The Stand 2020: Episode 3 – Blank Pages

“… finally Nick understood.

               ‘You are this blank page’.”

(SPOILER WARNING – FOR THE BOOK AND BOTH VERSIONS ON TV!)

This new version of The Stand is now onto its third ep, and has finally started filling in some of the gaps in its non-linear narrative, as we start seeing some of the bits we missed while it concentrated on five main characters in its scattershot first two instalments. That’s a welcome change of pace, but there’s still plenty of gaps to fill in for an audience that might not have been familiar with the source material.

Showrunner Josh Boone hasn’t entirely abandoned his “focus on a couple of characters per episode” approach, though the backstory here meant we had fewer characters introduced than previously. Principally, this ep introduced us to the crucial character of Nick Andros, probably the most smart and moral character in the story. Along with Nick, we naturally get introduced to his post-flu travelling companion, the puppylike Tom Cullen.

Nick was definitely the good-looking one in the 1994 adaptation – after all, he was played by the floppy-haired Rob Lowe at the height of his 90s comeback period. Here, we get similarly gorgeous Brazilian actor Henry Zaga in the part; and in case we missed the point that this is one of the goodest of the good guys, he’s practically made to look like Jesus, with his goatee, long hair, and soulful brown eyes. Well, up until the point where he loses one of them in a bar fight, completely to his surprise.

Because it’s crucial to Nick’s character that he’s deaf and unable to speak. I hate to step into the culture wars / identity politics firepit that engulfs casting these days, but I gather there’s been something of an uproar from certain quarters that the character wasn’t cast with an actual deaf actor. It’s a point I can certainly understand, but derailed by the similarly plot-crucial requirement that the character (in dream sequences) be able to hear and speak normally, something a deaf actor would be unlikely to manage.

Zaga, to give him credit, has clearly taken the trouble of learning American Sign Language, something Rob Lowe never bothered with, and something the character wasn’t shown to know in the novel. Also, more attention has been paid to shooting scenes where he might have trouble ‘hearing’ the other characters. There’s a rather cringe-inducing scene in the 1994 adaptation where Mother Abagail is giving him a heartfelt speech, and at one point he turns to look reflectively into the distance. Fine, until you realise that the fact he can no longer see her lips to read them means he’s effectively just started to ignore her while she’s still pouring her heart out to him. I don’t think that was intentional, but it was certainly thoughtless and lacking in attention.

Here, though, in a group discussion scene, I noticed that this version of Fran is also fluent in ASL, and when Nick couldn’t see the faces of speakers, she was visibly translating for him. That was a nice bit of attention to detail, and I think it shows that, at least by some measure, Josh Boone is trying to do a better job of portraying a deaf character than the 1994 version managed.

I don’t know whether there have been similar qualms about the casting of Brad William Henke as Tom Cullen. Tom is, as he puts it here in a charming and obviously rehearsed speech, “developmentally disabled”; as the novel puts it, he has the mental age of a small child. He also can’t read (and obviously doesn’t know sign language), making him and Nick the ultimate in odd couple travelling companions.

Tom’s a difficult role to play without slipping into parody, with his constant exclamations of “laws yes!”, and habit of spelling out every interesting word as M-O-O-N. But based on his fairly brief appearance here, I think Henke has done a fair job, as did Bill Fagerbakke in 1994 (though that’s harder to take seriously in retrospect, since Fagerbakke uses the same voice as Patrick Star in Spongebob Squarepants).

Nick and Tom’s post-plague plotline was massively truncated here. The ep dispensed with the whole plotline of Nick being beaten up on the road, getting stuck in Shoyo, Arkansas, and deputised by the dying sheriff to look after his jailed and flu-ridden assailants, later meeting Tom in Oklahoma as he treks across the deserted country.

Here, that whole arc was neatly compressed into a couple of scenes. Nick is beaten near to death in a bar fight, losing one eye in the process; then awakens 28 Days Later-style in the hospital to find the pandemic pretty much over. He meets his assailant in another hospital room, obviously in the terminal stages of Captain Trips, and tries to care for him before he dies, at which point Tom wanders in and introduces himself endearingly.

I may be a bit of a purist about the book, but I don’t think the story suffers particularly from losing that plotline. In fact, I thought this shorter version was an excellent example of how to compress an inessential arc into something far briefer. It does, I’ll acknowledge, lose some of the colour and depth given to the characters; and it also reduces the epic scope of all the characters’ lonely journeys across the deserted USA in the wake of the plague. But the random, non-linear snapshots of their wanderings have already done that for me, and if I had to lose a plotline from the novel, at least it wasn’t one of the more vital ones.

Those snapshots took up roughly the half of the episode not dominated by Nick’s storyline. Larry was shown meeting Nadine and Joe, but again in no more than brief glimpses; though it did at least show the backstory of Larry’s following Harold’s notes across the country. In a slight rearrangement of events from the novel, Stu meets Harold and Fran before he meets Glen Bateman and his dog Kojak; again, not a problem apart from the fact that they choose to go it alone, meaning the whole introduction will presumably have to be repeated at some point.

Greg Kinnear is an interesting choice to play Glen Bateman, a character described as pretty old (and suffering from arthritis) in the novel, and faithfully played by old stager Ray Walston in the 1994 version. This Glen is younger and more vital – and also a better painter than in previous versions. His paintings turn out to be key to the characters’ realisation that they’re sharing the same dreams, as Stu recognises the watercolour of Mother Abagail that Glen painted based on his own nocturnal ramblings.

It looks like her plotline may also have been compressed for this version, based on Stu and Greg’s conversation – her town of Hemingford Home is described as “just outside Boulder”, rather than in Nebraska as in the novel. Again, no problem with that; it further reduces the scope of the characters criss-crossing the country, but is a more economical way to tell the story. The only slight problem with it is that, as far as I know, mountainous Colorado isn’t exactly full of those corn fields seen in the characters’ dreams, and so strongly identified with the character.

We got our closest look yet at Mother Abagail this week, in the present day plotline. This was an interesting addition, as a near-dead crucifixion victim turned up on the outskirts of Boulder in a bloodstained Ferrari, to deliver a chilling message from the evil Flagg, now ensconced in modern day Gomorrah, Las Vegas.

It’s interesting because, in the novel (and the 1994 adaptation), the characters never actually meet Flagg until near the very end – and then only three of them. As Nick points out, they have no proof of his existence outside their dreams. Mother Abagail, in essence, tells them to take it on faith – just as they did when travelling across the country to find her.

Faith is very much one of the themes of the novel, so I’m not sure how to take it that the writers felt the need to concretely establish Flagg’s existence for the heroes. It also torpedoes the rationalist Glen’s doubt as to the supernatural nature of events; nobody could be in doubt about that after seeing the dying man’s eyes turn black and a chilling distorted voice of evil issuing from his twisted mouth.

Again, though, it will probably shorten the lengthy story, which may be a good thing. This plotline also economically establishes the structure of the Boulder Free Zone, as the characters debate their anointment as leaders in administrative matters, while Nick acts as the voice for Mother Abagail in matters otherworldly.

Whoopi Goldberg seems, again on fairly brief acquaintance, to be doing a good job as the elderly Prophet of God (though she still hasn’t been properly introduced or established as such, due to the non-linear nature of the story). She’s got the required stern, commanding presence, though despite the white dye on her locks, I don’t think she entirely convinces as someone more than a hundred years old.

Her opposite number made a couple of in-person appearances too – well, in-dream appearances anyway. The ep opened with a rather anaemic version of a terrifying flashback from the novel, when the young Nadine unknowingly makes contact with him via a Ouija board; that’s returned to later, as in the present day she makes the same contact intentionally. Again, I’m sceptical of the scattershot approach to the plot here. We’ve only just met Nadine, and suddenly she’s working with the bad guy and carrying one of his sigils. There’s no sign of the novel’s heartbreaking struggle against her apparent destiny, and the role Larry Underwood plays in it. It’s one place among many where a bit of proper character establishment would have helped.

Rather more effective was Flagg’s appearance in Nick’s coma-stricken dream, in which the baddie turned up to tempt heroic young Nick to his side with the gift of hearing and speech. It’s a crucial scene in the novel, which King presents almost as the Devil’s temptation of Christ in the desert, and I was glad to see it retained here. Henry Zaga’s deliberate Jesus-like appearance may have made the subtext a little painfully obvious, but he and Alexander Skarsgard carried the scene superbly, with the innovation of a prop pack of cards to underline the points.

It even enlarges on the novel version in an interesting way, as Flagg tells Nick he wants him to be his “right hand man”, the same entreaty he makes to Lloyd Henreid before releasing him from prison. The implication here is that Nick was his first choice, and he went for the poor substitute when Nick rebuffed him. It’s an addition to the source material that’s clever and subtle, and I think it worked well.

Overall this was the most satisfying episode of the series so far – though in my opinion that’s a fairly low bar. We’re at last beginning to fill in some of the gaps in the all-over-the-place narrative, and at least some of the characters are starting to feel properly established now. But we’re nearly a third of the way through the run, and there’s still masses of things from the earlier parts of the story that are obscure at best and unfathomable at worst, making the present timeline rather impenetrable. I’ll be interested to sum up at the conclusion how much of the story ultimately gets left out, because this scattershot, non-linear approach is making it less than clear. Given that what we have seen is pretty well-produced and acted, it would be an interesting exercise when the series is over to try re-editing it into a linear narrative – if enough material makes it in there for that to make sense.