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Kirsten and Alex walking together after a punk rendition of Hamlet in Station Eleven. Both are wearing costumes made from salvaged materials. Photo: Ian Watson/HBO Max

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Station Eleven found a silver lining in the post-apocalypse

If you watch one show about a pandemic, make it this

Nicole Clark (she/her) is a culture editor at Polygon, and a critic covering internet culture, video games, books, and TV, with work in the NY Times, Vice, and Catapult.

[Ed. note: This piece contains spoilers for Station Eleven.]

Midway through the Station Eleven pilot, Jeevan Chaudhary has a panic attack, as he realizes the world is about to permanently change. His sister Siya, who works at a hospital, has warned him to take shelter, to find his brother Frank and barricade themselves indoors. Jeevan goes to the grocery store — with young actress Kirsten, for whom he has become an accidental babysitter — and loads up numerous full carts of food. As he dissociates through checking out the groceries, the lone cashier asks him if the flu is worth worrying about. Jeevan tells the clerk, in no uncertain terms, to head home.

I still remember my last pre-mask grocery store run, an impulse trip to Ralphs to stock up on essentials. I’ve always fallen on the anxiety side of things, and one morning in the first week of March 2020, I decided to follow the impulses that screamed “better safe than sorry.” I took a sick day from work. It wasn’t busy, and people looked at me oddly as I made my mountain of purchases — grabbing items with the fatalistic hubris that I’d be compelled to eat them, which means I have beans in a quantity that I am still working through.

I haven’t watched any kind of fictional pandemic media since March 2020 — back when friends and family were worried about the impact of a few months of quarantine. Now it’s the third year of the pandemic: Omicron variant caseloads are rising, the American COVID-19 test infrastructure is busted, and hospitals are overburdened. Watching Station Eleven under these circumstances is equal parts punishment and a breath of fresh air. It’s the closest to anything I’ve seen that lives at the knife edge of despair and hope of the last two years — an elegy to grief and living beyond survival.

HBO Max’s Station Eleven adapts Emily St. John Mandel’s Arthur C. Clarke Award-winning 2014 novel of the same name into a 10-episode limited series. Mandel’s apocalypse results from a flu that has no incubation period and causes near-immediate death. (The horror of this is only clearer after months of learning incubation periods of COVID variant strains, in the process of researching which tests can be trusted at what times after exposure.) A handful of communities rise out of these horrors, making their way forward in the rubble of a now defunct society.

Kirsten (a young girl) standing next to a number of shopping carts full of food, as Jeevan hauls them through a snow-covered parking lot. Photo: Parrish Lewis/HBO Max

The show makes piercing work of this source material, tracking the lives of various people. There’s Kristen, the young girl orphaned by the pandemic, and Jeevan, the man who takes her in. There’s the traveling Shakespeare troupe — Kirsten has become an actress with them, years later — that performs plays around the Great Lakes in a path they call “The Wheel.” There are the people of Severn City Airport, in Michigan, a diverted flight that turned into a long-term community of survivors. As in Mandel’s novel, these people’s lives are intertwined. Their connections grow apparent over the course of the show, as episodes shift time and subject, between the more immediate collapse of society and life 20 years after.

This rhythm is an effective departure from the storytelling of the book, putting various timelines in more consistent conversation with each other. The show layers the Act 1, Scene 2 monologue from Hamlet — Hamlet is still dressed in mourning for his father, three months later — over the scene of a child receiving a text message from a morgue. It weaves together scenes where a character is dead immediately with scenes where that character is still alive, across one episode — often using similar framing techniques to create the impression that the pandemic is always at every point of its inception, that every character lives in a liminal space where they are both alive and dead, both corporeal and not. These mixed timelines give actors space to perform the fear, austerity, and grit required of survival across numerous points in their life. It’s the show’s indulgence, and with any other subject it might have read as tacky or like naive camp.

In Station Eleven the effect is suffocating, claustrophobic, and unrelenting, like the flu is always about to happen, always happening, always having just happened. It’s a lot like living through the past two years, where the ground underfoot keeps shifting. The rules of what we know about the pandemic change, and what is considered safe or unsafe is under constant evolution. Only the bewildering sense of loss remains consistent: Loss of routine or the pleasure of being around other people, loss of faith, loss of life.

Jeevan and Kirsten (as a kid) holding hands, walking in the snow Photo: Parrish Lewis/HBO Max

COVID-19 has turned the contemporary plague novel into a kind of predictive totem, though few have reached the kind of critical darling status as Mandel’s novel. Many of the poignant images in Station Eleven’s opening episodes have real life analogues. There’s the constant vigilance against sickness, and that moment you realize the people around you — the bustling fabric of the crowd on public transit, the friends in your apartment — become a potential threat.

The show’s post-apocalyptic world never stops feeling real. Beautiful, lush cinematography gives scenes a sense of contemporaneousness — resisting the dour tones that often mark the apocalypse genre. As the traveling Shakespeare troupe rounds The Wheel, performing at various encampments, their horses pull “wagons” that are in fact old pickup trucks. Costumes are made from salvaged materials. Lavish, well-stocked buildings — an old country club, a sprawling airport — become hubs from which community sprouts. “Pre-pan” members (those who were alive before the pandemic) explain artifacts of technology to the “post-pan.” There were phones, and you could use them to find anyone, and look up anything; you could store all of Shakespeare’s plays on them. Many of these artifacts of civilization feel increasingly frivolous, as the Scotch tape holding together infrastructure peels off.

COVID-19 has exposed the failures of that American infrastructure. There’s the absolute pressure on hospital staff — even more strained after two years — and other essential workers, many of whom found themselves labeled “heroes” and yet lack meaningful work protections. There’s the lack of support for working parents and, more broadly, working people, who need to find a way to pay rent and feed their families. We truck on, even as living under late-stage capitalism increasingly feels like a performance that cannot continue. We continue working because we have no other choice, affecting normalcy even as things are radically difficult.

The show’s finale aired near the two-year anniversary of the first COVID case being discovered in the United States; though much has changed, it’s just as frightening to consider how much has stayed just the same. Contemporary life is as inflexible as ever, the indifference of capitalism an already established norm. In the third episode of Station Eleven, Miranda Carroll (Danielle Deadwyler) travels to Malaysia to pitch a work partnership opportunity in the logistics industry. Earlier that day she learns she’s trapped there, as the flu makes its way across the country. She also learns her ex-husband — the man she loved and left, who has since remarried and had a son — has died on stage. Nonetheless, she attends the business pitch. What else is there to do.

“The man I loved died last night, and —” she says to the room, suppressing a sob. “The man I loved died last night, and I went to work. The man I love died last night, and I went to work instead.”

Miranda talks to Leon and demands to be let off a bus in Station Eleven Photo: Warrick Page/HBO

Station Eleven is shaded by this trauma. Each person’s story is approached from so many directions it feels like looking at them through a kaleidoscope, refracting their experiences through the context of their entire personhood, and the entirety of their grief. But it’s equally concerned with what it means to do more than survive — grief is a condition without end, one we must find ways of living with, if never moving beyond.

People find various ways to cope. They lie to protect themselves, they lie to give others the dignity of hope. They grow tougher, they grow nostalgic. They carry these heavy burdens, they continue to wake up each day. Kirsten becomes fiercely protective of her found family in the traveling symphony, and wields various knives for self-defense, which the show flashes as Chekov’s guns. Older timers cling onto the memory of civilization as it was before. The survivors who form an enclave in Severn City Airport create a museum where technology from pre-pan is put on display. One of the show’s primary antagonists, “The Prophet,” spends most of Station Eleven insisting on erasing the past.

From this state of duress grow the seeds of life: A Shakespeare troupe, a big-box store converted into a maternity ward, the Severn City Airport’s makeshift classroom where children are taught. Station Eleven is that rare piece of pandemic media that dwells less on the heroism of a solution, or the thrill of a core cause, and more on the idea of the persistence of community and the creation of art. Even as the show forges numerous circuitous connections between its characters, much of its plot is left open-ended. The show’s vignettes work out more like a collage that convey emotional tones. “Survival is insufficient” is more than a mantra painted on the side of the troupe’s wagon. It’s a thread that binds episodes together; it’s a reason to stay alive at all.

Have I felt the same way in the past two years? As I’ve gone on my silly little walks, attempted picnics in the park, and picked up a dozen or so quickly abandoned hobbies. Joy has felt available if distant, each brief moment a kind of ecstatic reminder of what it felt to move more freely, worry less about the people in my life. I’ve grappled with the past two years by trying to create emotional distance — between me and others, between me and myself — though ultimately I’ve only ever found relief in making new friends where I can, even as I’ve struggled to see the friends and family who I care most about. I still make time to read and write, though I can’t say if there’s any meaning beyond clinging to what feels normal, and collating my feelings in the medium that has always made the most sense to me.

As Station Eleven’s society slowly rebuilds, art remains worthwhile; though, true to Shakespeare’s anxieties, art also outlives many of the show’s characters. For the traveling troupe, performing remains a reason to keep going; or a way to make meaning out of a horrible situation. The airport community curates their museum, processing the loss of the past. Miranda writes the graphic novel Station Eleven (the show’s book within a book) to make sense of losing her family. For Kirsten and Jeevan — whose relationship contains the heart of the show, in microcosm — art ends up fostering their unlikely reunion. These lucky survivors finally get the opportunity to say goodbye on their own terms, this time knowing goodbye may only be temporary. That seems reason enough to hope.