It’s impossible to separate Station Eleven from the world it released into. Yes, the novel on which it’s based was published in 2014. It was conceived and entered production before COVID-19 shut down the world (and the show). But the tv series about a handful of people scraping out life after a flu pandemic is too eerily similar to life as we know it in the second year of our own pandemic to unweave the anxiety, boredom, uncertainty, and sheer exhaustion the real and imaginary worlds share.
The extra weight isn’t fair to the show, but something tells me the people who made it aren’t grumbling about it. One of the things that roils under the surface of such times is the unfairness of it all, the maddening knowledge that this little unfeeling, unknowing string of genetic material unleashed such chaos. I mean, I had vacation plans for March 2020. I still haven’t gone on that vacation. What the hell, virus?
Considering we’re all trying to process both the annoying and deeply harmful ramifications of a pandemic, it’s fair to ask why anyone would want to watch a bunch of fictional characters doing the same. To its credit, and to the credit of art’s function in general, Station Eleven answers that with a hefty amount of grace. We will remember damage, to mangle a repeated line from the show. It’s cathartic to imagine what we will do with it.
For some people, they will perform Shakespeare. Much of the show follows the Traveling Symphony, a troupe of actors and musicians who circle the Great Lakes performing the Bard’s plays 20 years after the flu killed most of the human population. If that sounds nauseating, then you’re in luck. Those who made Station Eleven know just how off-putting overblown expressions of art’s power to heal and connect are, along with how off-putting dour, hopeless tales of doomed humanity are to us right now, and it threads the needle of discussing these and so many other things with a measured honesty that defies conventional storytelling, sometimes to its own disadvantage.
Remember how I mentioned the boredom of a pandemic? From my unscientific observations, the boredom of living through unprecedented times is what took us by surprise. Surviving a deadly virus involves a lot of isolation, of sitting in our homes and staring at the same walls and trying not to lose ourselves in all this unfilled time. Almost preternaturally, Station Eleven understands how large a factor this is in society’s demise, and it puts its characters (and its audience) through the monotony of disintegration.
Yeah, sometimes Station Eleven is boring. Sometimes it meanders and focuses on things that are unimportant. One guy golfs as the world ends. I mean, what are you supposed to do?
Watching the first half of Station Eleven is less an exercise in enduring a horrifyingly familiar scenario and more about sussing out why you’re watching what you’re watching. Episodes alternate between a sprawling cast of characters, taking on different perspectives as the world goes down and as it limps along twenty years later. It’s unlikely you’ll connect with all of them; One is a hapless guy who’s always around but is rarely useful (a subtly funny and heartbreaking Himesh Patel). Another is a wary thespian in the Traveling Symphony (Mackenzie Davis, never better). And then there’s an author, mostly seen in flashback but eventually getting her own episode, who self-publishes a graphic novel that two kids cling to with an almost dangerous ferocity (hopefully a star-making turn from Danielle Deadwyler). Many other distantly connected figures get their time as well, and when I say they get their time, I mean they get huge chunks of time devoted to them.
Most series would handle the sprawl by bouncing frenetically between the various storylines, but Station Eleven makes you sit with each one for entire episodes. These are largely self-contained stories, glimpses into corners of the world where everyone is trying out their own little methods of survival. Some are innocuous. Others ring with danger. Getting stuck with the former occasionally makes you long for the narrative drive of the latter. The latter will make you miss the detailed, often bizarre character beats of the former. It’s an odd effect, but one that condenses into a poignant observation about the vast, ever changing things people need to keep going.
Shakespeare? Of course. A karaoke machine with Lisa Loeb’s “Stay”? We all have heartbreak to let out. People we care about and who care about you? Well, you know.
The range of answers Station Eleven throws out for what becomes (stays?) important after such a tremendous amount of damage is unleashed feels impossible for a sluggish series to encompass, and yet it slowly, methodically makes you feel each one, be they small, silly things or ones that must be scraped and clawed for. And the kicker? That the show digs much deeper, unearthing truths so pure and true that you’ll feel better about our chances of making it through our own damage.