This article contains spoilers for The Stand episode 1.
Sometimes opening in media res has some real storytelling value. The goal of just about any story is to get people interested in continuing it. Given that the beginnings of stories are often expository and not particularly exciting, who could forgive a storyteller for wanting to jump right into the thick of the action and then fill in the blanks of what came before
Well, in the case of CBS All Access’s The Stand, I can blame producer/director Josh Boone and showrunner Benjamin Cavell for wanting to jump right in and I will do just that. Stephen King’s classic 1978 novel of the same name is an epic tale and presents all sorts of storytelling challenges to those who would want to adapt it. One of those challenges, however, is not how to begin it.
The Stand’s remarkable narrative begins in Arnette, Texas, with a terrifying incident of a virus unleashed. That kernel of an idea evolves into a sprawling narrative about disease, collapse, and recovery – all leading to an epic confrontation between good and evil that goes a long way in satisfying King’s goal to craft an American Lord of the Rings story. Instead of opening with that compelling scene, however, this CBS All Access series instead picks up with Harold Lauder (Owen Teague) five months into the end of the world, where he and his Boulder, Colorado clean up crew clear dozens of decaying bodies out of a church.
It’s a striking visual, to be sure, and it gets the proceedings off to an ominous start. The problem though is that the series doesn’t jump back all the way to the very beginning of its tale even after that opener. The Stand’s first episode, titled “The End,” hops around time and as a result the book’s many rich, distinct themes are muddled together into a confusing mush. Not only that but viewers unfamiliar with King’s original text might find it unclear as to when any of this is happening and what order certain scenes fall into.
With that in mind, we’ve set out to distill this 2020 The Stand into as clear a linear narrative as possible. This proved to be a challenging endeavor, given the series pretzeled narrative but with the book as a helper we’ve created a timeline that should clear up any confusion a viewer might have after “The End.”
As detailed above, the narrative of both the book and this first episode begin in the same location and timeframe: Arnette, Texas. This scene (which occurs roughly halfway through the episode) finds Stu Redman (Stu Redman) relaxing on a warm Texas night with his friends at Bill “Hap” Hapscomb’s gas station and convenience store. The gang’s hang out sesh is interrupted by a car speeding into Haps’ fuel pumps. Inside the car is Charles Campion, a guard at a base where the U.S. military was developing a superflu. Charles Campion will prove to be patient zero of the “Captain Trips” pandemic that kills 99% of the world’s population.
We know this scene occurs more than five months before the first scene because the show flashes to “Five Months Earlier” in Ogunquit, Maine where Harold is being bullied by some classic Stephen King-ian young dickheads. The moment with Stu at Haps’ gas station has to precede this as Ogunquit resident Frannie Goldsmith’s father is already displaying some symptoms of Captain Trips, as are Harold’s mother, sister, and one of the bullies tormenting him.
What Year is It?
The Stand makes no mention of what year this is all occurring in, but we do have some clues if we want to make an educated guess. King’s book takes place in 1980 (1990’s unabridged version takes place 10 years later), but the show is clearly set in the modern day due to one of Harold’s bullies using a smartphone and saying he will post a picture to Instagram. Instagram launched in 2010, and the quality of the smartphone in question suggests that this series of events is taking place sometime after 2015 at the very least. It’s a shame Hap didn’t have the price of gasoline per gallon listed at his store as that might have helped nail things down further. Giving the same-year setting as King’s unabridged version of The Stand, let’s just say this series takes place in 2020. And wouldn’t that just make a grim amount of sense?
In any case, we know that Stu’s Charles Campion encounter makes up the very beginning of The Stand’s story. What follows that is a bit more nebulous. The two narratives making their way through “The End” are Stu’s time in two different military bunkers with Dr. Ellis (Hamish Linklater), and Harold and Frannie’s (Odessa Young) time in Ogunquit. The scenes with Stu and Dr. Ellis in the facility in Killeen, Texas likely occur first due to the fact that Ogunquit is pretty much desolate and empty only “one week later” following Harold’s introductory scene.
Eventually Stu and Dr. Ellis make the move to a more secure underground facility and it seems likely that this move would occur around the same time that Ogunquit has fallen. This means that right around the time Stu is encountering a high level military general (played by none other than J.K. Simmons), Harold is saving Frannie from her suicide attempt and gearing up to leave Maine.
What Comes Next
We know that there are five months of missing action between the time that Stu escapes the military bunker and Harold and Frannie leave Maine. All three characters will likely spend that time on the road making their way to their final destination. The opening scene obviously confirms this, but so too does Frannie and Stu’s enigmatic dreams. Frannie dreams of a cornfield and meets Mother Abigail Freemantle (Whoopi Goldberg) who tells Fran to find her at Hemingford Homes in Colorado. Stu dreams of pursuing the sound of a baby crying in the same cornfield only to encounter a wolf with glowing eyes instead. Though Harold intends to reach the CDC in Atlanta, all paths for now lead to Colorado.
And of course, the story does not end with Harold merely clearing out bodies in Boulder (“in media res” means “into the middle of things” after all). As his spiteful typewriter strikes and dreams of Randall Flagg reveal, there is much more to come for Harold and The Stand at large.