Happy Holidays one and all! CBS All Access has given us their gift of the much-anticipated, long-awaited new version of Stephen King’s epic masterpiece, The Stand. A work which I and many, many others all over the world consider to be one of the greatest novels of all time. And of course, given the current COVID state of the world, The Stand’s story of a worldwide pandemic couldn’t possibly be timelier.
Before we jump into the recap though, I should warn you that the structure of the series is quite – well – disjointed, to say the least. The story’s focus is all over the place at once, flashing back and forward, forward and back, at a speed that can give you motion sickness. I’m not sure why they decided to do it this way, except that because the series is limited to 9 episodes (another strange decision – to cover a story as epic as this in so few episodes just doesn’t make a lot of sense to me), that covering more time in less time via editing would be the way to go. But personally, I don’t think it was the best choice, because it makes the whole thing seem incredibly confusing to all but those who have already read the novel.
So with that in mind, we begin with one of the most prominent visual motifs in the book – a cornfield. We hear an old woman’s voice talking about “bitter times ahead,” and how a great evil is coming to destroy everything. Out west, she says, is where the evil kingdom shall arise – and where the good guys (we assume that’s who she’s talking to) will have to go. “Go west and make your stand. This is what God wants of you,” she says.
Cut to Boulder, Colorado – where a group of people in hazmat gear enter a church and take in the sight of the many dead lying all over the place in a state of horrid decay. One of the group has to run outside and puke from the overwhelming stench – Harold Lauder (Owen Teague). The team leader, Norris (Nicholas Lea) comes outside as they start removing the bodies and comforts poor Harold, telling him how he was an EMT for 26 years, and even after every horrible thing he saw, nothing compares to what they’re seeing now – 7 billion dead.
While searching through another house, Harold sees one of the other guys, Teddy (Eion Bailey), taking selections from the owner’s massive DVD collection (there’s a poster for 1990’s Darkman up on the wall – very cool). Harold asks him why he’s always stealing movies, and Teddy says that once the power’s back up he’ll be opening a drive-in theater. While talking about 1983’s Risky Business, Harold spots a tabloid rag with a maniacal-looking Tom Cruise on the cover. More on that later.
At the mass burial site, Norris addresses the group and tells them it’s okay if they can’t handle the work, which he considers to be “the most important in the Zone,” (referring to the Boulder Free Zone, aka the good guys’ home). But if they want to quit, they need to tell him so he can find replacements. He asks who’ll be returning the next day, and everybody begrudgingly follows Harold’s lead as he’s the first to raise his hand.
Then we cut to 5 months earlier in Ogunquit, Maine, where Harold’s from. While riding his bike by the house of his neighbor and secret crush, Frannie Goldsmith (Odessa Young), he stops to spy through a knothole in their fence. He sees Frannie taking care of her dad (Cameron McDonald), who’s sick with the flu that’s going around. A couple of punks (Spencer Drever, M.J. Kokolis) nab Harold and chase him until he wipes out, busting up his bike. They harass him, calling him a “pervert” and a “school shooter,” and of course, make sure to take pictures to post on Instagram to further humiliate him.
Harold drags his busted bike home, where things aren’t much better. Both his mom (Jennifer Juniper-Angeli) and sister Amy (Jesse Stanley) are sick too, and not exactly the nicest people in the world. To top things off, Harold excitedly opens up a letter from a publishing house that he’d submitted his writing to – but it’s a rejection letter. He goes to his room and impales the letter on a nail holding a bunch of similar letters. And just to add icing to his cake of a day, Harold finds his laptop’s busted, too. He lets out an understandable scream. While he tends to his road-rashed face and then whacks off to a picture of Frannie, the news on the radio talks about the quarantining of a little town in Texas called Arnette, which is under a full media blackout.
Cut to some miscellaneous, military and/or medical research facility in Kileen, Texas, where a guy named Stuart Redman (James Marsden) sits in a cell with his roomies – a bunch of guinea pigs. One of the doctors, Jim Ellis (Hamish Linklater), comes in to negotiate with Stu as he’s decided not to cooperate with the staff until someone tells him what’s going on. Jim tells Stu that he seems to be immune to the super-flu going around. He’s been in that cell for 70 hours and the guinea pigs are still alive, so that’s good news. Jim tells him there’s no sign of what PFC Campion (Curtiss Cook, Jr.) had, a virus the world is now affectionately calling “Captain Trips.” And who’s PFC Campion, you ask? Well, then we cut to Arnette, where Stu was hanging out at the local gas station with a bunch of his friends when a car came speeding toward them and crashed. We assume that’s PFC Campion.
Cut back to Stu and Jim – Jim says they’re trying to retrace Campion’s route and Stu demands to know what happened to everyone he was brought in with, his friends, his family. Jim admits that they’re all sick or dead. Then we cut back to the scene in Arnette where Stu helped a dying Campion out of his car and listened to him mumble about a clock and a countdown. Cut back to the facility where Stu says if they think they’re going to find every single person Campion came into contact with over a 1,700-mile route, they’re nuts. Jim tells Stu that the important thing is that Stu’s immune to the virus, and they need to study him to find out why and come up with a way to protect everyone else still alive. Jim asks Stu what his now-dead wife, a nurse, would have told him to do – and Stu agrees to let them run tests on him.
By this time back in Ogunquit, the whole place is a ghost town. Harold goes to Frannie’s and is happy to find her still alive – but she’s digging a grave for her dad. She asks how his family is and Harold says they’re all dead. He took their bodies to the funeral home but doubts they’ll ever be buried. Frannie says that someone in authority will come back and do it once the virus has run its course. But Harold says the people in authority are the ones responsible for releasing the virus in the first place. He offers to help her dig, but she snaps at him and kicks him out.
While Frannie goes through the process of saying goodbye to her father and buries him all by herself, Harold does some scavenging around town and finds a police cruiser. He takes the gun from the dead cop and then spots an old typewriter in a looted antique store’s window. All the while there’s a voiceover from (we assume) the President, who’s coughing the whole time he’s uselessly squashing rumors of the virus being 100% fatal and US-made.
That night, a dazed, shell-shocked Frannie has a dream of wandering in a cornfield. She hears a child laughing and tries to follow it – ending up in a clearing that looks like a crop circle. She meets the old woman we heard at the beginning, Abagail Freemantle (Whoopi Goldberg). She knows Frannie and tells her to come and find her, at a place called Hemingford Home in Colorado (it was Nebraska in the book, but okay). Frannie then wakes up and looks out her window, seeing the only light on in the whole town coming from Harold’s place. Harold, meanwhile, is busy typing away and making plans to get out of town.
Cut back to Kileen where Jim comes to get Stu, telling him the facility’s been compromised and they’re leaving for the CDC in Vermont. They load up in a military vehicle, the convoy led by a tough-looking dude named Cobb (Daniel Sunjata). He tosses a hood at Stu and tells him to wear it. When Stu understandably resists, Cobb lays down the law – it’s his job to keep Stu safe and cooperative. But it’s up to Stu just how comfortable he’ll be in the process. Stu puts on the hood.
Then we cut back to Harold, who’s making himself presentable while practicing what he’s going to say to Frannie to get her to come with him. Then we cut to the CDC in Vermont, where Jim hangs out with Stu in the much swankier facility. Jim says the whole thing’s run from a central hub controlled by a General Starkey. Jim leaves, saying he’ll be back later – and coughs. Uh-oh.
Back in Ogunquit, Harold goes to Frannie’s house, but she’s not answering. He goes in and hears the shower running upstairs. Having a bad feeling, he kicks in the door and finds a passed-out Frannie in the bathtub. He pulls her out and sticks his fingers down her throat, making her puke up the massive number of pills she took. He tends to her and tells her he has a plan – but Frannie says she wishes he hadn’t bothered. “I don’t wanna be here anymore,” she says. Harold reminds her about the nail in his wall – and how it was Frannie who put it there with his first rejection letter (years ago when she was his babysitter), telling him to never give up. He says his plan is to go to the CDC in Atlanta. Their immunity can help them come up with a vaccine or treatment. Fran agrees it’s a smart plan – then they sit there together in awkward silence. But after a moment, Fran rests her head on Harold’s shoulder. Aww.
Cut back to Stu, having the same dream as Frannie, about the cornfield. He follows the sound of a baby crying to that same clearing – but instead of seeing the old woman, he sees a red-eyed wolf. Stu wakes up to Jim entering the room – he’s in the full throes of the virus now and tells Stu that everyone there has it. Stu asks how he can get out of the facility, but Jim says Gen. Starkey’s barricaded himself inside the hub. He has no idea if the guy’s even alive. The door opens then and a very ill Cobb stumbles in. He’s there to kill them both and shoots poor Jim – but Stu grabs the scalpel Jim was carrying and slices Cobb’s disgustingly swollen neck with it. Then the door suddenly opens and Gen. Starkey’s voice guides Stu to the elevator.
Stu enters the hub to finally meet Starkey (it’s the always super-cool J.K. Simmons) and see the world’s devastation via the many monitors’ feeds from everywhere. Starkey tells Stu that Cobb wasn’t under any orders from him. He has no idea who Cobb was actually working for, but figures he was just following a checklist – “if X, then Y.” Starkey then says that they haven’t heard from anyone on the outside for 2 days. It’s all over, and Starkey himself is in the beginning stages of the virus. He gives Stu a key card and tells him to follow the stairs up to the surface. Then he basically has his own funeral, reading from “The Second Coming,” the famous, scary poem by William Butler Yeats before he shoots himself. And as Stu escapes the facility, he sees the dead laying everywhere.
Back in Ogunquit, we see Harold and Frannie on a pair of scooters. Harold spray paints a message on a wall: their names, the date and that they’re going to Atlanta. Then they putt-putt their way out of town. Then we cut back to Boulder, where Harold and Teddy stand watching as the trucks dump bodies into the mass graves. Then there’s a montage of Harold over time, writing, jogging and hanging out with Teddy – his voiceover talks about letting go of all the old grudges and hurts and accepting this new life. But then he has a dream about being in the desert with these weird, neon versions of busty, naked chicks enticing him. He sees a wolf, who stands with him as a shadowy figure emerges from behind the rocks – a figure who holds out a hand to Harold, offering him a small, black stone with reddish slashes in it, while the opening of Billy Joel’s “The Stranger” plays. Nice touch.
Harold’s voiceover continues as he talks about pride and hates being virtues instead of sins. And how letting go of all the old humiliations, hate and anger would be to deny his true self. Instead of changing to suit the world, the world should change to suit him. And as he practices making the same maniacally happy face that ol’ Tom Cruise made on that magazine cover, we see him walking around the Zone with that fake face plastered on. He makes nice-nice small talk with a very pregnant Frannie and Stu, who are clearly a couple in this new post-apocalyptic world. But then when he’s alone, Harold screams out his frustrations and bangs out on his typewriter about how he’s going to kill Stuart “dogc**k” Redman and maybe even Frannie, too.
Then we go back in time again, back to where it all started – with PFC Campion at his post, getting the alert call. All the alarms start going off and Campion sees one of the hazmat-clad scientists, banging on the glass as she pukes. Campion hits the lockdown button and all the doors start closing – except the one nearest him. Somehow it’s not working right and won’t close. Campion seizes the opportunity and takes off – and we see a dusty boot holding the door open. Very nice touch.
Campion drives home and grabs his wife and baby and they all drive off. On the road, Campion sees a tall, blond, Johnny Bravo-looking guy in denim and boots hitching for a ride. They pass him by – but then we see him in the rearview, all smiles as he cuddles up to the baby. They never say his name, but in the book, he’s called many things – like “The Dark Man. The hard case. The walkin’ dude.” But we’ll come to know him as Randall Flagg (Alexander Skarsgård).
So that’s it for the premiere episode. Confused yet? Yeah, like I said, the structure of just constantly jumping back and forth in time might have sounded like a practical idea when they were adapting it – but seeing it in practice is one of the real letdowns of this first episode. I don’t want to judge the whole thing based on it, but given that there are only 8 more episodes, I have to assume that this same, constant flashing back and forward will continue. So any of you out there who are seeing this story for the first time might actually do well to go out there on the ‘net and read one of the many available synopses of the book. Because only those with a general knowledge of the book can follow what’s going on without getting confused as to the who, when, where, how and why of everything.
The other major letdown for me is how narrow the show’s focus seems to be. One of the many things I loved about the book is its epic feel. You really got the sense of the world ending. It felt vast, wide. But this new retelling feels…small. Contained. Instead of seeing a lot of grand vistas, wide shots really showing the devastation, we see a lot of tight, enclosed spaces. And sequences that were in the book that really could have shown that off have been cut out altogether or hacked to pieces in the editing. One of the scariest parts of the book is when Stu tries to find his way out of the Vermont facility – but here, it’s over in a few all-too-quick shots. Or when Harold has his dream of seeing Flagg in the desert – but instead of actually being out in a gorgeous, southwestern desert locale, it’s obviously a set and a small one at that. So that doesn’t give me a lot of hope for the rest of the series.
On the other hand, there are some bright points. One of the other really affecting parts of the book is Frannie burying her father, and they kept that part of it intact. One of the details I remember most is that it was summer and really hot out, and Frannie had to strip down to her underwear as she struggled to drag her father’s body down the stairs and out to the garden. Odessa Young’s performance really gives you that same sense of fear, fatigue and sorrow, which is great.
Owen Teague is another highlight, to be sure. His portrayal of Harold is totally on point. He’s lanky, awkward, geeky, and angry – everything the character should essentially be. (In the book, he’s also really overweight, but I get why they did away with that part of the character. To have the actor go through such a dramatic physical change wouldn’t have been practical. They did the same thing in the 1994 miniseries and Corin Nemec was also an outstanding Harold.) I didn’t really mind the fact that Harold’s development over time is the main focus of the episode – I get why it was done, for practicality and time’s sake. But again, that kind of storytelling strategy also contributes to the feel of the whole thing’s narrow vision. Unfortunately, The Stand just feels way too small and way too short to be the true epic that the novel is.