The Stand 2020: Episode 7 – The Walk

“Nadine. How I love to love Nadine.”

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

This new adaptation of The Stand has made plenty of changes from the novel along the way. That’s actually laudable – there would have been no point making it otherwise, with a perfectly adequate version produced in 1994. Some of the changes have been smart, or efficient, or (more frequently) have left out material vital to the later parts of the story that have been faithful to the novel.

But now we’re on the final stretch of the story, and the changes are fewer; after all, ultimately we presumably have to get to the same place. That does, however, lead to inevitable comparisons with the ’94 TV version, as this ep is basically the same as the relevant portions of the novel adapted there.

For the most part, there’s actually little to choose between them. This version has the advantage of modern production techniques and a higher budget; but I’d say the earlier one had the advantage of a better cast, and certainly a better music score. While I loved the use of Radiohead’s I Promise as our heroes trekked West, there’s been nothing in this new version to rival WG Snuffy Walden’s bluegrass-tinged, Americana folk guitar score from ’94.

The ’94 version also had the advantage of not having omitted earlier scenes vital to understanding some of the events here. Specifically, because the characters of Larry Underwood and Nadine Cross have been somewhat underdeveloped this time, anyone without knowledge of the novel might find some of their actions here not confusing, but lacking the drama the scenes were presumably intended to convey.

In fine, we’re at the part of the story where Mother Abagail, on her deathbed, sends four of the remaining major characters on a trek by foot to the heart of the evil gathering in the West. Intertwined with that was the story of Nadine finally meeting her destiny as the Dark Man’s concubine, deliberately losing Harold in the process.

There was very little difference in the way this was told from the ’94 version – both are perfectly good. But changes do help justify the point of remaking it, and of the few we saw, some did work. In particular, the very opening of the ep showed us Trashcan Man’s successful acquisition of a nuclear warhead as per Flagg’s request.

That was well enough done, and obviously far earlier in the story than the novel. It also made sense of a few other things – I’d previously mentioned that I found the hard-partying inhabitants of New Vegas unlikely to pose much of a threat to the Free Zone, unlike the novel’s diligent workers dusting off and prepping war planes to attack. Well, if a nuke was Flagg’s plan from the start, there’s no need for that.

However, while it may justify the changes to the Vegas plotline, it unfortunately does massively reduce Trashy’s role in the story, even more than the earlier omission of his journey across the empty USA. In the novel, he’s less feral and more of an idiot savant, with an unerring instinct for finding and operating destructive weaponry. This makes him a great asset to Flagg’s operations, but ultimately he can’t resist his urge to burn and blows up half of the planes along with all the pilots. Aware of the huge blunder he’s made, he seeks out the nuke, unbidden, as a way to atone, laying the seeds of the novel’s ending.

To be fair, this does much the same, and much quicker. But Trashcan Man is one of the novel’s most memorable characters, and this reduces him to little more than a (admittedly important) bit player. It does justify Ezra Miller’s performance of the part as a barely human, scarcely able to talk weirdo; after all, it’s impossible to imagine this nutcase being coherent enough to work as a weapons expert. But for me, something was definitely lost.

Another change was, for me anyway, certainly for the better – but with mixed success. Ralph Brentner, in the novel, is one of the four to make the journey to Vegas, along with Stu, Glen, and Larry. Ralph is a likeable enough character, but as an admittedly average Oklahoma farmer, he’s perhaps one Everyman too many in a story where Stu fulfils that function admirably.

So I have absolutely no objection to Ralph being gender and race flipped to the Native American Ray Brentner, played with verve and good humour by Irene Bedard. Bedard, a genuine Native American from Alaska, brings a fierce tongue and a no-nonsense attitude to the part that marks it out as far more interesting than the novel’s deputy Everyman.

The trouble is, yet again, that absolutely nothing has been done to establish her character until now. We’ve seen her, a few times, but marked out as little more than Mother A’s strict gatekeeper, with barely any character beyond that. It’s great that she’s now so memorable, but why not have built her up at least a little before putting her in such a plot-essential place? Ralph (in the novel) is firmly established well before this, having met Nick Andros and Tom Cullen on their way to Hemingford Home, and being an integral part of the building of the Free Zone. But because the earlier part of this adaptation skipped so many of these stories, here we have no idea who Ray is or where she came from.

I am starting to wonder whether the real pandemic that we’re still all dealing with had an effect on all of this. Production on The Stand was halted for some months when lockdown began, and it occurs to me that decisions might have been made then to downplay the all-important details of the Captain Trips pandemic and its aftermath, for fear that nobody would want to be reminded of the pandemic viewers were actually living through. Or it might even be that, when production resumed, it simply wasn’t possible to film scenes that had been intended to be there. That might also explain the tricksy non-linear narrative that was abandoned by ep5 – what better way to hide that some essential scenes weren’t actually there?

We may never know whether that was the case, but the effect is the same. Scenes and subplots that were vital to establishing the reasons for later events simply aren’t there. And even where they don’t cause confusion, their absence often lowers the dramatic impact of what we do see.

As mentioned above, I felt the same about Larry Underwood. Jovan Adepo is very good as Larry, but the scene here where the gang have to abandon Stu, his leg broken, in a hole in the desert highway, lacks the drama it would have had if the story had made it clearer that Larry used to be a selfish asshole. And that knowledge of that underpins his furious refusal to leave Stu to die, despite that Mother A had warned that one would fall by the way.

In both the novel and the ’94 adaptation, it’s clear that Larry is haunted by his earlier selfishness, and his horror at leaving Stu to die is prompted by his hope that he’s become a better man. None of that seemed in evidence here; though Larry protests just as in the novel, it carries far less dramatic weight.

He does, at least, show the required sympathy and sorrow when the gang come upon the corpse of poor, manipulated Harold Lauder. Owen Teague, on his way out, continued to give a great performance right to the end, his stream of consciousness dying narration taken faithfully from the novel – something the ’94 version omitted, presumably for brevity. And I must say, the genuinely horrific sight of what was left of him after the buzzards had had their way with his corpse was unforgettable and darkly tragic.

This version also makes it clearer that the motorcycle accident that left him impaled and dying in the mountains was clearly an intentional act on the part of Nadine. In the novel, and the ’94 version, Nadine is much more passive, and Harold’s accident is caused directly by the supernatural interference of Flagg himself. Here, Nadine directly causes him to crash by taking his attention from the road just as they’re about to round a very dangerous corner. It’s a change I liked, giving Nadine far more agency (and evil) than the doomed, passive character in the book.

I continue to think that Amber Heard is only doing the best she can with a character that’s been rather underwritten. Still, her ultimate meeting, and sexual coupling, with her malevolent bridegroom was very well done here. All credit to director Vincenzo Natali for this hallucinatory, surreal sequence, which seemed to supernaturally occur both in the desert and in Flagg’s Vegas penthouse, blurring the lines between reality, magic and Nadine’s perspective.

It’s difficult to visually convey the horror that Stephen King intends for that sequence. In the book, it’s economically, and chillingly, done with one sentence – “the Dark Man entered her, and he was cold”. However scary he may be, though, Alexander Skarsgard is a very attractive man, so they’d have to go an extra mile to make this seem a horrific event.

In the ’94 version, that was achieved by having Flagg’s face change to demonic visions – something he does frequently there, and something I always found rather cheesy and obvious. I’ve been glad that this version hasn’t felt the need to do that, but it does something similar here, Skarsgard’s undeniably sexy body turning in an instant into a charred, burned horror. It’s still a bit obvious, but I thought it worked.

The show’s frequent reordering of events from the novel also gave Nadine an extra bit of drama, in the sense that she was still alive and able to greet the three Free Zone heroes who finally made it to New Vegas. Heard’s pallid, deathlike face – and the terrifying squirming lump already in her fully pregnant belly – is a suitably ghastly cliffhanger on which to end the ep. Again though, how much more dramatic would it have been if the script had previously established the tortured, deep bond she had with the appalled-looking Larry Underwood? Oh, and I couldn’t help noticing the music playing here was another attempt to reproduce Larry’s hit single Baby Can You Dig Your Man, something I’d hoped this version might have spared us.

Changes there may have been, but in all essentials this was a very straight retelling of this part of the story, and well enough done. It could, of course, have worked so much better if the earlier eps had shown crucial motivation-building sequences earlier in the story, but at this point I think that’s going to be a fault for the remaining episodes.

Of which there are now only two more to go, and yet it seems to me that the Epic Supernatural Struggle on which the writers are so keen to the detriment of all other parts of the story should be over with next week. That does rather beg the question of what exactly the final episode is going to be about. It’s been announced that Stephen King himself has written an entirely new ending; previously I’d thought that was going to be something to alter the literal deus ex machina conclusion to the struggle with Flagg. But now I find myself wondering if it’s actually after that, and in the final episode. It remains to be seen which, but however good this new ending is, I doubt it will be enough to redeem the missed opportunities along the way.

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