I know what you’re going to say about Station Eleven, and I get it. After nearly two years of living through a pandemic in real life, the last thing you want to do is watch a show about a pandemic.
But here’s the thing, and I say this with the utmost respect and love: You are wrong. Station Eleven, an adaptation of Emily St. John Mandel’s superb, unexpectedly prescient 2014 novel, is a limited series you should see, not despite the stress we’ve endured in 2020 and 2021 but because of it. Created by Patrick Somerville, whose past credits include Made for Love, Maniac, and, most tellingly, The Leftovers, Station Eleven is a beautifully wrought piece of storytelling that will certainly remind audiences of the coronavirus — it focuses on a flu that spreads rapidly, causing panic, quarantining, and an immense loss of life — but it also presents a much more extreme version of a pandemic than the one we’ve confronted.
The sickness in this HBO Max series, whose first three episodes drop on Thursday, instantly starts taking out humans and basic infrastructure to such an extent that it seems non-hyperbolic when it is referred to as “the end of the world.” (Audio from a television broadcast notes that the survival rate with this flu is one in 1,000 and that Chicago, where the series is initially set, “is not Chicago anymore. It’s just 2.5 million bodies.”) Yet Station Eleven is, at its core, an uplifting reaffirmation of the value of life and human connection that argues that Americans can and will come together to help one another in the most dire of circumstances.
Somerville and his fellow writers have done a very smart job of interpreting Mandel’s work, keeping key elements, excising others, and reshaping the narrative to make this series function as both a postapocalyptic account and commentary on the role art plays in sustaining and fortifying the human spirit during times of crisis. Given the involvement of Somerville and executive producer–writer Nick Cuse, another alum of The Leftovers, it’s not surprising that the tone of Station Eleven feels of a piece with that HBO drama, another moving portrait of what happens in the aftermath of a tragedy. Like The Leftovers, Station Eleven doesn’t spend any time attempting to explain its catalytic event — we never learn exactly how this flu spread so quickly or why it could not be contained. These ten episodes are much more interested in how human beings cope when they try to go on after losing nearly everyone they love and everything that once was familiar.
The series opens in more or less the same way the novel does, with actor Arthur Leander (Gael García Bernal) collapsing onstage in the middle of a production of King Lear. Jeevan (Himesh Patel), an audience member, is one of the first to recognize what is happening to Arthur — and the only person in the ensuing chaos to take one of the young members of the cast, Kirsten (Matilda Lawler), under his wing and help her get home from the theater. Unfortunately, the concept of home fundamentally changes overnight as the contagion and news about it spreads, leading Jeevan and his brother, Frank (Nabhaan Rizwan), to become Kirsten’s guardians.
Station Eleven slides in all directions on its x-y-axis, moving forward in time 20 years, when we find the adult Kirsten (Mackenzie Davis) on the road with a roving band of actors and musicians known as the Traveling Symphony, and back again to the earliest days of the outbreak as well as to events that occurred before it. A number of shows this year have tried, with varied success, to adopt a similar time-jumping structure, but few have managed it with the sense of purpose and elegance that Station Eleven does. In the two years we’ve spent living with COVID, most of us have learned that our sense of time gets incredibly skewed during a pandemic. Days, months, and years blur together. They do too in Station Eleven, in which images of a barely occupied, overgrown Chicago two decades in the future are folded into moments when the flu has just begun and the city still looks normal. Dialogue from conversations that took place years earlier bleed into what is happening in 2040.
Even though there is a hard dividing line between pre- and post-pandemic life, the series emphasizes that history still finds a way to repeat itself and creep into the present even when we think it’s all been packed away. All four of the series’ directors — Hiro Murai, Jeremy Podeswa, Helen Shaver, and Lucy Tcherniak — lean into that overlapping, almost dreamy quality without sacrificing the stark realities of what’s involved in surviving without modern resources.
The scope also expands to focus on multiple figures within its massive ensemble, including Clark (David Wilmot), a friend of Arthur’s who is traveling to retrieve his body when all hell breaks loose; Elizabeth (Caitlin FitzGerald), an actress with whom Arthur has a child and who eventually becomes connected to Clark; the Conductor (Lori Petty), the outspoken, quietly heartbroken leader of the Symphony; Alex (Philippine Velge), a member of the troupe who has more or less been raised by Kirsten; and Miranda (Danielle Deadwyler), Arthur’s ex-wife who wrote, illustrated, and self-published a graphic novel called Station Eleven. Text from Miranda’s comic, which was passed on to young Kirsten in the early days of the pandemic, echoes throughout the episodes as though its verses are biblical. “I remember damage” is a line uttered more than once; “I don’t want to live the wrong life and then die” is another. While these quotes come from the graphic novel, they resonate strongly with what the characters in the series are experiencing, a reflection of how fiction and art can feel as though they’ve been tailored specifically to the present and the contours of one’s own private heart.
This is a theme the series touches upon over and over again — when the Symphony’s actors find transcendence through Shakespeare, or Frank busts out a rap he spent days working on, or young Kirsten softly, but not without joy, sings “The First Noel” at a particularly bleak turning point a few days before Christmas. (All of the performances in this series are excellent, but I can’t say enough about what a grounded and pure presence Lawler is here. She’s just extraordinary and makes an entirely believable 1.0 version of Davis.) Music, theater, and literature can provide both an escape from our circumstances and a way of processing them that becomes forever intertwined with those circumstances. Nothing illustrates that more effectively than the comic Station Eleven and the way Kirsten treasures it as both a tether to the before times and a means of shedding the shackles of time altogether. “Arthur gave me Station Eleven,” the elder Kirsten explains in episode eight. “And when I read it, it didn’t matter that the world was ending. Because it was the world.”
The fact that Kirsten and others derive such pleasure and meaning from Station Eleven, the graphic novel, during a pandemic becomes even more profound when one realizes that Station Eleven, the HBO Max adaptation, does something similar for us during our own pandemic. Our world isn’t ending even though COVID is still a presence in it. But when you watch Station Eleven and become immersed in it, it really does become the whole wide world. What a gift.