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If You Can Bear It, ‘Station Eleven’ Is Exactly What We Need Right Now

Chronicling the lead-up, onset, and aftermath of a virus that decimates 99 percent of the human population, the insightful HBO series is worth the cost to, in a sense, relive the past two years

HBO/Ringer illustration

In the miniseries Station Eleven—and before it, the novel Station Eleven, written by Emily St. John Mandel and published in 2014—there exists a graphic novel, also called Station Eleven. Only five copies were ever printed, but through a series of coincidences, two make their way into the hands of children who survive a catastrophic flu and then grow up in its aftermath. As adults, the kids have entirely different takeaways from their mutual influence, the saga of a lonely astronaut marooned on a space station. One takes it as a lesson in the enduring power of art to anchor us through trying times. The other rejects civilization and its trappings altogether, becoming an isolated explorer of his own.

Station Eleven, the show, will likely earn the same polarized reaction as Station Eleven, the book-within-the-show. Faced with a story about a pandemic that sweeps the globe and ends life as we know it, some will understandably balk at the prospect of reliving the last two years. Others will forge ahead—if not enticed by the premise, then at least intrigued by the possibility a fictional apocalypse can shed light on our current reality.

I was in the latter camp when I read Station Eleven in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic. After watching all 10 episodes of the masterful adaptation, now streaming its first three episodes on HBO Max, I remain in it now. As tough a sell as Station Eleven’s synopsis may be, the show is well worth the discomfort it costs to watch characters in denial of what’s to come, then scrambling to adjust once they accept the inevitable. Created by Patrick Somerville and initially directed by Atlanta’s Hiro Murai, Station Eleven is in some ways bigger than our present moment, using a virus with a 99 percent fatality rate to explore themes like trauma, collective memory, storytelling, and survival. It’s also inexorably tied to said moment, a fact it doesn’t try to deny and even employs to its advantage. Station Eleven is either the last thing we need right now or exactly what we need, a Rorschach test of a show that will hopefully find its ideal audience—just like the illustrated Station Eleven.

After working on the star-studded Maniac and delightfully perverse Made for Love, Somerville has developed something of a specialty for off-kilter adaptations in the realm of science fiction. But the most relevant item on his CV may be The Leftovers, another drama with a surprisingly playful approach to the end of the world. Like The Leftovers, Station Eleven understands that human nature perseveres even when human civilization does not, and that it’s human nature to crack jokes and make dumb, irrational decisions under the same circumstances that force you to get really good at throwing knives. If there’s one selling point I can offer to assuage those burnt out from compulsively checking case counts as omicron looms, it’s this: Station Eleven isn’t some foreboding slog that fries your synapses with nonstop dread. Terror is just one element in a tonal mix as eclectic as the soundtrack, which bounces from rap to rock to a synth-laden score with ease.

It isn’t easy to summarize Station Eleven, which zigzags through time from the lead-up to the flu to its onset to what comes after it’s decimated the population. Ironically, that’s also what makes the book so well-suited to adaptation as an episodic series, with many installments focusing on a particular character or point in time rather than trying to wrestle it all into a single, coherent through line. But the series and the novel share the same starting point, a scene that forecasts the story’s ambitions and themes: On the opening night of a staging of King Lear, a famous actor named Arthur Leander (Gael Garcia Bernal) suffers a heart attack. An audience member named Jeevan Chaudhary (Himesh Patel) rushes to help him on stage—it’s not the last time he’ll offer help he isn’t fully qualified to give, or that Shakespeare will play an outsized role in the lives of the show’s characters.

Arthur’s costar in the King Lear production, in the role of young Goneril, is a child actor named Kirsten (Matilda Lawler). In the chaos following Arthur’s collapse, Kirsten ends up in the care of Jeevan just as the flu is rapidly spreading across Chicago. Together, they hole up with Jeevan’s agoraphobic brother in a downtown high rise to ride out the first ugly months. To distract herself, Kirsten fixates on the graphic novel given to her by Arthur’s ex-wife, a prickly artist named Miranda Carroll (Danielle Deadwyler). Years before, Miranda’s dedication to her magnum opus had opened a rift between her and her attention-hungry husband, who then remarried his costar Elizabeth (Caitlin Fitzgerald). Once it’s finally finished, fifteen years after their divorce, Miranda delivers Station Eleven to her former partner, the last gift Arthur will ever receive.

As an adult, played by Mackenzie Davis, Kirsten has joined a group called the Traveling Symphony, a caravan that circles Lake Michigan each year to perform plays for a depleted populace. (Their repertoire is mostly Shakespeare, though one would-be member auditions with the monologue from Independence Day.) Kirsten is fiercely protective of the Symphony, a group whose motto—borrowed from Station Eleven, and before that, Star Trek: Voyager—holds that “survival is insufficient,” and preserving life is of little use without art to enhance and elevate it. That defensive instinct kicks into overdrive with the appearance of a mysterious Prophet (Daniel Zovatto), who attracts a flock of “post-pan” children with a very different quote from Kirsten’s treasured keepsake: “There is no before.”

How the Prophet knows Station Eleven is something of a mystery, though Station Eleven as a whole has no interest in holding its cards close to its chest. Certain reveals arrive far earlier than they do in the novel, one of many savvy tweaks Somerville and his writers make in bringing Mandel’s vision to the screen. Some characters who barely interact in the book develop deep bonds in the show; others are separated while their literary counterparts stuck together. But some of the most impressive adaptive choices belong to production designer Ruth Ammon, who turns the hollowed-out Midwest into a lush landscape of overgrown ruins and makeshift, scavenged setups. A doctor sets up a maternity ward in the empty aisles of a big box store; an abandoned gas station overflows with flowers and foliage, a juxtaposition out of Alex Garland’s Annihilation. The Traveling Symphony fashions bits and bobs of repurposed items into costumes, a tactile illustration of their determination to keep the flame of tradition alive.

As Station Eleven progresses, novel readers will start to notice even deeper changes than pace, structure, or casting. (The show is more diverse in ways that feel matter-of-fact, never forced; Arthur now hails from Mexico, not British Columbia, while Miranda is a Black woman who works for an African shipping magnate.) In a way, it’s more empathetic, or at least more willing to allow multiple points of view on how humanity should move on from its downfall. Mandel’s Prophet is an out-and-out monster; Zovatto’s is disturbing yet vulnerable, and allowed to make his case for leaving the past behind. One can understand why kids who’ve never known another life might tire of their elders harping on about something called “Instagram”; we can even get why some flu survivors wouldn’t rue their loss as much as others. As our own debates about prevention protocols have shown, disasters can bring out the worst in people along with the best. You can’t blame some cynics for judging accordingly.

Some of Station Eleven’s most striking scenes take place in a fictional outpost known as the Severn City Airport, where Arthur’s estranged best friend Clark (David Wilmot) gets stranded with Elizabeth and their son, Tyler (Julian Obradors). There, they form a community with strict quarantine procedures, safeguarding a stockpile of defunct technology they call the Museum of Civilization. Depending on how you look at it, the Museum is either a defiant show of resilience or a creepy relic—and Station Eleven gives each vantage equal weight. One of the strongest episodes charts the Airport’s slow evolution into the Museum, going from uncertainty to new normal under Clark’s unlikely leadership. It was around then that I realized why Station Eleven worked so well despite, or perhaps because of, its awkward timing. The show doesn’t adjust its reality to clumsily remind us of COVID-19 in a blatant bid for relevance. Instead, Station Eleven uses our firsthand experience of a pandemic to ease us into its own version of one, with details like the characters’ use of N95s forging a connection between their reality and ours. If you let it, it’s worth the jolt.