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It's Time to Watch Station Eleven (If You Somehow Still Haven't)

Winter break is hereby rechristened Station Eleven season, for those with an HBO Max login.

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Mackenzie Davis in HBO's adaptation of Station Eleven.
Ian Watson/HBO Max

In early 2020, before the lockdown, before the coronavirus even had a name, the passengers and crew aboard the cruise ship Diamond Princess began a two-week quarantine off the coast of Japan. I remember telling a friend the world was starting to feel like Station Eleven. Life imitating art. 

One of the most memorable and haunting images of Emily St. John Mandel's 2014 speculative novel Station Eleven is not a cruise ship but an airplane. An airplane meeting tarmac, slowing to a stop and sitting dormant without opening its doors or releasing its passengers, sealing the infection inside. It is Schrödinger's airplane, its passengers already ghosts before they die. 

Then, in late 2021, the wildly popular before-times novel became an after-times HBO Max original limited series. Instead of COVID-19, Station Eleven's world is devastated by the Georgia Flu. Its story of collapse and rebirth returned to find an audience that may well have been too weary to tune to dystopian speculation for entertainment. Because in the after times, Station Eleven reminds me of the early pandemic, instead of the other way around: grocery hoarding, overrun emergency rooms, face masks. Art imitating life. 

A year after its HBO debut, I find myself still thinking about Station Eleven, the way I often think about rewatching the same Christmas movies year after year. So if 2021 was too soon for you to want to watch a pandemic show, or if you just never got around to streaming it, now's the time.

The first death we see in Station Eleven is not from the flu: Movie star Arthur Leander (Gael García Bernal) is playing the titular role in a stage production of King Lear. Child actor Kirsten Raymonde (Matilda Lawler, played as an adult by Mackenzie Davis) watches Arthur succumb to a heart attack while audience member Jeevan Chaudhary (Himesh Patel) interrupts the show to perform CPR. Arthur dies on stage. Soon, almost everyone in the theater will be dead, too.

The fictional plague is both more deadly and more contagious than COVID-19, killing some 99% of Earth's population in a matter of weeks. Those who survive become unwitting actors on a post-apocalyptic stage where there are no doctors, no countries, no supply chain, no internet, no celebrities, a world where luck and fate pick who lives or dies, and children learn to kill or be killed. 

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Matilda Lawler as young Kirsten.

Parrish Lewis/HBO Max

"I remember damage," Kirsten repeats 20 years later, quoting a comic book called Station Eleven given to her by Arthur before his death. Kirsten has improbably survived the pandemic and joined The Traveling Symphony, a roving Shakespeare troupe, spreading art and culture from the before times to a Great Lakes region that's now dotted with small settlements of survivors coexisting in relative harmony, but with an ever-thrumming baseline of danger. 

Civilization in a post-pandemic world

The plot unfurls across not only timelines but characters, and Kirsten's comic book is the port key that reveals the tangled web we weave -- the six degrees of separation, the missed connections, the "what a small world!" coincidences. The world of Station Eleven is small, the ensemble cast like that of a late-career Garry Marshall film

We jump from the before to the during to the after; between Kirsten and Jeevan and Arthur; and also Arthur's first wife Miranda (Danielle Deadwyler), his second wife Elizabeth (Caitlin FitzGerald), their son Tyler (Julian Obradors) and his good friend Clark (David Wilmot). We see how this interconnectivity both creates and dismantles civilization. It is this same connectedness that allows a virus to proliferate, after all.

One of the most unsettling COVID-era catchphrases is "new normal." And while the screen adaptation of Station Eleven concerns itself more with the immediate aftermath of the collapse than the novel does, it's still primarily a story of rebuilding normalcy. Not only do people continue to perform Shakespeare in the after times, but they fall in love, they give birth, they go swimming, they read comic books and they curate museums. Strangers become family. Stranded airport denizens become a community. The world is as different between Year 20 and Year One as it was between Year One and "pre-pan."

In this way, Station Eleven depicts not the end of the world -- not a before and after -- so much as the inflection point of general systems collapse, a theory that posits more of a cyclical pattern, a waxing and waning of societal complexity throughout history. (Sally Rooney's 2021 novel Beautiful World, Where Are You also references this theory.) Our infrastructure is tenuous in its complexity, a fact we've grappled with in real life amid supply chain disruptions and the coining of "essential worker." So it's somewhat comforting to look at collapse through the lens of business as usual.

A contemporary soundtrack does the heavy lifting for the series' point about continuity, and every recognizable song is a reminder that this unfamiliar world isn't as far removed as we'd like it to be. Unlike the novel, in which Kirsten's memories of Year One have been lost, Davis' Kirsten remembers so vividly that she essentially lives in both timelines at once, even returning to the early collapse and conversing with her younger self in a fever dream. Her performances are animated by her grief, and the series seems to say that art is not just a consolation prize, but a gift. Perhaps Station Eleven is not even dystopian then, but a somber grasp at utopia.

Adapting Station Eleven for the small screen

The project of any book-to-screen adaptation is to recapture the magic of the original using the tools of the new medium. And showrunner Patrick Somerville (of Netflix's Maniac) achieves this goal deftly, bringing to life some of Mandel's most indelible images -- the ghost plane, the horse-drawn pickup trucks, the failure of the electrical grid -- while amplifying some of the book's quieter moments. The adaptation turns Jeevan and Kirsten's chance encounter into the series' emotional hinge, a revision that seems so fitting I had to double-check it wasn't in the source material.

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Himesh Patel and Matilda Lawler as Jeevan and young Kirsten in Station Eleven.

Parrish Lewis/HBO Max

The biggest change in HBO's adaptation is the treatment of the prophet (Daniel Zovatto), whose simple villainy in the novel fuels the plot and provides the stakes in Year 20. Here, his "there is no before" belief system is more enigmatic and empathetic, and thus, frankly, more interesting. This version of the prophet is understandably more attractive to Kirsten, too, battling with the preservationist ideology behind the Museum of Civilization. Even post-collapse, human culture finds its footing astride the conservative and the radical, and the prophet reminds me of the burn-it-all-down, can't-go-back-to-normal rhetoric of our current pandemic, where systemic inequality is finally foregrounded in the cultural conversation. 

Still, the miniseries is quieter than a lot of viewers will expect, given the premise and genre, and by complicating the prophet, the story loses a bit of its momentum. Tonally, moments of lightheartedness can feel dissonant and even cringey, like the message of hope is a pill the actors couldn't quite swallow. Perhaps the adaptation would have felt different if it had arrived earlier within our own pandemic, but of course it was the pandemic that delayed filming.

The Traveling Symphony's mantra is "because survival is insufficient." As a piece of culture in a post-COVID world, the HBO miniseries took up this mantra itself, a reminder of dystopian fiction's raison d'etre. It's why everyone started streaming Contagion and reading Camus in 2020. Even when the bubonic plague shuttered Shakespeare's Globe Theater, the show went on. Art has its own survival instinct.