The Stand: The End

“The center will not hold.”

You know what 2020 needs? A trenchant commentary on abuses of authority, a heartfelt political and religious allegory about the necessity of being good in a fallen world, and an incisive portrait of the devastation caused by an epidemic.

You know what 2020 got? A banal CBS All Access miniseries that sucks all the meaning and fun out of Stephen King’s delightful, massive, messy novel.

“The End” begins in the middle (I love how postmodern that phrase sounds): young Harold is in the Boulder Free Zone, cleaning up corpses and earning the approval of older men. Flashback time! Now we see younger Harold in small-town Maine, bullied, misunderstood, a writer no one will publish and a lover no one will love. Through Harold’s story, we see how quickly the plague, Captain Tripps, can destroy an entire town (and presumably the world).

If you watched the episode, you know how it goes. If you’ve seen the 1990s miniseries adaptation of King’s novel, you’ll be surprised to see that each episode of this new version focuses on just a couple of characters (so far). If you’re completely unfamiliar with the world of The Stand, here’s the quick version: superflu kills 99% of people, survivors find each other, and a bunch of ‘em head to Boulder because their dreams of Whoopi Goldberg tell them to. (There’s more, but that’s enough for now.)

While Harold’s story shows us the on-the-ground effect of the plague, Stu’s story showed us the behind-the-scenes governmental and medical response to the plague. Spoiler: neither the government nor the doctors are able to fix anything.

This episode commits many sins—I start listing them in the next paragraph—but its worst crime is that it is boring. There was very little for me to connect to, here: Harold (Owen Teague) was off-putting, to say the least. Stu Redman, who is one of my favorite characters in all of King’s work, is basically just exactly the same character that James Marsden always plays. The scenes of dead and dying people with puffed-up lymph nodes were pretty gross (Cobb’s throat leaked both blood and pus when Stu killed him!), but there wasn’t much here that was shocking, horrific, humorous, moving, or even interesting. There was, however, a lot that I didn’t like.

I am no adaptation purist, demanding perfect fidelity from any new version of an old text. (Because what would that even look like? And what would be the point? Twenty-first century content, courtesy of the Xerox Corporation?) I am, however, fascinated by the process of adaptation, the way that small changes from a source text bring the implicit argument of the new version into sharp relief.

And it is there—in the realm of comparison, rather than treating this show on its own terms—that we can see the worst, most misbegotten changes wrought by creators Josh Boone and Benjamin Cavell.

Harold is not a primary character in the book. King created a nuanced, albeit scathing, portrait of an incel decades before the term was invented, but Harold’s primary purpose was to get some chess pieces moving on the board (and then, do a [spoiler!] thing). Although we spend a few pages inside Harold’s head, we get to know him through Frannie’s viewpoint chapters (and, later, Stu’s).

Put another way: King’s novel centers Frannie, and this episode centers the entitled incel. We meet Frannie on Harold’s terms, see Frannie through his tom-peeping eyes, and may even feel a bit of pity for him (bullied as he is, rejected by his peers and the slush readers of various fiction journals). But his creepiness shines through in every moment, which means there is no surprise, no Lost-style gasp that makes us wonder how this sadsack went from being a sadsack in Maine to a violent sadsack in Boulder. There’s no arc here, just a choice by the showrunners to tell his story first and make him Frannie’s savior.*

The changes in Stu’s storyline are more subtle and yet more maddening. King’s novel is remarkably angry for the first 400 or so pages. He is angry about military research into germ warfare. He is angry about the idea of unlawful detention and what today we would call black sites. He is justifiably fearful of military overreach. His rage is born of the war in Vietnam in the 60s and 70s, rising violence and income inequality in the 70s and 80s, and Reagan’s refusal to do a damn thing about AIDS in the 80s.

King communicates that rage through both Stu’s story and a series of vignettes that portray Kent State-style massacres, media suppression, military personnel killing civilians, military personnel killing their commanders, and one scene in which America’s top brass sends spies equipped with the virus to China and Russia to make sure they all die, too.

The 1990s miniseries touched on those vignettes briefly. (The most iconic scene is Kathy Bates’ radio personality being shot down for broadcasting that the plague was a bad thing.) But this twenty-first century version of The Stand is clearly more interested in the personal stories, which means the rampant governmental disasters King explores are essentially erased, touched on only a few denialist TV clips and Harold’s allusions to social-media chatter we never see.

The omission of those vignettes—which is to say, the omission of the larger context of abusive power, the dystopian “what if?” and the way that King positions the plague as a necessary cleansing of a fundamentally broken world—puts a larger onus on those personal stories to communicate the moral stakes of both the pre-plague world and the post-plague societies that emerge.

But this episode completely fails to say anything interesting about our present day, and I’m not just talking about COVID-19. Instead, this episode portrays pathetic kowtowing to dominant power structures, and in doing so diminishes both King’s rage and Stu’s character.

Stu’s story in the book is, on its face, very similar to the one portrayed in this episode: small-town veteran in Texas, picked up by the feds and detained for medical treatment/testing, eventually escapes Stovington, Vermont and runs free. But in the book his captors treat him horribly, and Stu rightfully mistrusts them. He does eventually give in to being tested—he is both a good man and a pragmatist—but he knows what is at stake, and he only manages to escape Stovington by the skin of his teeth (rather than a munificent four-star general).

In the book, Stu is a classic King character: smart but not educated, an honorable veteran who has a healthy but not obsessive distrust of authority, and one of those people who are the unsung heroes of everyday life. In this episode, James Marsden plays Stu as friendly rather than circumspect, kowtowing to his captors, not even trying to fight back. The result is a neutered man and an episode that fundamentally trusts those in power, assuming that all of this horror is, really, not their fault.

The last scene of “The End” doubles down on that thesis, giving us a glimpse of exactly how the plague escaped the secure lab. In the book, it’s a basic failure of the equipment that kept the lab locked down in case of breach; Charles Campion panics (who wouldn't?) and gets his family off base. In this episode, it’s not a basic failure of equipment: Randall Flagg, the Walking Dude, servant of the Crimson King, held the door open for Campion. King’s novel pins the blame for the plague squarely on illicit government experimentation; it is from that evil that Flagg draws his own malevolent power.

Here, though, it’s all Flagg’s fault. I suppose that’s good enough for government work, but it’s not good enough for me.

Boulder Free Zone CB Radio:

• *I have a lot to say about Frannie’s suicide attempt, which is not in the book, but I want to save that rant for an episode that focuses on her flashbacks. Because there will be one, right?! Because women do sometimes still get stories, right?!

• Let’s talk about race! There are some awful lines in King’s novel, which is filled with white people, and I was hoping this miniseries would do better. In this episode, there were three speaking roles for people of color: Whoopi Goldberg plays Magical Negro Mother Abagail. Charles Campion is the guy who accidentally snuck the plague out of a secure lab and killed 99% of humanity, then died himself. And Cobb tried to kill Stu, then died. So, um...Yeah, we'll keep talking about race in the reviews to come.

• Randall Flagg is a Billy Joel fan. Just in case you weren’t sure how evil he was.

Two out of four Captain Tripps. Because rather like 2020 itself, I’m hoping it will get better, but wondering if it will get worse.

Josie Kafka is a full-time cat servant and part-time rogue demon hunter. (What's a rogue demon?)

6 comments:

Billie Doux said...

But I like Billy Joel. :)

This episode did something that drives me nuts -- it assumes we've all read the book. That's at the top of my list of no-no's for adaptations.

I didn't care for this first episode either, and I am also hoping it gets better instead of worse. I kept wondering why it was all about Harold, whom I absolutely couldn't stand :) in the book.

And why, why, why did they decide to jump around and start in the middle? Perhaps to make it less of a downer during an actual pandemic? I mean, they must have decided to do this adaptation a long time before COVID hit. Did they decide at some point that the only way to make it less pandemic-y was to start in the middle?

percysowner said...

I don't subscribe to CBS Access, so I didn't expect to watch this. However it makes me sad that it is getting poor reviews, because I remember the 1994 mini-series and it was quite compelling. My family all could barely wait to see each episode. Basically, there is a really good story to be made, and every review I see says that this, isn't it.

Billie Doux said...

percysowner, I probably should have added to my comment that I loved the book and I have been so looking forward to this miniseries -- I really, really want it to be good.

Josie "Oh, No!" Kafka said...

BREAKING NEWS: One of the showrunners just gave an interview in which he describes Harold Lauder as the protagonist of this story: "And why do we start with Harold? I think, in a lot of ways, Harold is the protagonist of the novel."

https://tv.avclub.com/the-stand-showrunner-benjamin-cavell-on-centering-the-r-1845888283

Lord have mercy.

Anonymous said...

Interesting review. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

I haven't read the book, and I haven't seen either of the tv series, but upon reading the review and hearing that Benjamin Cavell was one of the show runners, I was thinking please tell me he has learned to write women better. Apparently, not, which is unfortunate. I watch Seal Team, which he is show runner for. I wasn't sure if his viewpoint was exclusive to that show, but I guess not.

Based on your review, I started doing a face palm when you mentioned Benjamin Cavell's AV Club article. Oh dear.

Anyway, if people keep watching, I hope it gets better.

LastWordyMcGee said...

I don’t think he has any idea what that word means.