Station Eleven is a pandemic series airing to a pandemic audience. That was true last week but feels more acute now, with COVID-19 cases on the rise and Christmas really about as far away as it is on the show’s internal calendar. Or perhaps I found it harder to hand myself over to Station Eleven this week because episode five rewinds us to the first hundred days of the flu, before the space between the world of the show and the real world grew to a chasm. I can’t imagine myself as Hamlet stabbing a hobo by the moonlight, but I know what it’s like to be stranded at London Stansted. In “Severn City Airport,” which is at its heart a villain origin story, art somehow still feels uncomfortably nearby.
Clark is flying economy to Arthur’s funeral. Arthur’s second wife Elizabeth is a few rows and a world away in first class, accompanied by the son she shares with the dead actor. Clark embarrassingly calls her name from steerage, but she doesn’t hear; Tyler (Julian Obradors) looks Uncle Clark square in the eye but doesn’t give a shit about the poor sad man with his measly extra legroom. It’s a bad start, but Clark is relentless, soon inventing an excuse to pass by their mini-suites. “I saw you at La Guardia eating a pretzel,” Elizabeth tells him, every word dripping with scorn. I cannot explain the physics of that putdown — how eight factual words can cause so much devastation — but Clark will never be half the man he was moments ago. Elizabeth hasn’t told Tyler that Art’s dead so, for all the kid knows, he’s on a flight to see King Lear (don’t worry, Uncle Clark tips him off before long). Elizabeth seems a little drunk. And maybe not sensational at being a mom. Or a human being.
By the time the plane touches down in Michigan, on diversion from O’Hare, Clark regrets his decision to shepherd the body of a man he never truly liked back to Mexico. Meanwhile, Lizzie is shocked that the C-list star of Alpha-Beta doesn’t warrant special treatment in the event of an apocalypse. She absconds to the first-class lounge with Tyler (and their help) without offering Clark a berth on the private jet she’s booked to take her the rest of the way to Chicago.
The lounge is insulated from the bad news, apparently. There are no rental cars available, no outgoing flights. Miles (Milton Barnes), the security guard, quits doing his job. Even the pilots walk off. And just beyond the airport’s monstrous glass walls, a plane full of sick people lands; no one opens the doors and they taxi to death while inside people fight over the TV remote. Station Eleven is light on LOLs, but I let out a snort when someone stops Elizabeth for a selfie even as the body count ticks up on the tarmac. The only good news in Severn City is the five-finger discount at the airport bar.
By day seven, people are staking out territory, making power plays, and getting on each other’s nerves, the same as they do when the world isn’t ending. Elizabeth spends her days literally on the tarmac, waiting in the freezing cold for her dream jet to come while alienating the rest of the airport with her deranged self-importance. But Uncle Clark, now a corporate consultant by trade, sees how an alliance with the fading star could be advantageous to him. Clark has missed many moments throughout his life — he never became a successful actor, he never told Arthur how much he hated him, he never kissed his partner good-bye — but he’s not going to miss this one. The pandemic has shrunk the world to a snow globe. How can he maintain the belief he really coulda been someone out there if he can’t rise to power in a regional airport? When Jerry, a custodian who’s been posing as a Homeland Security officer, absconds in the middle of the night with Elizabeth’s entourage, most of a women’s soccer team, and the last remaining pilot, Clark steps into the power vacuum and seizes the moment.
He delivers a cynical, demoralizing, oddly rousing speech about the selfishness of those who left and the good fortune of those who are still safe inside at Severn City. He reveals Jerry’s deceptions corroborated by Miles, Jerry’s former colleague, and Elizabeth, a graceful liar. The gist of Clark’s pitch is this: Forget your old life and follow us. For a little while, all goes smoothly. Miles has a plan to restore power with solar panels; Tyler downloads Wikipedia in case they need it; Elizabeth’s clothes are exceptionally pretty. She gives her son the copy of Station Eleven that Arthur had sent him weeks ago. Arthur has sent him lots of letters in the past, but she selfishly kept them all, she adds on a whim. Elizabeth wants to repair their relationship, but she’s offering Tyler another half-truth. Arthur didn’t send the kid anything, and 12 years old is old enough to know better, it seems.
Anyway, remember the plane full of carcasses? On Christmas, an aircraft service door opens to reveal a survivor. Realizing that the man must be immune, Tyler helps him into the airport, but the community is too paranoid to take him in. Miles shoots him, which is probably the right move if what you care about most is consolidating power. Owing to their proximity to the dead man, Tyler and Elizabeth are sent into a month-long quarantine that Tyler never quite recovers from. He should have been a hero for helping that man, but instead he was banished to Hangar G. Life in the main terminal goes on without them, not entirely unlike the plot of The Beach. Miles and Clark start a relationship. Sister Constance leads Bible study in the atrium, while Tyler reads Miranda’s opus over and over again, whispering the prophecy to himself: “There is no Before.” And why should Tyler want his life to be as it was before? His father was absent, and his mother was distracted; he was living in Germany, bullying other kids. His closest friendship was with the nanny, who ditched him for the custodian! It’s only been a few weeks at the Severn airport, but already hierarchies are re-creating themselves. Tyler feels unwanted, just like he was unwanted before. (Of course, he becomes the Joker! It’s not his fault!)
By day 100, there’s order enough to life at the airport that people already have stupid little projects. Clark wears a fur stole and collects artifacts of civilization to ground people in an idea of the future based on the past. It’s not dissimilar from what Tyler achieved earlier in the episode when he encouraged the kids in the airport to chat on the radio to the people they missed. But now, Tyler’s got a new god, and Clark’s museum is antithetical to his prophecy. Museums, memory, rebuilding: it’s all just an ode to a time Tyler wants to eradicate.
To be fair, Clark is phony and duplicitous, so Tyler’s antipathy is justified, if still a little precocious. What’s less obvious, or at least less sane, is why Clark hates Tyler so much. Is it simply that he fears being eclipsed by Arthur’s son as was already eclipsed by Arthur? Tyler’s conveniently/inconveniently listening in on the radio when Clark calls out to his dead friend, exactly like Tyler had the younger kids do. Clark tells absent Art that he wants to protect Tyler but can’t because he’s a “destroyer.” It’s a weird scene, but Clark’s a stymied actor with perhaps a lot of pent-up monologue energy to work out of his system. And we’ve already seen Tyler obsessively flipping a Zippo while carrying a plastic gas canister — psycho in the style of Macaulay Culkin in The Good Son — so I guess Clark is right. He announces his diabolical plan to the ether, where Tyler is still conveniently/inconveniently listening: “It’s time for Tyler and Elizabeth to go.”
But Tyler is actually a couple of steps ahead, in the middle of his own diabolical plan, thank you muchly. He doesn’t want to be where he’s not wanted. He doesn’t want to be where they still revere the Before. Except Tyler is like Arthur, too — self-involved and egomaniacal. He’s not just going to run away. He’s going to re-create himself. Tyler fakes his own death by lighting the planeful of carcasses on fire so that he can disappear into the wilderness and become the Prophet, just as Kirsten re-created herself as a protector. It’s a tidy parallel that keeps Arthur, who really should have been a better dad, at this sprawling story’s center. By the end of episode five, “There is no Before” sounds less like a menacing prophecy and more like the mantra of a hurt boy, refusing to remember.