New adaptation of The Stand
Whoopi Goldberg plays Mother Abagail in the new adaptation of The Stand on CBS All Access
Credit: CBS All Access

When the opening of the new adaptation of The Stand begins, it is very clear that this is a different take on a familiar story.  It also telegraphs that linear storytelling is out the window on this go round.  The first shot is a view of a cornfield accompanied by the voice of Mother Abagail (Whoopi Goldberg) giving us a quick pitch to make a stand against the darkness.  It is interesting that this adaptation chose to open on a dream instead of the nightmare that kicks the whole thing off.

In the book, the story opens on the very moment of the outbreak.  A crazed rush for a doomed attempt at survival.  In the 1994 adaptation, the story opens in one of the greatest montages of television history.  The camera swoops over the images of the countless dead, already ravaged by the virus, as Blue Oyster Cult coos at us not to fear “The Reaper.”  In the latest version on CBS All Access, we see the aftermath of the virus, but it is even further down the line.  The refugees have already made their way to Colorado, and they are preparing to restart civilization.

Episode Overview

“The End” is the first episode, and it focuses on the outbreak and the characters of Fran Goldsmith, Harold Lauder, and Stu Redman.  Like in the book, this trio of characters kicks off the tale.  In a story about the fight of good and evil, the greatest part is the study of the gray in between.  So many stories split the two sides cleanly, but Stephen King knows a lot of fun is in the middle.  Who are you?  What are you?  If the slate is wiped clean, do you reinvent yourself?  Or do you remain who you were?  The journey taken is both metaphorical and actual as survivors travel from all over to head West.  To Vegas and Flagg?  Or to Hemingford Home and Mother Abagail?

Unlike the source material or the previous adaptation, this version has opted to switch back and forth in time after the virus is released.  By the end of this episode, I was not a fan of time hopping.  I will say that it works better in future episodes.  The most enjoyable part of the book for me was not just the physical journey cross country by the characters, but the emotional and spiritual one as each character struggles to determine where they belong.  This time hopping choice takes away that character struggle.  Instead, we get brief collapsed moments in time to clue us in about that character’s choice.

Red Flag City: Harold and Frannie

Harold and Frannie contemplate leaving their hometown in The Stand.
Credit: CBS All Access

In Colorado we focus on Harold Lauder (Owen Teague) working the body crew, and we feel a small sense of empathy for him. Next we pop back to the start of the pandemic for a big dose of Harold from five months ago.  Harold peeps at his old babysitter, Frannie Goldsmith (Odessa Young), through a knot in the fence.  Caught by local bullies, he only knows to run or be angry. When Harold finally interacts with Frannie after most of the world is dead, her mix of revulsion and pity seems a bit unfair.  Without the journey out West to give us insight into Harold as a character, we have to rely on Harold’s voiceover to highlight all the reasons why Frannie’s reaction is more than just.  We are never given time to wonder if Harold can be redeemed.  Harold makes it clear by the end of the episode that he has no interest in such a thing.  In his emulation of Tom Cruise’s smile, Harold may only be able to impersonate a human rather than actually be one.

The moment that Harold reaches out to Frannie in their hometown, her look as he shouts says so much.  You can see Frannie carefully consider whether she should let Harold know she is alive.  As we learn later, she has more reasons than just her annoyance with him.  In that moment you see exactly how Frannie feels about her friend’s little brother.  And it seems to be only slightly less hostile than Harold’s actual sister.

Frannie’s first dream of Mother Abagail is an invitation that she does not heed at first.  While Harold is across town plotting to whisk his dream girl away, Frannie stops moving all together.  Once Harold convinces her to move on with him, they are on two different paths.  They just do not know it yet.

Guinea Pigs and Parting Gifts:  Stu Redman

In Arnette, Texas, Stu Redman (James Marsden) cools his heels in a government containment facility with a couple of guinea pigs to keep him company.  Epidemiologist Jim Ellis (Hamish Linklater) updates Stu on the contagion, and Stu flashes back to that fateful night when Campion rolled his car into the gas station with more than just his dead family for company.  Ellis is slow to release details about the world, but he brutally makes it clear that all of Stu’s friends are already gone.  As Ellis questions Stu, the show intercuts moments from that fateful night.

Though the original story opens with Campion’s flight from the outbreak on a military base, by intercutting it in Stu’s interrogation with the government, it gives a lot of information in a much shorter amount of time.  It also allows people unfamiliar with the story to wonder how the outbreak started at all.  I may not like the time hopping format, but right away it has done two new things in this adaptation: streamlined the story and added a little mystery for newcomers.

By the time Stu exits his holding cell, the world is already gone.  General Starkey waits to exposition him into the newly dead world before he makes his own exit.  When Starkey talks about predictive models of the pandemic, a look of disgust crosses Stu’s face.  “You fucking gamed the apocalypse,” Stu says.  But if recent history has told us anything, epidemiologists spend quite a bit of time running models.  It is called preparedness.  Stu clearly is disgusted with the idea that the military designed a virus and made predictions based on its release.  Just another thing that plays very differently post-COVID.

The End of “The End”

By the end of the episode, we are back where we started.  Harold Lauder on burial duty, and Harold Lauder embracing the role of “being human.”  Can Harold be redeemed?  Or is he just pretending?  Harold never dreams of Mother Abagail, and he has no chance of dreaming of her once the Stranger comes to visit.  So Harold continues to pretend he is a human while he embraces the deadening inside. Harold’s struggle to pick a side collapses in these last five minutes.  They are economical but effective.

Harold’s embrace of the Dark Man, Randall Flagg (Alexander Skarsgård), introduces our villain as well.  Mother Abagail was the opening act, but Flagg is here to steal the show with a grin and a wink.  The Stranger has made a fashionably late entrance, but his secret is that he was there in the shadows all along.

Odds and Eggs

  • Episode one has what sounds like a voice over by Bryan Cranston and small on-screen parts by JK Simmons and Daniel Sunjata.  
  • There is a store named Derry & Sons in a nod to the small town ever present in the King universe.
  • Never has a Billy Joel song been more chilling and perfect.

Worth Watching?

This first episode moves along pretty quickly, and it is easy to understand if you are a newcomer. For those that like the The Stand story, I think this new adaptation is worth your time.  The time hopping format will displease many, but if you are going to redo this story, you need to come at it from a different angle.  Ultimately, that decision cuts out a lot of story to speed the action along.  If you like that missing material and character development, it may be a bit of a disappointment. 

You can find the series review here, and you can find new episodes of The Stand on CBS All Access every Thursday. For more on these characters, have a look behind the scenes.