Since its publication in 1978, author Stephen King has come up with three different endings for The Stand. Somewhat fittingly, the Bible-sized tome with over a dozen central characters, each one detailed enough to be the main character in their own story about the near destruction and possible salvation of the entire human race, has drawn back King’s itchy writing finger to rethink what happens when it’s all over.
King first revised the ending of The Stand in 1990 with an expanded edition that added a few hundred more pages. Now he’s done one more pass, writing the final episode of the CBS All Access miniseries, which just wrapped up. The differences reflect a writer who’s in an evolving relationship with the world around him.
[Ed. note: The rest of this story contains spoilers for both the final episode of The Stand miniseries and King’s original novel.]
The final confrontation with the evil and mysterious Randall Flagg never changes much across these tinkered endings. In the book, Mother Abigail’s deathbed mandate from God insists that four prominent members of the Boulder Free Zone (aka the community of nice plague survivors) walk all the way from Colorado to Flagg’s stronghold in Las Vegas. On the way, one of the main characters, Stu Redman, breaks his leg and is left behind. This turns out to be lucky for him because the others, sadly, don’t return from Vegas.
In King’s final act, the literal Hand of God appears as Flagg crucifies our heroes in front of his followers. The Hand explodes a nuclear warhead he planned to drop on Boulder, destroying Flagg and his followers in one swift blow. In any other book this moment would come in the final dozen pages or so, but in The Stand, there’s another 100-plus pages beyond that. Stu returns home to his love, Frannie Goldsmith, who has delivered a baby in his absence.
Much of the drama of the original ending centers on Fran’s baby. It’s unknown if newborns can survive the plague that destroyed most of humanity, and it’s touch and go for a bit before her child pulls through, giving hope for humanity’s survival. Stu, Fran, and the baby pack up and leave, heading for Fran’s home state of Maine. The book closes with them discussing human nature. Are we doomed to repeat all the horrors that brought us to the brink of extinction? Stu’s final answer to this query is perhaps unsatisfying, but also rings true. “I don’t know.”
King is all about challenging governmental authority — just look at his Twitter feed if you don’t believe me — but he was especially pessimistic at the time of writing this book. Watergate was still in the rearview mirror, the country was going through oil shortages, and environmental disasters were becoming the norm. So he wasn’t too hot on the idea of rebuilding society as it was, though that’s exactly what his characters naturally tried to do once they gathered together.
However, for the characters of The Stand, the immediate future is all that matters. Fran and Stu raise a baby, and the good guys have won. There’s no sign of Randall Flagg anywhere.
King’s “Complete and Uncut” version changes that a little bit, making the happy ending a tad less cut and dry. In that 1990 version, Randall Flagg appears to a group of natives on an island untouched by the deadly Captain Tripps virus. The tribe worships him as a God and his powers start growing once more. The ending suggests that not only is Flagg the embodiment of true evil, but true evil can’t be killed. Yes, there’s hope for humanity, but temptation will always be lurking in the shadows, biding its time.
The new coda on the CBS All Access show feels in many ways like King marrying those two endings while also finally giving Frannie her time to shine. Despite an intrinsically strong and likable performance by Odessa Young, the creators of the series saw the key character as less of a priority to the adapted narrative than her semi-crazed stalker, Harold Lauder (played convincingly by Owen Teague). As much blame as the show gets for making the decision to relegate her to a backburner, King lets Frannie down a little bit in the original text, too. She’s the main focus of the beginning of the story and by the end her sole purpose is to be the mother of humanity. She’s defined by her pregnancy and her role is just to be worried about Stu (James Marsden), worried about her baby, worried about the future of humanity.
This coda feels like King making amends for that. Frannie gets to be the kind, tough, no-BS character we were introduced to.
Much of the new ending is the same. The Hand of God makes its appearance, Vegas is wiped out, Stu returns to Boulder, the baby catches the flu but recovers, securing humanity’s future, and Frannie convinces Stu to journey off to Maine to make a new life away from the messy business of rebuilding society.
Along the way, they stop at a farm house in Nebraska for some much needed rest. Something or someone is watching from the rows of corn that flank the cute little house. Stu goes into town to restock supplies and Frannie and the baby stay behind. That’s when two accidents happen, which we find out were caused by a wounded, but still alive Randall Flagg: Stu is kept from getting back to Frannie quickly due to a blown tire, and Frannie falls down a well, gravely hurting herself. The baby is left alone on the porch, crying its little head off.
Director Josh Boone picks up with an unconscious Frannie at the bottom of this well. Her body’s all banged up, leg broken and bent in unnatural ways. Like most of the characters we followed in this story, she dreams of Flagg. He has survived the nuclear explosion, at least in some form, but doesn’t seem to be as powerful as he used to be, something that becomes even more evident as this confrontation unfolds.
Flagg has a final temptation for her. He shows her everything she fears in this world. Her baby, all alone, left to the elements, in danger. Her love fixing a tire on an unstable truck that threatens to fall over on him. He can make things right. Fix her broken bones, ensure Stu gets home safely and that their child will be once again safe and secure with her loving parents.
All Frannie has to do is give him a kiss, which will let him essentially live within her. She’d still be Frannie, but from time to time he’d look through her eyes, get a lay of the land.
What’s particularly interesting with this temptation scene is that Frannie shows she wants every single thing Flagg is offering her, but does not waver for one second. Not once. She knows he lies. She also knows if he’s lying here, he’s not lying about much. She’s still at the bottom of that well, very possibly dying, but despite all that, Frannie won’t even consider striking a deal with the devil.
At the end of everything, all the death, all the fighting, all the planning and walking and struggle, it comes down to Frannie, and she doesn’t flinch. Flagg might still be around, but he’s unquestionably not as powerful as he would have been had his gambit with Frannie paid off.
The very end introduces two rebirths: Randall Flagg and Mother Abigail. When Stu comes home, he finds a young girl caring for Frannie’s baby. This is who has been watching them from the corn. She looks and acts a whole lot like the now-dead leader of the good guys, and even knows their names. She heals Frannie’s wounds, sending the new family off with the knowledge that a force for good walks the Earth. Hope, in the flesh.
The other rebirth is Flagg. There’s a balance to this world. You can’t have a force for good without a force for evil. King brings back the ending to his 1990 edition, reviving Flagg among the natives who worship him as a God at the first demonstration of his power. This version of Flagg is naked, kind of aloof, and calling himself Russell Faraday. (Flagg goes by many names in a bunch of King stories, but usually sticks with the initials R.F.) He’s up to his dastardly tricks.
By introducing a counterpart in this young girl in Nebraska, who does not exist in any previous version of the story, King takes away a little bit of Flagg’s threat. Yeah, it’s bad news he’s gathering a new batch of followers, but he’s not doing so without an adversary wielding the light in this world.
It’s pretty clear that King didn’t just pop out this nifty new coda for the hell of it. He took this opportunity to streamline some of his stronger themes of the balance of good and evil, and kept all the landmarks fans of both previous versions of the book expect to see in an adaptation. And he did all this while finally giving Frannie Goldsmith the agency she deserves.
And with this more pronounced circular storytelling structure, King also manages to tip the hat to fans of the ambitious and weird-as-hell Dark Tower series. That’s another epic tale of good vs. evil, and one in which Mr. Randall Flagg happens to be a bad guy.
“The wheel turns,” both Frannie and Mother Abigail say in this finale, a phrase common in the Dark Tower series, and baked deep in its structure. What has happened will happen again, but there’s always hope that the good guys will win out in the end.