(THE STAND streams on HBO NORDIC weekly)
A pale horse
It’s nearly a universal fact that Stephen King and endings don’t mix. He’s one of the most prolific and successful authors in history, responsible for terrifying scares and immense fantasies throughout the last half-century. Yet his endings are rarely satisfactory, even to ardent fans. It is with some irony, then, that the latest adaptation of his mammoth Americana-meets-Lord-of-the-Rings epic, THE STAND, has all the problems piled right into the beginning.
Adapting King’s over 1000-page book isn’t an easy task. THE STAND is a vast mosaic of characters, set pieces, and genres, where the end of the world is just the warmup act. It’s playful but somber, horrific yet funny, and unruly in the way that only King knows how to pull off.
Arriving in the middle of a very real and very terrifying global pandemic, THE STAND feels a little too timely for comfort. Filmed last year, it effectively captures our society’s uncertainty, stupidity, and fragility as a new strain of influenza tears down the world we know within weeks. Following a wide cast of characters, each immune to the deadly virus and propelled by strange visions directing them to Colorado, THE STAND is at its best when it allows the fear and selfishness we’ve come to see from people worldwide this past year take center stage.
World gone by
The other strength lies in the series’ structure as a road and horror film, where disparate groups try to survive against the odds in a world gone mad. Early episodes are particularly impressive in depicting the slow but inevitable collapse of society throughout the nation. Small communities turn to ghost towns, while metropolitan areas burn for days, as the rich and wealthy succumb to their base desires in their ivory towers. There’s a sense of dread and malice in every frame to these scenes, a night-time view of New York imploding being particularly effective.
But THE STAND suffers from a frustrating lack of vision. The first three episodes unfold in an annoying flash-back-flash-forward manner, which is jarring and surprisingly hard to follow. As someone who has read the books, I eventually caught up just by remembering where the plot is going, but I can’t imagine anyone else willing to stick with it. The decision remains even more baffling as the series progresses, as there’s no need for the pointless trickery. King’s prose is effective all on its own, and the characters are already compelling on the page. Why bury that?
Pawns on a board
Some of that probably has to do with the varying level of acting. While actors like Owen Teague, Ezra Miller, Whoopi Goldberg, Odessa Young, and James Marsden impress, many others stand out as stiff and lifeless. Amber Heard is particularly jarring as Nadine Cross, a complex character to begin with, who Heard doesn’t seem to understand in the first place. Similarly, Alexander Skarsgård, a terrific actor elsewhere, is saddled with a version of Randall Flagg that struggles to find form. One of the most menacing and endearing King creations, Flagg is the Satan to Goldberg’s God; he appears in almost every major story by the author.
But for those unfamiliar with the elaborate and convoluted universe, Flagg will remain an odd, if not unwelcome, addition to the show. Skarsgård captures the charm and sliver-tonguedness of King’s prose, but the series never fully utilizes the terror behind his smile. The editing doesn’t help either, burying Flagg as a bit player for way too long in the buildup, leaving his big reveal a far lesser event than it should be.
It’s also interesting that if it weren’t for a stellar performance from Owen Teague as incel-supreme Harold Lauder, that Flagg would probably work a whole lot better. But Teague captures the very real and very troubling persona of an angry young man we know all too well from the news, and runs away with the early season. In the face of grand mythology and supernatural forces, Teague grounds the narrative with his menacing and tragic figure, bringing one of the most hateful King creations to life better than anyone before.
With a whimper
The STAND stills feels like a truncated version of the book at just nine episodes, which is odd, since it has a bigger budget and far more breathing room than the 1990s version. Where the original struggled against the limitations of network television, it doesn’t make sense that the new one should feel this timid. Apart from the editing and pacing, nothing is terrible, but nothing stands out either.
Just as the show feels like it’s finding its legs, like with every early Marsden scene, it pulls back, as if afraid of actually having fun. King’s excellent novel, which subverts expectations of apocalypse storytelling, doesn’t have that fear. It gleefully skips over any line in the sand and keeps going within the very first pages. Adapting the strange Americana-meets-folk-tale narrative into something more grounded is a losing battle from the start.
Having said that, it would be a shame if people gave the series a miss. Even as it struggles to find shape, THE STAND occasionally impresses with glimpses of brilliance. An early cameo infuses the pilot with much-needed gravitas, and Miller’s bizarre performance as Trashcan Man is a sight to behold. There’s also something to be said for the therapeutic function of seeing these horrors unfold from the comfort of your own home. If only to remind us that external threats are never our undoing, only ourselves.