As we’ve learned from COVID-19, pandemics are slow and boring. Even a phrase as catastrophic-sounding as “lockdown” mostly consists of staying inside and endlessly refreshing news sites. The virus isn’t just deadly—it’s insidiously so; people don’t suddenly collapse in the middle of a supermarket, or fall face first into a bowl of soup à la “The Stand.” But that’s not the case in “Station Eleven,” HBO’s new miniseries based on the novel of the same name by Emily St. John Mandel. The flu that instigates “Station Eleven’s” ambitious story is not slow and boring. It’s both fast and deadly, two traits that are usually mutually exclusive to real-life viruses. One wonders how such a debilitating disease could possibly spread so fast—a question surely pondered by the world of “Station Eleven’s” doctors and scientists, before they all dropped dead.
“Wheel of Fire,” the pilot of “Station Eleven,” communicates this question in a series of stark visual contrasts. At several points during the episode, establishing shots suddenly “flash forward” 20 years. Streetlights and metal fences become makeshift trellises for massive ivy growths, a grand Chicago theater becomes a pigsty. The jump cuts appear before we are even made aware of the impending global collapse. Unsettlingly, we realize, before the world does, that these greenery-covered visions of an abandoned Chicago are an inevitability. It’s simple, but quite effective.
Much like “The Stand’s” Captain Trips, “Station Eleven’s” flu is not so much a disease as much as it is an excuse to test our main characters in a new, clean-slate world. We flash-forward between the world of Station Eleven’s near-instantaneous collapse and a new world that’s slowly rising from the old one’s ashes. The question is simple: how does our cast adapt to the new world? What gets lost in the shuffle?
The starkness of these two worlds is exemplified in our two main characters, Jeevan Chaudhary and Kirsten Raymonde, who do not appear particularly well suited to the downfall of society. Kirsten is eight, and Jeevan, though thoroughly adul, is not exactly a survivalist: “I’m a reporter. Like a reporter, uh, a cultural critic slash…I don’t have a job,” he quips to Kirsten. They don’t even know each other until the night the world ends, and their introductions reek of cosmic coincidence. It’s another commonly-seen trope—a child left alone and an obligated adult.However, just like the jump cuts, we are drawn in by it. Some cliches are cliches for a reason.
While the story of the world’s collapse is actually a minor part of “Station Eleven’s” actual subject matter, the pilot does such a good job of depicting this apocalyptic vision that it’s all we want to see. It’s surprising, and perhaps a little frustrating, when we depart from that world and jump 20 years into the future. There’s an obvious purpose to the jump—it introduces us to a new world while leaving us uncertain of the fate of our main characters. We’re on the edge of our seat. hat happens to Jeevan and Kirsten? “Station Eleven” is withholding, much to the chagrin of inpatient viewers.
The post-apocalyptic, 20-years-in-the-future story that makes up much of Station Eleven’s runtime is quite the tonal shift from the comparatively action-packed pilot. It’s slower and more brooding. I’m reminded of “The Leftovers,” HBO’s underrated drama about grief. Just like in “The Leftovers,” characters will often sit around and murmur about the nature of grief, rebuilding the world and what should be preserved. That’s not a bad thing: the performances are consistent across the entire cast, particularly child actor Matilda Lawler. The cast elevates scenes that otherwise might slip into scenery chewing.
So, if “Station Eleven” is divided so starkly between the present and the 20-years-later, what strings connect the two stories? We have some crossover characters, but the thematic meat of their connection is found in one prop: the graphic novel “Station Eleven” that gives the miniseries its namesake. In the show, the novel exists as a passion project that is published just before the flu, with only five copies being printed. However, 20 years into the collapse of civilization, it takes on a quasi-biblical significance. Characters repeat lines ad nauseum and start cults to further proselytize survivors. At times, it feels a little MacGuffinesque, but is usually redeemed by the fact that “Station Eleven’s” central themes are channeled through this graphic novel, of the same name. Through it, we see how stories connect people across different worlds and times. By reading the book, characters in “Station Eleven” are able to connect with the 99.9 percent of humanity that died 20 years ago. In a beautiful sequence, a main character uses the novel to travel backwards in time, revealing key plot points that were previously hidden.
So much of “Station Eleven”’s strength is found in its theming, rendering it difficult to discuss without spoiling key details. The chief benefit of a miniseries is that it’s self-contained. Creator Patrick Summerville can tell the story he wants to tell without worrying about syndication or renewal battles. As such, “Station Eleven” is ludicrously tight in its theming and its execution, to the point that distinct departments like costume, hair and makeup, camera, and performance are unified perfectly in the effort to tell a specific, convincing story. It feels like the culmination of 20 years of HBO’s prestige television effort: a season of television that has as much focus and drive as a two hour movie.
Because of the unified nature of “Station Eleven’s” production, it’s hard to even critique specific aspects without revealing even more about the story. Broadly speaking, without spoilers, the cinematography is uniformly superb throughout the series. At this point, HBO viewers are so used to being spoiled in terms of visuals that this sort of professionalism seems par for the course. Shots are beautifully balanced, full of color and contain just enough composition and quirkiness to toe the line between utilitarian and art house. I also found my attention drawn to the costuming, which is so intricate as to be almost a little unrealistic for down-on-their-luck survivors. I suppose that when 99 percent of the population is dead, you’re free to pick through their closet.
There’s an inherent risk in the structure of “Station Eleven”: the risk that the viewer will value one story over another, and hence be annoyed when they are at odds with one another. As previously discussed, I found myself disappointed when episodes wouldn’t focus on Jeevan and Kirstin’s struggle to survive. You know what the show is doing, but the suspense sometimes keeps you from enjoying the execution. And when you’re waiting for the next flashback or flash forward, the unhurried nature of the cinematography and script can seem a little indulgent, rather than atmospheric. But that’s a problem endemic to most prestige television, dating all the way back to “The Sopranos”—was anyone really all that interested in Meadow’s dating life?
I admire shows that don’t spread themselves too thin. Shows that focus on a few central characters and themes usually surpass those that have too many story goals and end up achieving none of them. “Station Eleven” is remarkably far reaching in terms of plot: its story spans 20 years, many communities and the entirety of Lake Michigan. But it is thematically laser-focused, which allows it to span these distances without collapsing in on itself. The result is a cinematic sleight of hand. What appears to be a broad post-apocalyptic epic ends up being the story of a few characters and how they survive a worldwide pandemic. And maybe in an era defined by a worldwide pandemic, we can take solace in the fact that these characters are soldiering on, same as us.