The smartest thing this adaptation of The Stand has done yet is to stand aside. The convoluted, shifting timeframes, the need to balance the apocalypse with its aftermath—that’s all gone now. In its place is a very, very straightforward story: The man in black lives in the desert, and four people (and one dog) are walking to meet him.
That’s the basic plot of “The Walk,” the show’s seventh and, I’d argue, best episode. From her deathbed, Mother Abigail tells Stu Redman, Larry Underwood, Glen Bateman, and Ray Brentner that God wants them to walk to Las Vegas and confront Randall Flagg, the Dark Man, with nothing but the clothes on their back. One of them, Mother Abigail warns, will fall along the way; this turns out to be Stu Redman, who slips down a steep embankment and badly breaks his leg before sending the rest of the group on without him under Larry’s leadership. When Larry balks, Stu quotes Psalm 23 at him until he relents.
What this does, quite simply, is tighten the focus of the show to the warm and likeable performances of James Marsden, Greg Kinnear, Irene Bedard, and Jovan Adepo. You’re basically entrusted to their hands as they make the trek from Boulder to Vegas, driven simply by the sense that they’re good people facing down a society based on the thrill of being violent and cruel to others. Gosh, can you imagine living in a country like that?
The folks on Flagg’s side of the ledger are plenty busy too—some for better, some for worse. The episode opens with the Trashcan Man uncovering a nuclear warhead and stealing it for the Dark Man’s use, his gleeful gibbering echoed by the out-of-control crackling of his geiger counter. Speaking as a book reader, it’s…really weird to see Trash’s character arc rendered so linearly: Flagg tells him to get a nuclear bomb, and Trash delivers, end of story. All that burn makeup, all of actor Ezra Miller’s over-the-top performance, and the character exists simply to get a nuke from Point A to Point B.
Speaking of bombs, we see Harold and Nadine blow up Mother Abigail’s house again, after which Harold clearly senses their utility as a “couple” has run its course. “I’ll get a woman who makes you look like a potato sack,” he tells Nadine of their future life in Vegas, “and you’ll get him….If I were in your Hush Puppies, I’d be shaking in them plenty.” Nadine simply takes all this, looking sick over what they’ve just done.
A few hundred miles of motorcycle riding later, however, Nadine appears to have gotten over her compunctions regarding taking human life. She races her bike, forcing Harold to speed in order to keep up, then stops at a hairpin turn, leaving Harold to fly helplessly through the air off a cliff, impaling himself on a dead tree below. His pleas for help fall on deaf ears, as do his gunshots when it becomes clear Nadine is abandoning him to the vultures.
Then a rather remarkable thing happens: Through a combination of tight writing and actor Owen Teague’s sincere delivery, we’re made to empathize with Harold via his suicide note, scrawled in a notebook he pulls out of his jacket before shooting himself. He recalls childhood memories of being afraid to jump into a sandpit, with the other kids mocking his cowardice; if he could have brought himself to jump just once, he speculates, maybe he wouldn’t have become what he became.
Harold admits his wrongdoing against the Free Zone, his only defense that he was “misled.” He signs the note with the nickname his buddy Teddy Weizak gave him, before Nadine shot the poor guy: Hawk. When Larry and the gang eventually find his body, half-devoured by carrion, Larry covers the body with the jacket off his back; it’s probably the nicest thing anyone’s ever done for the guy. It’s also a way to fold Teague’s performance into those of Adepo, Marsden, Kinnear, and Bedard, creating a latticework of pathos.
As for Nadine, the show plays a pretty neat trick with her after meeting the Dark Man. He comes to her in the desert, although through either a hallucination or some actual space-time warping it sometimes appears as if they’re in his penthouse suite in Vegas. Since he’s literally the man of her dreams, they waste little time before Nadine finally loses her virginity to him. (All that business with Harold doesn’t count; Flagg, it seems, is a stickler for antiquated dictionary definitions of virginity.) He does, however, transform into some kind of zombie corpse monster in flagrante, so, y’know, that’s not good.
(Here’s a point in which the show could have gotten a lot more creative with revealing Flagg’s true “self,” whatever it is; in a post Twin Peaks: The Return world, it’s a lot harder to settle for the same old spooky shit when genuine extradimensional terror can be captured on TV. Oh well.)
Anyway, Nadine walks away from her big night with Flagg looking like Veronica Lake, with flowing platinum-blonde hair, huge Hollywood shades, and a placid smile on her face. It’s not until Flagg sends her to greet the captured walkers that we see what she really looks like, outside her own head: her hair is bone-white, her face is as sickly as a Captain Trips victim’s, and she’s already like nine months pregnant. Whatever’s in there is clearly taking its toll on her body, after Flagg did a number on her mind.
It’s strong stuff, in the end. For all its differences from the book (which it must be said is handled rather respectfully here; Stephen King’s son Owen wrote the episode, so that probably has something to do with it), this episode feels Stand-ish in a way that precious few of its predecessors did. It pares the material down to, well, people making their stand, and facing the consequences for it. Isn’t that the stuff of drama, in the end—characters making decisions, and living, or dying, with the results?
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