As if that weren’t bad enough, the three spies sent by the Council of Five to New Vegas are in serious trouble. Randall Flagg hasn’t been able to find Tom Cullen, but he knows where Judge Farris is and nearly got to Dayna Jurgens before she killed herself to prevent him from torturing Tom’s location out of her.
This week, we start things off with the much anticipated first appearance of Donald Elbert, aka the Trashcan Man.
As always, this recap will include plenty of spoilers. I’ll also note that direct references to Ezra Miller (the actor portraying Trashcan Man) and not his character will utilize they/them pronouns since that is what they prefer. If this triggers you beyond a grammatical level, then I envy the headspace/mental bandwidth you have to get upset about things.
Fire in the Sky
The episode opens with a scarred, bizarrely dressed, and clearly unstable Trashcan Man setting explosive charges at an oil depot while a crow flies overhead. In case you doubted me on the “unstable” part, he begins furiously pleasuring himself after detonating the explosives and staring with lustful awe at the resulting inferno.
His pyrokinetic revelry is interrupted by Flagg, who takes Trashcan Man into his dream world and tells him that he’s been selected to bring him the “great fire.” After Trashcan Man falls to his knees, Flagg treats him to two visions. The first one looks like a pornographic version of the tunnel scene from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. The next is an ethereal glimpse through Trashcan Man’s early days while all the people who taunted him are burnt to a crisp (which probably makes a lot more sense to book readers).
The latter vision is enough to make him reach out and ask where he can find Flagg. After the Dark Man instructs him to head west beyond the mountains, Trashcan Man swears his loyalty via his infamous pledge:
“My life for you.”
*Side Note: There is A LOT of backstory for the Trash Can Man that we don’t and won’t see, including him meeting The Kid. That role was originally part of the script and set to be played by Marilyn Manson, but was cut due to budget and scheduling issues.
Over in Boulder, Harold drops by Nadine‘s place to tell her that Mother Abagail has gone missing. After grilling her to see if Flagg might have had something to do with it, he explains how their problem might actually be a great opportunity. Mother A’s disappearance has resulted in the entire town holding a vigil at her home–including the Council of Five. Harold then shows her the IED he’s built, which Nadine says she has the perfect location for.
Dark Side of the Moon
Trashcan Man arrives in New Vegas and is given a tour of the debauchery-filled city by Lloyd. Despite all the craziness happening around them, he still manages to stick out, prompting Lloyd to request that he try to not freak out the other citizens.
After a brief elevator ride to the penthouse, Trashcan Man steps into Flagg’s room and immediately proves his worth by helping him adjust the settings on the gas powered fire pit (which is honestly pretty lame). Following that amazing feat, Flagg quizzes him on what was the biggest man made fire ever created. Trashcan Man proves to have a savant-like knowledge of the incident (a 1961 Soviet nuclear test) and all things fire-related (which is slightly less lame).
Flagg then tasks his new soldier–who is clearly deranged/brain damaged–with going out into the desert, finding a nearby military base, and bringing him back a nuclear warhead. Trashcan Man responds to this with unbridled joy and aggressive swearings of his “My life for you” oath before having to be forcibly carried out of the room.
Once he’s gone, Lloyd assures Flagg that the airfield will be ready by the time Trashcan Man returns (although I’m not sure how he could possibly know that). He also expresses justifiable unease over using someone who clearly has more than a few screws loose for such an important/sensitive operation.
*Side Note: This puts me in the very uncomfortable position of agreeing with Lloyd.
Flagg brushes off Lloyd’s concerns before reminding him that he wants Judge Farris brought back alive. Lloyd tries to explain that his goons aren’t very “surgical” in how they do things, which results in a stern rebuke. Flagg then explains that they must take Farris alive so he can torture her until she tells him where the third spy is. Despite his immense powers, all he can see when he tries to locate him is the moon.
Speaking of Tom, he’s managed to find a control panel on one of the machines in the basement with the same word as the note Dayna gave him: “RUN.” Unfortunately, his attempts to spell it out continue to result in different iterations of m-o-o-n.
When the Rat Woman walks over and orders him to clean some puke from the fountain upstairs, he asks her to tell him what the word on the control panel is. After mocking him for not being able to read, she says that it means “RUN” before sending him upstairs. A look of realization and fear begins to spread over Tom’s face as she hurries him off to complete his task.
Back in Boulder, Ray chews out the Council of Five for not doing enough to look for Mother Abagail–especially Nick, who is honoring Mother A’s request not to search for her at all. Just as she’s leaving (and giving Glenn and epic tongue lashing), Nadine shows up with Joe to drop off some cards the school children made wishing for Mother Abagail to return. She also uses the opportunity to hide the parts for Harold’s IED behind the piano.
As she begins putting out the cards, Larry asks if he can look after Joe before taking him to the vigil that night. Nadine is momentarily flustered, but recovers and feigns shock that Larry would even consider allowing children at the vigil–especially when an event like this would remind them of the vigils that were held when everyone began dying from Captain Trips. She still allows him to take Joe for the afternoon, but not without a parting shot about his complete lack of empathy. It’s a low and inaccurate blow, but it still connects.
After Larry and Joe leave, Harold arrives to remind Stu that it’s time for the next shift of people looking for Mother Abagail to start (and causing all types of awkwardness via his creepy greeting to Nadine). As Stu and Frannie kiss each other goodbye, Harold looks down at where Nadine placed his IED parts and smiles.
Meanwhile, Mother Abagail wanders through the woods and speaks to God, imploring Him to tell her why she’s failed as the leader of His people and to not take her failures out on them. Her plea is interrupted by the appearance of Flagg, who claims to know what she fears. Mother Abagail counters that he knows nothing about her and proclaims “Get thee behind me, Satan.”
When Flagg reminds her that isn’t his name, she begins to taunt him back, telling the Dark Man that his people will eventually see through him and realize he’s not their savior. Flagg counters by revealing that he knows she wishes for death and offers her “an ocean of endless peace” where God can’t find her. She refuses his temptation and proclaims that there is nowhere God can’t find her.
Flagg responds to Mother Abagail’s righteous stubbornness by attacking her with a strong gust of wind followed by a flock of crows.
Back in New Vegas, Tom Cullen is loading bodies from the fighting pits when he recognizes Julie as she walks through the basement. She is accompanied by Lloyd and his goon squad (headed by a man named Bobby Terry) carrying what appears to be a body inside a duffel bag.
During the elevator ride up to the penthouse, Bobby explains that the woman in the bag (who turns out to be Judge Farris) drew on him first, hence his decision to kill her. He also doubts that she was one of the spies from Boulder, which Lloyd says would be a much better scenario for him if he’s right.
Upon entering Flagg’s room and unzipping the bag, the Dark Man quickly confirms that it’s Judge Farris. He then calmly asks Bobby to say he’s sorry for killing a target he was explicitly instructed to bring in alive. When Bobby responds with the most lame apology imaginable, Flagg points out that he shouldn’t need to apologize if his story about acting in self defense from an old woman was actually true…and there were no other options to deescalate the situation beyond doing exactly what he wasn’t supposed to do.
Rather than amend/strengthen his apology, Bobby gives Flagg the finger and walks out of the room. Flagg allows him to leave and even chains the door shut before blowing the doors off and stalking him down the hallway. Bobby makes it into the elevator and gets it closed right as Flagg is about to overtake him. Just when he thinks he’s escaped, however, the Dark Man appears inside the elevator and proceeds to beat (and chew) Bobby to a pulp.
The residents of New Vegas gasp as Flagg gets off on the ground floor and apologizes for the mess trailing behind him. Rat Woman calls down to maintenance to get the best janitors they have for an emergency clean up–which includes the big guy who spells everything m-o-on. Upon hearing this, Flagg realizes it’s the final spy he’s been looking for and asks where he can find him.
Unbeknownst to the Dark Man, Tom Cullen has hidden himself under a pile of bodies in one of the disposal team’s trucks as it heads out of town.
Back in Boulder, Harold and Stu scout for Mother Abagail together through the woods. After stopping to take a quick breather, Harold begins talking about how different things are from a year ago–like how no one had even heard of Captain Trips and Frannie had never met Stu. Harold then raises a gun to his back, but quickly tucks it behind him when Stu turns around during his “We can’t predict the future” soliloquy.
The pair’s esoteric musings are interrupted when one of the search party members (Norris) tells Stu that Glenn wants him back at Mother Abagail’s house to go over his speech for that evening’s vigil. Norris also expresses his belief that despite Mother A’s immense power, there’s no way she could have survived in the wilderness for so long.
Meanwhile, Frannie decides to go over to Harold’s house and breaks into his basement. Her suspicions of his malice (and creepiness) are confirmed when she discovers the video feed into her and Stu’s bedroom along with a plethora of bomb making materials. She also finds his various angry manifestos and decides to speed read them a bit instead of getting the hell out of there.
As soon as she puts the papers back down, Harold predictably appears in the doorway and freaks out while refusing to let her leave. He then goes on a rant about how Captain Trips was supposed to be his great adventure–an adventure that included Frannie’s heart. Since Stu managed to ruin that part of things, he’ll just kill everyone except for her and try it again.
*Side Note: Did Harold plan on keeping Frannie alive the whole time? If so, then that part of the plan wasn’t very well thought out.
Frannie attempts to appeal to Harold’s humanity by explaining that he’s her last connection to her life from before. She also points out that people did care about him, but he refused to see it. Harold counters that he tried to connect with the world around him, but all he got for his efforts was 86 rejection letters and everyone hating him.
*Side Note: If all it takes is 86 rejection letters to become a psychopath, then I’d like to officially nominate myself for sainthood.
Frannie makes one last ditch effort to get through to him, explaining that his determination to survive is what helped her get through their journey to Boulder. They need to stay alive together so they can help the ones who come after them. It’s up to them to make the world better, not to destroy it even further.
The speech appears to work when Harold apologizes and draws Frannie into a hug. Seconds later, however, he locks her in his closet with the bomb making materials and tells her that she’ll finally realize his “worth” after he’s killed everyone at the vigil.
When Nadine arrives at Larry’s house to pick up Joe, he tells her that he’s not the same man she met on road. Empathy may have not been his strong suit before, but it’s a core part of who he is now. He also expresses how much he cares for both her and Joe.
Nadine is visibly moved by Larry’s words, but reluctantly wishes him luck playing at the vigil she secretly plans to blow up. When he reaches down to hug Joe goodbye, the boy whispers the first words we’ve heard from him thus far:
“Nadine and Mommy Nadine are two different people.”
After she leaves, Larry attempts to call someone on his walkie only to find the batteries removed. He then runs outside to get on his bike and follow Nadine, but discovers that she’s disabled it. As the realization of what this means dawns on him, Nadine drops Joe off with the other children at the school, where they’ll get to watch an ominously cued showing of Time Bandits and be safe from the blast. Joe tries to get her to stay, but she insists/lies that she’ll be right back.
Joe resigns himself to watching the movie (and being abandoned again) when he hears Mother Abagail’s voice say that there’s no place God can’t find her. The boy gets up, walks out of the very poorly supervised room, and wanders into the woods.
*Side Note: Seriously, who’s watching these kids?
He eventually comes across Mother Abagail laying across a rock, which causes him to give us our second sample of his voice in the form of an ear piercing scream.
Meanwhile, Harold meets up with Nadine at the amphitheater. After chastising her for showing weakness/feelings toward Larry, he tells her that Larry broke into his house recently. When Nadine asks why he didn’t tell her, Harold explains that he needed her to keep it together so their plan could still be executed. He also assures her that although Larry might know they were working together, he has no idea what’s about to happen next.
Victory and Death
Frannie manages to escape Harold’s basement by knocking out the glass in one of the ground level windows. It’s odd that a guy who notices when one of his chess pieces is slightly out of place didn’t account for this, but I digress…
Stu and Glenn are welcoming people to the vigil when Norris calls in to report that they’ve found Mother Abagail alive. As the town begins to celebrate the good news, Ray goes inside to tell Nick. He gets up to join everyone and is about to walk outside when he notices something next to the piano. After opening the lid, Nick sees that a bomb has been wired inside of it.
*Side Note: So Harold was able to pull off this masterful feat stealthy engineering, but didn’t think to secure the window where the person who knows his plan was being held captive?
Frannie sprints toward the vigil and collapses, barely able to warn Stu about the bomb that’s about to explode. He manages to get a large number of people clear, but not before the blast engulfs Mother Abagail’s home along with Nick and a host of others.
It’s frustratingly ironic that an episode nearly devoid of time jumps (a sticking point even for fans of the series like myself) also featured its weakest character work, which has thus far had been The Stand‘s strong suite.
Don’t get me wrong–there were still some incredible moments. Frannie and Harold’s confrontation is the first one that leaps to mind, although it was somewhat marred by Harold’s inconsistent portrayal (i.e. his psychotic super senses fritzing out for the sake of the plot). But the moments between Nadine and Larry were also incredibly powerful as well.
And that ending…there’s no way someone binging this whole show for the first time won’t immediately jump to the next episode no matter what they felt about this one.
Unfortunately, the rest of “The Vigil” got off to a very rocky start with Trashcan Man’s introduction and never truly recovered. The issue definitely wasn’t Ezra Miller, who gave 100% to their portrayal of the character and then some. We may have missed a lot of what made Donald Elbert the person we see on screen, but Miller still managed to sell the hell out it.
The problem lies with the script, which introduces this completely bizarre character and has Flagg place his trust in him for no discernible reason. I’m not saying we needed to see his entire journey to New Vegas (although that would’ve been cool), but by the time he’s being carried out of the penthouse, we don’t really know anything about him–including the story behind his distinctive moniker.
As far as the Trashcan Man’s “powers” are concerned, what we saw (placing explosives and helping with an indoor fire pit) was about the lamest reason possible for Flagg to decide “Yeah, this is the guy I should send to go find me some nukes.” This version of the story also makes it seem as though Flagg knows where the nukes are, which makes his reliance on a man who can barely form a complete sentence even more perplexing–especially for people who aren’t familiar with the source material.
It’s a shame they had to cut so much of Trashcan Man’s journey from the script, which I’m betting would have done a lot more to establish Flagg’s pull over him and why he’s so much more than just a crazy guy with a savant-level understanding of fire and explosives. I’d love for the series to prove me wrong in the coming episodes. As it stands now, however, this potentially great character looks to be completely hamstrung by a poorly executed entrance.
And then we have poor Mother Abagail, who continues to be little more than an impotent foil for Flagg. There was a brief moment of electricity during their confrontation, but that was mostly due to the talents of Whoopi Goldberg and Alexander Skarsgård. I’m not sure how things will play out in this iteration of the story, but it feels like we are running out of time for Mother A to have the narrative impact that she should.
I get that adapting a book (especially one as rich as Stephen King’s The Stand) is going to have to leave some things out. Whether it’s due to time/budget constraints or internal dialogue, the sacrifice of more than a few literary darlings is always required. But the gaps those cuts left in this episode–especially in the character development department–created a narrative chasm that all the great individual performances still couldn’t bridge.
Do I still proudly wear the badge of being one of this series’ staunch defenders? Absolutely. But I can’t deny being more than a little worried after this episode, either.
Next Episode: ‘The Walk‘
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