out the sheer danger of it all.

The flashback where Frannie and Harold encounter this bad man mostly serves the purpose of cutting Harold down to size...and in a way that doesn’t really seem to engage with the idea that Harold’s reaction to the end of the world isn’t all that different than this man’s—he, too, sees it as an opportunity to get everything he wants. Maybe we’re supposed to just make that connection on our own, but The Stand generally likes to hand-hold through its revelations, and the Harold of this episode is a departure from the incel-adjacent Harold of the pilot, which doesn’t suggest complexity or a crisis of conscience for the character so much as it does just inconsistent writing and a general vagueness about Harold’s motives. In any case, the only other thing the flashback really does is inject some suspense and fear into these mostly suspense-free flashbacks by having Frannie almost assaulted—a cheap and frustrating narrative choice. It doesn’t give us anything about Dana other than that scream and the violence that precedes it. She’s reduced to her trauma, and the characters barely seem to care about asking to send her to Vegas, so why should we?

The only place where the episode does touch on the gravity of what this committee—Larry, Stu, Frannie, Nick, and Glen, who are permanently installed as the leaders of Boulder by a motion from Harold who naturally has his own self-serving reasons to do so—is when it comes to Tom Cullen. Tom and Nick’s hug before Tom takes off is the most tearjerky moment of the series so far. And in this case, the flashbacks between Nick and Tom do serve to solidify the bond that exists between them. They took care of each other even when they couldn’t really communicate. When Julie Lawry—a nasty girl dressed in a tutu and wielding a shotgun—presents Nick and Tom with the first opportunity to talk to each other, the first thing Nick wants Tom to know isn’t the plan for how they’re going to find Mother Abagail. It’s his name.

Some of the issues I had with the portrayal of Tom last episode persist. His intellectual disability often seems played for laughs. Julie torments him in a way that drives home the fact that she’s no good, but The Stand then only skims the surface of the truly awful thing the committee is doing by selecting Tom as one of the sacrificial lambs. Their collective crisis of conscience is brief, and maybe it would all work better if we did know more about Tom outside of his disability, but we only get small doses of that in his friendship with Nick. The most emotionally resonant parts of this episode are rushed, which is confounding because they’re also very relevant to the plot! On the one hand, sure, these characters don’t really have time to sit around and contemplate the moral value of what they’re doing. They have to act. But on the other hand, watching characters go through motions doesn’t make for particularly engaging or convincing television.

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As far as relationship dynamics go in this show, the strongest are the friendships—that of Tom and Nick and that of Stu and Glen. It falters in other places, and to be fair, these characters are thrust together by circumstance not by actually liking each other or seeking each other out, so yeah, relationships naturally feel awkward. But as it nears its halfway point, The Stand is still struggling to give emotional weight and depth to its characters and their choices. It really does feel more like a chess game between good and evil and less like a story with real people.

So back to Harold, who Nadine approaches with an offer in the present timeline: He can do whatever he wants with her sexually so long as they don’t have full-on sex, because she’s saving herself for Flagg. In turn, Nadine needs his help killing the committee and Mother Abagail, which also gives him the gift of ending Stu Redman once and for all. They’re a match made in hell. But Harold appears a little scared of Nadine, his fear laced, of course, with lust. She calls herself Flagg’s queen and then tells Harold what he wants to hear: he can be his prince. Nadine no doubt seems like a masterful manipulator. And in the end, it’s her who shoots Teddy Weizak, Harold’s pal from the body removal crew who has given him the affectionate nickname Hawk. Just like that, the full gravity of what Harold and Nadine are doing comes into focus for Harold, who seems shocked and horrified by the death.

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Not long before, Teddy held a copy of Skyscraper on blu-ray in his hands and asked Harold without a bit of irony whether he thought Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson might have survived Captain Tripps. Honestly, that funny and strange moment is one of the more compelling bits of “The House Of The Dead.” It reminds us just how weird and fucked-up and disorienting the end of the world is. The Rock probably isn’t alive, but Harold keeps the hope alive for his friend, saying it’s possible. Teddy seems to need to clutch onto that little bit of the old world, that hope. It’s silly, but it also feels like a real glimpse into the psychology of being an apocalypse survivor. Teddy’s death is significant, a turning point for both Nadine and Harold who are no longer betraying their community in theory but rather barrelling toward complete and total villainy. It’s a thrilling end to an episode that otherwise struggles to make its conflict and characters pop.


Stray observations

  • You know the drill. I reserve most of the book talk down here, and that means there are book spoilers (there are not TV spoilers, though, because I am watching these one-by-one/at the pace at which they’re released, so I know as much as you do when it comes to the show). Be courteous and label book spoilers in the comments even if you think the idea of spoiling a book that’s many decades old is silly.
  • I personally would have preferred to skip the rape thing altogether. In the context of this adaptation, I don’t think it adds much at all! I do appreciate the fact that the television show at least doesn’t spend as much time with it as the book does. But it also feels more significant in the book than it does here. There are more victims and more rapists in the book version, and it speaks even stronger to the idea that there are very bad people who are using the apocalypse as a way to replicate and exacerbate power dynamics and violence that existed before the superflu. There’s specificity to what the women went through and there’s specificity to the way they grapple with their traumas. Dana ultimately does feel underwritten in the book but not nearly as underwritten as she is in this episode.
  • So Nadine shooting Teddy in front of Harold is certainly a change. In the book, he’s killed by Harold’s explosion, making Harold a little more complicit in the death of his only friend in Boulder. This change is technically more dramatic and makes Nadine a much more violent threat than she is in the book.
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