Each week Joe and Terry discuss the most recent episode of CBS All Access’s The Stand, alternating between our respective sites.
Spoilers follow for Episode 6 “The Vigil”
Well it was nice to have that one week where I felt fully on board with what The Stand was putting down, Terry. Sadly that moment has passed and we’re back to solidly meh territory with this week’s episode.
In “The Vigil”, there are two different ticking clock narratives, but the episode never manages to get pulses racing. The first ticking clock is centered around the hunt for the final Boulder Free Zone mole in New Vegas because Dayna died by suicide last week and the second mole, Judge Harris (Gabrielle Rose), is almost immediately killed in the line of fire. As I predicted, we barely get a brief scene with Harris circling the date on a calendar before her death is announced (offscreen). So she’s dead.
Naturally this doesn’t sit well with Randall Flagg (Alexander Skarsgård), who is no closer to identifying the final Boulder Free Zone mole. Like any good authoritarian, he arbitrarily takes his rage out on Bobby Terry (Clifton Collins Jr), the man asked to bring her in for questioning.
I’ll confess that I was happy to see Collins Jr because he’s a great character actor, even if he always tends to play these rough and tumble characters. Here, though, he shows up, pisses off Flagg, and is killed in an elevator moments later. It’s so hilariously quick that it might as well be a cameo, which only further cements the fact that The Stand is moving far too brusquely through this story. Why would you bother hiring a great character actor like this for just a few scenes? I honestly don’t get it, Terry!
And so there’s only one spy left standing. That’s Tom Cullen (Brad William Henke), who cleverly manages to convince Rat Woman (Fiona Dourif), in full “Pris from Blade Runner” attire to help him decipher Dayna’s note – RUN – and escape from New Vegas before Flagg identifies him (amusingly thanks to Rat Woman again!).
All of this should be tense and gripping…but it’s not. From the nonchalant reveal of Judge Harris’ death to the shocked reactions from the citizens of New Vegas to Flagg’s elevator outburst (why? They’ve seen worse in the gladiator pit) to Tom’s incredibly easy escape in the body truck…everything is presented in the same ho-hum, business-as-usual way by the show’s writing team.
I don’t know if this is because we’re meant to be more invested in the events going on in Boulder compared to New Vegas, but I can’t say that that half of the episode works much better for me.
Terry, there’s an obvious Hitchcockian “bomb under the table” set up at the titular vigil…and yet even with the fate of the entire Council on the line, there’s still no suspense! What’s your take on Nadine (Amber Heard) and Harold (Owen Teague)’s big move? Did you expect Harold to kill Stu (James Marsden) out in the woods? Did you ever, for a second, believe that Nadine was wavering? Gosh, I haven’t even touched on the arrival of Trashcan Man (Ezra Miller)!
It seems that as we’re crossing into the final stretch with “The Vigil” that the narrative team is scrambling to introduce characters and tidy things up before racing to the finale, Joe.
Thematically, it makes sense that the episode starts with the pyrophile himself, Trashcan Man, dressed in a jockstrap and a gear vest…and nothing else. We see him squealing like a pig and making all sorts of noises and the sequence culminates with him feverishly masturbating as he sets off an explosion.
And then, for some reason, Flagg shows up in his dreams, wearing the same robe as the emperor in Star Wars and talking with a voice modulator.
It’s a choice?
It made me think back to all of Flagg’s other dreams because I wondered (and still wonder, honestly) why he had to show up like that here when, for all of the others, he was just himself. I’m not sure what to make of Ezra’s campy and uncomfortable acting choices, but seeing a jockstrapped Trashcan Man simping for Flagg was quite an odd departure for the show. I’m flummoxed. Truly.
You said this episode is devoid of suspense and I can’t disagree…in fact, I was checking the time about 30 minutes in and was perplexed to see that there was over 20 minutes left. I was excited for this episode because I was hoping to see some of the pressure cooker tension that’s ripe for the situation (and section of the novel) play out and, instead, it’s just filled with unfortunate additions. Obviously Harold isn’t going to shoot Stu in the forest. That’d break his grandiose explosion plans. We know this, Harold knows this…and the scene knows this. It can’t even muster enough suspense to last the sequence.
We follow Mother Abagail (Whoopi Goldberg) on her 40 Days/40 Nights sojourn through the darkest woods imaginable (seriously…anyone complaining about that Game of Thrones episode will just see a black screen here) so that she can be tormented by Flagg. I guess the show felt as if they needed to show her journey to explain what’s going to invariably happen in the next episode…but for a show that hasn’t seen a flashback that it didn’t love, surely it could have saved this for the next episode.
The entire focus of “The Vigil” should have been on Tom’s escape contrasted with Harold and Nadine’s plans to blow up the town council. All of these interjections, additional characters and stories simply detract from the suspense of these two time bombs.
And unfortunately, this bomb is a dud.
The most frustrating aspect to me, though, is the way Frannie (Odessa Young)’s epiphany is handled. You mentioned in the last recap that Frannie is the only one with a head on her shoulders, but the writers couldn’t even give us that. Instead while she’s breaking into Harold’s basement, she has to doubt herself in the most insulting way: by blaming her paranoia on her pregnancy. Here’s our only strong, living female protagonist and she’s been reduced to “crazy pregnancy brain” even though she knows something isn’t right with Harold.
I know it’s a minor moment that’s quickly evaporated when she discovers his computers monitoring her bedroom and another room filled with bombs, beads, nails and a terrorist manifesto…but it’s also a moment that briefly sets up the hysterical woman trope. For a reveal we already know about!
On the other side, though, I think Amber Heard is really killing it with Nadine. Like Odessa, she’s been a bit hampered by the script and expectations, but she really brings a touch of nuance and pathos to a very one dimensionally written character. It’s not so much her character arc over the last few episodes, but what Heard does in each scene that makes Nadine incredibly watchable and intriguing. She stands out in a sea of milquetoast characters and I wish we were given more insight into her character.
I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I would have liked more flashbacks of her on the road, building relationships with Joe (Gordon Cormier) and Larry (Jovan Adepo). Most of her non-Flagg flashbacks were built around Larry and so, outside of her early grooming/Planchette segment, we don’t really get much insight into her character. She’s just portrayed as a mother figure to Joe. So, it’s really credit to her acting and her screen presence that Nadine is so watchable. Even though the story is immutable, I found myself really hoping she’d have a change of heart.
Heard’s performance aside, though and…meh, Joe. I say “meh.”
Speaking about performances, I am curious what you thought about Ezra’s performance and the late-in-the-season-arrival of the Traschan Man. Did his performance work for you? Is it a little too late in the narrative to introduce the character? Were you surprised when Joe finally spoke to sort of warn Larry? And did you roll your eyes when Harold stuffed Frannie into the basement when a window was literally right there?
Oh Terry, I eyerolled my way through Frannie’s whole bit, up to and including her desperate run through the rain. It’s so hammy and, frankly, icky for “The Vigil” to take a page from a mid-90s Lifetime film and threaten a pregnant woman (Frannie) and two handicapped men (Tom and Henry Zaga’s Nick).
What, was there no puppy available to kick?
Re: the arrival of Miller’s Trashcan Man: I’m unsure whether I can blame my slowly disintegrating pandemic memory or if the character failed to make a strong impression, but I had totally forgotten about Trashcan Man until you mentioned him in a previous recap. As you know, I’m less than fond of King’s fallible evil henchmen characters and Trashcan Man seems like the most egregious iteration.
Obviously we’re talking about a novel from the late 1970s when mental illness was diagnosed and treated in a very different fashion, but this character seems like a shorthand for the “dangerous Other”. Coupled with our observations about The Stand’s hilariously over the top puritannical depiction of sex and sexual freedom last week and I can’t say that I was surprised to see him depicted as a submissive gimp-like character who quite literally shakes his bare ass in Flagg’s company. It’s tasteless AND obvious AND just so representative of Boone and co’s stubborn unwillingness to update the more outdated aspects of a 40+ year old text.
So no, I did not care for this character. And the fact that he arrives in episode six to masturbate and then slink off in search of a nuclear device? This isn’t a character; it’s a living, breathing plot device.
Back to Boulder Free Zone: I loved your bitchy critique of the dark woods that Mother A stumbled through! I tried to watch this episode during the day and I literally could only see my reflection and a flock of shitty CGI crows (or is it ravens? Couldn’t see ‘em!).
I’ll confess that the moment when Joe tried to warn Larry did work for me. Unlike Nick’s magical religious elements, Joe’s story has always been centered around an unspoken trauma. His inability to speak, then, isn’t mystical; it’s self-preservation, a coping mechanism to protect him.
When Joe breaks his vow of silence, it feels significant (albeit predictably inevitable like most things on the show). It works in part because a) Cormier is cute and sold the drama of the moment and b) Heard played Nadine’s uncertainty so believably that Joe’s decision to finally speak in an effort to save his “mother” made sense.
Take that moment when she goes to leave Joe at the school with the other kids so that she can go and plant the pipe bomb. It’s extremely emotionally manipulative in how he won’t let her leave (you can almost see the gender performing mothering instinct kick in!), but it works because as an audience we also don’t want Nadine to do this.
You’re right that Heard is arguably the only character in the main cast who is elevating her performance above the mediocre material she’s being given, so I’m not surprised that we’re both latching on to her. Even the moment when she and Harold stretch their hands across the divide in front of the town works. It’s the point of no return, and even though we all know which choice she’ll make, we yearn for Nadine to stay good.
But back to poor toaster strudeled Nick and that explosion. Terry: did you read this is a kind of perverse punishment because Nick didn’t listen to Mother A (and by extension God)? Where did you land on the scene where Ray (Irene Bedard) bitched out the Council members for not caring enough? And, despite my complaints about how quickly things are moving, what the hell is The Stand going to do for the next two episodes before the A bomb goes off and we get King’s new coda?
It feels very pointed, Joe, particularly with how the actual explosion is staged, that Nick’s death was a punishment. Nick is scribbling in his room and Ray enters to tell him they’ve found Mother Abagail before quickly exiting. So Nick stands up and slowly walks through the house, only to pause at the piano. He plucks at the strings, noticing again that the notes feel muted. He lifts the piano and then…looks up at the ceiling, as if to God or to the specter of Mother Abagail and then the entire place is reduced to rubble.
Nick’s actions feel very Christ-like -he’s accepting his demise – but also very heavy-handed in its message of retribution for failing at being “the voice” of Mother Abagail/God. I remembered more people dying from the explosion in the novel, but it turns out he’s the only main character, aside from a character I don’t think this adaptation has even bothered to introduce.
As for the scenes leading up to this explosive ending, particularly with Ray, I don’t honestly think I care? If a 108 year old mystical woman decides she needs to leave the town and go on a sojourn and the entire town is out looking for her…well, someone needs to think about leading the town forward. Ray’s reaction felt like added drama that ultimately detracted, again, from the ticking bomb the episode ended on.
You’re right, though. We appear to only have two more episodes before the final episode “coda” that Stephen King has fashioned for the series. I imagine next week’s episode will be centered around Mother Abagail’s insistence that Stu, Larry and Glen head out to Las Vegas and we’ll also likely focus a bit on the deus ex machina character Trashcan Man’s journey to get the nuclear bomb.
Following that, the eighth episode will be the fallout of their decisions. Then we’ll get that promised new coda.
At this point it feels pretty written in stone.
The Stand airs Thursdays on CBS All Access