Review: The Stand starts out strong and then whiffs the landing
A deadly virus wipes out most of the human population, and the survivors find themselves caught in an apocalyptic battle between good and evil in The Stand, the latest miniseries adaptation of Stephen King’s sprawling 1978 novel. But despite a strong start, terrific performances from the all-star ensemble cast, and impressive production values, as a story, The Stand starts unraveling midway through, culminating in a meandering, seemingly pointless finale.
(Spoilers for the book below; a few major spoilers for the new miniseries below the gallery. We’ll give you a heads-up when we get there.)
As we reported previously, The Stand is widely considered to be among King’s best work, with a sprawling cast of characters and multiple storylines. It’s also his longest, with the 1990 Complete and Uncut Edition surpassing even It in page count. King has said he wanted to write an epic dark fantasy akin to The Lord of the Rings, only with a contemporary American setting. “Instead of a hobbit, my hero was a Texan named Stu Redman, and instead of a Dark Lord, my villain was a ruthless drifter and supernatural madman named Randall Flagg,” King wrote in his 1981 nonfiction book, Danse Macabre. “The land of Mordor (‘where the shadows lie,’ according to Tolkien) was played by Las Vegas.”
The novel opens with the accidental release of an especially contagious and deadly influenza virus (dubbed the “superflu” or “Captain Trips”), developed as a biological weapon in a secret US government laboratory. The accident kills everyone in the laboratory except for a security guard named Charles Campion, who escapes and tries to flee with his family. But he is already infected and spreads the virus before he dies. Even imposing martial law can’t contain the virus, which eventually spreads worldwide, killing over 99 percent of humanity within a month.
But some people prove to be immune—including the main protagonist, Stu Redman—and these survivors must figure out how to rebuild some semblance of a functioning society. They are aided by mysterious shared dreams. In one, “Mother Abigail” Freemantle calls for them to come to her Nebraska farm; another involves terrifying visions of a “dark man” named Randall Flagg. Each survivor must choose one or the other. Stu ends up leading a group of survivors in Boulder, Colorado, who follow Mother Abigail; Flagg sets up a brutal totalitarian government in Las Vegas, where he is worshipped as a messiah and crucifies all those who displease him.
In 1994, ABC aired a miniseries adaptation of The Stand, starring Gary Sinise, Molly Ringwald, Rob Lowe, Ed Harris, Miguel Ferrer, Laura San Giacomo, Ossie Davis, and Ruby Dee, among others. The miniseries received critical praise and was nominated for six Emmy awards; it won two, for makeup and sound mixing. So why produce a second miniseries at all when the first one was such a hit? Perhaps the intent was to introduce a new generation to King’s dark apocalyptic vision. Or perhaps CBS just wanted a piece of the current market demand for King adaptations (cf. It, It: Chapter Two, Doctor Sleep, the Castle Rock series, and so forth).
This new limited miniseries on CBS All Access is co-written by Josh Boone and Ben Cavell. In this version, James Marsden stars as Stu Redman, who leads the group of survivors that heed their visions of Mother Abigail (Whoopi Goldberg) and form a community in Boulder. He falls in love with, and eventually marries, pregnant college student Frannie Goldsmith (Odessa Young), much to the disappointment of teen nerd Harold Lauder (Owen Teague), who is also in love with Frannie. En route to Boulder, disillusioned pop singer Larry Underwood (Jovan Adepo) befriends a 30-something virgin teacher named Nadine Cross (Amber Heard), who has in turn befriended an orphaned boy named Joe (Gordon Cormier).
(Some major spoilers below; stop reading now if you haven’t (a) read the book, and/or (b) finished the miniseries.)
The Boulder denizens also include a deaf/mute named Nick Andros (Henry Zaga); sociology professor Glen Bateman (Greg Kinnear) and his trusty golden retriever, Kojak; a mentally challenged man named Tom Cullen (Brad William Henke); and farmer Ray Brentner (Irene Bedard), gender-swapped from the book. On the dark side, a suitably menacing Alexander Skarsgård plays Randall Flagg, with Nat Wolff playing Flagg’s conflicted right-hand man, Lloyd Henreid, a career criminal Flagg had sprung from jail after everyone else around him had died, leaving Lloyd to slowly starve. Ezra Miller plays the Trashcan Man, a pyromaniac/schizophrenic who plays a pivotal role in the final confrontation. (There is also a sly cameo by King himself for eagle-eyed viewers.)
The first three episodes are fantastic, vividly depicting the onset of the deadly pandemic and the ensuing panic, gradually introducing us to our main characters, brought together by their shared visions of Mother Abigail. That’s a lot of narrative threads to juggle, and Boone and Cavell do so admirably. Unfortunately, they were unable to maintain that delicate juggling act over the course of the entire series, beginning to elide over key character developments in their rush to the inevitable confrontation with Flagg.
This is most noticeable in the love triangle of Stu, Frannie, and Harold, notably the latter’s decision to join forces with an increasingly deranged Nadine (who also gets short shrift as she descends into madness) and follow Flagg. Harold ends up planting a bomb that takes out most of the community’s leadership. King’s novel spends a good deal of time fleshing out Harold’s deep-seated psychological issues that eventually drive him to violence, only repenting on the brink of death. We get none of that here, other than a few brief glimpses of the teen’s growing obsession and paranoia—although Teague’s portrayal of Harold’s final moments, after Nadine abandons him, is quite moving.
Up through the penultimate episode, the narrative hews closely to King’s novel, particularly the longer uncut version, with minor modifications. That includes the stark good-vs.-evil binary, Nadine’s pregnancy by Flagg and subsequent suicide, and Flagg instructing the Trashcan Man to retrieve a nuclear warhead. But the Trashcan Man brings the warhead to Flagg’s headquarters, the fictional Inferno hotel, instead, and it kills everyone in “New Vegas” when it detonates. There’s a lot more nuance to all of this in the novel, which is lacking in the miniseries, to the latter’s detriment. It makes the Hand of God plot device (the quintessential deus ex machina) that sets off the warhead downright silly, especially since it’s accompanied by lightning strikes vaporizing many of Flagg’s followers, like the ark of the covenant taking out Nazi soldiers in Raiders of the Lost Ark.
One might be inclined to cut the show some slack on that score; it’s supernatural horror, after all. But for some reason, the writers decided to tack on one more episode, written by King and his son, Owen. It’s essentially a prolonged, rambling denouement where Stu and Frannie leave Boulder with their newborn baby to visit Maine, because Frannie is homesick and wants to see the ocean. Stu agrees because the Boulder Free Zone is getting too populous for his liking, and he fears crime will become a problem—which makes no sense, given all the horrors we’ve witnessed over the course of the series. A few drunk and disorderlies should seem like heaven after all the torture and murder and whatnot.
The last episode frankly serves no clear purpose. I mean, Frannie falls down a well, has a vision of a resurrected Flagg, and is ultimately rescued by Stu and a young version of Mother Abigail, who warns them that the wheel keeps turning and the fight between good and evil never ends. Just… why? I can only presume that CBS is hopeful of a potential second season, focused on the survivors trying to rebuild humanity, with Flagg as a lurking menace to their success. And who knows? Freed from the onus of following the source material, with so many strong characters already established, it might just make for a better sequel.
All episodes of The Stand miniseries are now streaming on CBS All Access.