This week brings us the long awaited premiere of The Stand on CBS All Access. This is the second time that Stephen King’s seminal novel has been adapted for television, although this go around feels significantly more prescient.
For those of you unfamiliar with the source material, the story begins with a pandemic that ends up wiping out 99.4% of the entire earth’s population. Folks who read the book or watched the 1994 miniseries probably felt like they were suspending their disbelief a bit when people didn’t take the the pandemic seriously until it was too late. Unfortunately, those of us living through the hell of 2020 know all too well how plausible that scenario is.
From there, things go in a much more epic and supernatural direction…but we’ll get to that soon enough. For now, let’s take a look at how this version of the The Stand shapes and updates it’s tale of an epic final battle on earth between the forces of Good vs. Evil.
A couple quick notes before we get started:
- This recap/review will definitely include spoilers.
- Even though the narrative is very non-linear, I’ll be streamlining things in certain places for clarity.
Remembrance and Disposal
The episode opens with an ominous voice over about the stand the forces of good will have to make against evil. After that, we head to post-pandemic Boulder Colorado, where a salvage/body disposal team are entering a home. One of the younger team members (Harold Lauder) is overcome by the miasma of death and runs back outside to puke. The crew chief comes outside and assures him there’s no shame in getting sick after coming face to face with the aftermath of plague that killed over seven billion people.
After taking a moment to collect himself, Harold heads back inside the house, where one of his team members is collecting movies that he plans to use to open a drive in theater. Harold also notices a magazine featuring Tom Cruise grinning on the cover with an unsettling level of glee.
Side Note: I know that last detail probably doesn’t seem important, but it will be later.
That evening, the crew chief commends everyone for working under such grueling and macabre conditions. He also assures them that there’s no shame if anyone feels they can’t take doing the job anymore. After asking who plan to return to raise their hands, nearly everyone does, including Harold.
Harold’s Very Bad Day
We then flash back to five months earlier and Harold riding his bike through Ogunquit, Maine. He stops at the home of his former babysitter Frannie, who’s come outside to check on her father (Peter) working in the yard. A DJ on the radio discusses the town’s upcoming Fourth of July celebrations while Peter struggles to fight through what appears to be a severe cold.
As Harold watches Frannie and her dad interact through a hole in their fence, a pair of boys grab and throw him to the ground. After accusing him of being a peeping tom (fair), one of them also brings up that Harold was suspended from school for writing a fictional manifesto that detailed violence he wanted to inflict upon his classmates.
Harold manages to fight off one of the boys and get back on his bike, peddling like crazy while his attackers give chase on foot. Just when it appears he’s about to get away from them , he runs over some roadkill and completely wipes out. With the asphalt doing infinitely more harm then they’d planned, the boys threaten Harold not to return to their neighborhood while recording/posting his humiliation on social media.
After they leave, Harold picks up his broken bike and walks the rest of the way home. On the way there, he passes through a crowd of people on a boardwalk, many of whom appear to be fighting off a cold–and a few kids his age who cruelly laugh at his misfortune. We also hear another radio DJ discussing how the CDC recommendations against large gatherings wouldn’t stop her from celebrating on the Fourth (which hits way to close to home these days).
Once Harold arrives home, his day gets even worse when he finds a rejection letter from Cemetery Dance Publications. He then checks on his sick mother, who tells him that his father isn’t feeling well either and headed home. On the way to his room, Harold’s older sister (who’s also sick) complains to him about her canceled bridal shower. All he cares about, however, is his novel’s rejection letter, which he impales through a nail on his wall holding a substantial collection of them.
Side Note: This is the same way Stephen King collected his rejection letters when he first began sending his work off to publishers.
As if his day couldn’t get any worse, Harold opens his book bag to discover that the fall he took destroyed his laptop, causing him to let out a rage filled (and well earned) scream.
That night, as he’s cleaning up his cuts from the fall, a conspiracy talk show host talks about a strict military quarantine taking place in the town of Arnett, Texas. Before going to sleep, he jerks off while staring at a picture of Frannie
Captain On Deck
Over in Kileen, Texas, Arnett resident Stu Redman finds himself confined against his will inside a U.S. Army Research Facility. He’s visited in his cell by a surprisingly friendly doctor named Jim Ellis, who attempts to convince him to continue cooperating with their medical tests. Ellis also informs his patient/prisoner that he appears to be completely immune to the virus (dubbed Captain Trips) which caused Arnett to be quarantined.
Side Note: No, I don’t know why the virus is called Captain Trips. No one in the fictional world of The Stand or our real world seems to, either–aside from Stephen King, I’m sure. Perhaps whoever named it was just a really big Grateful Dead/Jerry Garcia fan.
We then learn through a flashback that Stu and some friends were hanging out at the local gas station/watering hole three days ago when a soldier from a base in California (Charles Campion) crashes his car near them. When Stu & Co. go to help, they find that Campion along with his wife and daughter are in severely bad shape. In addition to showing symptoms of the worst flu strain imaginable, their necks are grotesquely distended.
As Ellis continues to interrogate Stu, we discover that he was medically discharged from the military and a widower. We also learn that before the army took him, the virus managed to kill his dog. When Stu asks what happened to the friends he came in with, Ellis informs him that all of them and their families contracted the virus. The only one left alive is one of their daughters, who won’t make it much longer. Every person who has come in contact with the virus has developed symptoms and died except for Stu, meaning he might be their best shot at developing a vaccine before Captain Trips takes out even more people.
After Ellis asks him what his wife (who was a former nurse) would want him to do, Stu agrees to let them continue using him for their tests.
The Longest Goodbye
One week later, Harold rides his bike through a nearly deserted Ogunquit. He arrives at Frannie’s house and watches through a hole in the fence as she digs a grave for her father. She initially stays quiet when he calls out to to her, but decides to answer and let him into the yard.
After awkwardly pointing out that Frannie already has experience with loss due to her brother dying a few years ago, Harold says that his family all made it to the funeral home before the pandemic closed everything down. As far as he’s concerned, though, they’ll never be buried.
Frannie counters that his family will be buried properly once the virus burns itself out and things return to normal. Harold scoffs at this, explaining how it was common knowledge (at least in internet conspiracy circles) that the virus was actually a military bioweapon.
He then offers to help Frannie with the burial, but she sternly rejects him, declaring that she’s not his “f***ing babysitter” anymore. Harold responds by telling her that to accept the fact that no one else is coming. He then rides into town and takes a gun off of a dead police officer. The power of holding a deadly weapon appears to temporarily wash away the shame of being harshly rebuked by his crush. He also finds an antique typewriter, which will allow him to continue writing his stories.
Meanwhile, the act of moving and burying her father takes a catastrophic toll on Frannie. That night, she stares blankly at the television as a recording of President of the United States urges citizens to remain calm and hopeful through his own intermittent coughing fits.
After the power goes out, she has a dream in which she’s walking through a cornfield while a small child zips past her in all directions (yes, its as creepy as it sounds). She eventually finds to a crop circle with a doll laying in the middle of it. When Frannie goes to pick it up, she is met by a woman named Abagail Freemantle who instructs her to to come see her in Hemingford Home, Colorado.
The next day, Harold gets himself cleaned up before heading over to Frannie’s house again. After practicing what he’s going to say to her and packing some supplies, he arrives to find that she’s attempted to kill herself by overdosing on pills. He manages to save Frannie by forcing her to vomit them up, which she’s anything but grateful for.
Harold then shows her his plan, which is for them to travel to the CDC in Atlanta. Since they are two of the only people in their town who weren’t affected by the virus, they likely hold the key to developing a vaccine. He also reveals that her advise to nail every rejection letter to his wall and never give up was one of the defining moments of his life.
Frannie isn’t moved much by the story about his rejection letter nail, but his plan does give her a much needed dose of hope. As Harold sits back next to her, she lays her head against his shoulder, giving him a much needed dose of hope, as well.
The next day, the pair pack up some belongings and head out on separate motorcycles toward Atlanta. Before they depart, he spray paints their names and destination on a prominent wall so that others survivors can find them.
End of Watch
Ellis wakes up Stu in the middle of the night to inform him that they’re moving to a facility in Vermont due to one of the nurses testing positive for the virus. Before departing, they’re joined by Dr. Cobb, who looks more like someone who tears people apart instead of putting them back together. Unlike Ellis, he doesn’t ask for Stu to cooperate or answer his questions. Instead, he implies that his cooperation will be obtained whether he’s willing to follow their orders or not.
After arriving and settling into the new facility/fortress, Ellis and Stu start to become friends–and both of them become increasingly wary of Cobb. Stu also ends up having a cornfield dream very similar to Frannie’s. In his, however, he ends up face to face with a wolf sporting glowing red eyes and emitting the sound of a baby crying (yes, it’s as creepy as it sounds).
When Stu awakens, he’s met with another nightmare in the form of a very sick Ellis arriving to say goodbye. The doctor admits that he was going to slash his own throat rather than succumb to the virus, but gives Stu his scalpel instead to help him escape the base before things completely go off the rails.
As if on cue, Cobb walks in sporting a distended neck and a psychotic gleam in his eye. Ellis attempts to reason with him and is shot. Before Cobb can get to Stu, he uses the scalpel Ellis gave him and slashes open his mucus filled throat. He then hears the voice of the base’s commander (General Starkey) on the intercom, who guides him up to the main control center.
When Stu arrives, he finds Starkey watching multiple video feeds of the virus wreaking havoc all over the world. The general informs him of his belief that Cobb’s attempted murder was an order from somewhere up the chain to make sure that knowledge of where the virus came from didn’t get out. Even with the world collapsing, some men will follow their orders to the very end.
He then gives Stu a key card to leave the base, but first reads a poem (‘The Second Coming‘ by W.B. Yeats) from a book his deceased daughter gave him before shooting himself in the chest. After staying with the general in his final moments, Stu makes his way past the hordes of dead scientists and soldiers and outside into the abandoned world.
Back in the present, Harold’s quick thinking saves the movie collector’s life during a disposal operation, earning him the nickname Hawk. He quickly earns a degree of respect and camaraderie from the people of Boulder that he never had during his life before the pandemic. He also develops a newfound confidence, going so far as to attempt to mimic both the mannerisms and self assured intensity of the Tom Cruise magazine cover he found on his first day with the disposal crew.
Instead of embracing a fresh start, however, Harold refuses to let go of the slights and cruelty he suffered in the past. The one that still stings the most is not winning the affection of Frannie, who’s currently in a relationship with Stu and pregnant. Despite being outwardly kind to them both, he secretly plans to kill for Stu taking what he felt was rightfully his…and maybe Frannie, as well.
Harold is also visited in his dreams by a man out west who rules over a kingdom of pride and debauchery–a place where he could be so much more than he ever dreamed.
The episode ends with another flashback, this time to the moment when Campion decided to break containment and attempt to save his family after the military-engineered virus gets loose. He shouldn’t have even been able to do so after lockdown protocols went into effect, but the door leading from his station was held open by the foot of the man Harold saw in his dream.
As Campion. drives away from the base, we see the man smiling at him in his rearview mirror.
I love a good non-linear story as much as anyone, but the nesting doll of flashbacks we get in The Stand‘s opening chapter ends up hampering the narrative more than helping it. Fortunately, things come together by the end in a way that leaves plenty of potential for a great story to unfold.
I’ll admit to being a bit disappointed that we didn’t spend more time examining the immediate fallout of Captain Trips ravaging the world. Perhaps that will get explored in future episodes, but it doesn’t seem likely. Instead, we’re presented with a cast of fascinating characters who’s stories still have significant gaps to be filled in before things can really get going.
Two of the most interesting characters (Randall Flagg and Abagail Freemantle) are relegated to delightfully tantalizing cameos that might also feel completely bewildering for people who haven’t read the book. That being said, I loved the detail of Flagg holding the door open that caused Captain Trips to escape the lab. Alexander Skarsgård is more than skilled enough to portray a human personification of pure/supernatural evil, but that was still a really nice touch.
While the rest of the cast immediately grabbed me, I wasn’t sure how to feel about Harold Lauder (played by Owen Teague) until the very end of the episode. His sad sack creepiness initially made him feel like a walking trope, complete with a fictional school shooter manifesto. By the time we see him in Boulder, however, Harold is an exponentially more fascinating character–a man who refuses to cleanse his soul of its malicious poison despite creating his own antidote.
It will also be interesting to see how Stu and Frannie’s relationship plays out to get the the tension filled point we arrived at. Despite how cordial Stu and Harold were with each other, the process of their interactions won’t be anywhere near the sweet friendship that formed between Stu and Harold. Considering how hostile Stu can be to those he doesn’t trust (and how messed up in general that Harold is), we’ve definitely got some some flashback fireworks coming our way.
And then there’s the question of how Frannie broke free from the chains of depression and Harold’s overbearing affection while (apparently) ignoring Abagail Freeman’s supernatural telegram to come see her. When you combine that with all the other characters we’ve yet to meet or properly explore, there’s still a ton of ground to cover.
As long the narrative doesn’t get bogged down in flashbacks within flashbacks, The Stand could end up being one heck of an exciting journey.
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