CBS All Access’s adaptation of Stephen King’s The Stand opens on rows of corn, with Whoopi Goldberg’s Mother Abagail narrating. “There’s bitter days ahead,” she says. “Death and terror, betrayal and tears, and not all of you will live through ‘em.” It’s a pretty convincing argument for the continued relevancy of King’s 1978 novel (plus it’s worth noting that in 1990, a complete and unabridged version was published, adding back in 400 pages and updating the setting of the story from the 1980s to the 1990s).
Abagail goes on to declare that the Dark Man will build his kingdom in the West, telling “you” that this is where you must go to make your stand – before giving way to The Stand title card.
Take me home, country roads
The next scene takes us to Boulder, Colorado, a location that plays a significant role in the story of The Stand (not to mention King’s personal life story and several of his other novels, including Misery and The Shining). Multiple individuals in makeshift hazmat suits and face-coverings enter a Catholic church filled with decaying corpses, but the odor is too overwhelming. One of them (Owen Teague) ends up out front, hurling his guts into the bushes with the picturesque Flatirons behind him (and judging by the location, the corpse-filled church would probably be St. Thomas Aquinas).
One of the other workers comes over to comfort the puker, and says that in spite of several decades of paramedic work he’s never seen anything like this – dropping the statistic of seven billion dead, an important expositional detail (although our current COVID-19 situation suggests that staggering death counts are not all that persuasive to the average American).
309,000 Americans dead. Thanksgiving this year was ThanksGRAVING.
— Stephen King (@StephenKing) December 17, 2020
In another house, as other workers carry a corpse up the stairs, another worker scans a DVD collection for movies. He tells the puker that, when the power is back on, he plans on opening an outdoor theater. As he leaves the room, the puker takes a look at the magazines and sees a copy of “Expose Weekly” from June 9th, 2020 that has Tom Cruise on the cover (as well as a sidebar about a celebrity named “Ashley” returning to the I.C.U., perhaps from a case of Captain Trips).
At the end of the day, the workers gather and their manager tells them that they put away a thousand “units” that day – presumably meaning corpses. He says that there’s no shame in not being able to return to the extremely dirty work the next day, but when he asks that those who will return raise their hands, the majority do, including the puker. Throughout the conversation, he makes reference to “the Zone,” which will be familiar to readers of King’s novel… and reveals that we’re actually in something of a flash-forward (a significant departure from the novel’s straightfoward chronology).
Five months earlier
However, the next scene of The Stand flashes back to five months earlier, in Ogunquit, Maine (because if there’s a location King likes writing about more than Boulder, it’s definitely Maine). Exposition delivered by a radio’s Fourth of July chatter quickly puts the date at mid-summer, and a man coughing while working in the garden immediately ratchets up the dramatic irony when considered with the church full of corpses.
The puker (who I’m now realizing is Harold) is on a bicycle. He stops to peek through a fence to creep on Fran, whose father is the one coughing in the garden. As Fran (Odessa Young) takes her dad inside, noting that many others have come down with the same illness he has, Harold is roughed up by a couple of his classmates (who note that he was suspended for reading a “manifesto” in class that Harold insists was fiction). After a brief bicycle chase, Harold wipes out, and his classmates tell him to stay out of the neighborhood.
Harold then heads to a crowded pier, where we overhear a news report declaring that although the CDC has placed a moratorium on public gatherings, the reporter is not going to let “fear of the sniffles” make her rearrange her holiday plans (and as plenty of people make bad decisions regarding the 2020 Xmas holiday in spite of adequate warning, The Stand continues to veer uncomfortably close to reality).
When Harold returns home to his house, he is immediately greeted by sound of distant coughing and a rejection letter from Cemetery Dance publications (which is a real-world publisher that puts out some very nice editions of King). He has a brief conversation with his sick sister, who is upset that the disease conflicted with her bridal shower, before adding the rejection to a stack and then having a little freak-out.
As Harold cleans his face in the mirror, the radio gives us more exposition: the CDC has quarantined Arnette, Texas, and the uniformed guards holding the line refuse to answer any questions from the press. With cell phone service inside the perimeter being jammed, those inside have been cut off from the rest of the world… another scenario that seems straight out of either George A. Romero’s The Crazies, or just the daily news in 2020.
Deep in the heart of Texas
On the words of the radio announcer, we cut to a U.S. Military Research Facility in Kileen, Texas. The man who is being contained in a room is Stu Redman (James Marsden), and he’s being held against his will. Doctor Ellis (Hamish Linklater) arrives and explains that the guinea pigs that are in the room with him are a sort of canary in a coal mine: the rodents are just as susceptible to the disease as humans, and so it appears that Redman is not contagious.
Ellis says that Redman doesn’t actually appear to be infected at all, and gives us the first instance of the use of “Captain Trips,” the name with which the virus is most often referred – however, Ellis says that Campion (Curtiss Cook Jr.) did succumb to the virus. Redman asks if Campion was the guy in the car, and we go into another flashback – this time in Arnette, Texas, the quarantine zone mentioned by Harold’s radio.
Redman is drinking at a gas station with some other patrons when a car erratically pulls up, sending the patrons scattering. Redman believes the driver was military, but the Doctor won’t confirm or deny that. As Redman and the doctor go over the events that led to Redman’s captivity, we get a lot of exposition at once: Redman is former military; he has a late wife; the military apparently arrived at his home to bring him in wearing suits. Soon, Redman learns that nearly everyone he knows is dead.
A flashback to the night when Redman met Campion continues being intercut with Redman’s conversation with Ellis. Redman asserts that if Campion drove from a weapons facility in California, he must have made multiple stops along the trip, exposing countless more people to the infectious disease.
Meanwhile, Ellis tells Redman that they hope to use his blood to determine what gives him immunity and provide them with a chance to establish some preventative measures for those who are susceptible to the disease… but as the technician enters the room to set up Redman’s MRI, she sneezes. Not a great sign.
Meanwhile, back in Maine, Harold’s experience has radically changed. As he bikes around the same once-crowded pier, the location seems abandoned, aside from a corpse floating face-down in the ocean and a few unresponsive bodies on the benches.
Harold returns to Fran’s house and peeks through her fence again, and sees her digging a grave in her backyard. Harold steps back and call aloud to “anyone,” pretending he doesn’t know she’s there and letting her call to him. Harold says he’s happy to see her (perhaps a little too enthusiastically). Harold tells Fran that he brought the bodies of his family to the funeral home and then delivers a surprisingly accurate account of the current state of things (the world having been ravaged by a government-created disease) before leaving when Fran tells him she isn’t his babysitter anymore.
Then, in contrast to Harold’s indifference about the death of his family, we see Fran’s death rituals for her father: she pins his military medals to him, places a photograph of their family, and says she loves him.
Meanwhile, Harold has biked through the abandoned town to gather supplies at a local store. He finds a cop car that crashed into the front of Derry & Sons Antiques (the name of the store being a possible reference to the setting of IT, Dreamcatcher, and part of 11/22/63) then strips the late cop inside of their sidearm.
As Fran buries her ex-military father, we hear audio of the President insisting that the government did not engineer the disease… but his words are increasingly interrupted by coughing until the power goes off and ends the broadcast.
Then, we return to the cornfield. Fran is navigating the maze when she hears children giggling. She follows the sound and finds a clearing with a baby doll at the center… and then meets Abagail Freemantle. She tells Fran to come see her at Hemmingford Home, Colorado.
Fran wakes up to the sound of Harold’s typewriter from several houses away: he’s writing by candlelight, and totally indifferent to a scorpion that is crawling very close to his keys.
Humanity blinking out
Back at the Texas facility where Redman is being kept, the doctor wakes him up in the middle of the night and tells him that they’re relocating him to Vermont, where the immunization effort is being spearheaded. Redman asks plenty more questions, receiving intermittent answers – but the doctor paints a pretty clear picture anyway: the country is in a crisis zone, and the government’s control is loosening at an alarming rate. Redman is loaded into a vehicle and as their caravan heads out, Cobb, the brusque individual who is charged with “protecting him,” gives Redman a hood to put on (like those Gitmo prisoners, notes Redman).
Meanwhile, as Harold brushes his teeth, he listens to the radio again – a broadcast that notes the hospitals are overflowing (2020) and that the DJ isn’t going to succumb to the disease, taking his fate into his own hands by committing suicide. Harold takes this in stride before he begins rehearsing his speech to convince Fran to join him in a cross-country journey.
Redman and Ellis are now in the Vice President’s fortified bunker (which actually looks quite nice) playing cards. They’re being watched via television monitors as Redman wonders whether or not he could beat up Cobb… and Ellis coughs.
Harold arrives at Fran’s house on a scooter, well groomed and with his helmet under his arm, but she doesn’t respond to his calls. He enters and we see flies buzzing around a piece of pie Fran had been eating earlier, creating tension. Harold goes upstairs and finds Fran in a running shower, with evidence that she had been attempting to commit suicide by medication overdose. Harold pulls Fran out of the shower and induces vomiting.
Afterwards, Harold takes advantage of the situation, putting on a slow song and giving her a mug of something. In the ensuing conversation, we learn that Fran put the nail on the wall that Harold uses to track his rejection letters.
Harold tells Fran he thinks they should head to Atlanta, to meet up with the officials at the CDC (although that strategy doesn’t seem like it’ll be any more effective here than it was for Rick in the first season of TWD).
The widening gyre
Like Fran, Redman has a dream of a crying child in a cornfield. But when he arrives at the same clearing as Fran, he is not greeted by Mother Abagail – instead, he finds a wolf with glowing red eyes.
When he awakes, he finds that Ellis has contracted the disease… as has Cobb. Ellis notes that just a month before, we were “all worried about ebola.” Ellis tells Redman that they haven’t heard from the General in command of the station in 19 hours, and he seems to have locked down the facility. Ellis says he might use a scalpel to off himself early, giving the weapon to Redman.
Suddenly, Cobb enters, extremely diseased – swelling at the neck and spraying mucus, the visible signs of advanced Captain Trips infection (which looks very similar to the Bernie Wrightson illustrations of the infected in the 1990 edition of The Stand). Cobb tells Ellis to leave but when Ellis resists, Cobb quickly murders the doctor. When he advances on Redman, Redman uses the scalpel to kill Cobb before Cobb can kill him, too.
After Cobb has died, Redman hears a voice that presumably belongs to the General instructing him to follow the lights that are directing him down the hallway. He enters a lift, leaving his gun (as he is instructed by the voice).
Redman enters the control room, which is filled with screens displaying piles of the dead and corpses being loaded into trucks. General Starkey (played by J. Jonah Jameson himself, J.K. Simmons) greets him, looking overwhelmed. After disavowing Cobb, he invites Redman to sit. Starkey reveals that two days earlier was the last time they have heard from anyone outside the facility and he believes Cobb was following previously-given orders.
“Men like Cobb don’t stop taking orders just because the orders stop making sense,” Starkey notes, which could be yet another 2020 slogan, couldn’t it?
Starkey tells Redman that several years earlier, his daughter gave him a book for his birthday. He picked it up a few days before the conversation between him and Redman, and refers to the fact that it’s a book of poetry – Yeats. Starkey reads “The Second Coming” over footage of Redman exiting the facility full of corpses and leaving the General behind – and while the images are striking, it’s really a treat to get to hear Simmons deliver Yeats.
The Stand on the road
Meanwhile, Harold and Fran begin their journey away from Maine, leaving a brief message informing any reader that they are heading to Atlanta.
Then, we flash forward to the time we glimpsed in the first scenes of the episode (presumably December 2020), once again seeing Harold working with the crew to remove bodies in the Boulder Free Zone. These images are intercut with scenes of Harold jogging and typing at his typewriter, with narration revealing that Harold believes “pride” and “hate” are the two greatest virtues.
After rescuing one of his fellow workers from falling into a pit of corpses, Harold appears to be struggling with the possibility that he might turn a new leaf, and become a “new Harold Lauder.” The other workers appear to be fully willing to embrace Harold and bring him into their community.
However, Harold cannot let go of the hatred in his heart. We see him look up from his keyboard and see a vision of the wolf glimpsed by Redman in his dream, along with glowing neon signs depicting scantily-clad women. In the distance, the skyline of Vegas shines on the horizon. A man approaches him, coming from the direction of the city, proffering a glowing stone to Harold. The man is wearing a smiling face button…
Then, Harold wakes up. We see him practicing his ghoulish Tom Cruise-smile in the mirror before he takes it to the streets of Boulder, where a revelation is delivered: Redman and Fran are together, and Fran is pregnant with Redman’s baby. The couple thanks Harold for his efforts on the crew and invite him to dinner, and although Harold plays nice in the moment, he is actually enraged.
As he types away at his keyboard, his narration tells us that he plans to murder Redman – and maybe kill Fran, too. By the conclusion of the first episode, the character who was presented to us as a (somewhat) sympathetic individual at the outset has pulled off his mask and revealed himself to be a villain: a dark narrative arc to give structure to the first chapter of The Stand.
At the conclusion of the first episode of The Stand, we flash back to where it all began: Campion working at the military facility and witnessing the beginning of the outbreak. He activates the lockdown protocol, but the door leading to Loading Dock 19 is jammed. Campion looks at the image of his wife and daughter on his cell phone, weighing his options. As the door slides closed behind the fleeing Campion, we see a boot had held the door ajar…
Campion arrives home and loads his wife and daughter into the car we saw collide with the store in Texas earlier in the episode.
As the car drives away, we cut to those same boots walkin’ along the highway. As Campion passes the man by the side of the road, the walkin’ dude sticks out his thumb for a pick-up. Campion ignores him – but nevertheless, right there in Campion’s rearview mirror, the hitchhiker is along for the ride, his arm around the soon to be dead baby in the backseat.
New episodes of The Stand are released Thursdays on CBS All Access.