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The ‘Station Eleven’ Exit Survey

HBO’s take on a post-pandemic world was topical, to say the least. Let’s discuss.

HBO/Ringer illustration

After 10 episodes and numerous lines of Shakespearean dialogue, HBO’s acclaimed Station Eleven adaptation has come to an end. How did the miniseries hold up to the beloved novel? What was it like to experience this show in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic? And what the heck was up with Tyler and the Undersea? These are the questions we tried to answer below.

1. What is your tweet-length review of Station Eleven?

Jacqueline Kantor: A surprisingly optimistic portrayal of a post-pandemic landscape with perhaps a smidgen too much of Shakespeare and entirely too much of the sad lonely spaceman.

Ben Lindbergh: An alternately off-putting, poignant, and profound meditation on loss, love, and art, and a riveting, time-hopping act-off between two Kirstens. I’m still not sure which one won.

Katie Baker:

Justin Charity: I ask people what they love about this show, they tell me, “It reminds me of The Leftovers!” and “It reminds me of COVID-19!” That’s what passes for high praise these days?

Alison Herman: Survival is insufficient. Linear timelines are overrated. Mackenzie Davis is the GOAT.

Joanna Robinson: A surprising, funny, devastating, and endlessly creative world and the perfect piece of pandemic art to help us navigate our own uncertainties.

2. How did you feel about the finale in particular?

Charity: The finale was fantastic. Did it redeem the absolute slog of all but a couple episodes working up to it? No. But it was the most robust realization of what everyone else swears this show is every week: a defiant and lovely ode to humanity and the humanities.

Herman: I’m the child of a Shakespeare professor, so I’m powerless in the face of an inventive, emotional staging of Hamlet. It’s just in my DNA.

Lindbergh: As Jeevan did for Kirsten, the finale walked us home. Hamlet was a little on the nose, but the Kirsten-Jeevan reunion was a fitting tribute to the joy of real-life post-pandemic reunions following long lockdowns. That said, Kirsten, come on: Take a quick detour to walk Jeevan home. I know you have your own family, but he named his daughter after you!

Kantor: Episode 9’s Jeevan story line had me prepared for an emotional reunion between him and Kirsten and, appropriately, my first cry of 2022. It did not disappoint!

Robinson: A perfect payoff to an incredibly emotionally dense show. That the entirety of this post-apocalyptic story, with its mysteries and acts of violence, hinges on a wordless hug just underlines the strong current of hope running through this show.

Baker: It felt like an apt summation of the series in both its strengths (Jeevan!) and its flaws (so much theater energy). I liked it, but I wish I hadn’t watched it at the tail end of a multi-episode binge watch, as I don’t think the show lends itself super well to watching more than two episodes at a time.

3. What was the best moment of the show?

Lindbergh: When Jeevan, on the verge of death, opened Station Eleven and screamed, “SO PRETENTIOUS!” Incredibly cathartic.

Baker: Kirsten’s suit of armor made out of golf gloves.

Robinson: Most people might say Frank’s rendition of “Excursions” and it’s hard to disagree, but mine is another Episode 7 flashback to the first 100 days when young Kirsten sings “The First Noel” to cheer up Frank and Jeevan while the older Kirsten looks on and cries for her younger self.

Herman: “The Severn City Airport” episode. Cord Jefferson, who also cowrote the Emmy-winning emotional climax of Watchmen, has a knack for stand-alone hours that unlock a character’s complex emotional backstory. (Honorable mention to Station Eleven’s Independence Day audition monologue. Shakespeare isn’t the only art worth preserving!)

Kantor: Having just watched the finale, I have to say the hug between Kirsten and Jeevan during “Midnight Train to Georgia,” though I’m sure my answer would change after a thorough rewatch. Miranda turning the wine glass upside down at dinner—that whole episode—was a highlight.

Charity: Hamlet. Again, I think the show’s working up to the production of Hamlet in the finale was largely insufferable. But goddamn if they didn’t put on a show.

4. What was your least favorite part of the series?

Baker: With no disrespect meant to either Miranda Carroll or Will Shakespeare, I couldn’t really bring myself to deeply feel the show’s two foundational texts, Station Eleven and Hamlet, the way I was probably supposed to.

Lindbergh:

Herman: It’s very hard to convey the impact of a fictional piece of art the audience can’t fully experience, but there are only so many times Davis’s voice-over can repeat quotes from the graphic novel that gives the show its name until they start to wear thin. We all remember damage!

Charity: Everything concerning Miranda and Arthur. Miranda is one of the most bland and arbitrary characterizations I’ve ever seen in a television drama. Arthur is also bland, a total waste of Gael García Bernal, and the show’s luxuriating in his irrelevance time and again bordered on disrespect for me personally.

Kantor: Many of the deeper, introspective monologues and conversations (particularly those that didn’t directly move the plot forward) lasted just a beat too long for my attention span. I get the need to wax poetic about the nature of existence, but it felt a little bloated at times. I like Tyler/the Prophet as a more sympathetic character, but wasn’t all that invested (nor sure of what was going on) when it came to the Undersea.

5. Book readers: How ya feeling?

Kantor: That I need to reread it?! I wasn’t super enthusiastic about the book, and I initially wasn’t all that interested in the show because of that. But the Jeevan-Kirsten connection was the heart of the show for me and kept bringing me back. There’s something about the feeling of being ensconced in a narrative that makes me favor novels more than television, but I kept finding that same snugness and sense of immersion in so many of the episodes. At the moment, I think I like the show better than the book, but I also think it warrants a reread.

Robinson: So this is a massive departure from Emily St. John Mandel’s novel and that would usually bother me. But, with Emily’s blessing, Patrick Somerville made so many brilliant changes that I think of this as almost an entirely different story set in the same world. The fact that Kirsten and Jeevan, the heart and spine of the TV series, don’t have a relationship at all in the book really speaks to how different these two worlds are. Bad things happen in the show as they do in the book, but Somerville’s world is a much more hopeful place.

Baker: For a while I was actually feeling pretty bad about my information retention, because there were so many things in the show that I had absolutely zero memory of reading! In my defense, it turns out that a lot of those things actually were new, including the one thing that made me cry—Kirsten’s reunion with Jeevan. I did find myself missing the book scene in which they first see a town with electricity across the water, though, and I also kept waiting for Miranda to leave Jim’s room (poor Jim) and stagger to the beach to die, which for some reason was a detail that always stuck with me from the book.

Herman: The first half of the season proves the show’s bona fides as an adaptation, weaving together the timelines and subplots into a cohesive whole. The second is when it puts its own stamp on the source material: foregrounding the reveal of Tyler’s identity, developing him and Elizabeth as characters, and delivering a far more ambivalent answer to the question of preservation versus a clean slate than the book. Given the way the actual pandemic did not exactly show humanity at its finest, I found myself surprisingly sympathetic to this more ambiguous version of the Prophet, even as Daniel Zovatto retains a real sense of menace. More importantly, the show demonstrates an understanding and affection for the book, even as it adds its own ideas to the thematic mix. If that isn’t a successful adaptation, I don’t know what is.


6. Non-book readers: Did the timeline-jumping work for you?

Charity: It didn’t, but also I don’t know that the timeline-jumping was the problem, per se. The larger problem for me was the different corners of the show never really seeming to be on the same page about the tone, themes, and stakes. Is this a dog-eat-dog territorial hellscape of starvation, as the resolution of the apartment subplot suggests? Or is this “La Vie Bohème” with the Traveling Symphony and the Museum of Civilization spawning infinite resources with zero effort or explanation on safety mode?

I understand the darker stuff happens earlier in the pandemic and the more whimsical stuff, as a testament to humanity’s resilience, happens later in the pandemic. But for a show with not one, but two characters talking constantly about logistics, Station Eleven seems so weirdly careless in illustrating how we got from Point A to Point B. The timeline-jumping just exacerbated this larger incoherence.

Lindbergh: I thought they took it a tad too far, to the point that at times I found it more distracting than illuminating. But when it worked, it paid off in full. It also echoed the familiar feeling of losing track of time during the pandemic.

7. Shall we talk about this series being released in the middle of the pandemic?

Robinson: Honestly it’s brilliant and perfect. As someone who thought they had reached their capacity when it came to pandemic entertainment, this changed my mind in every way. I didn’t find it hard to watch; I found it to be a soothing balm.

Charity: After 9/11 there was a lot of post-9/11 entertainment. A lot of it was bad.

Herman: I read the book in February 2020, so I thought I had pandemic trauma antibodies. Then I saw characters with terrible mask protocol and almost had a panic attack. The onset of a pandemic is fundamentally not as important to this show as its lead-up or aftermath, but the production team clearly used its firsthand knowledge of what that onset feels like to heighten the show’s alternate reality. It’s undeniably effective, if not exactly pleasant.

Kantor: It made it difficult to convince reluctant viewers to tune in but it made me feel ... better? I guess when the next big one comes or society as we know it breaks down even further, you either just shuffle off your mortal coil or keep fighting for whatever makes life worth living in the first place. The things that keep people going in the After are really the same things as the Before, the latter just has a lot more distractions. It’s kind of morbidly comforting.

Lindbergh: I have enough thoughts on this subject for a whole separate piece!

8. What is the biggest lingering question you have after seeing Station Eleven?

Charity: Did we all watch the same show?

Kantor: Exactly what Clark asked when gazing out upon the Undersea, about the exact same thing: “What the fuck?”

Lindbergh: My main question is the same as Clark’s as he watched a field full of unwashed, illiterate, murder-suicidal children walk into the wilderness with a pied piper who plagiarized his whole theology from a graphic novel: “What the fuck?”

Baker: I’m still pretty confused about what was going on with the kids and Tyler! Also, did Tyler set the chemical fire that killed Dr. Deborah referenced in Episode 2—I assume she’s the origin of the town St. Deborah by the Water?

Robinson: What can I see Matilda Lawler in next, and how soon?

Herman: Is Matilda Lawler’s performance here as good as Anna Paquin’s Oscar-winning turn in The Piano—the current gold standard for child actors—or even better?

9. Is it a shame that Station Eleven most likely won’t return for a second season, or does that feel just about right?

Herman: If we learned anything from The Handmaid’s Tale, it’s not to turn a finite novel into a multiseason TV show if it means ditching an appropriately ambiguous ending. I don’t want to see the Station Eleven version of Offred choosing to stay in Gilead at the end of Season 2, and I hope I don’t have to!

Lindbergh: The Symphony’s circle won’t stop turning, but this feels like the right time for the audience to get off the ride.

Charity: Frankly, I don’t think this should’ve been a miniseries in the first place.

Station Eleven assembled so many characters across space and time, for such long episodes, only to deprive everyone short of the key players—Kirsten, Tyler, Jeevan, Clark—of even the smallest conceivable units of characterization. The show stoked so much intrigue about a comic book that ultimately wasn’t very interesting, wasn’t very important, and wasn’t very good, originating with Miranda, whose overall existence—and whose passion for illustration, in particular—was an afterthought to an afterthought.

More than any other TV series that should’ve been a movie, Station Eleven should’ve been a movie. So, no, I can’t say I’d be sad to never see a second season.

Kantor: If the first season hadn’t tried to fit in so much, both in plot and in grand ruminations on the human condition, maybe. But at this point, I’m content and wouldn’t want to risk seeing any more potential trauma for Kirsten or any of the characters. Just let them stay on the wheel and create, no matter whether anyone’s watching.