The Stand 2020: Episode 6 – Vigil

“Hey Trash! What did ole lady Semple say when you torched her pension check?”

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

So here we are, nearly two thirds of the way through this new adaptation of The Stand, and we’re only now meeting the last of the story’s major characters. Everyone’s favourite pyromaniac the Trashcan Man (formerly known as Donald Merwin Elbert) finally put in an appearance this week – and not before time.

Trash’s story in the novel is lengthy and epic, as he wends his way shakily across the country to Vegas, torching anything flammable as he goes. The full, unedited version released in 1990 also shows us his travails at the hands of someone even nuttier than he is, miniature pompadoured hellhound and Coors aficionado The Kid. His final transition into utter insanity comes as he treks through the scorching Nevada desert, finally arriving in Vegas more burn scar than man.

Given the story structure of earlier episodes, I’d expected to see at least some of his journey in the form of flashbacks. But I should have realised by now that the showrunners just aren’t interested in anything that happens in that timeframe of the story, which I still think is a damn shame.

To be fair, the 1994 adaptation also skipped over much of Trashy’s journey, and presented much the same truncated version as here. In both versions, we meet him exulting in the destruction of a small town oil refinery, then barely see him until he stumbles into Vegas. Though the 1994 adaptation gets that out of the way less than halfway through, giving the character more story time to get settled in the Dark Man’s sinner’s paradise.

Trashy is perhaps a problematic character from a modern perspective – another “developmentally disabled” man like Tom Cullen, but with the added element of his obsession with fire. Writing in 1978, King may have been a little sketchy with his grasp of this kind of mental health issue, but his backstory for the character gave it a depth and believability that, again, is missing in both TV versions.

Back in ’94, Trashy was played by that reliable incarnator of weirdoes and nutters, Matt Frewer. Casting Frewer is a neat shorthand for the kind of character to expect, and the man doesn’t disappoint – all manic, lanky energy, his utterances oddly punctuated by cries and whoops.

Here, we get the more versatile (and usually very interesting) Ezra Miller in the part, and this is a very different Trashcan Man to the one you might expect. He’s already nuttier than Frewer ever got when we first meet him, clad only in underpants and haphazardly donned skateboard pads, and barely capable of anything even approaching human speech. He is, not to put too fine a point on it, almost completely feral, more animal than man. When he blows up the oil tanks by way of introduction, he’s clearly shown to be masturbating.

I like Ezra Miller, an actor who likes to play a range of unusual parts, usually with some sensitivity and subtlety. Those qualities are right out of the window here; Miller hams it up massively, which, to be fair, is what the character requires. Especially the way he’s written here.

This performance is entirely made of weird tics and animal noises, like the worst case of Tourette’s you could imagine. No wonder even this adaptation’s idiot version of Lloyd Henreid finds him more than a little unsettling, even going so far as to question His Master’s judgment in picking this barely human freak as one of his top lieutenants.

Of course questioning Randall Flagg is not the wisest of choices, but fortunately the Walkin’ Dude is more concerned with getting to know his latest acolyte. The scene of their first meeting is given considerably more detail than in either the novel or the ’94 adaptation, and as ever, Alexander Skarsgard commands the screen as Flagg.

The novel’s version of Trashy was definitely weird, but still able to function around other people – how else would his expertise as a weapons consultant have commanded so much respect? It’s hard to imagine Miller’s gibbering loon being able to string a sentence together, much less ask detailed questions of his colleagues striving to arm the warplanes being prepped to attack Boulder.

So in another interesting change from the novel, the story here cuts right past that to the chase – Flagg actually specifically asks Trashy to head out into the desert and retrieve one of those handy nuclear warheads still lying unattended in the desert’s many military bases. Skarsgard’s eulogising of “the biggest fire ever set by man” is darkly seductive, but this is a development that might well change the story’s ending, where Trashy finds and brings back the nuke of his own volition.

It also means the story will probably skip over more of Trashy’s narrative – specifically the part, where, unable to help himself, he starts blowing up the Dark Man’s military toys. Since his retrieval of a nuclear warhead was to try and atone for this surrender to fiery temptation, it seems unlikely we’ll be seeing that, since he’s looking for the nuke from the very start.

That also rather undercuts the implication, spelled out in the novel by its more intelligent version of Lloyd, that the Dark Man is starting to lose his unholy control of events. The other key indicator of that was his failure to deal with the Free Zone spies as he wanted – unable to find Tom Cullen, unable to get information from Dayna Jurgens, and unable to send the Free Zone the Judge’s unmarked head as a grisly warning.

That last spy and her demise featured here, with a couple of changes. The first, which made perfect sense to me, was that Flagg didn’t want the Judge dead at all – he needed her alive to find out the identity of the final spy. It was a change that made perfect sense, given this version’s reordering of the novel’s events (there, the Judge is killed before Dayna, making the latter Flagg’s only available source of information).

Disappointingly though, we never see the Judge’s demise at all here. Instead, we briefly glimpse her looking uneasy in a motel room, then the next time we see her, she’s lying dead on a table in Flagg’s penthouse. The reason for this unfortunate turn of events becomes clear as Flagg interrogates the hapless culprit Bobby Terry (WestWorld’s excellent Clifton Collins Jr, wasted here in a bit part). But it’s also a massive waste of the talented Gabrielle Rose, who barely appears; and more importantly it robs the Judge’s death of any emotional impact. The character in the novel had been well-developed before even setting off for Vegas, making his death an emotional gutpunch; this one we’ve barely met, and she’s already dead. It’s hard to care much about a character with so little screentime.

Still, it continues to be a wise decision to show the doings in Vegas intertwined with those in Boulder, rather than leaving them to the very end of the story, as in the novel. In another little nod to the author, the carpet glimpsed a couple of times in Flagg’s “Inferno Hotel” is clearly the one from the Overlook Hotel in Kubrick’s version of The Shining (a film King actually disliked greatly).

Tom Cullen pops up this week too, making a nifty, just-in-time getaway from Vegas just at the point where Flagg starts to figure out who he is. That’s another interesting change from the novel, as his identity is (unintentionally) given away by the Rat Woman (the ever-marvellous Fiona Dourif) musing on his tendency to keep spelling out M-O-O-N. It’s great to see Dourif in anything, but it did beg the question – if Julie Lawry isn’t going to give away Tom as in the novel, why make her character so much more prominent here? I don’t really have a problem with the change, but having built Julie up like that, I’d sort of expected the same payoff.

Over in the Free Zone, my prediction last week of Mother Abagail’s plotline being truncated actually turned out to be way off the mark. Just as in the novel, she does indeed go a-wandering in the Wilderness, and has a direct (albeit supernatural) confrontation with Flagg as a result. It’s a powerful scene that I always felt the novel was missing. Mother A dies while Flagg is (corporeally anyway) still in Vegas, and apart from a few brief visions, the two never actually confront each other.

That’s remedied in a big way here, and it’s fair to say that the scene is pretty enthralling. While it’s obviously meant to recall Jesus’ temptation by Satan from the Bible, what it reminded me of most was the final, epic confrontation between Darth Vader and Obi Wan Kenobi in A New Hope. That’s not me trivialising it, from me that’s the highest of praise.

And it helps with another of the changes that I thought were a good idea – the Free Zone community are holding a vigil for their lost leader, and it’s this that Harold Lauder decides to blow up, rather than a council meeting of just about seven people. It’s definitely a change for the better, massively upping the stakes – after all, virtually the whole population are going to be there.

I must admit that, dramatic as it is, I was really starting to tire of the seemingly endless plot of Nadine and Harold’s betrayal, which has been grinding slowly on for nearly three episodes now.  As one of the story’s more dramatic twists, it certainly deserves being given some depth, but this much, at the expense of other potentially dramatic plotlines? It actually felt like something of a relief that the bomb finally goes off this week.

Before it does though, we get another couple of changes for the better. The most notable is the scene where Fran actually confronts Harold, having been caught red-handed poking about in his basement. It’s a good resolution for the characters, which they never get in the novel; and Owen Teague in particular plays it very well, making Harold’s motives both sympathetic and horrifying. It also fills in some of the backstory we didn’t get to see regarding their little love triangle with Stu, though it feels rather late to be doing that now.

With only three eps left to go, the story finally seems to be getting some momentum – it helps that they’ve abandoned the disjointed, non-linear narrative of the first half. I very much liked Ezra Miller’s barking (literally) portrayal of the Trashcan Man, however extreme it may be compared to the original; he feels properly like a horror character, the Renfield to Flagg’s Dracula. It also feels like the rather static Boulder plotline is finally moving along too. I suspect I’m going to find the last half of the story rather more satisfying than the first; but I still think it’s a shame that it left out most of the novel’s first third.