“The Vigil,” the sixth episode of CBS All Access’ The Stand, introduces Donald Elbert, who becomes a key player in Randall Flagg’s plot against the world. Donald is known to fans of Stephen King’s apocalyptic opus by his more catchy nickname: Trashcan Man.
Trash has everything Randall Flagg, the Big Bad of the story, is looking for in a servant. He’s loyal, he’s destructive, and he’s really good at finding what remains of the US Army’s arsenal scattered around the Mojave Desert. As King illustrates in the text, he also deals with persistent mental illness stemming from a lifetime of pain and trauma. That’s where things get a little tricky for writer-director Josh Boone and showrunner Benjamin Cavell when it comes to adapting the character for screen.
[Ed. note: This story contains minor spoilers for “The Vigil” and previous episodes of The Stand.]
Ezra Miller (Justice League, Fantastic Beasts) had a hell of a job in front of him when agreed to play Trashcan Man. In the novel, King dedicates pages and pages to the character’s complex backstory, detouring the plot through a scenic route of his mental state. Readers learn that, as an eight-year-old, he started lighting his neighbor’s trash cans on fire (hence the nickname). Later, the elder Elbert killed Donald’s siblings and nearly finished off the whole family before the local cops intervened. The cop who shot his deranged father became the troubled boy’s stepfather, and the knowledge impacted him at a core level. King devotes multiple pages to Donald’s time at a mental hospital as a young teenager, where he was forced to endure shock treatment, the opposite of the help he needed.
A limited series doesn’t have the same real estate as a 1,000-page book, so there were always going to be a few shortcuts when it came to an adaptation. But when dealing with a character with mental health issues, the wrong shortcut can cross over the razor-thin line between thoughtful representation and caricature.
To that end, Miller takes a big swing with the 2020 version of Trashcan Man — but he whiffed it. Having watched the episode twice now, I can say the performance has to shoulder the majority of blame. What sends the character into over-the-line territory isn’t how he’s written, it’s all in Miller’s line delivery and physicality.
On the surface, this is the Trashcan Man from the book. We meet him in the process of blowing up oil tankers (just like in the book); we see him being being drawn to Randall Flagg, who knows that a promise of fire is all it’ll take to win this poor, tragic character’s loyalty (just like in the book); and we see him brought before Flagg himself in Vegas where The Walking Dude sets him on a mission to find the weapons that could obliterate the goodie two-shoes over in Boulder for good (just like in the book).
Donald is an extreme character that demands an extreme performance, but the choices Miller makes border on offensive mental illness stereotypes. His screeching line delivery of Trashcan Man’s most iconic phrase “My life for you!” sounds more like bullying imitation rather than an honest portrayal of someone with psychiatric disabilities. That extends to his physical performance as well. In conversation with Flagg, he repeatedly and exaggeratedly slams his burned arm to his chest in a way that recalls former President Trump’s mockery of a reporter’s physical disability in 2015. At the time, that echoed the worst kind of schoolyard taunts, and so does Miller’s performance.
Tom Cullen is another of The Stand’s characters who could easily tumble into offensiveness, but becomes nuanced in the hands of actor Brad William Henke. King waffles a little bit in the book on what kind of disability Tom has: Sometimes it’s described as a slight intellectual developmental disorder (“Light mental retardation,” as Lloyd puts it in now-defunct language), sometimes he’s just slow, King suggesting halfway through the book that “most folks took Tom’s sudden blackouts as a further sign of retardation, but they were actually instances of nearly normal thinking.” Over the years, Tom Cullen has become one of King’s most beloved characters thanks to his huge heart and selfless nature.
Henke, best known for appearances in Split and Orange Is the New Black, nails Tom’s purity and acknowledges his disorder in a way that feels grounded. His unique mind is only part of his identity as a character, not necessarily his defining trait. On paper, Henke faced the same basic challenges as Miller, but strikes a balance that doesn’t veer off into absurdity. Tom has memorized a standard greeting that he repeats over and over again, informing whoever he’s talking to about his developmental disability. The show’s writers use this repetition to bring some humor to the character without making fun of him. Henke himself adds so much what-you-see-is-what-you-get honesty to his performance, and it’s become a highlight rather than a pain point of this new incarnation of The Stand.
Mother Abigail is another difficult character to pull off in the modern day. Thanks to the non-linear approach to this adaptation, much of the 108-year-old character’s impact on the story is sidelined. When the series opens, we’re already in Boulder with the good guys, trying to jumpstart the new civilization. The linear version would have all the main characters dreaming of this mysterious old woman, calling them to her one by one as the survivors of the super flu choose their sides. With less time to flesh out Mother Abigail, Whoopi Goldberg’s job to make an impression and bring dimension becomes more challenging.
Goldberg spoke openly during a New York Comic Con virtual panel about how she did everything she could to avoid the “magical negro” criticism that has dogged the character since publication, and she largely succeeds even with a more limited screen presence. Much like Trashcan Man, Mother Abigail benefits greatly in the novel from King giving us a tour through her thought process, illuminating the key events in her very long life that put her in the position to be the figurehead for all the good guys in this story. Even in a nine-hour limited series there isn’t much time to dive into all of Mother Abigail’s insecurity, determination, pride, wisdom, and pain gained from outliving everyone she’s ever loved, but Goldberg, a longtime fan of the character who even tried to beat out Ruby Dee for the role back in 1994, infuses the character with a quiet strength, and through sheer force of her expositional dialogue hints at the complex backstory that we never get to see.
Henke made the most of his time as Tom Cullen, Goldberg has made the most of her time as Mother Abigail, but Miller has started off his interpretation on a foot so wrong I’m anticipating social media to be flooded with a certain GIF of Robert Downey Jr. in Tropic Thunder. It’s possible the first impression is not indicative of a layered performance down the line; there are three more episodes left before The Stand’s finale, and Trashcan Man plays an important role in the ending of the story. He will come to see that while he worships and adores Randall Flagg, the other people in Flagg’s camp are the same kinds of bullies who set him down the path of insanity to begin with.
Trash will be torn between his devotion to the leader and his hatred of everybody else, which is plenty of meat for an actor. There may be some balance brought to the performance by the end, but “The Vigil” is the kind of bad-taste introduction that can be impossible to recover from. The Stand, ultimately, is full of those kinds of highs and lows. I’ll never be completely sold on the fractured narrative approach to this story, which I feel undercuts the “feeling” of the book, which placed you in a world as it was falling apart, made you live in it as if you were there, and then brought you along on the good guys’’ journey to rebuild. As a longtime fan of the book, it’s nice to see so many great actors turning in fine work as some of my favorite literary characters. But if Henke and Goldberg represent the show’s highs, then Miller represents the show’s lowest low, and a lesson for all future actors who seek to bring this type of complexity to life.