Need a second to catch your breath to settle into the world of “The Stand” after two hours of dual-timeframe world-building and about 8 new characters? Too bad. In “Blank Page,” the series’ most dense episode to date, the audience meets no less than three new characters, get further information on the established player’s pre/post-pandemic, and comes to understand the series’ central conflict: all packed into a collection of dizzying location and time-jumps that demand one’s full attention.
Any attempt to track this episode’s beats in a traditional play-by-play recap would come off like Charlie Day’s Pepe Silvia corkboard, so instead, the focus here will be on character and plot developments in no particular order. The driving theme of this episode is that of a looming threat, and for the purposes of the larger story as presented up to this point, it does a fine job building on what the previous two episodes developed. In the “present” timeline, Larry (Jovan Adepo) and Stu (James Marsden) are getting ready for their first post-pandemic community meeting when one of Flagg’s (Alexander Skarsgård) escaped disciples shows up with a message. When Mother Abigail (Whoopi Goldberg) speaks to the deserter, the guy’s eyes go black, and in his best Big Bad Wolf impression, he communicates Flagg’s intention to come to Boulder and, “blow your house down!”
Flagg doesn’t have to keep speaking through deserters like this one to make that happen, though, as the audience learns that Nadine (Amber Heard) has had a connection with the Dark Man since childhood. Her appearances using a Planchette (think budget Ouija) to communicate with Flagg bookends “Blank Page,” and sets her character up as a conflicted agent of evil amongst the legion of good. The reveal at the end of the episode that Flagg wants Nadine to buddy up with Harold, the series’ budding psychopath, revs the conflict engine for the larger story, and does the important work of developing the necessary stakes for all of this.
This episode deserves a fair amount of credit for pulling all this together, as it allows the larger story to keep moving forward without waiting for more characters and backstory to develop. And boy howdy, are there more people that need introducing. During all these time and location jumps, new character Nick Andros (Henry Zaga) walks into a bar pre-pandemic, gets his ass kicked, then wakes “28 Days Later”-style after the world has mostly cleared out. Deaf and mute, Nick has a scene in the hospital that showcases his deep well of humanity. It’s there that he teams up with a developmentally disabled adult, Tom Cullen (Brad William Henke), who immediately establishes himself as the emotional heartbeat of this episode. Henke’s performance brings compassion, nuance, and a more sophisticated reading of a character that could easily (and has before) veered into insensitive territory, and the series is better for him.
And that’s the thing: there are several fun and interesting character moments in “Blank Page” that serve the larger narrative and (for those characters already introduced) build on the layers of backstory in episodes 1 and 2. And while those episodes also jumped around to different locations and time periods, this third one feels like it is off its ADHD meds. Stu’s encounter with vape pen connoisseur Glen Bateman (Greg Kinnear) is sandwiched between Nick’s introduction and all the drama surrounding Flagg’s deserter in Boulder. It provides a heap of world-building info about shared dreams that feels like a different piece from the rest of the episode.
The pacing up to this point has come off as deliberate and thoughtful. Yet, for all its interesting moments and important new characters, “Blank Page” feels decidedly frantic and a tad over-stuffed: like a parent cramming half the pantry into their child’s lunchbox on the first day of school. Even for fans of the book who already know these characters and where all this is headed, this episode is disorienting at times, and will likely try the patience of any viewers coming into this one with flashback fatigue.
It’s obvious that Benjamin Cavell and his writing team are using these first three episodes to set the narrative table, and “Blank Page” does a hell of a lot of necessary work getting pieces into their proper place. And it isn’t just the story that’s maneuvering into position; the characters are developing as well. Aside from Henke, Heard is a notable standout, here, and gives definition and purpose to a character increasing in importance and intrigue in equal measure. Glen, who is often little more than an exposition box for the larger story, enjoys a wonderful storytelling device to explain this away by gluing a vape pen into his hand, which makes all of his pontificating not just reasonable, but fun in a “Pineapple Express”-meets-“Dr. Strangelove” kind of way.
Yet if last week’s episode was akin to sneaking vegetables in with the mashed potatoes to help it go down, the overly enthusiastic embrace of flashbacks and location hops gives “Blank Page” the feel of a cold plate of broccoli with a reasonable promise of dessert behind it. Important for digestion? Sure. Good for you? Absolutely. Worth eating to get to what comes next? Unquestionably. Does all of that make it go down any easier, though? Naw, not really. [C+]
“The Stand” airs weekly on CBS All Access