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Station Eleven might be about a pandemic, but it’s pandemic fiction at its most hopeful. (Photo: HBO)
Station Eleven might be about a pandemic, but it’s pandemic fiction at its most hopeful. (Photo: HBO)

Pop CultureDecember 17, 2021

Review: Station Eleven is the post-pandemic story we need right now

Station Eleven might be about a pandemic, but it’s pandemic fiction at its most hopeful. (Photo: HBO)
Station Eleven might be about a pandemic, but it’s pandemic fiction at its most hopeful. (Photo: HBO)

Despite its uncomfortably relevant subject matter, Station Eleven might be 2021’s most hopeful show.

As 2021 draws to a close, the last thing most of us want to watch is a series about a world ravaged by a pandemic. Yet, that’s the world explored by Station Eleven, and it handles it with more grace, warmth, and watchability than you might expect.

Adapted from Emily St. John Mandel’s 2014 novel of the same name, Station Eleven sounds like both a news report on our current situation and a foretelling of a world to come: Part of story follows in the days before a particularly infectious virus plunges the world into devastation; the rest takes place two decades later, as the survivors reckon with the aftermath of the apocalypse. The narrative fulcrum comes when an actor drops dead on stage and in the ensuing panic a doctor in the audience, Jeevan (Himesh Patel), rescues another actor, Kirsten, as the reality of this “flu” descends on them like a tonne of bricks. Twenty years later, the pandemic has left the world a post-technological ruin. Now grown up, Kirsten (Mackenzie Davis) is part of a travelling company performing Shakespeare for settlements of survivors (proof that not even the complete collapse of civilisation will stop the scourge that is amateur theatre). There are questions, though: How did Kirsten survive the apocalypse, and what haunts her from that past?

Station Eleven unfurls slowly, even meditatively. The first episode sets up the shape of the story – a pandemic has all but wiped out civilisation, everybody left alive is sad but keeping it together – and the rest of the series slowly, patiently, colours between the lines. In episode two, we follow Kirsten and her fellow actors, and the focus is less on the intricacies of a post-pandemic world, and more on the relationships of the people that have to inhabit it; an actor’s decision to leave the company to build a family gets as much screen time as the struggle of living day-to-day in a disaster-ravaged world.

Himesh Patel as Jeevan and Matilda Lawler as young Kirsten in HBO Max’s Station Eleven. (Photo: HBO)

Much of our understanding of this world comes not through exposition but through imagery, much of it the creative vision of director Hiro Mura (Atlanta). In one scene Jeevan and Kirsten walk past a snow-covered garage in mid-pandemic Chicago, and the scene suddenly flashes to that same garage 20 years later, covered in foliage, in life. It’s a decidedly lighter, more hopeful perspective on post-apocalypse life than you might expect, a visual depiction of the philosophy of the show: civilisation might die, but the world lives on.

But then, Station Eleven isn’t quite “post-apocalypse” TV as we usually think of it. There are no trashcan fires, no roving gangs and thankfully, no zombies. Its preoccupation is not so much the collapse of civilisation, but the parts of civilisation that remain when everything else is stripped away. As the slogan emblazoned on one of the company’s travelling wagons puts it, “survival is insufficient”. These characters love each other, they engage with their art. They’re trying not just to survive, but to actually live.

Beyond the world-building, a show like Station Eleven needs a strong cast to bring us along for the ride. Mackenzie Davis as Kirsten, the closest thing the series has to a protagonist, is a brilliant casting choice; she has all the presence of an A-lister, but tempered with an on-edge weariness that you can imagine might take over a person when they survive an apocalypse (and also have to perform Shakespeare every night). When one character accuses her of being “charged with that Day Zero pain”, Davis lets her facade drop to show us that yeah, she is, but she’s learned to hide it.

Among an excellent supporting cast, Danielle Deadwyler as Miranda Carroll is a standout. Keep an eye out in episode three for how she captures, in a way that’s almost too close to home, the specific kind of pandemic anxiety that leads your eyes to widen when you see someone coming at you without a mask on.

Mackenzie Davis as Kirsten in HBO Max’s Station Eleven. (Photo: HBO)

Of course, it’s impossible to watch Station Eleven without thinking about the real life pandemic that exists around it. The television that has engaged with Covid this year has done so with mixed results (looking at you, The Morning Show, and not looking at you at all, And Just Like That). Mandel wrote her novel in 2014, a few Covids before 19, and this version was filmed earlier this year, as the world battled the rise and rise of the delta variant. 

The result is that Station Eleven, the TV series, will be received quite differently than the book was seven years ago. A scene that shows the occupants of an entire hospital wing coughing hard might have been creepy back in 2014. In 2021, it’s downright triggering. This uneasy relationship with our real-world circumstances never derails the series entirely, but it still leaves Station Eleven sitting in an uncanny valley: it’s not close enough to our pandemic to feel like a reflection of it, but not far enough away to feel like complete fantasy.

The other challenge for the show is its arrival at the end of what has been perhaps the most online year for TV ever. Over the past 12 months the most talked-about weekly shows – as opposed to those that are dropped on streaming services all in one go – have been dissected, tweeted and memed to death between episodes. Even the least online among us could likely not avoid the flurry of speculation between episodes of WandaVision, Loki and most recently, Succession. And now comes Station Eleven, essentially a mystery box show, also released weekly. I can’t help but worry that the seven days between episodes will be filled with such wild speculation and dedicated sleuthing that people will ultimately be disappointed by the answers, no matter what they are (although, they could always just read the book…).

But while Station Eleven might initially feel oddly timed, the show itself makes an argument that yes, this is exactly the right time for it. It’s a show about an apocalypse, but one that imagines a world where people still fundamentally need each other, and need art, to process what they’re going through. Instead of wallowing in the misery of a pandemic, Station Eleven wants to lead us to a more optimistic, hopefully place. This year of all years, we need a show like that.

The first episode of Station Eleven drops on Neon tonight, and weekly thereafter.

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