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Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of War of the Worlds is about an alien invasion and its chaotic aftermath, but it remains perhaps the best depiction to date of the confusion and paranoia that set in after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
It’s the nature of art that the best representation of something unfathomable is rarely the most direct representation (I’m looking at you, “Isaac and Ishmael” episode of The West Wing). It’s why my favorite piece of art tied to the past 20 months is the first finale of HBO’s How To With John Wilson, a half-hour about basic human kindness and connection that only becomes about COVID-19 in its last 10 minutes.
HBO Max’s new limited series Station Eleven does an often potent job of splitting the difference between depicting and evoking a global catastrophe that will invariably be compared to our current pandemic, even if the Emily St. John Mandel novel it’s based upon was published in 2014. Patrick Somerville’s 10-episode adaptation occasionally mines the visceral terror of a society in the midst of a burgeoning flu and it wouldn’t be unjustified for that to scare some viewers off. But Station Eleven is much more about contemplating the aftermath, delving into notions of healing and how much any “new normal” should resemble the old. On the page, it’s a frequently ephemeral theme, one that has maybe been over-articulated for the screen, without necessarily draining the story of its power.
The series begins in Chicago at a production of King Lear that ends in tragedy. Well, all productions of King Lear end in tragedy, but this one is onstage, as leading man Arthur Leander (Gael Garcia Bernal in a glorified cameo) has a heart attack. The only person in the audience to try to help is Jeevan (Himesh Patel), who reacts on reflex, but without any medical expertise. In the chaos, Jeevan takes one of the young actresses in the cast (Matilda Lawler’s Kirsten) under his wing, a temporary bit of babysitting that becomes full-on guardianship when a fast-spreading, 99.99 percent lethal virus pushes Chicago and society to the brink of ruin.
Years later, Kirsten (now Mackenzie Davis) is part of the Traveling Symphony, a roaming band of musicians and thespians led by the Conductor (a nicely eccentric Lori Petty) and performing the works of Shakespeare in a circuit of survivor communities. The troupe’s motto is “Survival Is Insufficient,” which refers in micro to the need to protect and perpetuate art, to maintain a grasp on commonly accepted sources of beauty and inspiration.
But in a larger sense, the Traveling Symphony and Station Eleven are preoccupied with questions of what comes next. Is it enough to keep playing Hamlet because we’ve agreed for centuries that Hamlet is important? If Hamlet is integral to civilization, but civilization meant technological debris, environmental ruin and the isolation of modernity, should we be rebuilding on that foundation or coming up with something fresh? The connection between past and dystopic present is presented in poetic fashion, slipping backward and forwards in time, by pilot director Hiro Murai.
This might not sound like much by way of “plot,” and I’m not sure it would hook you any further to say that there is a mysterious cult leader named The Prophet who seems to be targeting the Traveling Symphony — nor to say that there’s a differently mysterious Museum of Civilization that is trying to lure the Traveling Symphony. And it would probably only confuse you to mention that the book and show’s title comes from a mysterious graphic novel that everybody finds fascinating for elusive reasons. The hypnotic quality of the comic — which I think is mostly there to create a throughline of populist artistic forms, capable of providing both escapism and resonant subtext, that the new society must decide whether to embrace or reject — isn’t presented any more convincingly here than in the book.
Mandel’s book isn’t heavy on narrative, but it builds a series of satisfying reveals out of jumping around through decades and selectively filling in surprisingly relationships between seemingly unconnected characters. It’s a weaving structure that is very literary. Somerville smartly plays to the strength of his medium, wisely combining certain threads and separating out some of the storylines into standalone episodes.
These showcase episodes, giving interiority to myriad supporting players (repeated references to Hamlet benchwarmers Rosencrantz and Guildenstern aren’t coincidental), along with the pervasive blend of grief and hopefulness, give Station Eleven a very Lindelofian feel — plenty logical since many of the writers, including Somerville, Nick Cuse and Cord Jefferson, have The Leftovers, Watchmen or both on their resumés. They’re also the show’s best episodes, including a focal episode for Danielle Deadwyler’s Miranda, creator of the Station Eleven comic, and a near-bottle episode following Jeevan, Jeevan’s brother Frank (Nabhaan Rizwan) and Young Kirsten in the first days after the pandemic.
Carrying the show through at all times is the strong ensemble, starting with Davis, who by rights should be a megastar after Halt and Catch Fire, the “San Junipero” episode of Black Mirror and Tully. She’s an actress of heartbreaking openness, wearing every emotion on her sleeve, and there’s a comforting serenity to how she presents the role of an actor in this damaged post-pandemic world, as almost therapist and patient at once. Remarkably, Davis is giving the show’s second-best performance as Kirsten, with Lawler’s precocious maturity never feeling excessively studied. The two actresses and two versions of Kirsten even play beautifully off of each other in one episode.
Like any good theater troupe, Station Eleven achieves a fine balance between the actors you’ll recognize — Caitlin FitzGerald and David Wilmot are very strong, though they’re both hampered by some mediocre aging effects as the show goes along — and lesser-known co-stars.
As Station Eleven moves toward its conclusion, you can sense Somerville losing confidence in the ability of the source material’s looseness to work for TV. He starts filling in blanks that didn’t need to be filled in, adding subplots that overexplain things Mandel left ambiguous and repeating certain weighty chunks of dialogue like a musical refrain, shutting down a lot of the openness of meaning that made the book so poignant. There are some choices in the last couple of episodes, especially in the soundtrack, that I found irritatingly on-the-nose, thought to the show’s credit, none of the decisions violate the spirit or meaning of the book. They just make everything obvious.
Station Eleven is made harder to watch because it has an immediacy that wasn’t there in the same way in 2014. Still, the series doesn’t wallow in conspicuous coughing or unavoidable corpses, capturing instead the ominousness of a world on the brink of irreparable change and the angst and optimism that go with facing that world as a blank slate.
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