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Without solid character development, The Stand's explosive ending fizzles

Illustration for article titled Without solid character development, The Stand's explosive ending fizzles
Image: The Stand
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With only a few more episodes until the finale, there’s only so much that The Stand can really do to fix some of its fundamental narrative problems. “The Vigil” is technically a strong episode of the wildly inconsistent series, but the bar’s also pretty low after last week’s mess of an episode. And the problems, frankly, persist. A very major character death happens in the episode, and yet it feels almost like nothing. When not enough character work is done to flesh out these people and their motivations, the big dramatic moments just simply aren’t going to land. The Stand has set itself up for failure by over-relying on flashbacks that do too little to really feel necessary and by over-relying on a built-in audience. It increasingly feels like the gaps in character work are meant to be filled in by familiarity with the book. And yet, even for someone who has read the book like myself, there’s far too much left to be desired by these distilled screen renderings of these characters. Everyone knows that much of the magic of Stephen King’s The Stand comes down to the characters. Without fully realized players, the game just doesn’t work.

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But let’s focus on some of the things that are working in this episode. Namely, the central arc that serves as the primary narrative propulsion for “The Vigil.” The conceit is simple but perfect fodder for action and suspense: There’s a bomb, and it’s probably going to go off. The main players here are Harold and Nadine, two people poised to do something horrific and indelible. Watching them get to that point makes for genuinely compelling television that’s dramatic, frightening, and urgent. Especially when it comes to Harold. Much like with the pilot, Harold’s arc here is immersive and needles under the skin thanks to convincing writing and a killer performance. Harold is all teed up to shoot Stu in the head. It’s what he wants. And yet he can’t pull the trigger. This isn’t a crisis of conscience so much as a moment of fear for Harold. Harold the rejected writer, Harold the master manipulator simply isn’t capable of following through on the act. He’s a coward, and the narrative he has constructed for himself is delusional. Harold thinks of himself as rational and intelligent, but his behaviors are erratic and almost child-like. Here, The Stand reveals the true dangers of reckless self-mythologizing especially as it pertains to a toxic male ego. Harold misses his chance to kill Stu, and even with the bomb plan in motion, it’s a critical moment for the character.

Then, things really start to go wrong for ever-careful Harold. He comes home to find Frannie rifling through his basement, where his brooding and violent manifesto and a bunch of dynamite live. Harold and Frannie’s fraught encounter in this scene works so well in establishing just how dangerous Harold is. There’s a very clear line drawn between Harold just being some guy pining over a woman who doesn’t want him back and his violent plans for destruction. Harold rants about how all his life people rejected him—literal rejections from literary journals and also the unreturned feelings for Frannie. He thought Captain Tripps would be his great journey, his chance to become the fantasy version of himself. But he tells Frannie that all he got was more rejection, more ridicule.

Again, he’s delusional, and Frannie tries to make him see more clearly. Stu didn’t steal Frannie away from Harold. Frannie’s rejection of Harold doesn’t mean that no one cares about him. In Boulder, Harold actually has friends, a community, support, and people who value his skills. But Harold is so blinded by his own misogyny and by the stories he tells himself that he sees things in very reductive terms. It makes for very interesting storytelling, because as with the moment when Harold lowers his gun in the woods instead of shooting Stu, it doesn’t feel like the writers are forcing us to sympathize with Harold or see him as having some sort of crisis of conscience but rather just ushering us into his twisted standpoint. Understanding a character who is about to do something fucked-up is different than sympathizing with them, and The Stand makes such a fantastic villain out of Harold by making him such an overtly unreliable narrator. Harold believes so firmly in the stories he tells himself that he’s willing to go through with something as wicked as setting off a bomb at a vigil. At no point does it seem like Harold is really doing this for Flagg. Harold’s only allegiance is to himself and the fantasy world he has crafted for himself. That makes him even scarier than Flagg’s followers.

It’s worth noting that this scene between Frannie and Harold is a completely new addition and a very effective one at that. Maybe the miniseries should have included even more significant departures from the book instead of stripping existing scenes for parts and presenting material that, while technically faithful to the original work, loses some of its meaning and depth in translation from one form to another. Also, the scene here—in addition to being very well acted—has some fun direction going on. The split shot of Frannie on one side of the door and Harold on the other after he’s locked her in so that she can’t warn anyone about the bomb is excellent. The Stand is often good at evoking really simple but effective horror, and this is one of those moments.

Nadine similarly has an indirect journey from the starting point of planning to set off the bomb to the ending point of detonating it. But here, the writing is a little less effective, particularly because it’s playing into some tired ideas about female villains. Joe whisper-warns Larry that Mommy Nadine is not the same person as Nadine, which is the show’s heavy-handed way of spelling out the fact that Nadine’s only real pull away from the darkside is her role as a mother. Nadine’s arc was more captivating when it was dealing head-on with the psychological grooming that Flagg had done to her, which is touched on in last week’s episode but doesn’t get much play here. Instead, we see Nadine slightly waver from her plan merely because she doesn’t want anything to happen to Joe and, eventually, Larry, who she makes sure doesn’t have a way to get to the vigil. Making maternal instincts Nadine’s redemptive quality doesn’t really give the character agency or complexity. It just seems like yet another replication of gendered tropes. Harold’s character work cuts with a much sharper blade. It yet again feels like The Stand’s writers don’t know how to develop complicated women.

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“The Vigil” is bookended by the introduction of a new character and the death of a familiar one. In the beginning, we meet Trashcan Man, and well, it sure is bold to introduce a whole new character six episodes into a nine-episode miniseries that’s already teeming with too many characters. But The Stand finds a fine fix for that by making this new character more of a concept than an actual person. And yes, I’m being a little snide, but honestly, I’m not sure what we’re supposed to take away from Ezra Miller’s Trashcan Man, a creepy and feral pyromaniac who literally gets off on setting shit on fire. He’s an obvious mark for Flagg, who sees the potential in Trash as a human weapon of mass destruction who can probably get his hands on an actual weapon of mass destruction. Trashcan Man’s allegiance to Flagg is drawn hastily by a bizarre and unnerving but also sort of goofy montage full of flames and fucked visuals. He clearly has a mental illness, but The Stand doesn’t engage with that in a way that lends him humanity or agency. There’s nothing to latch onto by way of backstory, motivation, or emotion for Trash (unless you read the book). Instead, he’s just an agent of chaos joining Flagg’s kingdom of chaos. A kingdom that, yes, still baffles in its dated and reductive depiction of an immoral society.

Trashcan Man makes about as much sense as New Vegas mostly being a never-ending sex party. Seriously, the fact that the only explicit queerness depicted on this show happens in New Vegas, a place where people gleefully cheer on death matches and worship an all-powerful demon hellbent on destroying any good left in the world is beyond frustrating. Using promiscuity, strippers, bondage and leather, and sexual otherness as shorthand for immorality strips The Stand of any reputable discourse about good and evil. New Vegas at least manages to be a little scarier in this episode than in the last. There’s palpable suspense to watching Tom Cullen try to escape (but the show still uses him too often as a punching bag instead of letting him be a dimensional character who isn’t solely defined by disability). And watching Flagg murder someone so violently just because he didn’t follow a direct order reiterates that Flagg doesn’t ultimately condone chaos. People can’t just do whatever they want here. He’s very much in charge. The direction does a great job of situating us in the point of view of the border guard who fucked up as he’s trying to escape Flagg. What he doesn’t understand is that Flagg cannot be escaped.

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So there’s a new character who doesn’t add much to the story outside of a plot point. And then there’s the death of Nick Andros. Here’s an instance where it was difficult for me to sever my knowledge of the book from the viewing experience, because while I did feel something when Nick was blown up, I truly think it has more to do with the Nick I know from the book rather than the Nick shown in this series. The flashbacks have established Nick as a purely good man. Flagg wanted him as his right hand man and Mother Abagail wanted him as hers. He easily chose Mother Abagail and has been almost saintly in his resourcefulness and kindness. But there’s so little done to truly develop his backstory and the character’s interiority. His place in the narrative doesn’t feel as significant as it should given this dramatic death. Instead, this just comes off as a disabled martyr trope. Even though the plot stakes of a bomb set to go off are there in the episode, The Stand still fails to really make things click on a character-level.


Stray observations

  • Weekly reminder that this is where I talk more in-depth about book vs. show analysis, so there might be spoilers! Read at your own risk and try to be mindful about labeling spoilers in the comments for non-readers.
  • So obviously there are a lot of changes made in this episode, but not all of them are worth getting into. I’m curious to know what worked for you and what didn’t.
  • As I said above, I love the addition of this scene between Harold and Frannie. It heightens some of the dramatic tension that exists between them in the book when Frannie’s kind of onto Harold’s plans and Harold’s kind of onto Frannie being onto him. It lets us into Harold’s head but it’s also one of the first big scenes that Frannie has since the pilot. It does feel like the series has shrunk her role significantly.
  • Mother Abagail is gone for like...three days max it seems like? I don’t think it ultimately matters on a story level that this is a shorter period of time than in the book, but every time I’m reminded of how much faster this show moves than the book does, I trip up a little. There’s so much less tension and building of stakes in such a condensed timeline than there is in the book’s sprawling one.
  • One of the worst departures from the book is this characterization of Trashcan Man. In the book, he isn’t feral so much as emotionally stunted. He acts like a kid because he experienced immense trauma as a kid. We hear the line about Ms. Semple’s pension check in the episode, but it’s stripped of context and meaning. In the book, when Trash gets to Vegas, he feels welcomed by a group for the first time. His allegiance to Flagg given those circumstances makes sense. He feels like he’s part of a family. This TV version of Trash is just an over-the-top deranged person. There’s no nuance or empathy in this portrayal of mental illness whatsoever.
  • This version of Vegas still perplexes me! A really fascinating thing in the book is that the people of Vegas and the people of Boulder aren’t that fundamentally different from each other. In TV’s version of Vegas, people relish in literal death matches. A weird choice that misses the point!
  • Sometimes I over-worry that I sound too negative in these Strays and like the type of person who would never be satisfied by a screen adaptation of The Stand, but it isn’t true! Many of my favorite TV shows are based on books. I want this show to be better than it is, and I do think it’s possible to make an effective adaptation of it, but I’m just continually let down by this attempt!
  • Harold referring to Mother Abagail as a magical Black woman does not make me think that the writers of this miniseries have given any critical thought to the racist tropes the book replicates and instead have just sort of skirted around it thoughtlessly.
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