Directed by: Hiro Murai, Jeremy Podeswa, Helen Shaver, Lucy Tcherniak
Distributed by: HBO Max
Written by Anna Harrison
“Station Eleven” begins with some familiarly eerie sights: empty grocery stores, overwhelmed hospitals, masks everywhere, a general sense of distrust pervading the air. It’s hard, especially in its opening episode, not to draw parallels between “Station Eleven” and the state of the world today, even though the novel was published in 2014, a year that now feels a lifetime ago—long before we began to spend our days moving in a fog from the bed to the couch and back again, a blanket of anxiety constantly draped about our shoulders (or maybe that’s just me), and before the term “mascne” was ever coined. But the show’s premiere in 2021 feels prescient, even if its conception began long before we all tried to bake sourdough.
Yet while “Station Eleven” premises itself around a Georgia flu that quickly decimates 99% of the population, and though it features a post-apocalyptic world, it’s not a tragedy—it’s a love letter.
Well, maybe not in its entirety. There’s no small amount of death in the show; in fact, it opens with actor Arthur Leander (Gael García Bernal) dying of a heart attack as he performs “King Lear,” mere hours before the flu begins to ravage the rest of the world. Arthur—more specifically, his death—ends up being the thread that connects all of our disparate characters, with everything coming back to the moment of his demise and the desolation that follows. There’s Kirsten (Matilda Lawler as a child, and later Mackenzie Davis), the actress playing young Goneril in “Lear,” and Jeevan (Himesh Patel), who rushed the stage to try and help Arthur but finds himself yoked to eight-year-old Kirsten instead, plus his disabled brother, Frank (Nabhaan Rizwan); there’s Arthur’s ex-wife Miranda (Danielle Deadwyler), who spends her spare time writing a graphic novel called “Station Eleven,” and his (sometimes) friend Clark (David Wilmot), plus Arthur’s second ex-wife, Elizabeth (Caitlin FitzGerald), and though some of these characters never meet at all, the show manages to weave their stories together in a way the book never managed, with repercussions from their actions being felt twenty years later.
Because, even if it’s the end of the world, life goes on: twenty years post-pandemic, Kirsten has taken up with the Traveling Symphony, a group of actors and musicians constantly traveling in a loop around Lake Michigan and performing Shakespeare wherever they go. Life goes on, and art goes on (and maybe they’re one in the same), but even after the flu has gone, the past continues to rub up against the present as Kirsten stays stuck in her trauma, the masterful editing throughout only amplifying the hazy distinction between memory and the here and now. Yet even as she struggles to move on from the past, especially with the arrival of a mysterious stranger known only as the Prophet (Daniel Zovatto), the struggle is not about survival—“survival is insufficient,” as the Traveling Symphony likes to remind us. We need music, we need Shakespeare, we need flashbacks to Frank rapping A Tribe Called Quest in a freezing Chicago apartment, giving young Kirsten and the viewers a potent injection of joy.
Comparisons to “The Leftovers” are apt, not in the least because “Station Eleven” showrunner, Patrick Somerville, and producer Nick Cuse are “Leftovers” alums: in both, a percentage of the population disappears and the survivors are left to pick up the pieces alongside a moving score and strong direction, yet while “The Leftovers” concerns itself with the effects of grief, “Station Eleven” focuses on how, in the wake of the apocalypse, we continue to find joy and love.
Admittedly, the episodes focusing on the Traveling Symphony feel like roadblocks on our way to get back to Jeevan and young Kirsten, Arthur and Miranda, or Clark and Elizabeth; still, they have such an evocative and rich atmosphere, are directed with such a strong eye, feature such tremendous performances across the board but in particular from Lawler, Davis, Patel, and Zovatto, and are accompanied by such a stirring score from Dan Romer that “Station Eleven” is only slightly less than captivating at its worst.
Like I said, it’s a love story—the world may have ended, but babies are born, romances blossom, Shakespeare persists and Hamlet continues to brood over his father’s untimely demise. The post-apocalyptic backdrop is only a vehicle to dig into what makes and keeps us human; “Station Eleven” isn’t about the end of the world, but rather the beauty we build from the rubble. Survival is, after all, inefficient.
“Station Eleven” Trailer
“Station Eleven” is available to stream on HBO Max.
You can follow more of Anna’s work on Letterboxd, Twitter, Instagram, and her website.
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