“Station Eleven” imagines a post-apocalyptic world that isn’t entirely based on violence, showcasing how other ideas have been realized.
In “Station Eleven”, the world comes to a close in a too realistic manner. A mutant influenza virus spreads rapidly around the world. Healthy people are infected by asymptomatic carriers, and once the disease has taken root, the death toll is high. Within days, the majority of the world’s population has died, infrastructure has begun to crumble, and isolated pockets of people have been left imprisoned, desperately trying to figure out how to survive.
The show then jumps forward 20 years to follow a group of post-apocalyptic survivors as they perform Shakespeare around Lake Michigan. It’s one of the most realistic images of what the end of the world would look like that I’ve ever seen in such media, in my opinion.
It’s also a representation from which comparable stories about the end of the world could learn a thing or two. I immediately thought of “The Last of Us“, another post-apocalyptic tragedy in which small groups of survivors fiercely cling to life after modern society has shattered, while I watched “Station Eleven”. While the core themes and intentions of Station Eleven and “The Last of Us” differ somewhat—at least based on the video games on which The Last of Us is based—the latter may benefit greatly from stealing some ideas from the former.
In fact, the best sections of “The Last of Us” are those that are most similar to “Station Eleven’s” best elements. It’s not the violent, action-packed set-pieces that tend to define the games, but rather the personal moments in which characters determine whether or not survival is worth all of this suffering in the first place.
“Station Eleven”, which can be seen on HBO Max, stands out among post-apocalyptic media because the environment it depicts appears to be devoid of people who wish to kill one other. That isn’t to say that there isn’t any violence in “Station Eleven”; there is. However, as previously said, this is also a narrative about a traveling Shakespeare troupe. Every year, the Traveling Symphony hits the road, performing in tiny towns across Michigan and Illinois. They’re not a group of battle-hardened killers; they’re a traveling theater troupe who are leery of outsiders and refuse to leave “the wheel,” their path of travel across the area that keeps them in familiar territory and stops them at safe communities. Every year, a group of performers and musicians schedule and keep performances, existing solely and exclusively to provide art and amusement to other people.
On stage, “Station Eleven” has some of its most emotional moments.
Despite the fact that “Station Eleven” depicts the breakdown of modern society, this scene feels quite true and natural. The narrative conveys the point that individuals in its society don’t just live in remote locations, hiding from deadly brigands and scraping by. They carry on as humans do; they take chances, travel, and devote their entire attention to human interests other than combat training. It alludes to civilization’s entire history, the majority of which resembled these post-apocalyptic realms far more than the massive interconnected cities we know today. Yes, some dangerous people seek to harm and steal from others. People, on the other hand, mostly just want to survive. They build villages and communities, work together to produce and hunt, tell stories and sing songs.
In comparison, much of what happens in “The Last of Us” games or related properties like The Walking Dead takes occur in the real world. Both of which, granted, are more hostile environments than “Station Eleven”, thanks to the presence of zombies in each. At the same time, both novels place a strong focus on protagonists discovering other survivors, who are virtually always hostile. Joel and Ellie carve a bloody way through what appears to be a hundreds-strong society of bandits whose sole purpose is to catch people, kill them, steal their belongings, and eat them in “The Last of Us”.
The trouble about this kind of end-of-the-world vision is that it seems to exult in presuming that the thin thread of societal regulation is all that keeps most people from going entirely crazy, from killing one another without hesitation over anything from a dearth of food to an injury to pride. These stories believe that if there were no laws, we’d all turn into monsters. While there are individuals on “Station Eleven” who believe this, the majority of people prefer to go the other way. They’d rather work together and support one another than hurt one another. In reality, the program begins with protagonist Kirsten striking a man she perceives as threatening, dubbed “the Prophet,” and this act of indiscriminate violence sets in motion a chain of tragic and unexpected events. It turns out that randomly murdering everybody who might pose a threat isn’t always a good idea.
The best parts of “The Last of Us” aren’t when Joel and Ellie murder bandit after bandit as they sneak through destroyed cities, racking up such a high body count that you start to hear the ambient dialogue between enemies wondering why they’re out there looking for these death incarnations who have wiped out tens of their friends. They’re the character moments where Ellie recalls playing an arcade game, Joel picks up a guitar and performs a sad song, and the two of them go to a museum together. “The Last of Us” games are known for their human moments, which are what make them so popular.
Between the relentless killing in “The Last of Us” games, the human moments are the finest.
To be clear, this isn’t an argument against violence in “The Last of Us”. The lengths to which people would go to ensure not just their own life, but also the survival of those they love, is central to the stories of the games, and I don’t believe that will alter with a TV adaptation. However, the requirements of a video game—namely, gameplay—allow for a lot of violence and a lot of nasty people, which aren’t present in a TV version. A show may create a bigger and more varied post-apocalypse than the game can because it is a new perspective on the world and tale.
In other words, not every character in “The Last of Us” doesn’t have to be a monster. Instead, it may represent a world where humans are human; where dangerous people exist, but many others realize they don’t need to be. Humanity’s history is one of people choosing to establish civilization—it isn’t something that happened to us, and hence isn’t something that hangs by a thread, ready to fall apart as soon as “the rules” are removed. If the creators of “The Last of Us” want their adaptation to be successful, they should bear this in mind.