HBO’s ‘Station Eleven’ follows the haunted survivors of a lethal pandemic

Even after practically two years, the worldwide pandemic we’re within the midst of hasn’t but impressed a serious work of drama or leisure. Maybe we shouldn’t count on it to. In spite of everything, the plagues of Shakespeare’s time and the flu pandemic of 1918, whereas they exerted sobering affect on the artwork of their respective ages, have been seldom if ever explicitly depicted in narrative fictions on the time.

The journey of many of the characters in “Station Eleven” is from self-protective emotional withdrawal to vulnerability and connection. 

That is comprehensible, in fact. Have audiences ever actually craved contemporaneous leisure concerning the on a regular basis tribulations they’re dealing with? However, the urge for food for apocalyptic fables a couple of world gone violently improper has at all times been robust, from “Oedipus Rex” to “The Strolling Lifeless.” That is true even when a plague isn’t upon us: Emily St. John Mandel’s novel “Station Eleven,” a speculative fiction a couple of lethal flu that immediately wipes out 99 p.c of the world’s inhabitants, was a bestseller in 2014. Many extra readers found it through the lockdowns of Covid-19, discovering in Mandel’s guide an eerie what-if portrait of a world a lot additional gone than ours, but nonetheless hearteningly resilient.

Nonetheless extra discovered it because of the exquisitely made HBO Max sequence that ran from December 2021 to early January of this yr. The recognition of each the novel and the sequence isn’t arduous to elucidate: Neither dwells in grisly element on the pandemic or its signs, as an alternative specializing in the determined straits of its haunted survivors in a world with out electrical energy, the web, air journey, even gas (gasoline reserves have gone stale). Each think about a world of makeshift settlements amid the deserted detritus of airports, house buildings and retail shops. Most crucially, the story revolves round an itinerant troupe of actors and musicians known as the Touring Symphony, who we discover, 20 years after the flu’s onset, wheeling a caravan round Lake Michigan, performing Shakespeare and giving orchestral live shows for small settlements. On one stage, “Station Eleven” presents a soothing meditation on the transcendent persistence of the Western cultural canon; it’s “Left Behind” for NPR listeners.

“Station Eleven” presents a soothing meditation on the persistence of the Western cultural canon; it’s “Left Behind” for NPR listeners.

That’s too dismissive, in fact. There are different ranges in “Station Eleven,” which toggles between a pre-flu world very very like our personal and the perils of an imagined future. It’s seen by the eyes of a handful of interconnected characters, all linked by a central determine, a shallowly charismatic film star named Arthur Leander. Like an augury of impending tragedy, on the eve of the flu’s arrival, Arthur dies of a coronary heart assault throughout a efficiency of “King Lear.” An viewers member named Jeevan, a wannabe paramedic, leaps onstage to assist him, to no avail. Additionally within the “Lear” solid is an 8-year-old, Kirsten Raymonde, whom Arthur had given a comic book guide known as “Station Eleven,” made by his ex-wife Miranda, that can change into a talisman for Kirsten within the post-flu years. Circling Arthur’s periphery are one other ex-wife, Elizabeth, with whom he has a troubled son, Tyler, and an outdated good friend, Clark, a Brit who has forsaken a punkish youth for company consulting.

That’s many of the central solid of each the guide and sequence. However Patrick Somerville’s TV adaptation has taken extraordinary and salutary liberties with Mandel’s unique. Most significantly, he has linked Jeevan and Kirsten, who barely meet within the guide, as an important duo. For a time they type a hardy trio with Jeevan’s brother, Frank, with whom they climate the flu’s preliminary devastation with a stockpile of provides in a high-rise house in Chicago. It’s Frank who utters what would be the sequence’ signature line; referring to the months of shivering subsistence and game-playing camaraderie with Kirsten and Jeevan, he says, “This unusual and terrible time was the happiest of my life.” For anybody who has spent the previous two years of isolation in extended proximity to a small group of family members, this assertion has a hoop of bittersweet reality.

The urge for food for apocalyptic fables a couple of world gone violently improper has at all times been robust.

The trajectory of the Jeevan-Kirsten bond offers the sequence a satisfying lengthy arc, because the grown-up Kirsten (performed with a compelling mournfulness by Mackenzie Davis) strives to construct a household of alternative together with her fellow performers however is clearly lacking a Jeevan-shaped piece of herself. She strikes in unlikely tandem with one other soul wounded by abandonment: Tyler, Arthur and Elizabeth’s son, who within the post-flu age turns into a self-styled prophet with a cult of feral kids. A much more sinister and distant determine in Mandel’s novel, the Tyler of the sequence (performed with quiet anguish by Daniel Zovatto) is likewise given a extra redemptive path.

This path to redemption runs by Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” which is the one play we see the troupe carry out, in excerpts which are vividly carried out and visually gorgeous. Considerably, an early efficiency options Kirsten within the lead position, during which she is visibly processing her grief, whereas a later iteration options Tyler because the Danish prince, as he works out his sophisticated resentments towards his mother and father and the pre-flu world they symbolize.

The throughline that throbs by the guide, and much more strongly by the sequence, is the sense that the way in which we reside and relate to one another now, amid the heedless abundance and seeming connectivity of a worldwide financial system, can really feel as alienated and inhuman as we would think about any post-apocalyptic hellscape to be. The world of ostensible consolation we see within the pre-flu instances of “Station Eleven” is strikingly bleak and empty, whereas the post-flu age is alive with particularity: the snort of a horse, the twang of a warped piano, the serendipitous fantastic thing about the Symphony’s found-art costumes.

Not that the post-flu instances of “Station Eleven” are idealized or rosy. Those that reside to the story’s finish are dogged by regrets and examined by painful classes. Certainly, the journey of many of the characters in “Station Eleven” is from self-protective emotional withdrawal, even in some instances misanthropy, to vulnerability and connection. We must always all be so lucky as to succeed in related knowledge with out the clarifying punishment of a plague.