Station Eleven: A Slightly Brighter Apocalypse
Note: this review is mostly spoiler free. No details beyond the first two episodes are shared.
For being a miniseries, this show is so dense with story and emotion that it’s hard to know where to begin. What I can say is that Station Eleven packs an emotional punch for me in the same way that The Leftovers did. A story told after the end of the world, where the world doesn’t really end and we have to find ways to keep going, to keep living.
Like The Leftovers, Station Eleven is a story about people and relationships, and the apocalypse serves only as set dressing for what is ultimately a deeply human story about trauma, family, closure, and learning from the past. It’s one of those shows where, even after I’ve finished, I find myself going back and replaying certain scenes over and over again, or listening to the sound track in my car on Spotify. Not because I didn’t get it; I do it just to get that surge of emotion again. Station Eleven is beautiful, simply put.
This show was made with love.— Helen Huang, Costume Designer
A Pandemic Show During A Pandemic?
One thing I want to delve into about Station Eleven is the prescience of it all. This is a story that cuts so much deeper being told in 2021/2022 than if it were released earlier. This story wasn’t born out of the COVID-19 pandemic. It predates it by several years, as does the decision to bring it to the screen. Station Eleven started as a book released in 2014 by author Emily St. John Mandel. In the book, a deadly variant of swine flu (known in-world as the Georgia Flu) manages to have extremely high rates of infection with delayed symptoms. By the time the fatal symptoms sweep the globe, it’s all happening too quickly to be stopped. Within weeks, most of the world’s human population has perished. COVID-19, thankfully, was nowhere near as deadly.
The rights to the novel were picked up in 2015, the series was ordered, and casting began in 2019. All pre-pandemic. I can only imagine the surreal nature of telling a post-pandemic story in the midst of our own unprecedented pandemic. Ultimately they began filming in January of 2020 and production was suspended in March; I don’t think I need to say why. When the cast and crew returned to shooting in 2021, I can only imagine that the weight of the past year influenced every aspect of telling this story. From the performances of the actors to the way people were corralled and separated on set to abide COVID guidelines. While we are ever-so-lucky (though some characters in the show might disagree) that COVID-19 was not as severe as the Georgia Flu, the reality of what was happening outside the set undoubtedly had an effect on the story of Station Eleven.
I think [it] hits this tone of earnest hopefulness while allowing darkness and other things to be a part of that, and our show does that as well. And there’s this real people searching for each other in a kind of existential sense that’s pretty beautiful and quite moving, I find. But it just isn’t about a pandemic. It’s shitty timing. Believe us, we started working on the show in 2019, shooting it in January and February of 2020, and then went on hiatus until the next year. We weren’t making a show about a pandemic. We were making a show about life after tragedy and trauma.”— Mackenzie Davis, Collider
A Series Set Apart From Other Post-Apocalyptics
“How do we make it beautiful and dangerous at the same time?”— Jeremy Podeswa, Director
What Station Eleven does differently from other post-apocalyptic media is show us that the end of the world isn’t all bad. There was a pandemic, a human one. But nature remained. The sun still shines, waves still lap at beaches, animals thrive in the wilderness. What few people do exist now live in a bountiful, if lawless, world. We still laugh and we still smile.
Station Eleven isn’t your typical post-apocalyptic thriller, where every person is out for themselves, willing to abandon humanity for their own ends. It’s a story about those few people who are left binding themselves together to form communities wherever they can. We seek one another out for comfort. Strangers stranded at the Severn City Airport, the Traveling Symphony, a community of women at the Birthing Center. We do see and hear about violent elements, like the Red Bandanas and the Prophet’s Cult. But the overall sense is that humanity was embracing its fresh start in this midwestern corner of the world as best it could.
This isn’t the new Children of Men. The danger isn’t ever-present and humanity is not at risk of extinction. Forget raging battles and sudden, jarring deaths at every turn. Life is not cheap in this series. Station Eleven isn’t focused on shooting your way out of every episode. There are no zombies, no nuclear fall-out, no alien invasion, no disease preventing women from giving birth. Even the virus is gone, twenty years later. It’s a story about the people who are left behind, their trauma, and how connected you can be to others in a big world that suddenly grew much smaller. We have a tendency to fetishize the apocalypse into this proto-fascist nightmare. The world ends and we all get desperate. Everybody has a gun. Everybody wants to be the hero. Every other human is a villain, willing to kill you for what they need. Empathy died with civilization. This isn’t that story.
One great revelation we see in episode two of Station Eleven is the idea that art does not die in the apocalypse. Many other works in this genre tell us that our art perishes with us. Humans become so fixated on survival that there is no time to create beautiful things. Station Eleven dispenses with this idea, as once again, we are twenty years post-pandemic. Watching episode two reminded me of a scene from Reign of Fire, the Rob Bowman sci-fi fantasy flick about surviving in a world where dragons emerged from deep underground, nearly driving humanity to extinction. In it, two characters reenact a scene from Star Wars for an audience of children who have never seen a single movie.
Art doesn’t die with civilization. We will always try to keep the past alive. There are still 24 hours in the day, and only a fraction of the humans now. Food is bountiful, land plentiful, and the sunset just as beautiful as the day the world ended. Kirsten in year twenty is living with the Traveling Symphony, a troupe of actors and musicians that travel around Lake Michigan, performing plays for the budding communities of the post-pan world. They perform comedies in even-years and tragedies in odd-years. The Symphony’s motto could easily serve to describe the show’s world:
“Survival is insufficient.”
When the world ends, it’s not enough to merely survive. We need to be human. Art is one of the defining features that sets humanity apart from other species. Our propensity to create things just to make others feel something, just to express ourselves and relate to one another is endless; this strikes at the core of what it means to be human. Animalistic survival is not enough. If we can no longer live as humans, just getting by in a perpetual state of hypervigilance and stress, why live at all?
That’s not to say the Symphony is pacifistic to a fault. Kirsten herself is seen to be quite familiar with knives and hand-to-hand combat. But it’s not something that’s flaunted and shoved in the audience’s face in every episode. It’s something that’s mostly in the background. It’s a remnant, a part of her that she no longer actively needs.
Nevertheless, it does help her in her journey. This was something that Mackenzie Davis specifically desired of her character, Kirsten. In episode 102 of the official Station Eleven podcast, Director Jeremy Podeswa says of Davis: “She did not want to be … a superhero … this action figure going around stabbing people. She has knives; yes. She protects herself; yes. She protects other people; but it’s like, she always was very conscious of wanting to be multidimensional and not this … male fantasy figure.”
“Though this be madness, yet there is method in ’t.”
You can’t talk about Station Eleven without talking about Hamlet. This show follows the Traveling Symphony, performing Hamlet, and the series features themes and allusions to the work all throughout. I will not go so far as to say Hamlet is necessary reading in order to enjoy Station Eleven, but you will certainly enjoy it much more if you arrive with even a cursory familiarity with the play.
Kirsten was a child actor, working alongside Arthur Leander, a well-known actor performing King Lear in Chicago when the virus struck its fateful blow. The Shakespeare starts there and truly does not stop. Station Eleven isn’t a retelling of Hamlet, but rather it’s a story told with a deep appreciation for the art of storytelling, and Shakespeare in particular. You can’t talk about storytelling without talking about Shakespeare, them’s the rules. The show will draw you in with a modern story, but leave you wanting to see literally any rendition of Hamlet you can if you’ve never had the pleasure. Station Eleven marries the old to the new in a completely earned and natural way.
If you’ve come from watching emotionally-driven stories like The Leftovers, or Lost, then this show is for you. If you love worldbuilding as much as you love characters themselves, then please give this series a watch. Station Eleven is a story for humans. It’s a story that speaks to those for whom survival is insufficient.
Station Eleven is available for streaming on HBO Max. The original novel can be found at Greenlight Bookstore.