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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Stand delivers high-stakes plot twists but still favors the game over the players

The Stand
The Stand
Photo: CBS All Access
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“The Walk” is easily the most action-packed episode of The Stand so far, setting several plans in motion, and featuring backstabbing, deaths, long journeys, falls, just about every dramatic development you can come up with for a post-apocalyptic tale. It’s thrilling. Or, at least, I assume it is. Because it’s also the episode that works the least in terms of suspense and surprise if you’ve read the book and know what’s coming (skip ahead to the end of this recap if that’s why you’re here). But all in all, while plot-heavy and still scarce on the character development front, there are real stakes to this episode.

Even though there are still two episodes left of this miniseries, you can feel The Stand lining up all the pieces for a seismic conclusion in “The Walk,” a fast-paced and relentless episode that heaps pressure onto these characters to make difficult choices, many of them fulfilling destinies they never really signed up for and yet feel compelled to honor for one reason or another. Stu, Larry, and Glen seem doubtful about their set of orders from Mother Abagail. On her deathbed, she asks them, along with Ray, to leave for Vegas to stand off with Flagg. She tells them they must walk with just the clothes on their backs.

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It’s an impossible ask, and while Glen, Stu, and Larry all do question it in their own ways, there’s still never really any doubt that they’ll follow through on the absurd mission. As Stu puts it to Frannie, they all dreamed of Mother Abagail and then she was real. Frannie seems less certain, more concerned with Stu’s safety than anything else. Mother A, after all, does warn that one of them will not successfully make the trip to Vegas but that she doesn’t know which one.

The Stand doesn’t linger long on its religious implications, but faith plays a major role in the characters’ motives here. They’ve all experienced something so globally disastrous that it does seem like divine intervention. They’ve all experienced some level of intuition since Captain Tripps hit—whether it’s divine intervention or just human gut instinct is left somewhat up for interpretation. Glen expresses his faith in his typical philosophical ways, saying that his wife once point out that it’s just as foolish to believe something with no evidence as to not believe something when there’s mounds of evidence. Larry wonders how they’ll find water, find food. But even his raised concerns seem inconsequential. He still walks by their sides, as blindly willing to go through with the mission as the rest of them.

The only character who’s unquestioning of Mother A is Ray, and her fierce faith really is the only defining quality of the character, who hasn’t been afforded the same level of backstory and depth as the others in this pack of four. The Stand often leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to its female characters. Frannie has mostly been diminished to the role of expectant mother.

The underwriting of Ray also drives home the show’s overall problem with fleshing out these characters and giving their choices emotional stakes on top of plot ones. “The Walk” excites on the surface, especially thanks to Vincenzo Natali’s direction, which is sweeping, haunting, and lovely all at once. In addition to being the most action-packed episode so far, it’s the most visually cohesive, too. The Stand sometimes feels fractured in its narrative sprawl, like a stitching together of several shows. That often makes it so that it doesn’t seem like the show has really figured itself out yet, plodding through story like a toddler who’s just learned to walk. “The Walk,” though, is a little more sure of itself even amid the show’s ongoing structural and character issues. Adventure and excitement—even on a surface level that doesn’t quite dig deep enough into the people who populate these storylines—is a welcome relief from some of the clumsy, moralizing, muddled episodes that come before this one.

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Mother A sows that initial suspense that someone will not make it to Vegas, and then The Stand makes good on that promise by sending Stu tumbling down the side of a ridge and breaking his leg. It isn’t the fall itself so much as its aftermath that really captivates though. The gang gets Stu’s leg set back in place and fashion a splint for him, but it isn’t as easy as that. Stu points out the obvious: He can’t go on with them. Larry, perhaps the most reluctant hero of the batch, can’t stand this development. Glen’s closest with Stu, but he’s also the most practical of the bunch. He knows Stu’s right, and the two manage to squeeze in some final banter during their goodbye, which is one of the most emotionally weighty moments of the episode, because their friendship has been one of the few areas where The Stand has really developed a specific and layered relationship dynamic.

“The Walk” really is a contemplation of free will. Again, it’s left sort of up to interpretation how much these characters are acting on their own or guided by someone else—whether that’s a higher power or someone else. It makes for an interesting story. Ray, Stu, Larry, and Glen follow Mother A’s orders regardless of whether they really believe she speaks for God. Most of the world died; they don’t really have many options. A march toward almost certain death makes about as much sense as anything, and they’re all willing to try whatever it takes so long as they believe they’re doing what is right.

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Harold, meanwhile, emphasizes once more that he has acted on his own free will. He and Nadine depart Boulder for Vegas after blowing up the vigil. Yes, of course it was Harold’s choice to go through with it. He even was presented with several outs, like when Frannie tried to plead with him not to do it. But Harold has also been manipulated by Nadine, who has been manipulated by Flagg. They’re pawns. This is an especially difficult thing for Harold to realize, because if anyone suffers from main character syndrome, it’s Harold. He has quite literally written a narrative for himself in his journals. He belittles Nadine as they leave Boulder and then is genuinely shocked when she betrays him, running him off the road. Harold thought he’d be rewarded by Flagg, but he’s useless to the dark man, especially since his own ego goes against everything Flagg stands for. Harold wants to be worshipped; Flagg wants to be worshipped. There can only be one, and Harold’s no match for the master manipulator.

Nadine is simultaneously reluctant and determined to get to Flagg, enticed of his protection and terrified of his ownership of her. She willingly goes, but it’s also the result of years and years of conditioning on Flagg’s part. He shrunk her world so that it seemed like he was the only person she had. He made her need him. She starts to have sex with him and then tries to stop, but he ignores her protests, and things turn violent and terrifying. She sees him for the monster he really is, but it’s too late. He sucks everything out of her so that she becomes a floating, quiet, submissive shell. She has served her purpose: She’s pregnant with Flagg’s demon baby, and it’s literally sucking the life out of her. Flagg’s at his scariest here. His behaviors with Nadine have all the markings of an abusive, manipulative, all-consuming relationship.

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New Vegas is still a strange and gaudy contrast to the more grounded and alive horror of Flagg’s control and consumption of Nadine. Bodies hung from posts that line the streets Ray, Larry, and Glen are driven in on after Lloyd and some lackeys snatch them up along their walk do line up with the terror and urgency of Flagg at his most frightening. But mixed in among this effective visual are screens that show Flagg holding a little girl and asserting himself as a father-like ruler. He comes off as a cult leader, spreading propaganda to quell anyone who might question his command. But hasn’t Flagg already shown his hand over and over? This is a place where there are nightly death matches. Who exactly is there to sway with propaganda? The Stand turns Flagg into a weird amalgamation of sci-fi villains, and the inconsistently takes away the character’s potency. Sometimes he’s like President Snow of The Hunger Games; other times he’s the Grandmaster of Thor: Ragnarok; sometimes, as in the scenes with Nadine, he’s Kilgrave of Jessica Jones. That mixture of characterizations doesn’t feel like an intentional attempt to turn Flagg into an ultra-villain so much as just confusing writing. The Stand manages to somehow be both too broad and too black-and-white in its conception of evil.

“The Walk” at least has momentum and urgency going for it. It’s a very plotty episode, and since some of the show’s biggest missteps (New Vegas, until the end) are largely absent, it almost works. But all these plot twists and big story moments also just distract from the fact that the show still hasn’t imbued these characters with enough emotional depth or fleshed out their motives and arcs very well. Frannie says they’re all players in a two-sided game, and that’s true. But sometimes it feels like The Stand thinks the game is more important than the players.

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Stray observations

  • Here’s where I write more explicitly about the book each week, and here’s where I remind you of that each week so that if you have not read the book and do not wish to be spoiled about future plot points you can choose to stop reading now!
  • Okay, so, while I do find this episode of television on its own more successful than some of those that come before it...is it just me or is this ultimately a snoozefest if you’ve read the book? It stays so true to the most major plot points that I really had to force myself to focus because I already knew everything coming. I don’t know what the fix would be here! But it does seem like the show has been attempting to cater to both parties. Maybe spending more time on the reactions to the big plot happenings? Those more character-level moments work better for book readers than the plot twists do themselves.
  • I have to imagine that Nadine double-crossing Harold similarly hits way harder if you don’t know it’s coming. Owen Teague does mostly sell it even for me though because the way he conveys Harold’s pure shock at the situation even though it should have been easy for a sly guy like Harold to see this coming is quite good.
  • I strongly dislike the characterization of Frannie on the show! She has much less bite than the Frannie of the books. Even though Frannie has to stay behind on this mission in the book, she still feels like a much more active presence than she does on the show, resignedly waving them off. In the book, she’s full of much more rage at Mother A’s deranged orders to send them off on a death walk. I would have liked to see some of that rage come through here or just...something. This Frannie is so passive.
  • I also continue to not really understand the point of Trashcan Man here on the show.
  • One change I am completely for is removing the character of The Kid.
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