The Stand showrunner breaks down that radically different finale
Benjamin Cavell answers our questions about the final two episodes of the CBS All Access adaptation of Stephen King's epic thriller.
The final two episodes of CBS All Access's adaptation of The Stand had some radically different changes from Stephen King's novel. (Spoiler alert for the finale, which streamed Feb. 11). From Glen Bateman's courtroom trial to the Hand of God's creeping destruction of New Vegas, to the all-new Frannie-in-a-well drama (penned by King himself), to Alexander Skarsgård's's butt shot, there's a lot to talk about.
Below, showrunner Benjamin Cavell takes our burning post-Stand questions.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Glen Bateman's (Greg Kinnear) big sendoff during this farcical trial – instead of a conversation in a jail cell like in the book –made so much dramatic sense and just made it a lot more of a last, well, stand for my favorite character.
BENJAMIN CAVELL: The scene in the book is very memorable, but we had some questions about it. One is just about Lloyd Henreid's (Nat Wolff) arc. In the book, when we meet him, he's killing people and does not have an issue with it. So I always questioned why he hesitated in the book when he was ordered to kill Glen. Part of this is also a testament to Nat Wolff and his commitment and willingness to work with us on crafting an arc for that character. We put Lloyd in a position where he's never killed anybody and doesn't seem to want to and wanted to set this up as a bigger deal for him. It also always bothered me that in the book Glen dies in this private moment Lloyd and Flagg (Skarsgård). I just felt like there was much more consequence in him defying Flagg in front of his people who are obsessed with this charismatic authoritarian strongman – which is a figure that has been ascendant in our recent history and how they're fearful of looking weak in front of their audience. It's the beginning of our protagonists really bringing about the end of Flagg through their defiance. By murdering this guy in front of everybody it starts to weaken him. You see him levitating and he unexpectedly sinks to the floor. They set up the conditions necessary for Flagg to ultimately be – I hesitate to use the word "defeat" – but vanquished.
Another key change was having Nadine Cross (Amber Heard) not be so zombified in the final act and instead being more aware of what's going on around her, which makes her more active and, I thought, made her arc a bit more tragic.
Absolutely. Amber and I talked a lot about that. We talked a lot about people in cults who have this sort of false peace where they're just so certain in the rightness of their cause. That scene with Larry (Jovan Adepo) where she's almost disappointed that he doesn't see the truth as she understands it. I felt like it resonated with so many things that we're watching where people have accepted a crazy mythology and are disappointed that the rest of us don't seem to be smart enough to get it.
I was most curious how you were going to handle the Hand of God. For me, I always kind of wince a bit while reading it in the book. As you pointed out before, it's a literal deus ex machina – ghost in the machine – solution. You sort of Raiders of the Lost Ark-ified it – leaning into the idea, but also making it more ominous and dramatic and less abrupt.
I'm glad you mentioned the Hand of God. It was quite possibly the thing that we discussed most. Jake Braver, our VFX supervisor, I talked endlessly about it. Our goal was to get it to the point where if you knew the book and you'd wanted it to look like a hand, it could be a hand, but that if that would make you crazy and would take you out of it, then you didn't have to see it that way. The thing that we didn't want under any circumstances was that sort of Monty Python cartoon hand out of the sky. Our big touchstone was this photograph from the Hubble telescope called the Pillars of Creation, which is like very distant Nebula, but is naturally occurring. If you sort of look at it in the right way, and you're willing to kind of make the leap, it really does look like fingers outstretched. But it doesn't have to.
Then you entirely cut out Stuart Redman (James Marsden) and Tom Cullen's (Brad William Henke) journey back to Boulder. That's a section I really love in the book and the time that King takes with it. It really makes you emotionally earn the payoff of Stu and Frannie's reunion. But I can also see how it would be considered unnecessary, story-wise.
It's quite beautiful the way he did it. But as you say, it's unnecessary and seems a little beside the point. It's the kind of digression that you're willing to take in a novel, but I don't know after the climactic action for a series, to do this journey, where the question is, "Are they going to make it back?" And then indeed they do. Also, we were very aware of wanting to keep Frannie in the story. Especially headed King's coda. It had always eaten at him that she really wasn't part of the Stand and kind of never got her this satisfying conclusion to her arc in the book. These guys are going to confront Flagg, but there is still a society in Boulder that is ongoing. And she's the person Mother Abigail (Whoopi Goldberg) chose to be in charge.
I know this is not how I'm supposed to feel, but I always thought Frannie and Stu's idea to leave Boulder and all their friends at the end of the book was a terrible and perplexing decision. So watching the finale, I was sort of thrilled to have my concerns validated by having them go through a bit of hell on the road in that all-new stretch of drama that was added.
Me too! King had told us early on that he had this coda that he had been planning for 30 years. We always planned on ending with Flagg on a beach presenting himself to these people who have been untouched by the disease. The question was what comes between the Hand of God and that moment. And King said, "Okay I'm going to write this."
So what would have happened had Frannie smooched the Dark Man?
That's probably a question for King himself. Flagg certainly implies, "I'd like to be able to look through your eyes from time to time." And you think of how he groomed Nadine since she was 12 when he first started contacting her. With Flagg, he takes you a little at a time and now he's in your head. In for a penny, in for a pound, right? It's this insidious recruitment. Then if he's ever defeated, you're defeated right along with him. Not to mention any charismatic, authoritarian, strong man in particular, but I think a lot of people can get caught up with somebody they defend or they participate, and then it gets very hard to distance themselves from it.
And I guess I would be remiss if I didn't ask you about getting in Alexander Skarsgård's naked butt in the very last minute of your limited series. Was there any discussion surrounding that move?
Well, he was completely fine with it, and how dare he not be? That's what we came for! But look, I hope it didn't feel gratuitous, it felt like it was being completely honest. I wanted to have him completely naked except for his boots. I love that King sort of implies that his boots are somehow part of his supernatural power. That's a fun piece of King mythology.
During our previous chat, you posited a theory I quite liked: That Mother Abagail and the Dark Man are actually talking to the same entity, not separate ones. Which led me to this take on the whole structure of The Stand: First, there's this great reset of humanity with the virus kills almost everybody except those with innate immunity. Then Flagg is added to basically act as a magnet to lure all the – for lack of a better term – "bad" survivors into one spot. Then the Hand of God nuke blows them all to hell. This gives humanity its best possible chance at moving forward in peace for a protracted period of time. I realize there's no "right" interpretation but, well, how close is that to being right?
I like that. And yes, I don't know that there is a right. But your take is very much in line with mine. One of the things I loved about King is there isn't this notion that that evil can just be sort of vanquished in one stroke. The wheel keeps turning and keeps coming around and the command is always the same. You always have to constantly have to stand up to this because, because evil doesn't go away. So you can't just kind of let your guard down and decide, "Okay, now we're good." There's is no such thing as the end of it. It's always a struggle.