The Stand Ended With a Wheeze, Despite the Hand of Stephen King

Odessa Young as Frannie Goldsmith. Also pictured: the well.
Odessa Young as Frannie Goldsmith. Also pictured: the well.
Photo: Robert Falconer/CBS

From its earliest episodes, we already knew weren’t all that jazzed on CBS All Access’ new take on Stephen King’s The Stand. But the fact that King himself penned a new prologue as part of the final episode, “The Circle Closes,” made us curious enough to stick with it. Was it worth it? Well...

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The Stand is famously about a pandemic that wipes out almost all of humanity, so its premiere during a real-life pandemic was automatically eerie timing. But the series hustled through that part of the story to get to its main focus: the supernatural battle of good and evil that rises in the aftermath and divides all the survivors. Even with nine episodes to contain King’s massive novel, the pacing never quite found its rhythm, and the shifting perspectives among its huge cast meant that we got to know some characters way better than others, but also never really came to care about any of them in particular.

There were also some stylistic choices that didn’t quite work—particularly when it came to flashier elements like the Vegas storyline and the characters who populated it. You could have staged a drinking game around how many times Alexander Skarsgård (as Randall Flagg), usually a pretty dynamic actor, was photographed just, like, levitating menacingly in his casino-top penthouse, and the less we dwell on Ezra Miller’s take on Trash Can Man, the better.

Illustration for article titled The Stand Ended With a Wheeze, Despite the Hand of Stephen King

That said, as The Stand neared its conclusion, the show’s decision to emphasize the cracks that formed between Flagg and his faithful—especially Lloyd (Nat Wolff), whose over-the-top flamboyance eventually gave way to something a bit more nuanced—added some welcome depth ahead of the devastating nuclear blast that punctuates the third act. Other than that, everything that fans of the book and the 1994 miniseries were expecting to happen, happened; Stu Redman (James Marsden) hobbled back to Boulder to reunite with Frannie Goldsmith (Odessa Young), whose infant daughter (named Abagail after Whoopi Goldberg’s character, Mother Abagail) contracted Captain Trips but miraculously overcame it.

Episode nine, “The Circle Closes,” makes good on Frannie’s desire to leave Boulder—where life is beginning to resemble pre-Trips times, for better and worse—and return to Maine, bringing Stu, baby Abby, and Kojack the dog (the real MVP of this entire production) along for a road trip through post-post-apocalyptic America. They meet no other travelers on the journey, but they do have an important encounter in Nebraska—a significant location because that’s where Mother Abagail is from in King’s book (the series shifted her to Colorado, presumably so that the whole Boulder thing would make more sense). Nebraska also happens to be a likely place to encounter a creepy cornfield—a King trademark—and we soon get payoff on the episode’s earlier tease that Flagg, vaporized in episode eight, was readying for a comeback.

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Randall Flagg (Alexander Skarsgård) gets his comeuppance, sorta, in episode eight, “The Stand.”
Randall Flagg (Alexander Skarsgård) gets his comeuppance, sorta, in episode eight, “The Stand.”
Image: CBS

Oh, and guess who else isn’t totally dead? In “The Circle Closes,” Mother Abagail appears both as her elderly self and as a young girl (Kendall Joy Hall). The young Abagail is introduced as an otherworldly kid living alone in the middle of the cornfield—initially unnoticed by everyone except the ever-vigilant Kojack—but the ill wind blowing through the stalks implies darkness is also near.

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When Stu drives into a nearby town to look for supplies, Frannie decides to see if an old well on the abandoned farm where they’ve spent the night is still a water source. And as any horror fan knows—think The Ring or The Haunting of Bly Manor just for starters—anytime there’s an old well, someone’s definitely going to end up at the bottom. Frannie takes her plunge (with a little nudge from Flagg) as baby Abby sleeps on the porch, Kojack whines with Lassie-like concern, and Stu futzes with an ill-timed flat tire.

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Frannie’s head-injury vision quest leads her into a forest, where she finds Flagg—abs a-poppin’—eager to show her “one of the last tribes on Earth, never polluted by contact with modern man,” and untouched by Captain Trips. This sequence feels...weird to say the least. Who exactly are these human beings going about their lives, and why is The Stand suddenly inviting us to gaze at them like a museum exhibit?

While we, and Frannie, are taking this in, Flagg does his best to convince Frannie to let him “peek through her eyes from time to time,” saying he’ll save her from dying in the well if she does. Of course she says no and flounces into the cornfield, where she finds Mother A, looking very much how she did in Frannie’s vision at the beginning of the series, and ready with words of wisdom: “All seems well, and then here comes God, says, ‘No, there’s more to do.’ More pain to bear...the wheel keeps turning, the struggle continues. But the command is always the same: be true. Stand.” She also tells Frannie she’s eventually going to have five children and that “your children will replenish the Earth.”

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Mother Abagail and Randall Flagg share a rare scene in episode six, “The Vigil.”
Mother Abagail and Randall Flagg share a rare scene in episode six, “The Vigil.”
Photo: Robert Falconer/CBS

Meanwhile, a frantic Stu—with an assist from Little Mother A, who knows exactly what to do—manages to extract Frannie from the well. Abagail waves her hands over Frannie’s broken body and magically heals her completely before vanishing, and that’s that. Some time later, when they’re finally in Maine, Stu asks Frannie what exactly happened to her in Nebraska. Her response: “I found out that there are two sides to the world. There’s this, and then there’s a deep well of darkness...when I was dying in that well I saw both of them, and I was tempted. The wheel turns, the struggle continues, and the command is always the same: be true. Stand.”

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It’s a tender moment (even though you’d think that Frannie would have already figured out that whole “two sides” thing by now) and gives some clarity as to why Flagg returned to tempt Frannie and why Mother Abagail returned to save her life: her kids and grandkids, soldiers for the good in the world, are going to help repopulate the human race. So it’s a happy ending...or it would be, until the final scene, which readers of King’s 1990 update of The Stand will recognize to some degree.

Naked except for a pair of cowboy boots, Flagg approaches the isolated tribe he showed Frannie earlier, tossing smarm in the direction of the bow-wielding indigenous man who steps forward to intercept him. Then he catches the arrow that’s flying toward his head with one hand, shoots a finger gun that gruesomely annihilates the man’s face, and levitates one last time, with tasteful camera angles making sure we can’t see Skarsgård’s junk (though we do get a lingering view of his rear). “My name is Russell Faraday,” he says. “WORSHIP ME!” The implication is that he’s going to rebuild his army, which tracks, but the tone—it’s weirdly lighthearted, what with the bare butt and cowboy boots, but also pretty racist, what with the white guy commanding the generic “natives” to worship him, but also quite knowingly racist, because Flagg is an evil dude who openly exists to monstrously manipulate everyone he meets, including the audience.

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As a capper to this version of The Stand, and despite King’s direct involvement in writing it, the scene is just kind of an amplified “huh”— notable only because the rest of the series delivered more of a consistent “meh.” This take on King’s 40-year-old book (with a 30-year-old addition) did make some of the elements that haven’t aged very well feel more current, but that final sequence sure could have used one more pass through the update machine.

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io9 News Editor, here since 2016. Previously SF Bay Guardian newspaper (RIP), SFSU (MA, Cinema Studies), member of the SF Bay Area Film Critics Circle, big fan of horror, metal, and verrry small dogs.

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zippyzanderhoff
Zippy Zanderhoff

The Stand Ended With a Wheeze, Despite the Hand of Stephen King

Stephen King has his strengths and weaknesses as a writer, but one consistency is a tendency to overindulge and derail an initially great story he established.