There’s loathing in New Vegas, all right. We finally have an episode where they stay pretty narratively linear. Gone was the frantic, haphazard, and poorly-thought-out flashbacks that made the first four episodes a muddled mess. So you’re thinking I’m going to break my ratings scale and all will be well in the Kingverse, right?
Not so fast. “Fear and Loathing in New Vegas” is the episode that most shows the problems with this adaptation.
I mentioned LAST WEEK that the biggest issue facing the show is that it doesn’t know what it wants to be. A good adaptation can faithfully follow the source material. Yet, a good adaptation can also seamlessly branch off and focus on different or wholly new parts of the sandbox. After 5 episodes, it’s pretty clear CBS’s The Stand does neither. It hasn’t really pushed the boundaries in any new and intriguing ways. And it certainly hasn’t maintained itself as a faithful adaptation.
Time and again in this episode, the show tries to branch out from the source material, but then immediately yo-yos back to book plot points, leaving what I can imagine a non-book reader as being a confused mess.
There’s two main plot progressions this week. We FINALLY see Randall Flagg’s Vegas. “New Vegas” is a Caligula-inspired nightmare of excess. We’re brought into this New Vegas by Julie Lawry, played by ARROW’s Kat McNamara. Last we saw Julie she was chewing up scenery with Nick and Tom. Here, she continues to play to the extremes this Vegas exhibits, using her sexuality to secure a high rank in Flagg’s kingdom. We meet up with Lloyd Henreid as well, now secure as Flagg’s Number 2 and seen as a celebrity with Julie on his arm.
BookVegas was actually run as a near-military operation of precision and order. Flagg insisted it be drug free and, in a memorable scene, a character was executed for drug use. In what I imagine was because of the time crunch here, Vegas is presented as a fever dream of debauchery. Drugs and sex everywhere you can see, with a reminder that this is CBS’s “premium” product with random nudity by background extras. Personally I’d have skipped any number of the earlier flashbacks to give more time to slowly developing Vegas. When they so shortchanged the central source of evil and conflict in the show that you have to show a random gladiator arena where the losers are chainsawed to pieces by the winners? A bazooka to the head is more subtle.
Meanwhile, showing the split personality of the writing, Vegas is also shown to welcome anyone. When developmentally-disabled Tom Cullen enters Vegas as a spy, he’s quickly mocked by the processor. The processor is then threatened by another of Flagg’s minions, pointing out Flagg’s Vegas welcomes anyone and everyone that willingly wants to join.
We also have spy number two, Dayne Jurgins this week quickly trying to connect with Flagg. Instead of this truly setting off warning signs with Lloyd, the meeting is arranged. While Flagg already knows of Dayna and Judge Ferris being spies, Tom’s nature blocks him from being sensed and Flagg tries to talk Dayna into telling him who is the third spy. Dayna stands strong, tries to kill Flagg and ends up killing herself when she realizes he will brainwash her into giving up Tom. What was a powerful character in the book is trimmed to barely 15 minutes screen time total here. While her death in the book served as a crisis of confidence for Flagg, here he immediately shrugs it off and just sighs and sits on his couch. Our look in at Vegas ends here. Tom has been warned by Dayna that he should run by note, but of course he can’t read so his fate is up in the air. Judge Ferris is yet to be seen, though Flagg notes she’s on her way.
The second main focus of the episode is Harold…oh boy! Harold’s story picks up trying to cover up last week’s murder of Harold’s friend by Nadine. Harold and Nadine spend the episode taking turns being totally committed to Flagg in one scene, then immediately hedging and wondering if they’re doing the right thing depending on what conflict is needed for any particular scene. Sometimes I wonder if this show was envisioned to be a choose your own adventure, like Bandersnatch, but they forgot somewhere along the way.
The conflict was present in the book, and with the book giving you more time with each character and in the character’s heads, you felt for their decisions and hoped they’d somehow steer away from their fate. Mother Abigail has a great line to Nadine in this ep: “we all have a choice until we don’t.”
This sends Nadine into the arms of Larry Underwood. The show’s done so little to hint at their relationship, though; and you’ve already seen bits and pieces of the future to know Nadine stands no chance, that her offering herself to Larry comes across as a time waster at best. Larry’s decision to shun her is honestly a head scratcher. In the book, there was a bit of a triangle between Larry, Nadine, and non-CBS version character Lucy Swann. Here, Larry’s single, ready to mingle, and passes on Amber Heard’s Nadine. Maybe Larry’s band pre-Captain Trips was Hollywood Vampires?
Harold doesn’t survive poor writing this episode either. He continues to second guess Nadine’s killing of his friend, someone that would most likely die when Harold’s plan to blow up Boulder takes shape anyway. Harold’s already been shown to be a Flagg loyalist with delusions of grandeur to take power in New Vegas. Why would I buy he’s so torn up about his friend?
Further into the episode, a random intern on set must have reminded the writers that Frannie and Larry investigated Harold, as Fran suddenly realizes Harold is acting weird and needs to be investigated. Again, they randomly go 180 and JUMP back on book when this really hasn’t been set up on the show. They haven’t spent enough time together in this Boulder timeline for Fran to have concerns. Yet, Larry agrees, because he’s spent even less time with Harold on screen but the book says Larry does it, so Larry does it!
Other than finding a smiling Tom Cruise picture Harold uses to practice smiling “normal,” nothing looks out of place other than a locked basement door. They try to build suspense here with Harold nearly catching Larry in Harold’s house but then swerve with Harold having cameras everywhere, even in Frannie and Stu’s bedroom, showing he’s been ahead of them the whole time (and still mightily creepy for that matter).
Elsewhere in the episode, Mother Abigail has a mind meld with a wolf and decides to leave Boulder. As word gets out, Harold watches and listens to the chaos with his surveillance equipment and gives a Tom Cruise-inspired cheshire cat grin as Blue Oyster Cult’s “Don’t Fear the Reaper” kicks in over the end credits. The credits are the highlight of the episode, as the song is used in the looking-better-all-the-time 1994 ABC version and in the novel itself.
I was looking forward to a look at Vegas and got a caricature of debauchery instead. At least they seem past the flashbacks at this point and can go linearly from here. I can’t really see a course correction at this point though; too many bad choices, shortcuts, and tone shifts have marred some good casting. I can’t help but think they had to go so insanely over-the-top on Vegas, because so far they’ve really only presented the Mother Abigail side of things in Boulder as a bunch of infighting devious mopes. If ShowVegas looked like BookVegas? Sign me up for that over this boring Boulder.
Possibly the worst episode of the series to date. We’ll say 3/10 though, the same as last week’s because while the plot’s hosed at this point, at least the flashbacks are gone.
Project Blue name drops? We’re 0 for 5!