It’d be really easy to say that CBS All Access has the best marketing team in the history of television. To support the premiere of their new limited series adaption of Stephen King’s epic The Stand, a worldwide pandemic was created to highlight just how low humanity would go when the world turned to absolute garbage. I kid, of course, as the show was well into production when COVID-19 first made headlines, but the timing is impeccable, and some may even ask: is it too soon? The Stand Episode 1 kicked off the nine-part limited series this week, and it was impossible to ignore some of the stark similarities in what was playing on my screen vs. what is playing out right now in hospitals around the world.
As many know, this is the second television adaption of King’s seminal 1978 novel of the same name. The first aired on ABC in the early ’90s, and featured a strong cast that adhered closely to the story in the book. The CBS All Access version is a much slicker presentation, updated with all the current technologies both in the narrative and behind the camera, and for a first episode, it sets the stage for what could be an amazing and timely adventure.
The Stand Episode 1, entitled “The End,” opens in Boulder, Colorado, in the aftermath of the Captain Trips pandemic that wiped out 99% of the world’s population. A cleanup crew is collecting bodies for mass burials, and one member of the crew, Harold Lauder (Owen Teague), is having trouble taking in all the death and bloated, decaying, maggot-covered remains of the victims of the worst flu virus ever created.
We then flashback five months to Ogunquit, Maine, as Harold is spying on Frannie Goldsmith (Odessa Young) through a hole in her backyard fence. Frannie is tending to her ill father who was gardening, and this allows for some exposition of the state of the world. Two bullies attack Harold, who tris to flee on his bike but crashes it.
He walks home along the boardwalk and sees that everyone is sniffling or coughing or showing some signs of sickness — and not a mask is in sight. he goes home to find another rejection letter for his short story that he submitted and we learn his entire family is also sick and in bed. Harold is troubled, which is made very clear as more exposition is dumped in conversations, podcasts, and more.
The story then shifts to a U.S. research facility in Killeen, Texas, where Stuart Redman (James Marsden) is being held under tight security. Dr. Jim Ellis (Hamish Linklater) tells him that he has shown no signs of the flu, so they want to tap him for antibodies.
It’s here were we get flashbacks to the night Stu came in contact with Charlie Campion (Curtiss Cook, Jr.), a soldier who escaped a lockdown on his military base and is the cause of the virus getting out. Stu learns that all his friends are dead, and he agrees to help the government.
Back in Maine, Harold connects with Fran, and we learn she used to babysit him and he has a huge crush on her. Never mind that Odessa Young looks much younger than Owen Teague. She rebuffs his attempts to help bury her father and he leaves in a huff.
Harold bikes into town and scavenges a firearm from a dead cop and a classic ribbon typewriter, while Fran says goodbye to her father’s corpse. There’s also a fun voice-over cameo by Bryan Cranston as the U.S. president. As day turns to night, Fran has a dream where she’s walking in a cornfield and Abigail Freemantle (Whoopi Goldberg) tells her to come to Colorado.
Across town, Harold is awake writing and making plans for his next step.
Back in Texas, Stu and Dr. Ellis are quickly moved to a new secure CDC location in Vermont in the dead of night, and Stu learns just how deeply ineffective the government response has been. Art imitates life. Cobb (Daniel Sunjata) insists that Stu wear a hood to keep the location secret.
In Maine, Harold finalizes his plans to convince Fran to go on his mission, and when he goes to pitch to her, he finds her unconscious in her bathtub with empty bottles of prescription pills scattered around the sink. He pulls her out and induces vomiting to save her and once she is recovered, he tells her his plan. She agrees it’s smart and decides to go with him.
In Vermont, Stu also has a dream on being in a cornfield, but instead of Mother Abigail, he comes face to face with a wolf with red eyes. He wakes up to find that Ellis is now sick, and he tells Stu that many on the base are also infected. He gives Stu a scalpel and tells him to get away from there. Cobb then shows up and tries to kill them both, shooting Ellis before Stu slices his swollen throat with the scalpel. General Starkey then comes over the PA system to direct Stu to his location.
Stu makes it to the command center and Gen. Starkey (JK Simmons) fills him in on just how bad everything is. He tells Stu how to leave before reading a poem by Yeats and them shooting himself. Stu sees just how bad the circumstances are as he makes his way through the facility. He is finally free as the sunlight blinds him.
In Maine, Fran and Harold set off on their trip to the CDC in Atlanta.
We now flash forward to where The Stand Episode 1 began, in Colorado, as Harold and the cleanup crew bury bodies in massive graves. Here we learn that Harold may very well be slipping into insanity and may have been from before he and Frannie left Maine.
Harold has his own dream, but instead of a cornfield, he sees the glow of neon, a wolf, and the shadow of a dark man in a denim jacket with a smiley face button pinned to the chest. Harold realizes that in Boulder, he is a worker, but if he went out west, he could be so much more.
The next day, Harold is walking around the settlement when he comes across a now-showing Fran and Stu, who are obviously together. This is not settling well with Harold, who wants nothing more than to kill Stu and possibly Fran.
The Stand Episode 1 ends with one more flashback, this time to Campion as the virus first begins to to spread. He follows protocol to lock down the base, but the door mysteriously sticks. He sees his chance to collect his wife and child and escape, so he runs through the door. On the other side, the door is being held by the dark man in the denim jacket. Campion and his family speed away in their car and pass a hitchhiker (Alexander Skarsgard), who them mysteriously shows up in the backseat of the car as the episode ends.
Across the board, the performances in The Stand Episode 1 were solid. Young was serviceable as Fran, and Marsden might be the perfect Stu (no offense to the great Gary Sinise, who played the character in the ABC miniseries). Episode 1 was definitely Harold’s story, and Teague carried it with a good balance of leadership and insanity. If this was his spotlight episode, he come through like a champ, and I can’t wait to see Harold’s continued unraveling as the story goes on.
Writing & Directing
The Stand Episode 1 was directed by Josh Boone, based off a teleplay by Boone and Benjamin Cavell. The directing was solid, with just enough horror elements to keep it interesting without going completely The Walking Dead. Boone does a good job of glossing over some of the minute details that King spent hundreds of pages laying out, and the structure of the story, even going as far as flashing forward to Stu and Fran as a couple was questionable.
I know this is a story that’s been around for over 40 years now, and has had multiple TV and comic book adaption, but that is kind of a spoiler to the greater story. The introduction of Randall Flagg (Skarsgard) was done very well, keeping him in shadow, while also showing that he had a hand in all of the events. Hopefully the story keeps hinting at this even more as all of the other main characters — and there are many more to come — are introduced.
The Stand Episode 1 did an impeccable job of getting through an inordinate amount of exposition in one hour’s time. As the credits rolled, the viewer gets a real sense of just how messed up this world is, and they have been introduced to some of the major player that will push the story forward. There were also plenty of insider King jokes, like the names of shops and businesses being named for places and/or characters from other King works, like IT.
In a way, The Stand is often considered King’s masterpiece, and by highlighting and honoring his other works, it shows just how deep this writer has seeped into our conscience. It’ll be interesting to see if these types of homages continue in the next eight hours of the series.
For now, The Stand Episode 1 was a great start to what could be a great adaption, and even with a worldwide pandemic ravaging us in the real world, we can still enjoy a little bit of horror to remind us that it could have been so much worse.
The Stand Episode 1 is available to stream now exclusively on CBS All Access. New episodes will premiere on Thursdays for the next nine weeks. All Images courtesy of CBS/Viacom.