CBS All Access The Stand Is About Empathy And Grace In A Dumpster Fire World
When the journey matter more than the destination, The Stand challenges our view on what we are capable of in the fight for our lives.
CBS All Access has one of the hottest tickets in town, and not just because there is nothing else to do but watch television. Stephen King’s novel The Stand is easily the most recognizable, relatable, and terrifying of his enormous collection. The 1994 miniseries was flawed but loved and the 2020 version looks poised to capture lightning in a bottle with an impressive cast, smart screenplay writing, and a brand new coda by the great man himself. Don’t be fooled into thinking this is another good versus evil story. Obviously, there is a group of good guys and bad guys, but what makes The Stand so interesting is the nuance in the middle. No one is perfect and our willingness to embrace others and the compassion we show ourselves and those around us is where the real heart of the story lives.
For those unfamiliar, The Stand is a Stephen King epic novel published in 1978. It was made into a miniseries in 1994, and CBS All Access has reimagined the series due out on December 17th, 2020. A terrible disease was released from a laboratory that kills almost the entire population. In the aftermath, two groups of people led by powerful leaders try to survive. The Boulder Free Zone is the more virtuous camp with New Vegas containing Randall Flagg’s bedlam society. The two groups inevitably face-off with the fate of humanity at stake.
The Stand is unlike any apocalypse story you have ever seen. However, eerily prescient, it may seem everything from the source material to the production occurred well before the current COVID-19 pandemic. The fight for survival in the miniseries is not about the disease. No one cares how to cure it or avoid getting it. Instead, it is about the choices it forces people to make. James Marsden(Westworld), who plays reluctant leader Stu Redman said The Stand “explores the human condition. Captain Tripps is the catalyst for a bigger story”. Some of those are decisions that are difficult but necessary, and others are just massive life-altering mistakes. The human instinct to survive and hopefully thrive drives us for better or worse. How each of the characters chooses to react is where the magic happens.
If the fight for decency is the backbone of the plot, the grace we do or don’t extend each other and ourselves is the beating heart. No character is completely good or evil, with the exception of Tom Cullen and Randall Flagg. Even Flagg’s right-hand man Lloyd Henreid played by Nat Wolff, is informed by a traumatic past. That distinction between being born “bad” and making “bad” decisions forms the basis for the two camps. The disenfranchised, the underrepresented, the downtrodden all find a home in one camp or another for specific reasons. In a world turned upside down, The Stand is about doing the right thing “even when no one is looking,” said Marsden. Stu recognizes we are all flawed even in Mother Abigail’s contingent. Watching a beloved hero is great. Seeing him struggle with all that entails is even better.
In Stu’s camp is Glenn Bateman, played by perennial nice guy Greg Kinnear who breathes new life into the college professor turned sounding board for Stu. He’s a cynic who is with Mother Abigail’s group almost by default. He isn’t looking to save the world. Rather carve out a little corner to wait it out, feel smug, and smoke pot. Newly successful musician Larry Underwood played by Jovan Adepo, who you last saw in HBO’s Watchman, probably has the most profound character arc. Before the disease, he was a selfish, superficial man. Every emotion and insecurity is laid bare. After Captain Tripps, he has an epiphany of sorts and transforms into the person he always could be if only he had thought more about others than himself.
Tom Cullen(Brad William Henke) and Nick Andros(Henry Zaga) are the oddest and sweetest couple of friends. They both share an innate understanding and care for the other that transcends traditional communication. Nick is a deaf-mute who reads lips and communicates by writing things down and signing. Tom is a mentally challenged survivor that can not read. They are the most unlikely of friends, and yet they share an unshakable bond. When the world ends, instincts are all you have, and these two inherently know the other can be relied on. Nick understands what it is like to be underestimated. He sees Tom has “a little touch of God,” says Henry Zaga. Cullen and Zaga take pains to bring to life characters that are more than their challenges. They both have integral roles in the fight with Flagg.
Pregnant Frannie(Odessa Young) is facing a terrifying future when she meets Stu and the others. She is bent but not broken and understands sacrifice is necessary for survival. Even the Boulder Free Zone’s leader Mother Abigail the sublime Whoopi Goldberg is not immune to flaws. She has lived a long life. It’s a huge surprise to her when she is called to be the spiritual guide for the group because she knows just how normal she is. She isn’t perfect, but she has the wisdom of a lifetime and a wellspring of strength that she draws on. Instead of some supernatural svengali, she is all too human. That makes her decisions and behavior all the more compelling.
Nadine Cross, portrayed by Aquaman’s Amber Heard, and Harold Lauder, played by The Empty Man’s Owen Teague, best displays the shades of grey in morality. They are in Boulder, but they are drawn to the darkness Flagg offers. Nadine has guards up. It makes sense that Nadine developed the defense mechanisms to survive if not thrive. She is a tragic character” her obstacles are immense,” says Heard. She is motivated by the same things we all are. The bigger questions asked aren’t who will win, but what will everyone become when faced with devils and angels.
Randall Flagg and his camp will be relatable if abhorrent like the best villains. When society breaks down, who will enforce rules? Who decides if there should be rules? Alexander Skarsgård’s Randall Flagg represents hedonism. He fully embraces the chaos and not only tells everyone it will be okay but encourages them to enjoy the new world. For the terrified and vulnerable, he provides a weird sort of comfort. Coupled with a magnetic personality, stunning good looks, supernatural powers, and kindness is abandoned.
He actively recruits your poor, oppressed, huddled masses. His group comprises Lloyd Henreid(Wolff), a prison inmate Flagg rescues with some precognitive abilities and a knack for survival, Julie Lawry, played by The Arrow and Shadowhunters Katherine McNamara. She says Lawry is the “manic Tinkerbell of the apocalypse.” They both sizzle with the kind of destructive energy that is fun to watch but only from afar. Wolff says playing good guys is “boring” and dove headlong into Henreid, who runs amok in New Vegas as Flagg’s enforcer. Flagg easily influences him to do the wrong things, but he knows he’s probably working with the Devil. Executive Producer Ben Cavell says, “Nat brings a soul to everything he does.” Lloyd may be aiding Flagg, but his motivations are complex.
Ezra Miller’s Trashcan Man is the most changed from the novel. More a 2-dimensional cartoon in the novel(albeit with a pivotal end role), he is given a fully fleshed person to explore in CBS’s updated The Stand. He is exactly what happens when our darkest desires are left unchecked. According to Cavell, Miller said, “Trashcan Man was not a pyromaniac, but pyromania.” Even his brand of utter destruction has sadness and beauty to it. Perhaps if his mental illness were treated before Captain Tripps or Mother Abigail got to him first, things would have differed. The Stand invites you to ponder these questions. Things probably wouldn’t end any differently, but it’s interesting to consider.
Desperation and catastrophe bring out the best and worst in us. The Stand isn’t about a plague. McNamara says it best; The Stand is “alarming, heartwrenching, and heartwarming.” King’s story is universal because doing the right thing is hard. CBS All Access’ new miniseries spins a web with this truth at the center. At the intersection between self-preservation and compassion, a battle is brewing. Randall Flagg needs depravity and adulation. He dangles your dreams and desires like a pork chop to a starving dog. It should come as no surprise that he has so many followers or that occasionally those followers bite.
2020 sucks right now. It isn’t that far-fetched to imagine our world could be an even more burned out lonely version of itself. The Stand is not a story about a plague. It is about what that plague does to people. What are the fundamental rules? What do we owe each other? It’s important to discuss how a man like Flagg could sway the confused and scared and scarred. The Stand will surprise viewers because it shows the journey to the new normal through a horror lens. What do we become? We could all use a little grace right now. Let Stu, Nick, Larry, Frannie, Glen, and Tom remind you something is waiting on the other side. If not, there’s always Vegas.
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As the TV/Streaming Editor for Signal Horizon, I love watching and writing about genre tv. I grew up with old school slashers, but my real passion is television and all things weird and ambiguous. When I’m not watching and writing about my favorite movies and series, I’m introducing my family to the wonderful world of sci-fi, fantasy, and horror. My only regret, there is not enough time in the day to watch everything.