Emily St. John Mandel’s novel Station Eleven opens with an epigraph from the poet Czesław Miłosz: “The bright side of the planet moves toward darkness / And the cities are falling asleep, each in its hour.” It’s a forensic account of time marching on, not how it feels to be on Earth as hours pass, but what the phenomena looks like from some inhuman perch. As the series premiere of the HBO miniseries based on Mandel’s book ends, that inhuman perspective is personified. A spaceman in orbit watches night crawl across his old home, a Route 66 mug in his space-gloved hand. “There is too much world,” Miłosz’s speaker finishes, overwhelmed by what he cannot see. There’s a corresponding sadness to the spaceman’s remove: He can take in the whole spinning globe, but he can’t touch it.
On Station Eleven the series (but also the book, tbh), time jumps in hard-to-describe ways between the period before a flu-like pandemic hits Earth, the pandemic and its immediate aftermath, and the years after the pandemic. In scenes from before the virus strikes, the Chicago streets (apologies, my book people, but we’re not in Toronto) are crowded, and the light is icy blue. In the future glimpses, the city is rewilded — lush, but empty. There is too much world and not enough. Like in the novel, art outlives civilization. Feral pigs roam the theater where once the movie star Arthur Leander (Gael García Bernal) played King Lear, but on a sandy dune, twenty years after the plague, his old co-star is still alive and running late for some rehearsal. Station Eleven is a show about Earth’s dark end, yes, but also its future, which, in defiance of the dystopian genre’s norms, is complicated beyond survival. The season premiere is dedicated to hurrying us through the worst of the storm.
When the episode begins, mad Lear is still rambling through Act IV while someone texts from the good seats with keyboard clicks turned on. Sitting nearby is Jeevan (played by Himesh Patel from the musical rom-com Yesterday), who perceives in Lear the visible indicators of a heart attack and rushes from the stalls to the stage. Except Jeevan isn’t a doctor; he doesn’t even know first aid. Arthur dies as Lear — an act too early — while some random dude with no life-saving skills stands over him shouting out for someone with life-saving skills to please help. In a particularly frosty move, Jeevan’s girlfriend heads home without him. Did I mention it’s Christmastime?
To avoid joining her or maybe to compensate for his earlier uselessness, Jeevan takes informal custody of 8-year-old Kirsten, a child actor who’s been abandoned by her backstage wrangler. Matilda Lawler is perfect in the role of Kirsten, self-possessed in the manner of a kid who spends too much time among adults, which I suppose she likely is herself. When it’s declared that the miniature professional still needs help taking the L home, my disarmed heart longed for Jeevan and Kiki to be recast in a delightful odd-couple comedy — think Brittany Murphy and Dakota Fanning in Uptown Girls. Let them traipse around Chicago, one misadventure after another, as they unexpectedly heal each other’s secret wounds. Let it all end, not with the Black Death, but with a hug and the bittersweet tears of I’ll see you around. They charm their way through the requisite ice-breaking scenes like maybe it’s possible. Jeevan tells Kirsten that he’ll likely marry his girlfriend, but in a voice that screams he definitely won’t. He’s an out of work blogger (or something?), he admits. “It must be hard not knowing what you want to be,” Kiki assures him, her tone inflected with wisdom.
They’re on the train when Jeevan’s sister Siya, an ER doctor, phones to sound the alarm. There’s a lethal flu, originally identified in Asia, trucking through Chicago. She wants him to find their Pulitzer-winning, mildly reclusive, ambiguously disabled brother, Frank, and barricade his apartment against the world. That’s their best chance at surviving. Jeevan is on the edge of a panic attack (he’s prone to them), but Siya talks him through it with childhood memories of barfing up strawberry Yoo-hoo. It’s a gross, heavy-handed goodbye to a character we’ll never get to know. By the time we see her briefing a room of children on the health of their sick parents, she’s already coughing. Jeevan agrees to find Frank. He’s just got to drop off Kirsten en route.
But when they get to Kirsten’s house, her parents don’t answer — a harrowing absence. Jeevan begrudgingly takes her along on his mammoth doomsday supply run: six carts of groceries, booze, and Yoo-hoo included. (In a fleeting moment of social commentary, the store clerk refuses payment of the $10,000 bill by check even though tomorrow money won’t exist.) Jeevan is wary of revealing what’s happening to his young charge, but Kirsten’s sharp. She’s getting nervous about being out so late with a stranger who’s keeping secrets. As they haul the supplies to Frank’s swanky high-rise with water views, I’d rate Kirsten’s level of understanding as: she knows the world is ending, but she doesn’t know-know.
Until Jeevan starts screaming the truth at his reticent brother, Frank (Nabhaan Rizwan from Amazon Prime’s excellent Informer), that is. Frank’s in the process of disbelieving Jeevan’s secondhand apocalypse bulletin when a commercial plane nosedives into Navy Pier, just beyond his floor-to-ceiling windows. Wordlessly, Jeevan shuts the front door and duct tapes it closed without having any notion of when he might next open it. Siya calls again, but her final words overlap with the calls of other people making their own goodbyes, leaving messages for loved ones who are maybe in other beds, in other hospitals, leaving the same messages no one will ever hear.
It turns out the door to Frank’s condo stays shut for 80 days. When it opens again, there’s no power in the building and no Frank. Jeevan and Kirsten set out with loaded rucksacks and flashlights while Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” plays. The roads are clogged with stopped cars. The city is blanketed in snow. I’m on the dark side of the road. Very, very high above, a spaceman is marooned on his shuttle, waiting for some word from Earth. Look out your window and I’ll be gone. Why did they leave now? What do they need, or what do they know? Jeevan and Kirsten head for the lake.
The adventures of Jeevan and Kirsten occupy most of the series premiere, but there’s a second timeline that starts ten days before they meet. Miranda (Danielle Deadwyler) is in Chicago, and she goes to see Arthur Leander for the first time in a long time. She wants to give him a copy of Station Eleven, the graphic novel she’s finally finished writing. The contours of their relationship are vague, but she looks at Kirsten — coloring on the floor of Arthur’s dressing room — suspiciously, like maybe she’s a daughter that she doesn’t know about or a daughter they could have had. When Kirsten asks about the spaceman on the book’s cover who resembles the gloomy spaceman peering down at the silent Earth, Arthur tells her that he’s the asshole that ruined his life. I can’t imagine it’s the whole story, but Miranda lets the moment pass. When Arthur dies on stage, she’ll be on the shortlist of people to get a phone call.
There’s no rhythm to the skipping timelines, but the sounds of trains rattling across the tracks accompany the jumps. Scenes from Before are intercut with scenes of Chicago’s balmy future (those palm fronds are far too large to grow in the temperate forest biome). In the future, Kirsten’s family’s brownstone belongs to nature, just like the theater and the L station where Kirsten and Jeevan trade personal histories. As the episode ends, a final jump occurs without a title card to introduce it. Kirsten is all grown up and reading Miranda’s Station Eleven as someone beckons her to rehearsal. Civilization, as we know it, may be dead, but Earth is green as Eden and people are returned to their most primitive instincts: survival and the impulse to make new things.