In ‘Station Eleven,’ There’s Light In The Darkness
It seemed like an obvious choice to avoid Station Eleven; HBO’s mini-series adaptation of the 2014 Emily St. John Mandel novel, which follows a group of unknowingly intertwined characters in the time directly leading up to, during, and as many as 20 years after a devastating flu pandemic which killed most of the world’s population. I don’t have many hang-ups when it comes to television, but one which has calcified over the past two years is that I avoid engaging with anything that consciously channels the anxiety and cruelty of the world outside my front door — and beginning this show as we embark upon year three of our own real-world pandemic felt akin to watching re-runs of the Nathan’s Hot-Dog Eating Contest while the turkey gets carved on Thanksgiving.
And yet, whether it was HBO’s recent track record of producing phenomenal mini-series (The Undoing, Mare of Easttown, The White Lotus) — or the number of writers and podcast hosts I respect raving about the show in such glowing terms, the process of chiseling away at my self-imposed restrictions before giving Station Eleven a chance took time, but eventually, I acquiesced.
What took relatively no time at all was realizing how misplaced my apprehensions were towards a project in the apt hands of showrunner Patrick Somerville and a cast full of stars whose light had finally reached our screens. Television can serve as a mirror for difficult times, reflecting the challenges and tragedies of a specific moment in a particular place, but what we’ve been conditioned to forget, whether because of a metastasizing cultural cynicism or a multi-decade run of anti-hero led prestige dramas — and what Station Eleven so beautifully reminds us, is these reflections (like the times themselves) are not always black and white or grey. Oftentimes, even in the darkest moments, they’re majestically bright and full of life.
On the eve of the pandemic’s arrival to humanity’s consciousness, we’re introduced to Kirsten (Matilda Lawler), a child actor frightened backstage as she watches her friend and mentor Arthur (Gael Garcia Bernal) collapse while performing as King Lear. During the ensuing months (once we learn Kirsten’s parents have died), her pseudo-family of guardians become Jeevan Chaudhary (Himesh Patel), a stranger who rushed on stage to aid a dying Arthur before offering a distressed Kirsten help, Jeevan’s brother Frank (Nabhaan Rizwan), and a gift from Arthur — a comic book titled Station Eleven.
We soon meet Clark (David Wilmot); an old acting partner and friend of Arthur who gets stuck in what eventually represents the nearest approximation of pre-pandemic life and society; the Severn City Airport, escorting the actor’s body home alongside a group of travelers who include Arthur’s ex-wife Elizabeth (Caitlin FitzGerald) and their son Tyler (Julian Obradors).
We also come to know Arthur’s first wife, Miranda Carroll (Danielle Deadwyler). Miranda doesn’t survive the pandemic: she dies in Malaysia on a work trip during the early days of the flu, but it’s her relationships — both with Arthur and Clark, as well as her comic book, Station Eleven (the only two known copies belonging to Kirsten and Tyler) that builds the foundational levers capable of lifting this story through the darkness to light.
Beyond the difficulty of establishing an upliftingly triumphant story amid a backdrop of death and disease, the interconnectedness of humanity and art is what stood out to me throughout the series.
Take the comic book — a wedge between Miranda and Arthur’s marriage during its conception, but a bridge between adult Kirsten (Mackenzie Davis) and Tyler (Daniel Zovatto) once fully born, created by Miranda as a way to process her trauma and embraced by childhood Kirsten and Tyler as a similar outlet. It binds these characters as a totem of a previous life: it was a gift, both from Arthur to Kirsten and from Arthur to Tyler, through Elizabeth — and its significance to the show transcends the physical book.
Along with ‘The Traveling Symphony’: a group of free-spirited artists who cyclically travel around Lake Michigan performing Shakespear for communities along their route, the book represented the unspoken inference that followed ‘The Symphony’s’ recurring motto: “survival is insufficient” — what’s left unsaid is that the relationships forged and the stories shared are the true essence of life.
When we flash between timelines, as we do in the show’s opening scene; panning over an empty Chicago theater sometime in the distant future, before being snapped back to the present day where the same theater is packed with an audience unaware of their impending fate, we’re not meant to imagine a society imminently hurdling towards darkness and decay (the empty theater in the opening shot is overgrown with wildlife and greenery, with light streaming in from above) — instead, we’re left to consider how the ending of one chapter might mean death, but it certainly means potential for new beginnings. How we get to that place through trying times is a pivotal question posed by Station Eleven, and it’s what the comic book, ‘The Traveling Symphony,’ and the relationships that evolve represent throughout the series.
A trademark of rich, compelling storytelling is moments that find a way to feel extraordinary. For me, I know them when I catch myself leaning towards the TV; as I did with the Bob Dylan needle drop at the end of Episode 1 as Jeevan and Kirsten first leave the apartment, and again during Miranda’s withering boardroom monologue. By the time Frank started rapping “Excursions” or Jeevan conquered his demons as the steady hand of the JC Penny maternity ward in the show’s penultimate episode, this series had accomplished the ultimate triumph of transporting me to a world I didn’t want to leave — one to which, like Jeevan and Kirsten in the finale, I could only stomach bidding farewell because it’s one I’ll assuredly return to.
That tearful reunion, by the way, was the type of scene other shows hinge upon. In the case of Station Eleven, it acted as a satisfying appendage to a story beautifully whole without it.
Station Eleven was a story of art and humanity standing toe to toe with despair; where overlapping journeys didn’t signify serendipitous coincidence, but instead consequence. The consequence of choices like the one Jeevan made to extend his hand to a child in need as the world around him began to crumble, or the one Clark made in the Severn City airport to fill a void of leadership and hope. Other shows might have dwelled in the gloom of loss or in the pandemic itself, but Station Eleven gravitated towards the light and shined it on its characters during their journey through the darkness — so much so that even a fork in the road meant home in either direction.