I have to admit, watching the first episode of HBO’s series Station Eleven was extremely difficult. Triggering almost, with exhausted healthcare professionals in ubiquitous blue masks, fighting against an insidious respiratory virus with a devastating mortality rate, as the population reacted with various levels of panic and denial. It felt insensitive that someone felt the need to release a TV series set during a pandemic, during an ongoing pandemic, as a perceived attempt to cash in on hysteria. Honestly, I almost didn’t continue watching the series, I was so shaken. But here’s the thing – the creators of Station Eleven respect the trauma their premiere episode digs up and, if viewers trust them enough to continue through the series, they use that foothold to imagine a post-pandemic future full of compassion, connection and hope. Instead of lingering in the macabre, Station Eleven dares to imagine a human race that emerges from tragedy to embrace beauty and art. Though it has extremely timely subject matter, Station Eleven is actually based on the 2014 novel of the same name by Canadian author Emily St. John Mandel. It’s interesting to contrast the pandemic imagined eight years ago with the pandemic still happening today. The fictional virus is far more lethal, and the onset is far more sudden, but the themes of isolation, fear, and societal collapse are familiar to those living in our Covid-struck world.
Like many popular modern miniseries, Station Eleven is structured around two timelines, the past, pre- and immediately post-pandemic time, and approximately 20 years after the outbreak. We meet the protagonist Kristen, played by Mackenzie Davis as an adult and Matilda Lawler as a child early in the series, waiting in the wings as veteran thespian Arthur Leander (Gael Garcia Bernal) dies of a heart attack onstage, the same day the outbreak begins. Kristen is an enigma; her younger self seems overly worldly, solemn, and mature, while the adult Kristen holds herself with a childlike wonder. In the outbreak timeline, young Kristen is shepherded by Jeevan (Himesh Patel), who was in the audience the night Arthur Leander died and who reluctantly takes Kristen under his wing when the seriousness of the outbreak becomes apparent. Their storyline is full of tension, from their initial bickering over groceries at the supermarket to their sorrowful barricaded quarantine with Jeevan’s brother Frank. Jeevan seems like an unlikely protector and his frustrated heart of gold contrasts beautifully with young Kristen’s tenacity, until the two are separated and Kristen is left to fend for herself. While all of the “past” scenes are tense, most heartbreaking for me was the episode where Kristen learns of her parents’ deaths over text message. The cold cinematography enhances the impersonal delivery of such devastating news, which no doubt resonated with viewers who are all too familiar with hearing and experiencing massive life changes over Zoom and FaceTime.
While the first timeline focuses on Kristen and Jeevan navigating a bleak pandemic landscape, the second revolves around the Travelling Symphony, the Shakespearean theatre troupe Kristen is a part of. Every year they perform along a circuit of colonies, dubbed “the Wheel”, honing their performances while utilizing the scant resources they can find in the post-pandemic landscape. There’s a lot of layers to this storyline – a mysterious Prophet, a Museum of Civilization, and other quasi-fantasy elements imbue the post-pandemic landscape with a sense of mystery and danger, while still emphasizing the importance of human creation and connection. And here lies a major spoiler –yes, at the end of the series, Kristen and Jeevan (now a husband and doctor) are reunited, and yes, I did cry. It’s uncharacteristic and unexpected for modern media to embrace reunification, when isolation, loneliness, and poetic tragedy add that bite of pathos that creators seem to think viewers want. But that’s what makes Station Eleven such a beautiful piece of pandemic themed art – it doesn’t shy away from the raw fear of the unknown, but tempers and resolves it with community, art, renewal, and healed relationships.
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