A look at HBO Max’s Station Eleven
WARNING: Contains spoilers for Station Eleven
“This strange and awful time was the happiest of my life.”
Based on the 2014 novel by Canadian writer Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven is set in Chicago (and beyond) during and after an outbreak of a flu-like virus, much like the COVID-19 pandemic. While that might sound too panic-inducing to watch, Station Eleven implies death more than graphically displays it. The premise of the limited series may be a global pandemic, but it's really a story about family, blood, or chosen, and how we deal with grief. It’s also about how art helps us process our experiences and emotions to heal. Created for television by Patrick Somerville (Maniac, The Leftovers, Made for Love), its episodes are directed by Hiro Murai (Atlanta), Lucy Tcherniak (The End of the F***ing World), Helen Shaver (Vikings), and Jeremy Podeswa (Game of Thrones, The Handmaid’s Tale).
Matilda Lawler and Mackenzie Davis play different ages of our main character, Kirsten. Pre-flu, Kirsten is in a production of King Lear in Chicago. During a performance, famous blockbuster film star, Arthur Leander (Gael Garcia Bernal) has a heart attack on stage while performing as the titular character. Realizing what is happening, audience member, Jeevan Chaudhary (Himesh Patel), rushes on stage to try to help. Arthur dies and Jeevan sees how upset the young Kirsten is while waiting in the wings. As the news of the flu pandemic hits the public, Jeevan notices Kirsten is alone without her usual theater chaperone to take her home. He volunteers to accompany her to her house and that's when our story really takes off. Kirsten's parents aren't home and she has forgotten her key. Taking his sister’s advice, Jeevan and Kirsten buy loads of groceries and supplies and take shelter with Jeevan’s brother, Frank (the fantastic Nabhaan Rizwan) in his high-rise Chicago apartment.
Station Eleven flashes forwards and backward between past and present throughout its ten-episode arc leaving us clamoring to know what happened in between. The present is shown as the aftermath of the pandemic twenty years later. Adult Kirsten (Mackenzie Davis) is now part of the “Traveling Symphony,” a group of actors and musicians who perform plays by Shakespeare on a travel circuit they refer to as “the wheel.” Lori Petty is Sarah, their conductor, and I could not have been happier to recognize her in a current role. The caravan of traveling performers gives Station Eleven a touch of Carnivale meets Tales from the Loop and The Leftovers. The Traveling Symphony, performing in costumes made of found and repurposed objects is reminiscent of characters in Beasts of the Southern Wild in look and feel. Station Eleven is a really beautifully shot series. As the Symphony travels to each settlement, they are welcomed back like heroes. Almost everyone in the Symphony knows what it was like before the pandemic, except for Alex, (Philippine Velge) who was raised since she was a baby by the members of the Traveling Symphony, in particular, Kirsten.
The story of what happened to Kirsten between the time Jeevan offers to accompany her home to present-day twenty years later is told through flashbacks and glimpses of Kirsten’s own grief and trauma. During a production of Hamlet, Kirsten loses herself for a moment onstage thinking back to when she lost her parents. This does not go unnoticed by an audience member played by Daniel Zovatto, a stranger referred to as “The Prophet,” who tries to convince young Alex to leave the Traveling Symphony and join his movement (or cult depending on your perception) of children. The Prophet (who we eventually learn is named Tyler) often cryptically repeats the phrase, “There is no before,” to everyone who meets him, until Kirsten. Kirsten is the one who finally understands.
Both Tyler and Kirsten have read one of only five printed copies of a graphic novel by the name of Station Eleven, written and illustrated by Miranda Carroll (Danielle Deadwyler). This book, given separately by Arthur Leander to both Tyler and Kristen, has made an indelible impression on both of them. It’s interesting to see how this piece of fiction is ingested and imprinted upon its two readers and how they interpret that work of art differently throughout their lives. While Tyler burned his copy as a child, he finds its story again by memory later in life. He now recounts that story as “the prophecy” to the groups of children that leave their families to follow him in post-pandemic America. Kirsten held on to her copy of Station Eleven; it's a treasured gift from someone she loved and lost, and she revisits it time and again as she moves from her home of Chicago to the Great Lakes countryside where she now performs with the Traveling Symphony.
Tyler and Kirsten, each suffer trauma and find hope through the message of Station Eleven, whose very creation was fueled by its author's own trauma. Miranda lost her entire family to a hurricane as a child. She processed that grief by drawing and later working on her graphic novel, Station Eleven. When she meets and falls in love with actor Arthur Leander, she doesn't care if anyone ever sees her creation. The artistic process of creation was originally for her and her alone. It is not until years later when she and Arthur are divorced, that she finally finishes her work and shares it with him. This act of creating art for oneself works in contrast to that of the Traveling Symphony performing for others, but both instances show the power of art to heal, both the participants/creators of art and those that consume their work. Arthur Leander (Bernal) and his close friend Clark (David Wilmot) often argue about their talent as actors. They clash as each vies for recognition, acceptance, and love. It seems they are both continually struggling throughout the series to find that art that will finally heal them.
Clark’s story progresses once he is tasked with returning to take care of Arthur's body and is rerouted to a small town airport outside of Chicago due to the pandemic. He works to form a community inside of that small-town airport and build a “Museum of Civilisation,” to preserve the past. His story is a cautionary tale of holding on too firmly to the past, while Tyler’s is one of too strongly letting go of everything to embrace the future. The answer lies somewhere in between, and Station Eleven takes us along for the ride as we watch them figure out the aftermath of the pandemic. Throughout that process, Kirsten learns to deal with her own fears and grief. She learns to let go of Alex, someone she loves, and she helps Tyler forgive and reconnect with those that love him. We vacillate between timelines and storylines to work our way through the series until we fully understand how all of these characters are actually linked together and what has happened to them along the way, leading to the series’ culmination.
While a series about a global pandemic and its aftermath could be really dire and depressing, Station Eleven is hopeful and beautiful. I found watching the series to be extremely cathartic. It shows how art - music, theater, literature, drawing - can help build empathy and understanding. Speaking lines as characters in plays allows the characters of Station Eleven to say what they really want to say, to express to each other what they would not otherwise in real life. The themes of Station Eleven are universal regardless of the time period, but the series hits all the more forcefully because of when it was released. While it deals so predominantly with loss, it can’t help but foster a sense of hope that will stay with you long after it finishes.
Besides watching TV and movies, Diana likes plants, the great outdoors, drawing and reading comics, and just generally rocking out. She has a BA in English Literature and is an art school dropout. You can follow her on Instagram @dldimuro and Twitter @DianaDiMuro