Back in 2007, Stephen King’s 1980 novella The Mist was adapted as a film starring Thomas Jane and a lot of gigantic spiders, plus all sorts of creepy-crawly giant creatures seizing humans and biting their heads off. Ten years later, The Mist has become a Spike TV series. The adaptation is still about group-think, and it’s still a horror show. But that’s about all that’s remained the same.
Spoilers for The Mist and Moby Dick ahead.
Everything else has changed. Mrs. Carmody (Mary Bacon), the central human villain in the novella and film, is killed off early on in the series, like some sad extra the showrunners couldn’t be bothered with. And most surprisingly for fans of the film, five episodes into a 10-episode season, there have still been no clear views of monsters. Instead, what hides inside The Mist is a swirling darkness, insects that sometimes attack, visions and hallucinations, and God knows what else.
What’s becoming increasingly obvious is that the show is about the monstrous acts of cruelty humans can inflict on each other. It’s clear for a few reasons: in the show’s lore, a mist once overtook the town before, back in 1860, in what was called “the black spring.” More than a dozen townies were inexplicably killed, and local legend claims the black spring came about as a result of the murder of a woman.
In the present day, the mist might have been caused by the violent crime this show revolves around, the alleged rape of Alex (Gus Birney), a perpetually sad-looking high-schooler who becomes trapped in the local shopping mall when the mist hits the town. It could also be a result of military experimentations by the Arrowhead project, as it was in the novella and film. Through scenes in a church with Mrs. Raven (Frances Conroy), the show briefly plays around with different belief systems and possible theories behind the mist. Could it be the Eastern belief of karma and everyone getting what’s coming to them? Or is it Judgment Day, as the priest continues to insist? (Hint: Probably not.)
Several gory scenes support the theory that the mist is some kind of karmic retribution. In a chilling scene in the third episode, Mikhail (Steven Yaffee), another man trapped alongside Mrs. Raven in the church, tells her karmic retribution can’t be real, because if it was, he would have been the first target, as someone who has served jail time for terrible crimes. As if in answer, a few scenes later, a giant moth flies into his ear, horribly transforming and killing him. Episode five is more direct: a former high-school bully is attacked by some spectral teenagers the mist has conjured up from his past. Just before they stab him, they taunt him with personal knowledge from his high-school days. They aren’t real, because they know about events that happened before their chronological age, but they’re still capable of exacting vengeance for his cruelty.
Theories about the cause of the mist still can’t be fully confirmed, but its powers clearly reinforce Mrs. Raven’s theory that nature must have a hand in it, both back in 1860 and now in 2017. The tangible, violent ways the mist has taken hold of the town read as reminders of nature’s strength, a clue as to where the show will head over the season’s second half.
And one strong indication is the way the mist annihilates technology, the most significant barrier between humanity and nature. Technology isn’t any more help to the story’s protagonists now than it was for the start of the film ten years ago. The mist interferes with electrical signals and computer chips. The one drone in the mall stops mid-flight in a mist-filled hallway. All the cars in the small town have gradually stopped working, except for a survivalist’s bug-out vehicle, which lacks a circuitboard. Nobody has any phone signal, and the special emergency radio doesn’t work either. The mist levels the playing field by reducing humans to a “natural” state, with limited electricity, insects everywhere, and only primitive tools at their disposal.
And the writers play with the theme in grander, more literary ways. Episode 4 is titled “Pequod,” after the whaling ship in Herman Melville’s classic novel Moby Dick. There’s a potential hint there about the future of the series — just as the great white whale Ahab is hunting destroys the Pequod and leaves only one man to tell the tale, it’s suggested that the town might ultimately wind up fairly low on survivors. In Melville’s book, nature is unfathomable and unstoppable, but eerily intelligent. The whale is an avatar of everything that can’t be controlled in nature, and without necessarily appearing sentient, it still avenges itself against the crew of the Pequod, who set out to defy and contain it. (Also, harpoon guns play a significant role in both the book and the Mist episode.)
The mystery inside the mist is the one compelling reason to continue watching the show through its slow plod from one plot point after the next. Since this show diverges so sharply from the source material, it gets to find some excitement in playing with Stephen King’s sleepy, mutedly gothic world, while still heading off into uncharted territory. But everything revolves around that mystery, and not around the characters caught inside it. There is a little character development, but it isn’t particularly thorough, and since the characters are there to be punished, they’re rarely depicted sympathetically. The show is entertaining, but it focuses entirely on building up hype for what’s inside the mist. And if what’s in there is an abstract concept about how the world punishes inhumanity, how satisfying can it be as a big reveal?
Once the bodies are buried, the last of the electricity fizzles out, and the insects run out of suckable blood, The Mist risks not having much else left to explore. The source material relied on its monsters for creative, messy excitement, but by taking such a large step back, the show risks leaving its characters to fight their own pasts, in a nebulous, shallow way. Perhaps it’s a good thing the mist is so dense, because looking too hard might prove that there’s nothing interesting in there after all.
The Mist airs on Thursday nights at 10 p.m. ET on Spike TV.