The Stand 2020: Episode 5 – Fear and Loathing in New Vegas

“Standing there, looking out, was the shape of a man.”

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

It was a first in this week’s ep of this new adaptation of The Stand – everything happened in the narrative of the present, with none of the previous disjointed flashbacks skipping merrily around the characters’ pasts. Scene-setting presumably done (though I’m betting we get a few more flashbacks before we’re through), the writers went hell for leather on the Epic Supernatural Struggle they’ve obviously prioritised over all other aspects of the novel.

Even in this linear narrative, events still occur in a different order from the novel; though in this case, I actually considered it an improvement. As I’ve mentioned before, we see little of demonic baddie Randall Flagg, and practically nothing of the community he’s building in ‘New Vegas’ until about the last quarter of the novel’s weighty 1200 pages.

Here though, the narrative intertwines between the ongoing doings in Boulder, and the state of affairs as discovered by at least two of the Free Zone’s spies in Nevada’s very own Sin City. That’s a good thing; while I mentioned last week that I liked Stephen King’s detailed exploration of how the new community was being built, I also felt that at this point, for hundreds of pages, the equally important supernatural struggle was rather neglected. I always felt that it was a bit unbalanced, and that the novel sagged in the middle as a result.

So the advancement of these scenes, only just about halfway through the series, is a welcome bit of rebalancing. Or at least it would have been, had the equally important downfall of humanity and its aftermath been shown in any kind of detail. It keeps Flagg front and centre in the viewer’s mind, where the reader could have been forgiven for forgetting he was a problem at this point in the novel.

Flagg’s New Vegas is shown primarily from the viewpoint of Dayna Jurgens (Natalie Martinez), though we did get to see at least some of the travails of one of the other spies – none other than developmentally disabled Tom Cullen. No sign yet of the third spy, though Flagg clearly knows who and where she is – that’s another change from the novel that doesn’t really do any harm, though, keeping the Judge’s story for a later episode.

What Dayna finds in Vegas is very different from the novel though, and to my mind less interesting. In the novel, Vegas under Flagg is a hard-working, industrious society, with plenty of actually quite nice people there, to the extent that Dayna finds herself wondering how they could have become attached to the likes of Flagg. The overall effect, which is chilling, is nicely summed up by King with a parallel to pre-war Nazi Germany:

Germany in 1938, she thought. The Nazis? Oh, they’re charming people. Very athletic. They don’t go in for the nightclubs, the nightclubs are for tourists. What do they do? They make clocks.”

Here though, what we get is about the most stereotypical post-apocalypse dystopia imaginable. Think Escape from New York meets Snowpiercer, with a dash of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome thrown in for good measure. The denizens of Vegas are shown partying hard, having depraved sex anywhere and everywhere, snorting mountains of cocaine, and watching Thunderdome-esque gladiatorial fights to the death between unwilling slaves. It’s exactly the scenario you (and, in the novel, Dayna) might have been expecting, if you’ve read or seen any of the more hackneyed post-apocalypse stories churned out by less imaginative writers.

Now, even as a fan of the novel, I’m not a total purist and don’t mind changes – in some cases, as mentioned earlier, they can actually improve on the source material. But this one doesn’t work for me. It’s clear, in the novel, that these people could represent a real threat to the ‘good guys’ in Boulder – they’re shown working hard and diligently on recommissioning military bases and missile-equipped warplanes. Those who waste their talents on anything less – drug abuse is especially notable – find themselves meeting some very unpleasant ends.

It’s hard to imagine the drunken, partying hedonists depicted here presenting any kind of threat at all. Difficult to stage a bombing raid if you’re hungover or coming down from coke. It’s the same problem I always had with Star Trek’s Klingons – if they’re all duty bound by culture to spend their lives fighting each other for honour, how did any of them find time for such mundane tasks as developing warp drive technology and become a threat to the galaxy?

That aside, there are some interesting enlargements on the events as shown in the novel. There, Dayna ends up, Mata Hari-esque, sleeping with Flagg’s right hand man Lloyd Henreid to gain information. Here, as befits the more hedonistic society we’re shown, she’s an addition to a relationship that already includes Lloyd and vicious hellcat Julie Lawry. It’s a nice acknowledgement of the novel’s statement that Dayna is bisexual, something we never see her act on there.

Unfortunately, Nat Wolff’s portrayal of Lloyd continues to be a gurning, preening idiot, with none of the progression he went through in the novel. There, it was spelled out that his experiences, and Flagg’s influence, had made him a smarter, more thoughtful individual – and Miguel Ferrer’s portrayal in the 1994 adaptation conveys this well. Here, he’s still the same moron he was before being sent to prison. It’s hard to imagine any sensible evil dictator putting this imbecile in a key strategic position.

Still, amidst all this, Alexander Skarsgard’s portrayal of Flagg continues to be a good one. He’s shown eerily, calmly, levitating in his penthouse, before addressing his loyal followers via a giant video screen. One of the more effective moments in the ep is when his giant projected visage suddenly turns and frowns in Dayna’s precise direction, something that clearly only she can see or hear.

It all leads on to another quite impressive recreation of a set piece from the novel – when Dayna, her treachery discovered, goes to meet her destiny in Flagg’s penthouse. This is about the only point in the novel where this incarnation of ultimate evil presents a front of being a reasonable, peaceable man who only wants to build a new society. Here, as there, it was effective (albeit a bit too brief for Flagg’s ‘reasonable front’ to be shown much). Skarsgard is an incredibly charismatic man, and in this short scene manages to seem reasonable, humorous, and ultimately terrifying – exactly as the character should be. It’s not hard to believe that even reasonable people would find him persuasive.

Here too there were changes from the novel – and again, I thought they worked well. There, Dayna, preparing to assassinate Flagg with a concealed springblade in her sleeve, finds herself astounded when it’s unexpectedly transformed into a banana. It’s a blackly humorous moment that also serves to emphasise Flagg’s supernatural powers.

Here, Dayna’s chosen blade, a pair of scissors, isn’t transformed at all – instead, shockingly, the scissors get rammed gorily into Flagg’s neck. I may have complained about the series’ overreliance on its audience’s familiarity with the source material, but this was a clever way to subvert expectations from the novel’s devotees. And it still manages to convey Flagg’s unearthly nature when, after a moment of playing dead, he laughs and sits up again, with an offhand remark about having learned acting from an old lover, legendary Russian actor Konstantin Stanislavski. That too is a neat shorthand to show how long Flagg’s been around – Stanislavski died in 1938.

The manner of Dayna’s ultimate suicide to avoid giving away the identity of Tom as the other spy is different too, and again, probably an improvement. The novel has her throwing herself against the penthouse window in an attempt to jump to her death; the glass is too thick to properly break, and she finds herself in desperation slashing her own throat on a broken shard while stuck in its ruins.

I always thought that a bit implausible. As far as I know, the glass in those top floor windows is so thick that even breaking it a little would be a near impossible task for a person. Far more believable here, as Dayna grabs a handy bottle, smashes it, then slashes her own throat with it even as Flagg laughs at the insignificant nature of the threat to him.

It’s a clever depiction of a well-remembered set piece from the novel. Over in Boulder, where the parallel narrative was unfolding, there were a few more – but I found these rather less successful, for familiar reasons.

The Boulder plot mainly concerned itself with the ongoing story of Harold and Nadine’s impending betrayal, and the other characters’ unease with them even before it happens. Here, though, were more examples of how the sketchy, incomplete flashbacks had undermined the story.

In the novel, Harold’s manic hatred of both Stu and Fran sprang from the night he spied the two of them making love, knowing he’d been rejected. That inspires him to start keeping his mad manifesto of hate; events take a turn for the worse when Fran discovers it, having already found some evidence that Harold had been reading her own journal.

All of that is left out, but the consequent events still happen here. The problem is that, without the established motivations for the characters, there’s no reason for them to happen. We see Fran dragooning Larry to break into Harold’s house and poke around, but what’s her reason? He seems “a bit off”, as Larry puts it – hardly a reason to commit housebreaking against someone who is, ostensibly, a friend.

The housebreaking is delayed a bit by another well-remembered scene from the novel, as Nadine shows up and implores Larry to have sex with her to break Flagg’s spell. All fine and good, and quite nicely written and played – except that here, there’s been no indication Larry has the remotest interest in Nadine that way until now. Jovan Adepo does a good job of playing Larry as conflicted here, but without having previously established that he’d previously wanted Nadine (and she’d rejected him), there’s no reason for him to be conflicted. Especially since the series has dispensed with him having found a more conventional lover who he would be betraying.

A little more debatable, perhaps, is Mother Abagail’s motivation for the crisis of faith we see her praying on towards the end of the ep. Like the original, it comes after a rather off-kilter conversation with Nadine (albeit a different conversation than in the novel), but it’s less than clear why she finds herself unworthy afterwards.

Whoopi Goldberg truly owns the screen in that scene, as she does in her earlier castigation of Nick for sending the spies – very Old Testament prophet. In another change that may be for the better, though, she finds herself confronted by the snarling apparition of a wolf rather than deciding to go wandering in the wilderness for forty days and forty nights. It would efficiently shorten the narrative if the Free Zone didn’t spend weeks looking for her only to discover her near death – I’m guessing we’ll find she’s had a stroke or similar next week, with much the same results. Less convoluted than the original, but perhaps less effective in reinforcing the Biblical prophet parallel.

Owen Teague’s Harold does, at least, have a similar crisis of conscience to the novel, and with the same motivator – Teddy Weizak. There, it’s Weizak’s easy nicknaming of him as “Hawk” that makes Harold realise he’s got a real friend here who he’d be betraying; here, he’s wracked with guilt for Nadine’s actual killing of Weizak. That’s been a far better way of establishing motivation, as we’ve seen their friendship grow since the very first episode.

Little wonder then that Harold, having framed this (rather unbelievably) as a suicide, is becoming well and truly unglued. It’s almost enough to explain Fran’s determination to investigate his house; Teague’s portrayal is increasingly manic and unsettling. Never more so than in the deeply odd dinner party conversation he has here. And I might be imagining it, but has Teague actually got even more skinny as the story’s progressed? I mean, I find skinny attractive, but his shirtless scene here looked bordering on the actual unhealthy.

Generally, I found this fifth episode to be the most satisfying of the series so far – it was done well, and presented in a conventional, linear way, with none of the disjointed skipping about through the past in previous instalments. The only problem, for me, was that this ep would have worked far better if those flashbacks had at least established the motivations of the characters rather than relying on the viewer’s memories of the novel. This is a very well done presentation of this part of the story, and even most of the changes are for the better. The problem is that, however well it’s done, without those earlier establishing of motivations, it’s hard to fathom why the characters are doing what they’re doing.