Miranda Carroll was once a little girl drawing the swirling eye of Hurricane Hugo in her coloring book, just how it looked on the TV weatherman’s map — a stormy circle going round and round a void that could one day be reimagined as a galaxy in outer space, or even a dirt road that rings Lake Michigan. A live wire fell into her family’s flooded home, electrocuting everyone except the little girl perched on the countertop with her crayons. She should have died, too, but instead, Miranda moves through life with a spectral reluctance to show herself. Only Dr. Eleven has kept her company through all the times her world has ended.
Clark talks to Miranda on the day she dies. He’ll outlive her by at least twenty years, but still, there’s a haunting symmetry to their situations: Each has arrived in the last place they’ll ever know. Miranda is duct-taped into a Malaysia hotel room, and Clark has just deplaned in Severn City en route to Arthur’s funeral, which no one will attend. No one will attend anyone’s funeral. There will be no funerals, no ritualized goodbyes, no memorials, no reckonings. Everyone who survives the plague will be in mourning, and all that mourning will be private. Clark and Miranda, who both saw Arthur one last time after long estrangements, are fortunate to have eked out some closure with the recently dead.
Clark went first. His reunion with Arthur ended in aspersions, but he said kind things about Miranda, and Arthur repeated them. They were the push she needed to complete the final panels of Station Eleven, the graphic novel she started drawing as a child without knowing it — her magnum opus. She went to meet Arthur with copies in hand. When Clark hears about that in the days following his old friend’s death, he smiles. On the phone, he tells Miranda that Arthur’s son is at the airport, too, and Miranda spends the last hours of her life saving theirs. Miranda has explained her job in logistics as “the path things take,” but really, her job was to shape that path, to control it, to protect it from the world’s entropy. Coincidence is a kind of entropy. Miranda was on a path that changed the day she met Arthur in a Chicago diner; Clark was on a path toward imminent, unavoidable death until Miranda answered his call.
In Year 20, the Traveling Symphony is finally admitted to the airport. “Is this Before?” Alex asks of the wondrous greenhouse and monstrous PA system. The answer is yes and no, but it’s the question that’s revealing. The household flotsam the troupe encounters along The Wheel belongs to a culture as remote from Alex’s as Shakespeare’s England. The world is made up of pre-pans with strong memories of Before and people born a few years too late to catch the grown-ups’ references. Post-pans were born stranded in a foreign language.
Dieter looks bewildered to be inside; Sayid looks thrilled; Kirsten looks mistrustful, which is her resting face. She’s adamant the troupe leave, wary of the barbed wire fences, the draconian quarantine, and that no one has been allowed to see Sarah since her heart attack. Elizabeth promises they can leave after the play, but their tension runs deeper. Homecomings and second chances supposedly died when the flu hit, yet Elizabeth’s son is alone somewhere in this airport, handcuffed to a guardrail. Kirsten never had the opportunity to say goodbye to anyone she loved. She calls dibs on directing Hamlet and sees in Elizabeth a model Gertrude: resourceful, secretive, struggling to empathize with her son.
Elsewhere in the playbill, Alex is demoted to Laertes, her annoyance only underscoring how well the role suits her. Crucially, her recasting makes room for a new Hamlet: introducing, for one night only, The Prophet. Tyler’s initially resistant, but he’s quickly overcome by the thrill of saying really mean shit to Elizabeth under cover of art: “You go not till I set you up a glass/ Where you may see the inmost part of you.” Tyler, of course, is the devastating mirror, forcing Elizabeth to confront the failed mother in her reflection.
Clark, whose influence was waning even before he burned his arm trying to save his museum from Tyler’s IED, forbids Kirsten from distributing parts according to the demands of art therapy. This isn’t some sleepy backwater. This is the Severn City Airport; this is the West End. This is post-pan Broadway, baby. But he relents when she shows him her beat-up copy of Station Eleven. Arthur gave Kirsten Miranda’s book, which Miranda finished because Clark spoke well of her. Paths don’t just cross; they change each other. He remembers meeting Kirsten backstage when she played young Goneril. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em, or whatever. Clark casts himself as Claudius, ready with two decades of resentment for his nephew-prince to bring to the stage.
The play is every inch as cathartic as Clark feared. In her new role of director, Kirsten is keyed into every scene, which means when Laertes tells Polonius he’s eager to leave home, she can accept the request as Alex’s own. As Claudius, Clark steals a moment to tell Tyler how much he loved Arthur, too; as Gertrude, Elizabeth implores her son to move on. But no one recovers more of themselves through the play than Tyler, who is finally able to convey the depths of his own pain. In an unscripted act-one flourish, he threatens his uncle with a knife — the same knife that killed Frank, the one Kirsten gave Alex in a moment of sympathy, the one Alex gave to Tyler in a disturbing display of devotion — but doesn’t kill him. Their feelings toward each other are more complicated than Hamlet can reflect, but the imposed narrative gives them a path toward repair.
Because even in a post-apocalyptic world, stories are solace. After the show, Kirsten spots Hailey, who tells her Station Eleven will be landing any minute. Compassionately, Kirsten shows her the same copy of Miranda’s book that she showed Clark, that Tyler found when Kirsten was poisoned. Time and again, the book has been her passport into a stranger’s trust. Hailey comes to understand there’s no spaceship, but it doesn’t make the allegory any less important to how she makes sense of the world. She’s still the Undersea, and Miranda’s ideas keep her company like they once did for Kirsten. I found you because I know you, and I know you because we are the same. When Hailey steals the book, Kirsten lets her. She’s not the lost, young starlet anymore. She’s the director.
In Malaysia, the flu bearing down, we finally learn Miranda’s own origin story, the brutal path the hurricane took through her submerged kitchen and into the rest of her life. She tells it all to Hugo Bennett, the pilot of Gitchegumee Air Flight 452, as he sits on the tarmac outside Severn City. The people in the airport are on the countertop, she tells him, and Hugo has the choice to keep them there. Even at the end of the world, a dying Miranda harnesses the power of a story, understanding instinctively that story is her best tool for controlling the path things take. She passes the pen to an airline captain named for a hurricane to write an ending neither of them will live to see.
At the wrap party that becomes Sarah’s memorial, Wendy sings “Midnight Train to Georgia,” Sarah’s favorite song. It occurred to me the lyrics are littered with concepts that a post-pan couldn’t understand: trains, state lines, Los Angeles. But the themes — love and aspiration and homecoming — are beginning to make sense again. Tyler and Elizabeth take their second chance to reconcile. This time, when he leaves, she’ll go with him. Alex will, too. She dreams of life beyond the Wheel.
Dr. Jeevan Chaudhary, called to the airport to treat Clark’s burns, lurks tantalizingly in the background for most of the series finale. He finds Sarah in her hospital bed and sits with her until she passes, but she doesn’t mention Kirsten. Later, Miles tells Jeevan about Hamlet as Kirsten walks by at an excruciating, scream-at-your-television distance. But when I’d lost hope that Jeevan had stayed for the play, he finally spots Kirsten a few feet away. Their hug is one of the most romantic, well-earned moments of television I’ve ever seen — emotional, loving, uncomplicated. Quiet, stirring, and beautifully lit. Perhaps this is another high watermark in the remaking of civilization: People have survived long enough to shed versions of themselves, just like in Wendy’s song. “Bought a one-way ticket back to the life that he once knew.” The past isn’t so squarely in the past. It isn’t simply Before and after.
The next day, Elizabeth leaves the airport with Tyler on good terms with Clark, as Alex rides off on Kirsten’s Luli to join the Undersea. The named characters here find fitting ends, but when it comes to the parentless children hiding in the brush beyond the airport, I feel closer to Clark. Looking out at the hordes in their makeshift colander space helmets, he says only: “What the fuck?” This series took me on a long walk to feel compassion for Tyler, but these stolen children are not his family, and I can’t see any beauty in Alex or Elizabeth joining him in a life that’s brought so much destruction. It’s not a post-pan Utopia of equals progressing toward the woods; for me, it’s still a cult led by a broken man who indoctrinated kids with a comic book.
As the Traveling Symphony gets back on the road, Jeevan and Kirsten travel in the same direction again, at least for a little while. He backs into something resembling an apology for what happened in the cabin: how hard it is to raise kids, how sometimes you just fall out of sync. She understands because she’s been through it with Alex. “You walked her home,” Kirsten tells Jeevan, releasing him from the promise he first made in Chicago and maybe from the guilt that’s dogged him ever since he lost track of her.
They’ll have more time to talk about it next year, when the troupe plays at the airport. Severn City is on the Wheel now. Their road forks like it has before, but everything in Station Eleven comes back around. Paths cross, then re-cross. When you strip away almost everything and everyone in the world, it turns out what’s left is deeply and indelibly connected. I have found you nine times before, maybe ten, and I’ll find you again. In Year 20, you can say goodbye to someone on purpose. You get to miss people until you see them next. There are no forks, no ends. Time is a stormy circle going round and round and round.