Forty-two years after it was first published and 26 years after the last miniseries version, Stephen King’s The Stand arrived this week on CBS All Access to enthrall a new generation in ways that the producers couldn’t have possibly imagined when it went into production. Fans of the book will know that this ambitious narrative won’t always be so focused on a population-decimating pandemic, but the series premiere has to deal with a lot of talk of contagions, coughing victims, and lines like “make the Spanish Flu look like a sham” — it’s all scarily reminiscent of the real world in 2020. It’s too soon to tell whether the topicality is a boon or a hindrance because it hits too close to home, but the premiere is confident genre television, something that feels like it’s already standing on its own, just loyal enough to the source while also restructuring and reshaping parts of King’s epic novel. It’s a very promising beginning that just happens to have the nerve to call itself “The End.”
Director and co-writer Josh Boone (The New Mutants) takes source material that sprawls across multiple locations and characters and pares it down in the premiere to focus on two arcs driven by two very different men: Harold Lauder (Owen Teague) and Stu Redman (James Marsden). They drastically play with King’s setup, jumping around in time in ways that are going to throw fans off, but the result is a premiere that feels more focused than it could have (and also more focused than the miniseries) by saving major characters for future episodes. There are mere glimpses of the two titans of this novel — Mother Abagail (Whoopi Goldberg) and Randall Flagg (Alexander Skarsgård) — and characters like Nadine Cross (Amber Heard), Glen Bateman (Greg Kinnear), Nick Andros (Henry Zaga), and Larry Underwood (Jovan Adepo) will have to wait for future episodes.
One of Boone’s most fascinating choices is to take one of King’s most effective opening sequences and basically splice it through the episode via flashbacks. In the book, a man named Campion runs from the breach at the government medical facility at which he works, grabbing his wife and child before hitting the road. Much later, after spreading disease across the country, Campion crashes into a gas station occupied by average-joe Stu Redman, who becomes the center of this episode. Boone opens with the immune Stu already in a medical facility, watched over by Dr. Ellis (a great Hamish Linklater), and drops Campion’s escape as his episode closer. It’s indicative of how he’s playing with time and structure — staying loyal in many ways but presenting a familiar story for many in a new manner.
After a prologue that takes place well after the plague that killed 7 billion people was unleashed, The Stand cuts back to five months earlier in Maine, introducing viewers to the essential Frannie Goldsmith (Odessa Young), who lives with her father and is being stalked by a kid she used to babysit, the reclusive Harold Lauder. What’s often been played as a frustrated, unrequited love interest has been forged into something more instantly dangerous here in Harold. This version of Harold is more of a representation of toxic masculinity as he listens to conspiracy radio, types in his dark bedroom, and masturbates to a photo of Frannie. He’s even introduced spying on her through a hole in a fence in a clear invasion of her privacy. Before long, he will be the only man left in Maine, and Frannie will be forced to align with him.
Making Harold into more of a toad creates an interesting contrast in the premiere between his bad guy and Stu’s more upstanding vision of manhood. Stu is introduced at an Army Research Facility in Killeen, Texas, flashing back to the aforementioned gas station scene, which should be right around when people remember that this is a streaming series that doesn’t have the same network restrictions as the original miniseries. It can be much more gruesome and scary. In the premiere, Boone and his producers seem to just take advantage of some language and violence allowances, but let’s hope he really uses the chance to be darker and edgier than the other version could be.
Frannie’s dad dies and she starts to have visions of Mother Abagail in the cornfield. She tries to treat Harold like a stray dog she doesn’t want to take in, but the world continues to collapse around her. After the power goes out, Harold finds Frannie in the middle of a suicide attempt, saving her from the edge. He comforts her and tells her that they could be the only hope for the future of humankind. He suggests they go to the CDC in Atlanta and puts on “Changes” by Black Sabbath, which could be a bit on the nose for this show but kind of fits Harold’s blend of threatening naïveté. What else would you put on to woo the love of your life who you just stopped from killing herself but Sabbath?
While all of this is going down, Stu is realizing the intensity of his situation more with each day in forced quarantine. The doc is his only friend and consolation, but that doesn’t last. After being transferred to an underground bunker run by a four-star general named Starkey (J.K. Simmons, a perfect match for Ed Harris from the original miniseries), Stu discovers the doc has got it too. Worried that if everyone dies, he will be stuck in the bunker till he runs out of food, Stu realizes he’s got to go. After the dangerous Cobb (Daniel Sunjata) tries to kill Stu, he escapes to a surveillance room occupied by Starkey, who reads him Yeats before killing himself. (It’s a good example of something twisted from the source but also just loyal enough in that Starkey did quote Yeats but not to Stu.)
As Stu escapes the facility and Harold and Frannie speed out of Maine, the narrative loops around on itself again. We jump back to that prologue, revealing that our three main characters from this premiere are together, and Frannie is pregnant. As Stu has his arm around Frannie, you can practically hear Harold’s blood boil. It’s a whole community handling cleanup in Colorado, but Harold has another idea, spurred on by dreams of the Dark Man, Randall Flagg himself, introduced to the whistling part from Billy Joel’s “The Stranger.” He’s tempting Harold to come out West and join his cause, and anyone who knows this book or original series knows a lot of time has to be filled in from how Stu and Harold first escaped to their last scenes in the episode. And that there’s so much more to come.
• That was totally Bryan Cranston as the voice of the president coughing his way through a final national address, right? He’s not in the credits, but that in itself feels like a wink to the original miniseries, in which Ed Harris and Kathy Bates were uncredited.
• J.K. Simmons is so great at reading Yeats. Let’s Kickstarter a podcast where he reads foreboding poetry. If you’re eager to read more, the brilliant piece is called “The Second Coming,” which King used to foreshadow the arrival of Randall Flagg.
• The Sabbath and Joel needle drops may be a bit obvious, but props to the deeper cut of “Furr” by Blitzen Trapper as the narrative jumps forward to cleanup in Colorado. It’s a song with lyrics about transformation and calling that feel perfect for this show: “And I lost the taste for judging right from wrong / For my flesh had turned to fur / Yeah, and my thoughts they surely were / Turned to instinct and obedience to God”.
• Hamish Linklater is so perfect for this kind of cynical doctor role, and this one offers pleasant flashbacks to his great turn on Legion.
• Some interesting movie nods here that almost date the miniseries. Harold has an Eraserhead poster in his room and references T2: Judgment Day. The best one, though, is the Darkman poster in one of the cleanup scenes, in that director Sam Raimi cameoed in the original miniseries as Bobby Terry. That doesn’t feel accidental.