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Station Eleven Finds the Sublime in the Apocalypse

Station Eleven is itself a piece of great art about catastrophe because it understands what kinds of art would survive and memorialize a catastrophe. Photo: HBO

Early in the second episode of Station Eleven, 8-year-old Kirsten Raymonde (Matilda Lawler) calls her parents’ phones again and again from the living room of a glassy Chicago apartment where she sits with two grown men she’s just met. The night’s bizarre events accidentally foisted this young but rather composed child on a theater attendee named Jeevan Chaudhary (Himesh Patel) and his brother, Frank (Nabhaan Rizwan). First, catastrophe hit the staging of King Lear, in which she had a small role that evening, when a fellow cast member dropped dead of a heart attack mid-monologue. Then it slammed into the world at large in the form of an uncontrollable apocalyptic flu.

Kirsten hasn’t quite settled in, and she’s wearing an unlikely combination: the stiff, pale-pink, big-skirted costume she’d skipped across the stage in and the brightly striped parka, wooly scarf, and furry boots she can’t bring herself to remove. Her outfit is stuck between two divergent worlds: the normal life of three hours ago, when she staged Lear in a grand theater, and the new normal that will see her take to the road in horse-drawn cars with a ragtag troupe performing Shakespeare for the next 20 years. Earlier that night, she was too young to ride the subway home alone. Soon she will walk across frozen Lake Michigan to survive.

The pandemic of Station Eleven burns hot. Its lethality rate is 99.9 percent; a news anchor on Frank’s TV counts 10,000 dead in just a few hours. In Emily St. John Mandel’s 2014 novel, the basis for the show, the second chapter ends with a blunt assessment of the odds: “Of all of them there at the bar that night, the bartender was the one who survived the longest. He died three weeks later on the road out of the city.” It’s a true civilization-wiping event. Mandel told me in an interview that the flu she describes is an impossible one; virologists assured her a nasty little sucker this aggressive would run itself out too quickly to make its way through the global population. But Mandel wanted a sharp line — a before with stocked grocery shelves and an after, just weeks later, with squirrels roasting on spits. A pivot so acute it would make the world of chocolate chip cookies, handheld GPS devices, and machines that produce cold air on demand snap almost instantly out of reach.

That leaves little space for coughing fits and feverish head tosses. For all its hype as a pandemic novel (six years after its publication, sales suddenly rose), Station Eleven is only tangentially concerned with sickness and plague. Like much of its kin in the genre, it’s a survival novel, a rebuilding novel, a fantasy of what starting over on a vine-covered planet Earth might look like. Aside from one scene of a hospital overrun with hacking, prostrate patients and the few eerie wheezes we hear (and fear), the plague itself disappears as quickly as it arrived. It’s all about the traumatic trickle-down. The show understands that mission: This is about what we harvest long after the tragedy has been sown.

Its emergence in the winter of 2021 feels almost perfectly wrongly timed. Audiences are fatigued by our pandemic, fatigued by pandemic fatigue, fatigued by the idea of cultural criticism of pandemics and fatigue. This year, COVID-19 story lines wiggled into shows like The Morning Show, Law & Order, and Grey’s Anatomy, for which costume designers adapted quickly to provide transparent face coverings lest any Hollywood beauties be hidden behind paper masks. In other cases, shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm and Nine Perfect Strangers alluded to the coronavirus but didn’t envelop the season in it. There’s been so little appetite for mushing around in our current predicament — and so little quality output. Overall, COVID hasn’t exploded into a force for riveting TV. Perhaps that’s because our pandemic has often slipped into the pedestrian. School-board scuffles, desk partitions, and backed-up shipping lanes are not the stuff global catastrophe art sups on. What narrative-thirsty viewer wants to see a hundred straight weeks of people scheduling Zooms and hunting down rapid tests? Any art about right now has to reckon with the inane malaise of two years spent remembering to pack your kids’ school masks. (David Foster Wallace, baron of boredom, would likely have written the great COVID novel if he were still with us.) It is often the case that reflection and distance incubate far superior art about any contemporary crisis.

Which is what makes Station Eleven so perversely satisfying. It pushes us outside of time and makes us hangers-on to its leaps across decades like slightly less daft Bill and Teds. It shuns the tidy shape of traditional disaster narratives. It abandons characters and relationships for unfathomable stretches, then snaps back to them with full, tight focus. And it often wanders cannily away from its source material (mostly to its benefit) to luxuriate in its own loose, almost groovy vibes. We can watch the absolute most dire version of what’s currently happening to us and soak in the spectacle, meta-voyeurs of a meta-commentary on how people might choose to live post-systems-collapse.

We can also see what art humans would labor to keep after fern gullies carpet theater floors, how it would tether them to the world and each other. This is a reordering of Maslow’s hierarchy with “self-expression” shoved in just above “shelter.” “Because survival is insufficient” is the Traveling Symphony’s tagline, scrawled across the sides of their converted pickup trucks. (It’s taken from an episode of Star Trek, recalled with as much respect as Shakespeare.) Survival is the core of most postapocalyptic, post-pandemic, post-the-world-is-fucking-collapsing narratives. “But who will die?” we ask when we watch, wiggling our fingers. Station Eleven cares about death a great deal, but it places death as a marker, part of the accounts that people draft to explain how they landed where they are. We tell ourselves stories because people die.

And here is where Station Eleven takes off from what could have been a panoply of suffering to a story that loops together the traditions of survival narratives and sprinkles them with a gleeful, haywire pixie dust. It makes the case that life is potent and heady and that shutting down elevators and email pushes open a great chasm to be filled with spontaneous dirges and unabashed artistic pursuit. Station Eleven is itself a piece of great art about catastrophe because it understands what kinds of art would survive and memorialize a catastrophe.

The fine arts, those you’d buy supplies for at Blick or B&H, are essentially gone. Commodity art is sparse, hence the Museum of Civilization, “a place that values human culture and the past” — though by the third episode, we don’t quite know yet what rests in its cases. But the art of tongues and eyebrows and strides and embraces is fully available. The Traveling Symphony performs only works of Shakespeare, “the best” of what the world once made. But for his (third) audition for the group, a hanger-on named Dan stands up before the cast and crew and gives it his all with President Whitmore’s speech from the 1996 blockbuster Independence Day. “Good morning. In less than an hour, aircraft from here will join others from around the world. And you will be launching the largest aerial battle in this history of mankind.” Like the commercial jingles for Stouffer’s (“Nothing comes closer to home”) or the commercial-break music for Sunday NFL games, it’s the kind of cultural popcorn kernel that gets caught in your teeth so often you might remember it 20 years down the line.

Hints of the show’s absolutely spasmodic joy are there in the music choices. Immediately after Dan’s banger of an audition, Parliament’s “Give Up the Funk” comes blaring through — first as soundtrack and then out of the wide bell of the tuba one Symphony member plays as the troupe rolls into its next stop.

It’s there in the costumes, both “onstage” and off. Postapocalyptic series usually revert to the entirely practical when it comes to clothing: Flair isn’t an evolutionarily wise aesthetic choice in that type of environment. But the members of the Symphony look like a wild band of anthropomorphic zoo animals; the tuba player wears cargo shorts, sneaks, and a button-down, but there’s also a disintegrating straw fedora on his head with a giant faux flower and what looks like a tin-can garland around it. Alex’s jorts are studded with sequins and bedecked by wafting tulle sewn down each side. Later, one character will wear a bubbly patchwork denim shrug that beautifully defies all logic. It doesn’t keep her warm and it’s onerous to dine in; she just feels good in it.

That zaniness isn’t just frivolity. The Gertrude and Claudius of the Symphony’s Hamlet cast are piled with heaps of lace — most likely old curtains and tablecloths mined from the homes of the dead — that add to the foolishness of their characters; they look as pompous and overstuffed as they behave. As Hamlet, an adult Kirsten (Mackenzie Davis) wears layers of puffy coats belted at the waist with extraneous stuffed arms reaching from her back like an inside-out octopus. It’s eye-catching on purpose: The monologue she recites from Act 1, Scene 2 comes when Claudius remarks that “clouds still hang on” Hamlet because he remains dressed in mourning three months after his father’s death. It would be easy for the Symphony to just put their Hamlet in a pilfered black suit, but they choose grandeur: Hamlet’s mourning is as big and unwieldy as theirs. He is that black cloud.

The series changes the Symphony’s choice of play to great effect (in the novel, they put on A Midsummer Night’s Dream). Hamlet — a tale of a child grieving their parent and throwing up emotional roadblocks to avoid moving on to a new and more dangerous normal — measures exactly right. On a candlelit, makeshift stage in a tentpole town near the Great Lakes, as attendees post up in tatty lawn chairs, Kirsten puts up a Hamlet monologue as gorgeous and gripping as any in a fancy London theater. By interspersing Hamlet’s insistence that his grief is particular and not culturally mandated (“But I have that within which passeth show; / These but the trappings and the suits of woe”) with young Kirsten staring at her phone in shock as she reads that her parents are two of the billions dead, the show turns the calamity of a mass-extinction event into an individual tragedy — for us, for Kirsten, and for her audience in the lawn chairs.

The Kirsten of Mandel’s novel has no memory of the year after the pandemic; the Kirsten of the show has a surfeit. She was likely a talented actress at 8 if she landed a role in a flashy production featuring a Hollywood star; at 28, that bank of experiences is kept just beyond a door she can swing open at will. And it helps that, alongside her acting, the only object or person that tethers her to her former life is a piece of art that depicts someone kept far away from the world he remembers.

Mandel barely describes Station Eleven, the comic book, but the series’ version is lush and inundated with color: a full palette of deep marine blues, full-page bleeds of darkness. It’s a hand-painted object of limited production that hasn’t been forgotten despite its relative valuelessness in a commerce-free world, a piece of connective fibrous tissue. The first time young Kirsten sees it, she’s coloring, idling away in the pre-pandemic theater. At the end of the episode, she’s an adult sprawled on a hillside, posed uncannily like the reaching, paralyzed figure in Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World, rubbing its now crinkled pages. A talisman.

Twenty years later, surrounded by people who understand the exact, unlikely trauma of living through the apocalypse, Kirsten best connects with some paint and words on a page, printed off at a little copy shop, never circulated. It’s hers, and it’s beautiful, and it bridges the long, long divide.

Station Eleven Finds the Sublime in the Apocalypse