'Station Eleven' Might Be One of the Best Shows of Pandemic-Era Television
The HBO Max series chooses to put humanity first instead of belaboring a devastating catastrophe.
The thought of watching another show centered on a pandemic right now might seem exhausting, since we’ve been living through one for two years. In that span of time, we’ve seen plenty of series and movies, incorporate the ongoing pandemic into their plots. Some have been set in post-pandemic worlds where people have adjusted back to their normal lives and only mention COVID-19 in passing, like the latest season of Grey’s Anatomy, And Just Like That, and Gossip Girl, while others have loosely woven COVID storylines into their narratives, such as the most recent seasons of The Righteous Gemstones, The Morning Show, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and the Law and Order universe (which has since decided to disregard the pandemic’s existence). Meanwhile, the third season of Succession makes the decision to avoid COVID altogether and picking up right where the second season left off, remaining in the privileged safety of their billionaire bubble.
Station Eleven, a recently released HBO Max series, deals directly with a pandemic and its aftermath, albeit one with a flu much more deadly than COVID. When it premiered in mid-December, Station Eleven had everything working against it in terms of timing, having arrived just as we began worrying about the surge in new variants and the reintroduction of travel restrictions around the world. But Station Eleven isn’t a pandemic story, at least not fully—while it depicts situations that remind us of the dread we felt early on in the pandemic, like grocery hoarding and overflowing emergency rooms, it doesn’t spend too much time concerning itself with the actual sickness of the plague, called the Georgia Flu, instead choosing to center on the individual people it impacts.
The 10-part limited series, created by Patrick Somerville and directed by the likes of Hiro Murai and Helen Shaver, is adapted from Emily St. John Mandel’s bestselling 2014 novel of the same name, which regained popularity in 2020 and 2021 as people were rushing to read a book about a pandemic to escape from the pandemic they were (and still are) living through. Using a non-linear format, it explores the years leading up to the catastrophic event and the ones that follow, specifically 20 years after the deadly flu wiped out roughly 99% of the world population in the span of a few weeks.
All of the central characters are linked to Arthur Leander (Gael García Bernal), an actor who dies of a heart attack while on stage during a production of King Lear in Chicago on the evening of the pandemic’s start. In the midst of all the chaos at the theater, Jeevan Chaudhary (Himesh Patel), an audience member who rushes on the stage to aid Arthur, finds himself looking after Kirsten (Matilda Lawler), an 8-year-old child actor who viewed Arthur as a mentor, and they spend the first few weeks of the pandemic in isolation with Jeevan’s brother, Frank (Nathan Rizwan), in his high-rise apartment.
Two decades later, Kirsten (now played by Mackenzie Davis) is a member of the Traveling Symphony, a nomadic troupe of musicians and actors who perform Shakespeare to small communities of survivors around Lake Michigan. The group’s motto is “survival is insufficient,” a quote originating from Star Trek: Voyager but was drawn by Kirsten from the Station Eleven comic she has been attached to since the pandemic began. When the group crosses paths with a mysterious man known as The Prophet (Daniel Zovatto) and his cult of “post-pan” children, whom he lures with the phrase “there is no before,” which also comes from the rare comic, Kirsten becomes rightly suspicious and protective of her found family.
This brings us to the show’s third angle, which centers on Miranda (Danielle Deadwyler), a shipping logistics expert who was once married to Arthur and who wrote the aforementioned sci-fi graphic novel that gives the show its name and becomes Kirsten’s lifelong attachment, remaining by her side all the way up until adulthood, at which point she’s memorized every detail of it. Another thread takes place at the Severn City Airport, where Arthur’s estranged best friend Clark (David Wilmot) gets stranded with Arthur’s ex-wife, Elizabeth (Caitlin Fitzgerald), and their son, Tyler (Julian Obradors). There, the stranded passengers form a small community with strict quarantine procedures and rules for survival, as well as create a Museum of Civilization where they display the technological devices everyone was once dependent on.
Station Eleven is the opposite of what you would expect from the post-apocalyptic genre, breaking out of the mold that makes up typical disaster narratives to tenderly explore various corners of humanity. Like The Leftovers, which was also written by Somerville, Station Eleven is about so much more than a devastating catastrophe. They are both quiet ruminations on how humanity moves on from disaster, as well as human nature’s ability to persevere against all odds. Its post-pandemic world is painted as a lush and vivid landscape, as opposed to the dark, gray atmospheres that often characterize dystopian media. It cares about the small, mundane things, like the groups of people trying to coexist in a small airport or those bonded by theatre, rather than placing an emphasis on larger-scale things like the chaos erupting around the world or regularly portraying people dying from the flu. The series isn’t void of death, but it chooses to balance the darkness with many moments of humanity, tenderness, and optimism.
The show is, above all, a story about the power of art and its ability to bring people together when times are tough. In Station Eleven, modern technology is a thing of the past, an antiquated device once used for escaping from the turmoils of daily life. The one thing that endures and survives is art, as humanity gravitates towards other forms of escape. In the show’s post-pandemic world, books, theatre, and music have thrived, providing a beacon of hope to others in need and bringing people together, even if only for a brief period of time. Even as society crumbles right before their eyes, art can’t be lost as easily.
At its best, Station Eleven knows when to stray away from its source material—to which it remains faithfully dedicated to throughout—in all the right places, building upon the rich world Mandel created. One standout alteration made in the series is that the relationship between Kirsten and Jeevan is explored much more as they remain with each other throughout the first months of the pandemic, while their interaction in the novel was brief and ended after Jeevan tries to help Kirsten find her guardian following Arthur’s heart attack. Moreover, in the novel, the Station Eleven comic’s mysterious spaceman Dr. Eleven is a central character who influences much of Kirsten’s life, but in the series, he’s vividly shown watching over the characters from outer space from the first episode. The story, both in the book and the show, zigzags through time, from the lead-up to the pandemic to its onset to its aftermath when only 1% of the population is still left to roam the Earth. It abandons characters for long periods of time before circling back to them, slowly peeling back the layers of their existence through flashbacks and by jumping from character to character, ensuring that enough time is dedicated to each’s development while also leaving some parts unexplained, like detailing the origins of the flu.
Many may believe that Station Eleven couldn’t have come at a worse time, but that’s also part of what makes it special. While other television shows and movies serve as direct (and often cringey) reminders of what we’ve been collectively going through at this moment in time, Station Eleven provides us with a cathartic and hopeful experience by choosing to look beyond the familiar to explore the unknown.