The Stand 2020: Episode 8 – The Stand

“I will fear no evil.”

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

So here we are at episode 8 of the new version of The Stand, and it’s The End. Not the end of the novel, or, weirdly, even the end of this series. But definitely The End of the only story the showrunners seemed interested in telling, the final confrontation between the demonic Randall Flagg and our heroes representing The Forces of Good.

I always found the ending of the novel rather weak, with God stepping in to save the day needing no help from our heroes at all. Like Indiana Jones in Raiders, they literally could have stayed at home and done nothing, and the same outcome would have occurred. I had hoped that the promised new ending by Stephen King himself would change that, or at least give the heroes some agency in Flagg’s downfall.

No such luck, it seems. Yes, Larry, Ray and Glen had some success at persuading (some of) Flagg’s supporters to turn against him, something which definitely didn’t happen in the novel. But the success was pretty moot – like our heroes, it affected the outcome not at all. Some kind of an actual revolution by the inhabitants of New Vegas who realised their mistake was seemingly being hinted at. Unfortunately the showy pyrotechnics of the novel’s ending proved irresistible, so the nascent rebellion got blown to smithereens before it could even start.

As before, though, I have to acknowledge that there were plenty of changes here, and some of them were for the better. In particular, I liked the kangaroo court set up for our heroes’ “trial”, which felt like it had far more dramatic impact than their lonely contemplations in Vegas jail cells in the novel.

It also gave Greg Kinnear as Glen the chance to deliver the killer lines he had in the novel to an audience wider than just Flagg and Lloyd. It’s probably Glen’s finest scene in the novel, as he meticulously, but compassionately, debunks everything Flagg claims to stand for, so that in the end Flagg’s only answer is to have Lloyd shoot him.

Again this is coincidence, but it was hard not to watch this scene and not think of the events at the US Capitol a mere month ago. I’ve mentioned before how, in the aftermath of the lumpen mob who stormed their own Congress in the name of “democracy”, Flagg’s supporters seemed uncomfortably redolent of Trump supporters (and not the worryingly reasonable people of the novel, which raised far more disturbing questions).

In light of this, it was hard not to think of Glen as the unfortunate “libtard intellectual elite” standing up to the proudly ignorant “common people”. But like the novel, this struck a note of optimism as, at least for some of them, his words seemed to get through. In the novel (and the more faithful ’94 adaptation), this scene takes place in a jail cell, and the only person present to be unsettled by Glen’s words is Lloyd Henreid – though not unsettled enough to disobey Flagg’s order to shoot Glen.

Here, though, Glen was speaking not just to Lloyd, but to the whole courtroom; and by extension through the cameras, anyone outside who was watching. Including Flagg himself. It gave his words even greater dramatic impact when people in the audience started glancing uncertainly at each other, as if to say, “dude’s got a point”. And crucially, here Lloyd shoots Glen off his own bat, (egged on by Rat Woman as the “Judge”), thinking it must be what Flagg wanted, only for it to start eating at his conscience. At least in the novel, he could use the age-old excuse of “just following orders”, though even that didn’t help much. Here, he didn’t even have that crumb of comfort.

It was probably a bit late, but here, finally, Nat Wolff’s portrayal of Lloyd seemed to be something more than the gurning moron he’s been up till now. It helped that this, like the ’94 version, retained Glen’s absolutely killer death line – “it’s all right, Lloyd. You don’t know any better”. Wolff, who I know is a perfectly capable actor from other things, managed to deftly convey the conflict and doubt that line sowed in Lloyd’s mind, his face crumpling as he realised what he’d done – not just here, but ever since he took up with Flagg. As, let’s remember, Flagg’s easier, second choice after Nick Andros turned him down – another significant change that added some depth.

The other very significant change we saw from last week – that Nadine Cross was still alive when our heroes arrived – was built upon this week, but with rather more mixed results. Her nightmare pregnancy, shown more explicitly than in the novel, turned out to be the catalyst for her realisation of her dreadful mistake, as she writhed in agony while the thing in her womb attempted to break free. Good nightmare fuel, to be sure, but less dramatically redolent than her conscience finally winning out, as in the novel.

Still, it was a nice moment when she saw her twisted, corpse-like reflection and realised with horror what she’d become. I thought it was a little on the nose for her to break through the reinforced penthouse glass using Flagg’s charm as some sort of magical power drill, but it did give her a more spectacular death than just landing on the street, as in the novel. This version seems to have been determined throughout to up the spectacle, and it didn’t disappoint here, Nadine’s body landing with a horrific splat in the swimming pool at the centre of the packed atrium.

Once again, though, spectacle triumphed at the expense of drama. In the novel, Nadine doesn’t directly kill herself; she baits Flagg into throwing her off the hotel balcony, and it’s another example among many of how the would-be Dark Lord is losing his grip on events. There’s been almost none of that here – only in this episode did we see Flagg’s powers start to fail, as he literally fell to earth with a thump while levitating.

That aspect was at least emphasised by Larry, when Flagg’s smirking minions brought him the mangled remnants of Nadine’s head on a silver platter (shades of the Bible again, with John the Baptist). “She was supposed to be his Queen,” Larry crowed, to the consternation of said minions, who started to see that their Dark God was fallible after all. It was a good touch, but it came too much out of the blue; the novel seeded Flagg’s failing powers far better, escalating from his misjudgment of Harold to his own murder of the woman he needed to bear his child.

The scene also, yet again, would have had far more dramatic impact if the series had earlier shown the complex bond between Larry and Nadine, with both wanting the other, but her turning down her would-be suitor for fear of the wrath of her real Intended. As with the earlier scene of Larry rejecting her desperate entreaties to save her by having sex with her, it felt like the showrunners had taken for granted that the audience would already know this backstory from the novel. Bad mistake – any adaptation needs to stand on its own. Not every viewer is going to be as intimately familiar with the original as I am.

Everything came to a head, as in the novel, at the planned execution of Larry and Ray, and here, initially, I thought the screenwriters had done an interesting job of changing the specifics while remaining true to the spirit of the original. Changing the method of their intended deaths from dismemberment by truck to slow drowning as the pool filled up was a good idea; it gave their coming deaths far more tension. Especially when Lloyd, showing more backbone than he did in the novel, escalated from disquiet at his boss to outright rebellion, trying to stop the execution before it got underway.

In doing so, he usurped the place of a more minor character from the novel, the unfortunate Whitney Horgan, who ends up incinerated by Flagg for his pains. However, I couldn’t help noticing that the camera direction, and the editing, gave lots of prominence to a middle aged man in a red shirt looking very doubtful. Was this meant to be Horgan? It’s hard to know, as the character was given not a single line. That made the explicit focus on him all the more puzzling.

All those changes aside though, and despite the promise of a new ending, the denouement, when it came, was identical to the novel. Only, as has become customary here, a bit more spectacular. In the novel, the so-called “Hand of God” contents itself with detonating the nuclear warhead that Trashcan Man has so conveniently provided. Here, it goes all Raiders of the Lost Ark, exploding people into bloody fragments left right and centre before finally getting on with the job of blowing New Vegas to Kingdom Come.

No problem with that per se, but here, yet again, there were huge gaps in exposition that would have left viewers unfamiliar with the source material scratching their heads in puzzlement. The main question presumably being, “what the hell just happened, and why?”

Because, a few portentous pronouncements from Mother Abagail aside, this adaptation has downplayed the influence of the Almighty to such an extent that, if you don’t know the original, the source of those fearful lightning bolts is pretty unclear. To be fair, it’s a hard concept to convey explicitly in visuals only – even the more faithful 1994 version has to spell it out for the viewer with Larry’s cheesy exclamation, “the Hand of God!”. And then making the thing, with some fairly naff animation, actually look like a hand.

No such clarity here. The original ending has often been referred to as the dramatic trope of deus ex machina – the god out of the machine, who turned up in Greek drama to resolve insoluble events with the flick of a magic hand. In its most literal sense, that’s sort of true; but deus ex machina in drama more specifically refers to a resolution caused by a force the audience has previously had no inkling about. You couldn’t say that about the novel – the importance of God as a player is spelled out throughout, very explicitly. Here, though, it’s been downplayed to such a degree that the accusation of deus ex machina carries far more weight. If the viewer even understands that it’s God doing this.

And what of Trashcan Man, whose importance to the plot has been downplayed almost as much? Here, I was more equivocal. The chain of events, in the novel, that leads to Trashy bringing the nuke directly to Flagg himself has been omitted here. As a result, there’s seemingly no explanation as to why Ezra Miller’s tattered, radiation-poisoned loon would trundle it into the lobby of the hotel, rather than to the airfield as his master directed.

And yet, perhaps there is – and unusually for this adaptation, it’s actually kinda subtle. As the thunderclouds (which do sort of resemble a hand) gather round, then pour into the hotel, Trashy is repeatedly exclaiming his garbled, near-incoherent mantra, “my life for you!” But the final time he says it, he’s not looking at Flagg. He’s looking up, at the cloud. At the Hand of God. I don’t know if I’m imagining this (it’s that subtle), but if so, it’s another big change, and a very interesting one. It suggests that Trashcan Man’s loyalty was never to Flagg in the first place, but to God all along, and that this was always God’s plan. It’s just a shame that it’s so unclear it’s God who’s behind all this.

Well, so much for the “new ending”. In fact, in my opinion, this version manages to even make a hash of the original ending, for those unfamiliar with the novel. Like so much of this series, it seemed like a tantalisingly missed opportunity, which could have been resolved easily with a bit more exposition, and retaining earlier scenes that more clearly established characters’ motivations.

But hold on – there’s one more episode to go. In the novel, after the destruction of Vegas, the narrative tracks Stu Redman’s return to Boulder across the ruined, deserted country, Tom Cullen by his side (and we saw their reunion here, as the mushroom cloud flamed on the horizon).

Perhaps the “new ending” will be there. But given the form of the series up till now, which has been more interested in showing us the Epic Supernatural Struggle than the practicalities of a pandemic wiping out most of humanity, it seems like an odd place to put it. Would a show more interested in the high drama of Good and Evil suddenly spend an hour dealing with the mundane aspects of survival it’s so obviously neglected up till now? Or are we going to see a Friday the 13th-like resurrection of Flagg to be more clearly defeated by the actual humans involved? Tune in next week to find out…

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