The Stand: Fear and Loathing in New Vegas

“They told you it was wrong to want more.”

King doesn’t write characters in the literary-fiction mode, that remnant of modernism, in which neuroticism and navel-gazing therapeutic tics are meant to signify depth. He writes in a Dickensian mode. His strokes are broad and all the more human for it.

Take, for instance, the character of Gasher in The Waste Lands, the fourth book of the Dark Tower series. Gasher is a pedophilic sociopath who kidnaps a young boy and threatens—repeatedly—to kill him. He is oozing with sores, speaks with King’s version of a Cockney accent, and is generally reprehensible. But when that young boy, Jake, asks to take his friend Oy (a bumbler, which is like a smart dog who talks), Gasher concedes that it would be cruel to separate a boy from his pet. Gasher is a classic King villain: an evil person, not just an embodiment of evil.

Closer to home, Lloyd Henreid, in The Stand is quite similar. He was a viciously stupid criminal, but Flagg made him smarter and gave him purpose. In the book, Lloyd is aware of the burden of his responsibility. He makes lists in little books so he doesn’t forget important things. He helps Flagg rebuild Vegas. And he wants to do a good job.

He’s also...kinda normal? At one point in the book, a character is nervous about meeting some of the New Vegas bigwigs. But they all wind up sitting around a table at a diner, joking and joshing and making that character (whom we haven’t met yet in the show) feel a sense of belonging for the first time in his life. It’s a lovely scene.

That’s part of King’s argument, of course: fascism can be really appealing if you feel marginalized. “I alone can save you” is another way of saying “Now you can join the cool kids” and “Oh, by the way, the trains will run on time.” In the book, that’s the appeal of Vegas for most people. Belonging. Safety (including safety from Flagg himself). Security. Certainty.

In this show, this stupid show, Vegas is portrayed as a trashy singles bar for people pretending to have a leather fetish. I would say it’s a 1990s miniseries level of absurdity, especially in the way it equates villainy with queer sex and kink, but we can all agree that the 1990s miniseries of The Stand is better than this. Flagg says “They told you it was wrong to love violence. They told you it was wrong to love sex. They told you it was wrong to want more.”

But, seriously, who in America feels like they’re told not to enjoy sex, violence, and consumerism? Did all the residents of New Vegas grow up in a Buddhist monastery without wi-fi?

The equation of sex with evil is not the worst part of New Vegas, though. The worst part is the weird way the show portrays two social castes, but doesn’t seem to realize it is doing so. There are the People in Charge, who snort blow and have elevator sex and wear lingerie. (I think Lloyd got his outfits in the Pimp section of the local Hot Topic.) But then there are the People Behind the Scenes who make all that possible. If this show resembled a Stephen King novel, which it does not, the focus would be on the People Behind the Scenes and how they viewed those in charge.

Like, for instance, the guy frantically sweeping the floor post-orgy; we see him for approximately 10 seconds. That shot was my favorite moment of this episode, and I think (sigh) it was meant as something of a gag. (I tried to get a screenshot, but CBS All Access wouldn't let me.)

Anyway, while Flagg and his minions got laid and Dayna got killed and Tom Cullen got warned, the folks in Boulder are struggling to understand Weizak’s death. Let’s not forget: Nadine shot him. And so now Harold is conflicted. Nadine manipulates him with sex. Nadine is corrupting Harold. She is forcing him, through his penis, to turn to the dark side. I think we are supposed to empathize with Harold’s struggle.

Even Frannie’s part in all of this—her building suspicions about Harold—are papered over. In the book, Frannie convinces herself she’s being paranoid. Like King’s portrayal of an incel before that was a term, Frannie’s self-consciousness is an example of patriarchal gaslighting long before Tumblr thought of such a thing. Now, we move right past all that nuance and into the realm, again, of Harold’s pain at not being adored by his older sister’s best friend.

Harold’s arc in this show contributes nothing useful or interesting to the world. In that way, he is like the show itself.

Boulder Free Zone CB Radio:

• The credits—in which THE becomes STAND—drive me crazy, because the morph from one to another results in a brief moment when the word TAI is on my screen, and it just doesn’t make sense.

• In the books, Flagg crucifies people who do drugs. Most people don’t drink anything harder than beer.

• I’m sure Odessa Young is an excellent actress, but she isn't given much to do here besides smiling uncomfortably.

• Damn, that dinner party was awkward.

• I will say one thing about this show...Well, no. I’ll say one more mean thing and then one nice thing: the soundtrack is all over the map, but sometimes they get it just right. For example:



Josie Kafka is a full-time cat servant and part-time rogue demon hunter. (What's a rogue demon?)

5 comments:

Billie Doux said...

Josie, it's sad that I am so enjoying your reviews but I'm not watching the series anymore. Like, But, seriously, who in America feels like they’re told not to enjoy sex, violence, and consumerism? Did all the residents of New Vegas grow up in a Buddhist monastery without wi-fi? Lol.

I also really loved this: Harold’s arc in this show contributes nothing useful or interesting to the world. In that way, he is like the show itself. The focus on Harold is the biggest turn-off for me.

Logan Cox said...

First off, you make a great point about Stephen King's villains: they are people first and evil second; and even his villains that are embodiments of pure evil may have humanlike motives or feelings. I love that you mentioned Gasher. A truly memorable bad guy, along with Andrew Quick in the same scenario. Reminds me that I need to finally get around to finishing the Dark Tower books. It's such a satisfying moment when Roland catches up to Gasher.

Gasher: YOU?
Roland: Me.
BOOM!

Though I have not actually seen any of this show outside of promos, I second what Billie said.

I had to read your review for the first episode twice just because I was so astonished that they actually chose to frame Harold Lauder as some sort of protagonist. Harold's a tragic villain, at best. His storyline is disturbing and pitiful, but ... emphasizing his character and viewpoint over Frannie's? Romanticizing his character and viewpoint over her's? What the hell, writers?

The descriptions of the show's version of Lloyd Henreid and New Vegas are likewise cringe-inducing. Flagg does offer pleasure and plenty to his followers, but the more enticing thing his side offers is the illusion of law and order, the veneer of civilization; his side proclaims to be the one that's taking back the world for humanity. This hedonistic free-for-all doesn't seem like it would be cut out for that kind of endeavor.

Also, they must be halfway through the miniseries by now and they haven't even introduced Trashcan Man yet??? Again, what the hell?

TheShadowKnows said...

"Harold's a tragic villain, at best. His storyline is disturbing and pitiful, but ... emphasizing his character and viewpoint over Frannie's? Romanticizing his character and viewpoint over her's? What the hell, writers?"

Methinks this might involve some projection on their parts.

My wife and I watch a lot of horror movies. A lot of the characters in horror movies (especially low budget horror movies, and double especially slasher movies) are unbearable assholes, and you can't wait for them to die (which I feel somewhat undermines the whole point of horror movies). My wife and I have discussed this a few times, and we can't decide which explanation is correct: Do the screenwriters make the characters such unbearable assholes because they WANT you to root for their deaths? Or are the screenwriters themselves unbearable assholes, such that these supremely obnoxious characters seem normal (or perhaps even admirable) to them? Inquiring minds want to know!

Josie Kafka said...

TSK, I read an interview with Henry Zaga in which he talked about Josh Boone's affection for The Stand. Boone, like many of us, first read it when he was a teenager. I wonder if that's why he thinks Harold's story is worth telling: it fits with his teenage rage, and he just hasn't gotten the distance yet to realize that teenage rage (when taken to such excesses as it is here) is really hard to identify with, and kinda awful.

TheShadowKnows said...

That's a fair point, JK.

At any rate, thanks for taking one for the team and watching this so the rest of us don't have to. It sounds like a blazing garbage fire.