I’ll admit, when I read The Stand back in high school I didn’t expect to live through it years later. Hell, when I volunteered to review CBS’ adaptation the pandemic hadn’t hit yet. As a result, my review might be a little more intense than I initially planned.
It’s weird to watch a show about a terrifying pandemic, while you’re in a terrifying pandemic, and then the ads pop up and the people in the ads mostly act like things are normal. It’s weird to watch a show that opens with people clearing dead bodies out of a room, and the disposal crew are mostly wearing N-95 masks, but then one dude is just wearing a bandanna, and my whole brain screams: “Those don’t work! Get a better mask!” before I remind myself it’s just fiction. Before I remember that it isn’t just fiction.
But I did my best.
I’m one of those weirdos who genuinely likes M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs. (A caveat: I watched it before Mel Gibson’s life and career became an unending cycle of Catastrophic Fall and Attempted Redemption, and before people began to tire of Shyamalan going for cheap gimmicks in every movie.) I liked the idea of experiencing an alien invasion through the eyes of frightened people in a small town—before the internet became what it is now, when you’d learn about it from a nightly news team instead of from @VegetasSidepiece or whoever on Twitter. I liked that Signs never shows what’s happening at the White House, or the Empire State Building, or the Kremlin, because none of that matters to the family. I like the raw despair of that scene in the basement.
Not sure I could watch it now.
I mention this because I was primed to like The Stand, and it stabs at doing something interesting, but—at least in the first episode—it falls short. Most of episode one, “The End” takes place in a small town in Maine as the virus gradually claims victims. At first, it’s just a few people coughing, then whole families coughing their lives out in bed, and then there are just two kids left in the entire town: Harold Lauder and Franny Goldsmith.
Which would have been a great opening if they had stuck to that, and if the show put a little more work into Harold and Franny as characters, and the situation as a lived reality. Instead we cut repeatedly over to a character named Stu Redmond. Stu came in contact with a soldier who inadvertently spread the virus, but Stu himself remains uninfected while all of his family and friends die. The government essentially kidnaps him to study his immune system.
Now I’ll start with the good in both arcs. The slow accumulation of coughing sick people, and the dread that inspires, is well done. Also, the way people hear snatches of news over talk radio, and the mention of internet rumors, are effective. The shots of Harold Lauder wandering his corpse-riddled town are great, and maybe best of all is the moment when Franny looks out her window and sees only one light, in one house: Harold, typing up a short story on a typewriter by candlelight. They’re the only two left, so his single light shines out across the whole town.
In Redmond’s sections, the rapport between Stu and the deadpan, fatalistic Dr. Ellis, the scientist who is studying him, is genuinely great. It’s sort of like how if you watch a lot of space race movies you get the sense that astronauts all have sense of humor as black as the void of space itself, because they do, because they have to. You might die any second, and your brain has to find a way to cope. In the same way, Dr. Ellis is matter-of-fact about the plague, and just…droll? That’s the best way I can describe it. He’s amused by the disease, by Stu, by the angry, by-the-book soldiers who want everyone to follow orders. He knows that if the disease isn’t contained, humanity is doomed. He knows all the barking soldiers in the world won’t change it. So, he has chosen to laugh—and that’s fantastic. I wish that section of the show had leaned into it even more.
But now: the bad!
First: the show jumps around in time in ways that, at least in this first episode, were simply baffling. We meet characters, then jump back six months or so, and hop between a few different physical locations and points in the outbreak without any sense of how fast the illness is spreading, why people are suddenly calling it “Captain Tripps”, how many have died, or what types of infrastructure are left. We get a few visions of Mother Abigail and Randall Flagg, who will become the giant, supernatural figureheads as the story unfolds, but because they’re just mixed in with all the other jumping around, I don’t know if a newcomer to the story would understand their significance, or even keep track of which characters are being drawn to them, or why.
There’s the usual Stephen King thing, which is that some of the language is outdated, the stabs at mentioning the internet are forced, and the bullies are just straight-up murderers for no reason. The Stand features roughly a billion characters, but this adaptation chose to use its opening episode to focus on two of the less compelling ones. Odessa Young does her best with a thin role, but Franny doesn’t have nearly enough agency—we get the sense that she’s suffered a lot of loss, and is depressed, but the show holds us away from her pain to focus on Harold. (Maybe later episodes will balance this out?) She also spends way too much time in her underwear. Like, she’s going through a terrible crisis and has to bury her dad—I don’t need to know that at some point she took the time to shave her bikini line. Harold is a writer (again, Stephen King) and he’s also a creep. Not quite alt-right, but obsessed with Franny, inappropriate most of the time, and clearly unstable. And Owen Teague, who played Patrick Hockstetter in the IT adaptations, brings a wonderful unsettling energy to the role. But it is a little frustrating that the two people who are guiding the audience through this crisis are a creepy boy and an extremely passive young woman. I wanted to care more, but I felt like the show kept pushing me away.
In Redmond’s arc, James Marsden is great at also being fatalistic, but I never felt the weight of his loss. And, as I mentioned, Hamish Linklater is fantastic as Dr. Ellis. But we never quite get the sense of the panic and scale of things. As much as I love Dr. Ellis, but focusing just on their relationship, and one extra soldier, we don’t have the chance to see dwindling numbers of guards, the fear of other scientists who can’t figure the virus out, the idea that the government itself is crumbling. I think if the show was going to take us out of “Small Town America Faces Catastrophe” to show us moments of “The Government Response” it needed to show us the collapse in a way that added to the dread.
And on that. That is one of the two big problems of the show. In the real world, we’re all at least 10 months in on a terrifying pandemic. This illness has led to millions of deaths worldwide, it has left people permanently affected, physically, irreparably scarred psychologically. Even if the vaccines take, and enough people use them, and society goes back to “normal”, we’re going to be dealing with the fallout from this for at least a generation. The only genuine silver linings—which will only prove to be silver linings if the majority of us commit to some serious change—are that a lot more white people seem to be aware of systemic racism than they were six months ago, and a lot more people in general seem to have noticed that unchecked capitalism destroys lives. The pandemic has forced people who are used to being comfortable into facing a lot of hard truth over the last year.
And that’s what’s missing from The Stand, at least in its first episode. There is one recurring image of a slice of pie that gradually molds over and draws flies, and the recurrent image of rotting corpses. But other than that, we don’t see garbage piling up as the sanitation workers are too sick to collect it. We don’t see refrigerators with food rotting inside. We don’t see wild animals creeping into town as humans die. A character mentions that the internet has been shut down—what that would mean, presumably, is that officials would take control of the internet to revert it to its old DARPA purposes, a secure comm line for the last stand of the government. But how would that work, in 2020? The show doesn’t tell us. The terror as the electricity finally fails, and anyone still alive is left in darkness and silence, nothing left to distract them. It also doesn’t show the paranoia that would have spread like wildfire immediately after this happened. It doesn’t show us people raiding pharmacies to try to find anything to kill the pain, it doesn’t show us people coughing on each other on purpose, it doesn’t show us people scapegoating those who are immune. The true horror, the sense of creeping despair that this is, truly, the end of humanity.
The thing we’re going through right now will not be the end of humanity. But even so, I have spent more than couple nights sitting on my floor, shivering and staring into nothing, wondering how much worse things are going to get. I know that I’m in the majority. And for The Stand to succeed now, and speak to us in 2020, it needs to capture that reality in order to work as horror.