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The Stand wavers at the beginning of the end of the world

Illustration for article titled iThe Stand/i wavers at the beginning of the end of the world
Image: The Stand
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Every time a book as popular as The Stand is adapted for screen, two questions emerge: Will it satisfy the built-in fanbase? And will it also work for viewers who are new to the story? In its very first installment, the CBS All Access iteration of one of King’s most popular books isn’t really succeeding in either endeavor. It’s, of course, far too early to condemn its efforts entirely. And The Stand’s pilot does check a lot of important boxes of the genre while also putting forth at least one intriguing character arc. But it still feels like too much is missing to make it really stand out as a memorable pilot.

I cannot put myself perfectly in the shoes of someone completely unfamiliar with The Stand, but I have to imagine that the first episode would feel overwhelming in its smattering of hasty exposition. Sure, the story is ultimately quite simple—your standard post-apocalyptic epic. A superflu causes a global pandemic (sound familiar?) and wipes out most of the population in a matter of days. The few survivors left are faced with rebuilding the world. Whereas the book moves linearly, the series flips between past and present. In the present, a group of survivors work to clear Boulder, Colorado of its corpses and rebuild society. In the past, we see how the superflu so rapidly unravels these characters’ lives, sowing chaos and something even more sinister.

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So, yes, your standard post-apocalyptic epic. And yet, the pilot barrels so rapidly through time, place, and character that I’m not convinced it does the legwork of captivating blank-slate viewers. There are glimmers of the more fantastical elements of the story that pop in: dreams of a cornfield and an old woman named Mother Abagail (played by Whoopi Goldberg); a glowing stone on a necklace; red-eyed wolves; Alexander Skarsgård lurking around in a denim jacket. The pilot can’t answer all its mysteries at once. It’s already somewhat bloated, and a little bit of secrecy is essential to the fantasy/sci-fi genre.

And at the same time, the episode on its own isn’t quite as immersive or thrilling as it wants to be even for readers of the book. The challenge any adaptation of The Stand faces comes down to distillation. It is an immensely character-driven story. While King’s world-building in the book delights, the real reason for the book’s success and longevity is that its people feel real and complicated, their interiors as fully realized as the more surface-level details. It helps that King uses well over 1,000 pages to develop those backstories and trajectories. Hollywood has to use shorthand and shortcuts, which means distilling these characters and their journeys to the most essential elements. Sometimes, nuance is stripped along the way. A film adaptation of The Stand never came to fruition after a full decade in development. The story simply doesn’t fit into a single movie’s confines—at least not without losing much of what makes it great. A miniseries seemed to be the natural solution, and there was one in 1994.

The pilot focuses on three of the sprawling group of leading characters from the book: Frannie Goldsmith (Odessa Young), Stu Redman (James Marsden), and Harold Lauder (Owen Teague). Stu is a handsome and sharp regular dude from Texas who spends much of the episode locked up as a guinea pig being tested due to his immunity to the virus. He’s one of the first handful people exposed, the result of a military/government operation gone wrong and one lower-rung soldier choosing his family over containment, unknowingly sparking the end of the world with that choice. Stu has to swiftly go from regular dude from Texas to action hero once it becomes clear that some of the higher-ups see his immunity and knowledge as more of a liability than an asset. He makes a solid viewer surrogate, dumped into the middle of a chaotic and frightening world where he has to piece things together for himself. His scenes make for the most action-packed and sci-fi-leaning ones.

Then, over in Ogunquit, Maine, a quieter but ultimately more disturbing story unfolds. Only two residents of this seaside vacation town survive: Harold, a tortured teen writer who affixes all his literary rejections to a massive nail on his bedroom wall, and his former babysitter Frannie, who Harold is in love with. Frannie spirals through the grief and shock of the sudden apocalypse, faced with the physical challenge of burying her father and then attempting suicide before Harold rescues her and proposes that they get out of town together. There’s a lot left to be desired when it comes to the character development of Frannie, which returns to that distillation issue. She feels flat here in the pilot, already lacking the specificity and depth she’s richly drawn with in the novel. Which means that by default, The Stand’s pilot is most interested in its male characters, which I’m hoping doesn’t become a pattern.

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The episode unfolds largely from Harold’s perspective. There’s a fun sleight of hand that happens with the way Harold’s introduced. We start with him in Boulder, working on a crew that’s clearing out bodies, work that he’s squeamish about. We then see him bullied in the past at the onset of the superflu. It seems, at first, like the episode is setting him up to be an unlikely hero, a misunderstood nerd whose intellect saves the day at the end of the world. Well, that’s probably how Harold sees himself. As the pilot progresses, Harold’s true nature emerges. He doesn’t seem all that sad that everyone in his life is dead. He really does fancy himself a misunderstood genius. He’s smart and resourceful, but he’s also narcissistic, possessive, and dangerous.

Here, The Stand probes how toxic masculinity can so easily spiral into violence. Harold seems mostly harmless at first, his crush on Frannie a little creepy, sure. But he doesn’t cross any overt lines at first. Then, we see in the future that a pregnant Frannie is with Stu. Something has happened to pour gasoline on the flame of Harold’s hate, and he’s playing the long game, practicing false smiles and writing a genuinely terrifying manifesto on pride and hate while promising to kill Stu and maybe even Frannie. No, Harold is no misunderstood boy or unexpected hero. He’s got all the vitriol of an incel. In some ways, Harold’s the scariest part of the episode.

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The greatest achievement of the show so far is its casting. Young, Marsden, and Teague are all fantastic in their respective roles. Young does the most she can with the barebones she’s given. Marsden is classic hero material. And Teague delights and terrifies as Harold, potently harnessing the character’s insidious nature. Those fake smiles are genuinely haunting. Harold’s arc in the pilot contains the most hints toward a deeper story than mere post-apocalyptic thrills.

The Stand is ultimately about good versus evil, both sides bolstered by the high stakes of the end of the world. In the pilot, we start to learn a little bit about the people who will be so vital to this chess game between good and evil. It’s a well constructed episode, but it lacks in the character development department, especially when it comes to Frannie. It’s difficult to distill these characters and their stories, a challenge The Stand can hopefully eclipse as it unfolds.

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Stray observations

  • I know that was a lot of book talk, but I do think that the context of the book and its previous adaptation woes are important to the conversation of this new iteration, so I wanted to get into some of that upfront. Moving forward, most book talk will be reserved for the Strays where I’ll comment on some of the changes made if I think they’re significant. That means there will occasionally be spoilers in these Strays, so read at your own risk.
  • On that note, please try to label spoilers in the comments. I personally do find the notion of “spoiling” a book that’s been out for over 40 years to be a little silly, but I know some people care a lot!
  • For book stuff, I’m working off of the uncut version by the way.
  • One understandable and yet frustrating change from the book is the decision to have Frannie attempt suicide. This does not happen in the book, but it’s an effective Hollywood shortcut to show Frannie changing from thinking Harold is just some annoying kid to feeling some responsibility for and kindness toward him. That change happens in a much more subtle and slower way in the book, which would be harder to pull off here. But it also is frustrating in the grand scheme of things, because we really do get so little character development of Frannie in this pilot, with the suicide attempt being the main focus of her arc, and I fear The Stand is making the mistake that television so often makes by assuming that toxic men (Harold, in this case) are inherently more interesting than the people around them and, more troublingly, the people they harm.
  • Can’t wait to see more of Alexander Skarsgård as Randall Flagg, another bit of genius casting.
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