The Stand S1E1: The End
(If you’re finding this review for the first time, please note that I’ve covered the rest of the series too, and you can find that right here!)
If you know me, have met me, or have had the misfortune of so much as sharing a train carriage with me in the last ten years, then you know that I love Stephen King’s The Stand.
I first read this book when I was fourteen, and I can vividly recall sitting there at the dining table at break-time in high school, my droopy, awful trilby dangling from my stupid teenage head, entranced by this brilliant novel. I think Stephen King has written better books than this, but I don’t care about any of them as much as I do about The Stand. A sweeping post-apocalyptic masterpiece with a cast packed with excellent, layered, intriguing characters, as well as a tremendous literary turn from his villainous giant, Randy Flagg, this is just My Kind of Shit.
Which brings me to this: The Stand (2021), Josh Boone’s adaptation of one of my favourite books of all time. Can we make it two for two in terms of years that have shat on my literature of choice? Only one way to find out! As a quick heads-up, I am going to be writing these recaps for my own point of view completely, which is to say, as someone who assumes that you have at least watched the show up to the episode that I am covering, and that you have either read the book or have enough of an acquaintance with it that you don’t mind me assuming the same.
So let’s talk about the first episode, The End (yes, I know, I’m late – I’m running on the UK release dates instead of the US ones, so bear with me here). I think the most important takeaway I have from this is that, Jesus Christ, can we fucking leave non-linear storytelling in the past unless it’s actually enhancing the way your story unfolds in some way? I get the appeal of non-linear construction, I do – it’s an easy way to cut straight from cause to effect for your characters without having to sit around and wait to pull the trigger on a juicy plot. But this opening is, structurally, a mess, frustratingly ragged around the edges as we rove around from scene to scene, from plot to plot, consistently out-of-order in a way that strips so much of what should be a compelling opening episode of this really brilliant story. There’s a reason both the book and the original miniseries didn’t bother turning the timeline into chum, you know?
Anyway: on to the characters. Because that’s the reason we’re here, isn’t it? This episode follows three of the main cast here: Harold Lauder (Owen Teague), Stu Redman (James Marsden), and Frannie Goldsmith (Odessa Young). Now, let’s start with Frannie: I saw Odessa Young for the first time in her leading role in Assasination Nation, and that bitch owns that movie. Charismatic, wry, vulnerable, endlessly watchable, I was In. For. It when I heard about her casting.
Right up until this first episode, when I remembered that Frannie is kind of a shitty character. Stephen King’s works often have a hard time with women (don’t we know it), and Frannie is a really good example of that: she feels functionally there to be the point of a love triangle between Lauder and Redman, and occasionally for the camera to lavishly pan up her legs and arse for reasons of plausibly-deniable misogyny. Frannie represents a lot for this story, what with her being pregnant in the wake of a world-destroying virus, but what she actually is within it feels limiting, especially given how bombastic Odessa Young’s screen presence can be.
So, next: Stu Redman. Stu Redman is, fundamentally, an everyman, which makes him a useful tool for exposition: we’re meant to be able to see ourselves in Stu, who finds himself in the middle of the outbreak, the only immune person as the rest of the containment facility where he is being treated is consumed by a deadly virus. Basically, this storyline is meant to be our first act, the set-up for what we’re going to get next (though, obviously, thanks to the aggravatingly pointless timeline-fuckery, it’s all scattered randomnly through the episode) – James Marsden is good enough that he manages to really insert some flashes of Stu’s character and inherent goodness throughout this episode, in the moments he comforts a dying doctor, as he grieves the loss of his friends. It’s not much, but it’s something, and honestly, Stu’s not the interesting factor in this plot this week – he’s just a framing device.
Which brings us to Harold. Harold Lauder is probably one of my favourite-ever characters in fiction; I have my own thoughts on what his casting should have been, but I’m not furious at the route that Boone went with it in the end. Fundamentally, what matters is being able to sell all the different sides of Lauder that we’re going to see over the course of this arc: his frustrated lacking at the start, his obvious, pudgy, teen harmlessness, and then that follow-through to a genuinely terrifying, formidable and desperate villain. As for how this episode handled the initial part of that plot, it’s…not bad. It’s probably one of the things I like more about this pilot, even though it’s a little rough, thanks to the strange choice of timeline here: Harold is frequently shown to be someone cloaking himself in what he thinks people want from him, genuinely thankful and warm when it works, and snarlingly angry when it doesn’t get him what he wants. Teague is solid so far, and I’m holding back deliberation of this until I see where they take his entire storyline, but so far, so…not-bad.
There’s a moment in this pilot that, as a fan of the book, I genuinely love. The very first outbreak of the disease that destroys the world launches after a man tasked with keeping up security detail on a research lab slips up. When faced with the very beginnings of something that is, evidently, Pretty Fucking Grim, he hits the big button to lock the place down and decontaminate the first victim. Problem solved, right? But he glances to the locking door, and back again, and back to the locking door. It sticks on something, doesn’t close properly. And, faced with that choice, the man flees, bringing the disease back to his family and later the rest of the world. The camera pans back after his escape, to show Randy Flagg’s foot holding the door open.
For me, this is the soul of the show – it’s Flagg, the very embodiment of evil and chaos and all the bad things waiting to escape over the world, offering someone a choice. Whether they make it or not – that human, unknowable element – is up to them. That’s the heart of The Stand, the choices that we make, the good and bad and right and wrong that we all struggle with, and that our true morality is not who we believe ourselves to be, but how we act, instead. Just this one scene is enough to convince me that maybe there’s a version of the show in here that’s the same one that I fell in love with in the book – I just wish the show had opened with this, instead of sticking it at the back end of the episode for no discernible reason.
Overall, I’ve got issues with the way this story is being told – and the fact that Frannie doesn’t much seem to have been punched up from her character on the page – but small moments are keeping me here, and I’m willing to see where Josh Boone and company take this. My cynical hat is on, but it just so happens to be that same awful trilby I wore in high school, and I’m willing to let a little of my nostalgia rose-colour this show.
If you enjoyed this article, please feel free to check out some of my other recapping projects as well – the Fifty Shades of Grey book series, Stephen King’s Carrie, the first Harry Potter book, Lost, Game of Thrones, The Mandalorian, and American Horror Story, to name a few – and support me on Patreon if you’d like to see more of my work!
(header image via Geek Girl Authortiy)