There were a lot of reasons to look forward to the sprawling new adaptation of The Stand on CBS All Access when it launched last year, from its all-star cast to the possibility that it would offer hope in a dark time with its tale of pandemic survivors banding together to vanquish evil. For longtime Stephen King fans, though, the most tantalizing thing about the miniseries was a new contribution from King himself: A much-hyped "coda" scene that would offer some new sense of resolution to the epic tale of light versus darkness at the end of the world. Now the series finale, and King's new ending, has arrived, and with it comes a poignant answer to one of the biggest lingering question in the author's massive body of work.
**SPOILER WARNING! There are spoilers for The Stand Episode 9, "The Circle Closes," below.**
King has been open in the past about his difficulties writing The Stand, the novel still considered by many fans (myself included) to be his finest work. In his memoir On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, he detailed how at one point the book almost went off the rails entirely because he'd run out too many narrative threads. He'd tripped himself up — until he realized that a bomb in the Boulder Free Zone was a handy way to curtail some of them and streamline his plot.
That's the most famous story of the book's struggles, but it's not the only one. Later in the same passage of his memoir, King explains that he also struggled to reach a satisfactory conclusion to the final scene, in which Frannie Goldsmith and Stu Redman put their son to bed and ponder for a moment what their struggle in the wake of Captain Trips meant.
In the book, this pondering ends with Stu asking Frannie if she thinks "people ever learn anything," a response to the battle against Randall Flagg that only ended when an atomic bomb (the world's great manmade devastator) exploded in the middle of Las Vegas. In that moment, Stu is thinking about the future, about their children, and their children's children, and worrying over whether or not they'll actually be able to rebuild the world without resorting to the old ways of mutually assured destruction.
In response, Frannie simply says: "I don't know."
In On Writing, King explained why this turns out to be the answer, and his reasoning is both simple and relatable: He couldn't think of anything else for his heroes to say that wouldn't sound shallow or saccharine.
"Sometimes the book gives you answers, but not always, and I didn't want to leave the readers who had followed me through hundreds of pages with nothing but some empty platitude I didn't believe myself," King wrote, adding that he didn't believe The Stand had a "moral," or that it was meant to.
This brings us to the "coda" sequence in the series finale, "The Circle Closes." In this new material — which showrunner Benjamin Cavell described as an opportunity to give Frannie a "stand" of her own, after she can't make the trip to Vegas — King doesn't go so far as to give the story a "moral," but he does finally give Frannie an answer to Stu's question. One that's consistent with the rest of the author's best and most ambitious fiction.
King's new coda follows the same basic narrative path of the novel. Frannie and Stu still set out from Boulder to head back to Frannie's home state of Maine, where they hope to raise their child and essentially start a new free zone on the East Coast. They also still stop at a version of Mother Abagail's old home in Nebraska (though this is less overt in the miniseries) to rest a while amidst the corn. But it's here that King chooses to launch a short side narrative built around the old home's well, and the hand pump on top of it. With Stu away looking for supplies, Frannie takes a tumble down into the darkness and makes her stand against a dreamy version of Flagg, whose spirit persists even after his defeat.
In what amounts to a kind of "Last Temptation of Fran Goldsmith" (who, it's worth remembering, attempted to end her life early in the miniseries), Flagg offers the young mother something the rest of the world has never been able to give her in the wake of Captain Trips: certainty. In exchange for a kiss, he tells her, she can guarantee the safety of her child, and (perhaps for the first time since her pregnancy began) she can be in charge of the narrative. Frannie — who has fought through so much to build a life and family on her own terms — sees the temptation for what it is and resists.
In return, she's rewarded not just by a vision of Mother Abagail from the past, but by an apparently reincarnated version of the old woman who emerges from the corn to pull her from the well and heal her wounds, only to disappear again. Then, at the end of their journey, sitting on a beach in Maine, Frannie repeats the words that Mother Abagail gave her in the well, which serve at last as an answer to that unanswered question from King's novel. People do learn things, it turns out, and Frannie has learned this:
"The wheel turns, the struggle continues, and the command is always the same. Be true. Stand."
On its own, Frannie's final word on the story functions as a poignant resolution of her own struggles, as King articulates the peace she's found with her new life after her temptation, as well as the understanding she now has of the darkness that persists in the world even after the fall of New Vegas. In context with the larger King canon, though, it says something even more powerful, and as proof, King and director Josh Boone offered us a few Easter eggs to tie The Stand even closer to the magnum opus of King's career, The Dark Tower.
The two works were connected even before this miniseries, to be sure. The Captain Trips-ravaged version of Earth is revealed to be a version of Earth within the Dark Tower multiverse at one point in the saga, and Randall Flagg is another incarnation of The Man in Black, the dark sorcerer that serves as the first antagonist of the Tower epic. Within "The Circle Closes," King and Boone weave even more connective tissue between the two stories by showing us a turtle (a protective being in King's mythos who also appears in IT) and at one point giving Frannie an old-fashioned revolver and gun belt, thus wordlessly christening her a gunslinger like Roland Deschain, the hero of The Dark Tower.
Roland, along the way to the Tower in King's epic, faces numerous temptations of his own, including various chances to turn away from his quest and perhaps find some measure of happiness in giving up. He refuses, and as he reaches the end of his journey, King also tempts his own readers. In the final pages of The Dark Tower VII, the author offers Constant Reader a choice: Read on and know the truth of the ending, or stop with a clean, triumphant resolution. Should you choose to turn the page, you find Roland starting over again, resuming his quest for the Tower with the faint hope that the next incarnation of the journey will be better.
The wheel turns. The struggle continues.
By giving Frannie the gunslinger a version of that same choice and showing her overcoming the temptation to take the easier path, King further centers The Stand in the cosmology of his work by making it not just a story of humanity's endurance, but of humanity's persistence. In the world of Stephen King, the well of darkness and evil unquestionably exists, in monsters both human and inhuman. His characters are forever forced to confront this truth, and while they all do it in different ways, the overwhelming message of his work is not to flee from the dark, but to face it and overcome it. That's the ultimate answer. That's what we learn. And now that King himself has run thousands more words — and many more visions of darkness, both real and imagined — through his brain, he's able to say it without pretense.
Be true. Stand.