“Station Eleven” is a work of great art about the disaster in and of itself because it recognizes the kind of art that would endure and memorialize a disaster.
Kirsten Raymonde (Matilda Lawler), 8, calls her parents’ phones repeatedly from the living room of a glittering Chicago apartment where she sits with two grown men she’s just met early in the second episode of “Station Eleven”. The unusual circumstances of the night inadvertently deposited this small yet serene youngster on a theatergoer named Jeevan Chaudhary (Himesh Patel) and his brother, Frank Chaudhary (Nabhaan Rizwan). First, tragedy struck the production of King Lear, in which she had a minor role that night when a fellow cast member died of a heart attack mid-monologue. Then, in the shape of an uncontrollable apocalyptic flu, it blasted into the rest of the planet.
Kirsten is still adjusting to her new surroundings, and she’s dressed in an unusual combination of the stiff, pale-pink, big-skirted outfit she skipped across the stage in and the brilliantly striped coat, wooly scarf, and fluffy boots she can’t bear to take off. Her ensemble is caught between two worlds: the regular life of three hours ago, when she produced Lear in a splendid theater, and the new normal, which will see her travel the country in horse-drawn carriages with a motley crew performing Shakespeare for the next 20 years. She was too young to ride the metro home alone earlier that night. To stay alive, she’ll have to travel across a frozen Lake Michigan.
The “Station Eleven” epidemic is raging. It has a 99.9% lethality rate; a news anchor on Frank’s TV reports 10,000 dead in just a few hours. The second chapter of Emily St. John Mandel’s 2014 novel, which serves as the show’s inspiration, concludes with a harsh appraisal of the odds: “Of everyone at the bar that night, the bartender was the one who made it the longest.” He died three weeks later on the highway leading out of town.” It’s a true apocalypse that will wipe out civilization. In an interview with me, Mandel said that the virus she describes is impossible; virologists convinced her that a nasty little sucker this aggressive would run out too rapidly to spread over the world’s population. Mandel, on the other hand, sought a clear contrast between the before and after shots, which showed filled grocery stores and squirrels roasting on spits mere weeks later. A pivot is so sharp that chocolate chip cookies, handheld GPS devices, and machines that provide chilly air on demand would all vanish virtually instantaneously.
Coughing bouts and feverish head tossing are limited as a result. Despite its reputation as a pandemic novel (sales spiked six years after release), “Station Eleven” is only indirectly concerned with disease and pestilence. It’s a survival tale, a rebuilding novel, and a dream of what it may be like to start over on a vine-covered planet Earth, like so many others in the genre. Apart from one scene in which a hospital is filled with hacking, prostrate patients, and a few creepy wheezes that we hear (and fear), the disease itself vanishes as fast as it appeared. It’s all about the traumatic spillover effect. This is about what we harvest long after the tragedy has been sown, as the show recognizes.
Its appearance in the winter of 2021 appears to be virtually perfectly timed. Our pandemic, pandemic weariness, and the idea of cultural criticism of pandemics and fatigue have all worn audiences down. COVID-19 storylines snuck into series including The Morning Show, Law & Order, and Grey’s Anatomy this year, prompting costume designers to hastily adjust to create clear face covers, should any Hollywood beauties be obscured by paper masks. Shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm and Nine Perfect Strangers, on the other hand, alluded to the coronavirus but didn’t fully embrace it for the entire season. In our current circumstances, there’s been little enthusiasm for mucking around – and much less quality output. COVID hasn’t exploded as a force for compelling television. Perhaps this is due to the fact that our pandemic has frequently become pedestrian. Schoolyard brawls, office partitions, and clogged shipping lanes aren’t the stuff of global catastrophe art. What story-hungry viewer wants to observe people booking Zooms and looking for quick testing for a hundred weeks in a row? Any work created at this time has to deal with the inane misery of two years of remembering to bring your kids’ school masks. (If David Foster Wallace, the Baron of Boredom, were still alive, he would very certainly have written the great COVID novel.) Reflection and distance frequently spawn considerably superior work about any present situation.
That’s why “Station Eleven” is so strangely fulfilling. It takes us outside of time and makes us cling to its decades-spanning jumps like slightly less bumbling Bill and Teds. It rejects the clean structure of classic disaster stories. It abandons characters and relationships for inexplicable periods of time, then returns with full, tight attention. And it frequently deviates from its source material (usually to its advantage) to revel in its own loose, almost funky sensations. We may see the most harrowing version of what’s going on right now and revel in the spectacle, meta-voyeurs of a meta-commentary on how people might choose to live post-systems-collapse.
We might also imagine what kind of art humanity would work to preserve when fern fronds carpeted theater floors, and how it would bind them to the world and one another. Maslow’s hierarchy has been rearranged, with “self-expression” placed slightly above “shelter.” The Traveling Symphony’s tagline is chalked over the sides of their converted pickup trucks: “Because survival is insufficient.” (It’s from a Star Trek episode, and it’s remembered with the same reverence as Shakespeare.) Most postapocalyptic, post-pandemic, post-the-world-is-fucking-collapsing stories revolve around survival. “But who will die?” we wonder as we watch, our fingers wiggled. Station Eleven is concerned about death, but it sees it as a marker, part of the narratives that people create to explain how they came to be where they are. Because people die, we invent stories.
And it’s here that “Station Eleven” shifts from a story about a panoply of pain to one about a fiction that loops together survival narrative traditions and sprinkles them with joyous, crazy fairy dust. It argues that life is intense and heady and that turning off elevators and email opens up a vast void to be filled with spontaneous dirges and unapologetically artistic pursuits. “Station Eleven” is a work of great art about the disaster in and of itself because it recognizes the kind of art that would endure and memorialize a disaster.
The fine arts, which you might get supplies for at Blick or B&H, are all but extinct. Commodity art is scarce, which is why the Museum of Civilization exists, “a location that honors human civilization and the past” — though we still don’t know what’s in its cases by the third episode. However, the art of tongues, brows, strides, and embraces is entirely accessible. The Traveling Symphony solely performs Shakespeare’s works, which are considered “the best” of what the world has to offer. However, a hanger-on named Dan stands up in front of the actors and crew for his (third) audition for the group and gives it his all with President Whitmore’s speech from the 1996 film Independence Day. “Good morning, everyone. Aircraft from here will join others from around the world in less than an hour. You will also be initiating the largest aerial combat in human history.” It’s the kind of cultural popcorn kernel that gets caught in your teeth so regularly that you remember it 20 years later, like the Stouffer’s ad jingles (“Nothing comes closer to home”) or the commercial-break music for Sunday NFL games.
The song choices give hints of the show’s utterly spasmodic delight. Parliament’s “Give Up the Funk” comes bursting through immediately after Dan’s banger of an audition — first as a soundtrack, then out of the wide bell of a tuba one Symphony member plays as the ensemble rolls into its next stop.
It’s reflected in the clothing, both on and offstage. Flair isn’t an evolutionarily sound aesthetic decision in that type of setting, hence postapocalyptic series frequently revert to the utterly practical when it comes to clothing. The members of the Symphony, on the other hand, appear to be a wild band of anthropomorphic zoo animals; the tuba player, for example, is dressed in cargo shorts, sneakers, and a button-down, but he also wears a disintegrating straw fedora with a giant faux flower and what appears to be a tin-can garland around it. Alex’s jorts are embellished with sequins and tulle that cascade down either side. One of the characters will later wear a bouncy patchwork denim shrug that defies logic. It doesn’t keep her warm, and it’s inconvenient to eat in; she just likes it.
That craziness isn’t just for fun. The Gertrude and Claudius of the Symphony’s Hamlet cast are piled high with lace — most likely old curtains and tablecloths plucked from the homes of the deceased — that add to their characters’ folly; they appear as pompous and overstuffed as they act. A grown-up Kirsten (Mackenzie Davis) dresses as Hamlet in layers of puffy coats cinched at the waist, with additional filled arms coming from her back like an inside-out octopus. It’s intentionally eye-catching: Claudius observes in Act 1, Scene 2 that “clouds still linger on” Hamlet since he is dressed in grief three months after his father’s death, and she recites that speech. It would be easy for the Symphony to just dress their Hamlet in a stolen black suit, but they opt for grandeur: Hamlet’s grief is just as large and enormous as theirs. He’s the dark cloud.
The series dramatically alters the Symphony’s choice of performance (in the novel, they perform A Midsummer Night’s Dream). Hamlet, a story about a child grieving for their parent and erecting emotional barriers to avoid moving on to a new and more perilous normal, hits all the appropriate notes. Kirsten performs a Hamlet monologue as beautiful and riveting as any at a posh London theater on candlelight, improvised stage in a tentpole village near the Great Lakes, with attendees seated in tatty lawn chairs. The show turns the calamity of a mass-extinction event into an individual tragedy — for us, for Kirsten, and for the audience in the lawn chairs — by interspersing Hamlet’s insistence that his grief is personal and not culturally mandated (“But I have that within which passeth show; / These but the trappings and the suits of woe”) with young Kirsten staring at her phone in shock as she reads that her parents are two of the billions dead.
The Kirsten in Mandel’s novel has no recollection of the year following the epidemic, whereas the Kirsten in the performance has an abundance. If she scored a role in a spectacular production starring a Hollywood celebrity at the age of 8, she was probably a good actor; at 28, that bank of experiences is kept just beyond a door she may swing open at will. It also helps that, other than her acting, the only thing or person that connects her to her previous existence is a piece of art depicting someone isolated from the world he recalls.
The comic book “Station Eleven” is hardly described by Mandel, but the series’ version is lavish and full of color: a whole palette of deep marine blues, full-page bleeds of blackness. It’s a piece of connective fibrous tissue, a hand-painted object of limited production that hasn’t been forgotten despite its relative valuelessness in a world without capitalism. Kirsten is coloring in the pre-pandemic theater when she sees it for the first time. She’s an adult stretched on a mountainside at the end of the episode, posing uncannily like the grasping, paralyzed figure in Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World, stroking the now-crinkled pages. A talisman, if you will.
Kirsten relates best with some paint and words on a page, printed out at a small copy shop and never distributed, twenty years later, surrounded by individuals who understand the specific, unusual horror of living through the apocalypse. It’s hers, and it’s lovely, and it bridges a gap that’s been there for a long time.