The CBS All Access version of Stephen King’s The Stand reaches the center of its nine-episode run with an episode that should have been a slam dunk but falls victim to the increasing problems of pacing and character that have afflicted this production like a bad case of Captain Trips. Let’s consider what “Fear and Loathing in New Vegas” should have been. It should have been a neon-soaked introduction to the true power of Randall Flagg, the Satan of this battle for the soul. It also should have been a chance to get to know Dayna Jurgens, charting her journey into Vegas and encounter with the real dark side of humanity. Meanwhile, tension and suspicion should have grown in Boulder, paralleling the reveal of the true depth of their enemy in Vegas.
None of this really happens.
Yes, there’s some excess in the reveal of an unchecked City of Sin that would make the average CBS viewer blush, but everything about this episode feels shallow. It’s a show that’s lost all sense of danger or urgency, partially because it’s been stretched too thin in the midsection of its story, but for other reasons too. The performances are inconsistent and frustrating, often a case wherein it feels like a performer is being held back by the material and direction. The character beats are simplistic, and the pacing is deadly, but those who know the source know that there is storytelling to come that could salvage the production. However, it may be time to abandon hope that this version of The Stand is going to elevate or enhance the material. If anything, the best it could do is send people back to the book to see what went wrong.
Sent by the Powers That Be in Boulder, Dayna is working to infiltrate Flagg’s inner circle, which has brought her into the web of Julie Lawry and Lloyd Henery. Remember Lloyd? He was last seen in the second episode, released from prison by Flagg and told he would be the devil’s righthand man, which apparently means bad pimp cosplay. Henery is taking full advantage of a Vegas with no rules, but Nat Wolff approaches the part like a bumbling idiot instead of imbuing him with any sense of malice. He’s seems to be basing his take on someone dressing up for Halloween like Alfred Molina from Boogie Nights than anything else. Lawry and Henery should be threatening in a way that makes us worry about Dayna’s fate long before she gets to Flagg’s penthouse, but they come off goofy instead of truly dangerous.
A similar problem impacts the arc of Tom Cullen, another spy from Boulder in a very different part of Vegas. Again, Tom is in constant danger, but he’s barely seen in this episode, introduced trying to get placed in a job and then later spotted by Dayna cleaning up after violent gladiator-esque sports that entertain the masses. Dayna knows that Tom is in trouble — probably more than he does — and gets him a note that simply says “Run” before she’s drawn to the penthouse to finally meet Flagg in one of the episode’s final scenes. Flagg makes clear that he knows why Dayna is there — one would presume a figure who can communicate telepathically would figure it out — and he’s even discovered the second spy waiting on the edge of town. But he hasn’t found Tom. Dayna tries to kill him, but scissors to the neck won’t do anything to an ancient evil like Flagg. And so she stabs them into her own throat instead, taking Tom’s identity with her.
While all of that is going down in Vegas, this episode gets distracted by once again focusing way too much energy on Harold Lauder. The episode that should be about the true villain of this story in Flagg spends half of its time with Harold, a character that doesn’t have nearly the depth that the creators of this show seem to think he does. It starts with Harold and Nadine finishing the job they started last week, the one that led to the death of poor Teddy. Harold still has Teddy’s blood on his hands when the poor guy’s body is found and ruled a suicide pretty quickly by Stu and Larry. Frannie seems to be the only one appropriately suspicious of the town’s version of Arthur Fleck, asking Larry to investigate what’s going on in Casa Lauder while she distracts him with dinner and conversation.
Honestly, Nadine’s arc is more interesting here, in part because Amber Heard is doing more with her conflicted character. Mother Abagail reminds Nadine that she protected Joe across the country to Boulder, which means that there is some good still in Nadine. Is the woman who killed Teddy having regrets about working for Flagg? Is that why she throws herself at Larry? Hoping that he can save her? The problem is that he’s too busy with his mission to spy on Harold and skeptical of her behavior. She tells him that she’ll be fine but wanders off nearly catatonic. Was this the last chance to save her soul?
Dinner goes down with Harold, Stu, and Frannie. They chat and share memories of Frannie ostracizing Harold when they were younger. It gets a little tense because Harold is super weird in an exaggerated, poorly written way — the dead stare after he remembers his sister Amy being a perfect example of what’s so overcooked about this character.
While Mother Abagail prays to a silent God and tries to find an answer, Harold returns home, almost catching Larry in the act of breaking and entering. He slightly adjusts a Knight on a chessboard that implies he knew someone was there, but the real reveal comes later, after Dayna’s death. It turns out that Harold put a camera in a stuffed bear on Frannie’s dresser, so he can watch her make out with Stu! He also has footage of Larry prowling through his house. This is treated like a grand revelation but what is Harold going to do? Call the cops? The Stand too often repeats what we’ve known since episode one: Harold is a bad guy.
Far more concerning is the final scene in which they find a note on the door of Mother Abagail: “Please do not come looking for me. I will be back if it is his will. I love you all.” As people realize that their spiritual leader is gone, perhaps forever, Harold smirks.
• Mother Abagail signs her name on the note “Mother Abigail” with an “I” despite the book very clearly spelling her name with an “a.” Even the CBS press materials spell her name with an “a.” Was it just a mistake or a weird change that even the network that’s releasing the show never noticed?
• Harold has a photo of Tom Cruise on his mirror — clever because Cruise has a bit of a crazy reputation or a cheap knock on the actor? You decide.
• 62 minutes! That’s just too long for this episode given how little actually happens. When I first saw the time and the episode opened, I thought maybe the extra minutes would allow for the production to dig into Flagg’s world more but that’s not the case. It’s an episode remarkably thin on plot given its run time. Dayna is dead, Flagg can’t find Tom, Harold still sucks, Mother Abagail goes missing. That’s too little plot for this length, especially for a show that doesn’t exactly excel at atmosphere.
• Clearly, the last couple of episodes have been frustrating, but there’s a lot left to this story for the final four chapters, which should inherently give it some of the urgency it’s been lacking. Let’s hope.