(Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers for The Stand, Season 1, Episode 2, “Pocket Savior.”)
Stephen King begins The Stand, his three-book apocalyptic novel about good vs. evil, at just about the start of a pandemic outbreak. What exactly happened – a spilled beaker, a dropped test tube, a ripped hazmat suit – that led to the introduction of a government-made lethal flu to a human, we may never know. As for how it got out of the facility, that is quite clear. A working soldier named Campion made it through a door that was supposed to have auto-locked sooner. As he fled, he brought the deadly disease that came to be nicknamed “Captain Trips,” across the base, to his wife and daughter, and into the world.
In this CBS All Access version of King’s The Stand, that sequence does play out, but it finds a place at the conclusion of Episode 1 – “The End” – a hint that this adaptation of the story is heavy on the post-pandemic good vs. evil battle and light on how the flu spread and billions died.
In fact, after a quick tease of Mother Abigail (Whoopi Goldberg) telling someone or more than someone that God wants them to go West (a real axis the book pivots on), this TV version picks up deep into Book II, as one of humanity’s survivors, Harold Emery Lauder (Owen Teague) – a resident of the Free Zone in Boulder, Colorado – vomits while performing volunteer duty to help clear the remains of the months-long dead scattered across the city.
While the book jumps from point-of-view character to POV character, its format is fairly linear. The only real exceptions to that are when King explains what was happening to another POV character at the same time, but in a different place, or when someone has some sort of supernatural-related dream. Here though, the series employs flashback and flashforward sequences frequently to weave its tale.
Those who have read The Stand, which King added to more than a decade after its initial publishing (and it is this updated-and-currently-available version we are using for comparison), are aware it is a long novel. So, to condense it into limited series form – even with a span of 9 episodes – will certainly force the leaving out of quite a bit of the trimmings.
So, let’s start with the meat the first episode gave us: Harold.
A flashback introduces the pre-pandemic Harold, a bullied high schooler with a crush on his former babysitter (Frannie Goldsmith). He has a passion for writing, an even more passionate temper (he cracks his laptop in half after receiving a writing-related rejection letter, which also moves the series forward in time given that the book takes place, mostly, in 1990), and an ability to move on from the death of his family and town quickly and without mourning. Instead, we see him almost gleefully planning – and practicing the lines for – his post-pandemic life with Fran. Quite how deep his feelings go for Fran are definitely explored, but don’t get as death-defying as him painting their names while teetering on the edge of a barn roof (he just spray paints them and the direction they are headed on a wall) or carving their initials in a post.
What we do not get, though, in this episode at least, is Frannie’s (Odessa Young) substantial backstory. She is a major POV character in the novel, who readers spend quite a bit of time inside the mind of (more than Harold, at least). Her pregnancy is hinted at in a flash-forward, but how she got pregnant is left out — so is the moving connection she had to her father.
In the series, it’s through Harold’s peep through the fence that reveals Fran had something to tell her dad, but the show leaves out whether that conversation ever took place. “The End” shows Fran dressing and burying her father after he succumbs to Capt. Trips — left numb, a silent Fran listens to a coughing President’s address where he emphatically claims the US didn’t create the flu in a lab. The series, though, paints her mourning with wide, wordless brushstrokes, and in a twist not from the book, Harold finds her passed out in a tub after swallowing a bottle of pills in what’s clearly a suicide attempt. He makes her vomit them out and gets a good guy sheen – for a little while, at least.
In the first episode, we also meet POV character Stu Redman (James Marsden), whose backstory covers his time being held as a lab rat by the military as they attempted to use his flu-immunity to find a vaccine. Marsden’s version of the character, though, isn’t as fearful as book Stu, and quite happily submits to various scans and fluid tests after a kindly doc asks him what his late wife – a nurse – would want him to do.
In his interactions with the doctors, captains, and even a general Starkey (Oscar-winner J.K. Simmons, making a surprise cameo), we get a Stu who is always looking for an escape route or information on how to break out of the Vermont facility he’s confined to. He certainly comes across as braver and more resourceful (read: badass) than book Stu, whose escape from the top-secret government location seems driven by primal instinct.
As the first episode pushes to conclusion, it pays short shrift to Harold’s psychological development, which the novel explores. While he is respected in the Free Zone, he’s unwilling to let go of grudges new or old – including a murderous one for Stu, who is seen paired romantically with Fran in the future. While there is no time for their story, like how Stu and Fran even met, making the cut in the premiere is a montage of Harold practicing his game face (a smile he models after Tom Cruise) which disguises his real feelings.
While the premiere shies away from introducing Nick, Lloyd, Tom, Glen, Larry, Nadine, Joe, or Rita, another important character gets a couple of brief nods – Randall Flagg (Alexander Skarsgård). His trademark Western boots crop up (holding open the door for Campion’s escape), his shadow squares up with Harold in a dream sequence, and the full Randall turns up smiling in the back seat of Campion’s car as the virus-carrying man drives his family down the road – a much earlier full look than in the book at the “evil” figure in the story.
Episode 2: “Pocket Savior”
Larry and Lloyd took center stage in The Stand‘s second episode on CBS All Access. The story of how Lloyd Henried (Nat Wolff) ended up in jail (following an interstate robbing and murder spree with his trigger-happy late companion Poke) is sped up, but keeps close to King’s narrative. So does Lloyd’s get out of jail not-quite-free tale, which comes after Captain Trips kills everyone in his cell block, leaving him starving and feasting on a rat and his bunkmate’s calf. In another book-to-screen match, The Stand finally introduces Randall Flagg (Alexander Skarsgård) with more than a dream scene, as he saunters down the cell block hall and offers Lloyd the key to freedom in return for a pledge of loyalty. Lloyd, obviously accepts.
Musician Larry Underwood (Jovan Adepo) is an African-American character in this adaptation (he’s Caucasian in the book) and instead of returning to NYC quietly after blowing his record company advances and then some on a beach house and coke-fueled party in LA, TV Larry hits the stage for a gig in the Big Apple as the pandemic takes root. Keyboardist and briefly appearing character Wayne, though, isn’t the decent guy who takes his bandmate on a morning beach walk to set him straight (stop the partying! You have a chance to make it!). Here, he’s a bitter artist who claims Larry stole his hook and chorus for the much mentioned in the novel, “Baby Can You Dig Your Man!” hit single. TV Wayne confronts Larry a second time, but he’s too weak from the superflu and Larry leaves him to die next to his car (but in an off-book twist, takes his duffel bag of drugs from the trunk).
As the world begins to fall apart and humans become scarce, Larry doesn’t stay alone for long. He has a picturesque meeting with Rita Blakemoor (Heather Graham) that is almost (absent a zoo) straight off the page. The musician and slightly-older wealthy New Yorker pair up, but their exit from New York gets a little tweaking. Instead of climbing over bodies in a dark Lincoln tunnel, the two begin their escape through a rat-infested sewer.
Here’s hoping next week’s episode gives us more than a glimpse of Nick, and digs deeper into the mindset of the just-introduced Nadine Cross (Amber Heard).
New episodes of The Stand will premiere Thursdays on CBS All Access. For more on the show, read our own Vinnie Mancuso’s review of the first several episodes. We will update this post regularly with each new episode.