Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Stand’s New Vegas is where nuance goes to die

Alexander Skarsgård stars in The Stand
Alexander Skarsgård stars in The Stand
Photo: CBS All Access
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Up until this point, Randall Flagg has mostly lurked on the periphery of The Stand’s story. We see his bootheel hold open the door that ushers in the apocalypse in the pilot. We see him tease Lloyd like a cat with a mouse in the second episode, promising to make him his right hand man. We know that nightmares of this dark man plague some of the residents of Boulder, mixed in with their dreams of Mother Abagail. And in “Fear and Loathing in New Vegas,” we visit the kingdom he has been building, a markedly different society than that of Boulder where Captain Tripps survivors attempt to scrap together some semblance of their former lives. Here in Flagg’s kingdom, chaos rules. It’s an endless bacchanal.

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“Welcome to heaveeeeeeeeen,” Lloyd flamboyantly falsettos as he shows Dayna, one of Boulder’s spies, what most certainly looks like the opposite. This is Flagg’s great creation. A lawless place driven by fantasies and violence. Here, The Stand flattens its story of good versus evil into something so unimaginative, struggling to derive any kind of meaning or emotional depth from an episode whose tonal dissonance only highlights the show’s strange identity crisis. The world of Flagg is one where nuance and depth go to die.

The scenes set in Vegas feel wildly out of place on a show that has thus far not really leaned into camp territory. Now, all of a sudden, it has decided to go as over-the-top as possible. Lloyd dresses in gaudy costumes and is more like a king’s jester. Julie flitters around on his arm, toying with him and doing whatever the hell she wants, because that’s pretty much the name of the game in Vegas. People do what they want. As Dayna, Lloyd, and Julie descend a glass elevator after their failed threesome (Julie purposefully brings up Flagg to kill Lloyd’s mood), another elevator rises holding a naked couple having sex. To say it’s heavy-handed is a supreme understatement. The Stand bashes you over the head with the message that here in Vegas, it’s one neverending fuck and kill fest.

Because where are Dayna, Lloyd, and Julie heading? Well to the death matches of course. The residents of Vegas bid on and cheer for caged matches of slaves chopping each other up, presumably a nightly activity here. Flagg delivers his philosophy to the masses on a screen looming over the death match: “The world that was, they told you it was wrong to love violence; they told you it was wrong to love sex; they told you it was wrong to want more. Well I say, their time is at an end. Our time has begun.”

Dayna looks on with horror, and no doubt her new surroundings are very fucked-up. There’s only so long she can blend in, especially since Flagg turns to her during his speech like he already knows who she is. But there’s nothing truly frightening about Vegas. It’s too over-the-top, too silly, too simple an interpretation of evil that it doesn’t sink into your skin so much as just use cheap shock value for a quick hit of discomfort. The underdevelopment of Dayna as a character that I remarked on last week persists as a problem in this episode. Dayna serves mostly as a vessel for us to see Vegas. When she kills herself at the end of the episode in order to avoid telling Flagg who the other spy is, it should feel like a much bigger moment. But Dayna was just a plot device. Now over halfway done, The Stand still fails over and over again to establish emotional stakes, to let us really know the people who occupy its increasingly cartoonish world.

I want to return to the misfires—plural!—of these Vegas scenes, but first, let’s check on Boulder, where Harold and Nadine work quickly to cover up the murder of Teddy, and Frannie enlists the help of Larry to break into Harold’s house because she has a fishy feeling about him. The Harold we meet in the pilot returns in this episode, a sniveling and manipulative rat who thinks so highly of himself and holds a violent grudge against Stu and Frannie simply because Frannie did not want to be with him. Owen Teague gives another great and unnerving performance, pitching his voice higher and plastering a fake wide smile on his face when Harold’s in his Nice Guy mode.

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Frannie has Harold over for dinner as a distraction, and there’s genuine suspense to the simple subplot of Frannie and Larry trying to get something on Harold without getting caught. But the far more disturbing element of this dinner party is the way Harold sows unease. It all seems like a somewhat normal dinner party, a slice of life before the superflu. Harold brings a bottle of wine; we see Stu laughing at Harold’s stories; a fire crackles; the house looks quaint and cozy...until you remember the morbid fact that all these things don’t actually belong to Frannie and Stu but rather the dead people who used to live here. Harold tells a nostalgic story about going out for ice cream with Frannie and his dead sister Amy. Frannie recalls it fondly. Only, it’s a trick. Harold reveals that it never happened, that Amy and Frannie never included him, that his family never cared about him. It’s frightening to watch how masterfully Harold manipulates the mood. He’s dangerous in a way not even Frannie, who’s already suspicious, can really see. He feels entitled to her.

It’s not entirely unlike the way Flagg feels ownership over Nadine, although that has an even more disturbing edge to it. Nadine’s storyline continues to be a psychosexual horror story, and while her scenes in this episode are crowded out by the dinner party and the gratingly indulgent Vegas scenes, here’s where some of the most effective horror lives in the episode. Flagg visits Nadine in the dreamscape he sometimes occupies, and he reminds her of the hold he has on her. He talks of marking her as a child, small and alone, no family, no friends. It’s clear he targeted her specifically for these reasons, grooming her into believing he is the only one who has been there for her. “You belong to me. Only me,” Flagg says. Here, Flagg terrifies in a way that he simply does not in the Vegas scenes, where he seems more like Jeff Goldblum’s hedonistic Grandmaster in Thor: Ragnorak, which I don’t think is due to inconsistent acting on Alexander Skarsgård’s part so much as it is muddled writing.

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When it comes to Nadine, Flagg’s intent is very clear. He wishes to own her, to have a queen by his side, an extreme but realistic rendering of patriarchal violence. Harold harnesses the same kind of evil. He saved Frannie’s life, so he feels he is owed her. He feels Stu has stolen her. And it’s all enough to make him go along with Nadine’s plan to kill them all. Nadine even attempts to break free of Flagg’s grasp on her by going to Larry and begging him to fuck her, but Larry’s understandably shaken by her sudden forwardness. Nadine finds herself alone again, something Flagg has ensured by isolating her from others. Her only choice would be to come clean to Larry, but again, Flagg has made it so that she can’t really do that without significant risk. Would anyone really believe her if she said she was promised as a child to who is, essentially, the devil? And even if they did, could anyone really do anything about it? Harold and Flagg’s belief that these women are theirs is the real violence beneath the embellished surface of this episode. And it unnerves much more than the death matches do.

When it comes to Flagg’s society in Vegas, it’s way less clear what he wants. His evil masterplan is...a bunch of people who fuck and party every day. It’s more cornball than it is compelling. It makes Flagg way less scary. The close association of sexual liberation and extreme violence in Flagg’s world also frustrates. The crowds of people in Vegas wear leather and harnesses and little clothing, and it makes the scenes look like a sex party or leather bar. We get the only real taste of queerness on the show here. Sure, Julie’s only making out with Dayna to turn on Lloyd, and Dayna’s only kissing back to keep up her ruse (more on this in the Strays, below), but in the background of these scenes, people of all genders are making out with each other. It looks like a queer sex party. Then we cut to the nice, tame, straight, normative dinner at Stu and Frannie’s home. It’s reductive at best. Perhaps inadvertently, The Stand moralizes in a way that feels dated and lazy. Sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll are quite literally the backbone of Flagg’s Vegas. It’s silly, but it’s also worse than that. The close proximity of violence/oppression and pleasure/fantasy feels practically Puritanical.

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What story is The Stand even really telling here? It seems to believe there are two kinds of people: those who are good, who follow the rules even after the rules collapse in the wake of an apocalypse, and those who like to watch people fight to the death in the middle of a sex party. The characters—and performances for that matter—in Vegas seem like they belong to a different show entirely. But that all circles back to the central issue of The Stand as a miniseries: Themes, characters, and motives must be distilled and simplified for the sake of time. In the case of “Fear And Loathing In New Vegas,” that means caricaturizing the narrative.


Stray observations

  • Reminder: Here’s where I talk about the book stuff, so there are spoilers for the book. Read at your own risk and please give spoiler warnings in the comments as well for the non-book-readers.
  • It was extremely hard for me to not be constantly thinking about the book while watching this episode, because this rendering of Vegas is especially infuriating in the ways it departs from the book’s Vegas. In the book, Vegas is orderly. Flagg and his people are scary because they are working so diligently to offensively arm themselves, starting up a pilot training program while the good people of Boulder still struggle to get the lights back on. The Vegas of the book is a well oiled fascist machine, not some hedonistic playland. This Hollywood-ified interpretation is laughably ineffective?
  • DAYNA JURGENS IS BISEXUAL IN THE BOOK!!!!! This is not the place, but I could absolutely write 1000+ more words on how specifically frustrating it is that the miniseries decided to just throw that detail out. The only kiss between two women who are named characters that has happened on this show so far is for the pleasure of a man when one of those characters is literally canonically queer. Dayna’s arc is too swift and her backstory too underbaked on the show for us to even know if she’s queer or not, regardless of that kiss with Julie, which really does seem like her just trying to blend in.
  • I’m not an adaptation purist; I believe adaptations can and should make changes. But I’m continually perplexed at the things the miniseries has changed and the things it has kept. I try each week to write these recaps as if the miniseries is its own entity, reserving my book comparisons for the Strays, but I still think, as I wrote in my review of the pilot, that The Stand is failing on both fronts. It doesn’t stand well on its own, and it butchers so much of the book to the point where it’s more frustrating than fun for a longtime fan. That’s especially true of this episode.
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