In Year Twenty, Kirsten Raymonde (played as an adult by Mackenzie Davis) roams northern Michigan with a band of traveling players that she met back in Year Two. That’s when the players found her — thirsty, bloody, clutching her grubby copy of Miranda’s graphic novel. Now as then, the troupe of about two dozen actors and musicians move between outposts in a ragtag caravan of horses and wagons and camper vans, playing Shakespeare to some of the last audiences on Earth. Their route never changes. With each return, they bring more baggage to the places they’ve already passed through. In the series premiere of Station Eleven, time jumped, but here, time slips. The familiarity of the road and the decades of doing Hamlet set off a tornado of free associations for Kirsten. A patch of forest reminds her of Jeevan’s unexplained disappearance; mourning old Hamlet on stage calls to mind her own orphaning. It’s never clarified if her reminiscences are intentional or intrusive, if she’s mining her trauma to make art or if the past simply haunts her.
Kirsten is only 10 when she meets Sarah (Lori Petty), the group’s conductor. They draw on each other because this is the hardscrabble frontier, but when Sarah recognizes Kirsten’s age, she lowers her weapon first. Sarah tells her that she used to play music. Perhaps this is the customary greeting in their inchoate world: First, you exchange names, then the last thing you were known to do before civilization ended. “I was a Shakespearean actor,” Kirsten tells her. A perfect fit. But then Kirsten adds something else, a blend of gibberish and sentiment. “When we fix the ship” — what ship? — “I’m going to say goodbye to Arthur, and Jeevan, and my little brother. His name was Frank” — a different Frank from Jeevan’s little brother? “Dr. Eleven can’t feel time,” Kirsten cryptically replies when Sarah suggests she’s been alone for a while now, her own narrative confused with the story that’s kept her company. Suddenly, our spaceman has a name.
Eventually, back in Year Twenty, which I suppose is our “now,” the Travelling Symphony arrives in the fictional town of St. Deborah by the Water to fanfare and applause, but Kirsten ditches the merry welcome in favor of looting abandoned houses with Alex. Alex is young, a post-pandemic baby. Among the rubble, they find an iPhone, which Kirsten tries to explain. She tells Alex the phone could hold all the plays she ever wanted to read, and it could call anyone she wanted to talk to on Earth. Kirsten describes Uber. She also insists, contradictorily, that phones weren’t that great. Just as the cool slip of swimming in Lake Michigan conjures memories of marching across its icy surface with Jeevan in Year Zero, the phone reminds Kirsten of the first night she spent at Frank’s condo, stalker-calling her parents while her new caretaker doom-scrolled nearby. Kirsten’s present is constantly invoking the past, making connections that are still kinda confusing given how little information we have. When she does a perimeter sweep of the camp, for example, she finds dried reeds tied in the same small shape she has tattooed on her hand. Did she make the symbol and leave it behind on one of her previous journeys along the coastline? Did someone else leave it … or maybe even leave it for her?
Kirsten’s loose grasp on the here and now can make her hard to trust. In St. Deb’s, the troupe meets a nameless drifter with potent Charles Manson vibes and his son, Cody, who is probably too old to be his actual son. She’s suspicious when the drifter (Charles Zovatto) talks about his dead wife, and she conspicuously avoids his proffered snacks. Is it a generalized wariness of new people, or has the hardship she’s endured left her with heightened survival instincts? Before the evening’s performance, Kirsten learns her pregnant best friend, Charlie, will stay behind for a year; the open road is no place for an infant. Kirsten has a tantrum, but is she simply being selfish, or does she sense something sinister nearby?
Either way, the show must go on. Onstage, playing the grief-stricken Hamlet, Kirsten recalls the shrieking pain of the moment she learned both her parents were dead. (The hospital sends a text message — maybe phones really weren’t that great.) Again, we don’t know if she summons the moment in service of Hamlet’s mourning or if becoming Hamlet stirs it. Hours before the show, when Kirsten claims to hate the play, Charlie says that’s simply a part of her process. Is this her process, too — performing as catharsis? Later, the drifter tells Kirsten she’s charged with Day Zero pain, “like you never left.” Maybe acting renews that trauma, keeps it from settling into the past.
After the performance, the Symphony plays by torchlight and the mood at the encampment is celebratory with a hint of chaos (torches are a cinematic shorthand for chaos). While the Travelling Symphony played Hamlet, Charlie apparently gave an incredibly hasty, uncomplicated birth to a healthy baby girl. Holding the infant softens Kirsten. “I want it to be different for her,” Charlie tells Kirsten, meaning she wants to spare her daughter the ripping hurt that Kirsten feels when people fall out of her life. Everyone alive in Year Twenty has lost people, but there’s a building sense that whatever happened to Kirsten was worse. As the others dance and drink and sing, she remembers reading Station Eleven with Frank on the floor of the hallway closet, and she remembers screaming for him from the same floor at the top of her lungs.
Eventually, Kirsten approaches the shady drifter who insists he’s been to Mackinac Island but pronounces the name wrong and snacks on hen-of-the-woods mushrooms that Kirsten knows don’t grow where he claims to have been. He wants to join the Symphony on the road, but he doesn’t say why, and honestly, there are probably no circumstances under which Kirsten would say yes. When he threatens to “disappear” her friends until she complies, she stabs him in the gut with a switchblade, which seems a proportional response given the state of the world. But there’s something more menacing about him than his threats: He can recite the words of Miranda’s Station Eleven by heart. He knows them, though she’s always believed she had the only copy. They mean something to him. Then she makes the classic episode two mistake of not finishing him off, so now we have a hobbled villain on the loose while Charlie is planning to spend time away from the safety of the troupe.
It’s only Kirsten’s reveries that we’re privy to, but she’s not the only character with an unparsable relationship to the past. A man approaches Sarah to invite the troupe to play in his reclusive town with an odd name, The Museum of Civilization. She tells him no — “fuck the past” — despite belonging to a company that exclusively performs some of the oldest tragedies known to man.
On their way to St. Deb’s, an actor called Dan begs to audition for the Travelling Symphony, and the troupe, who have devoted their lives to Shakespeare, plead for him to do something other than Shakespeare. He performs the big Bill Pullman monologue from Independence Day though the crowd is young enough that it’s unlikely many heard the original before the flu ended the streaming wars. For them, it’s brand new. This is what survives of culture: Hamlet attesting to his failing sanity — “When the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw” — and President Whitmore’s fighter pilot address. People in crisis crave what’s old and best; people delight in what’s fresh and foreign.
Needless to say, Dan smashes it. It’s his third time auditioning, and finally he’s admitted to their exclusive traveling band. As small and tough as the world has become, people still want things and want to work for things. Two decades after the end of civilization, people already have aspirations beyond making it to tomorrow.
Update: An earlier version of this recap referred to Daniel Zovatto as “Charles Zovatto.”