Station Eleven’s finale found a golden edge in the post-apocalypse

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

Halfway through Station eleven Pilot Jeevan Chaudhary gets a panic attack as he realizes that the world is changing permanently. His sister Siya, who works at a hospital, has warned him to seek shelter, find his brother Frank and barricade himself indoors. Jeevan goes to the grocery store – with the young actress Kirsten, for whom he has become an unintentional babysitter – and loads several carts full of food. While differentiating himself by checking out the purchases, the lone cashier asks him if the flu is worth worrying about. Jeevan asks the clerk, in clear terms, to go home.

I still remember my last grocery round before mask, an impulse ride to Ralphs to fill up on the essentials. I have 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 was not busy, and people looked at me strangely as I made my mountain of purchases – and snatched goods with the fatalistic hubris that I would be forced to eat them, which means I have beans in an amount that I’m still working through.

I have not seen any kind of fictional pandemic media since March 2020 – at a time when friends and family were concerned about the impact of a few months quarantine. Now it’s the third year of the pandemic: the number of Omicron variants is rising, the US COVID-19 test infrastructure has exploded and hospitals are overburdened. Looking at Station eleven under these circumstances, equal parts are punishment and a breath of fresh air. It’s the closest thing I’ve seen to living on the knife edge of despair and hope for the past two years – an elegy to grief and to living beyond survival.

HBO Max Station eleven adapts Emily St. John Mandel’s Arthur C. Clarke Award-winning 2014 novel of the same name for a limited series of 10 episodes. Almond apocalypse is the result of an influenza that has no incubation period and causes almost immediate death. (The fear of this is only clearer after months of learning periods for incubation periods for COVID variant strains, in the process of examining which tests can be trusted, at which times after exposure). A handful of societies rise out of these horrors and make their way forward in the ruins of a now defunct society.

Kirsten (a young girl) stands next to a row of shopping carts filled with food while Jeevan pulls them through a snow-covered parking lot.

Photo: Parrish Lewis / HBO Max

The show does penetrating work of this source material and traces the lives of different people. There’s Kristen, the young girl who has been 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 – who performs plays around the Great Lakes on a path they call “The Wheel.” There are people at Severn City Airport in Michigan, a diverted flight that turned into a long-term community of survivors. As in Mandel’s novel, the lives of these people are intertwined. Their connections become apparent during the show, as episodes change time and subject, between the more immediate collapse of society and life 20 years later.

This rhythm is an effective departure from the book’s storytelling, and sets different timelines in more consistent conversation with each other. The show made 1st act, scene 2 monologue from Hamlet Hamlet is still dressed in grief over his father, three months later – over the scene with a child who received a text message from a morgue. It weaves scenes where a character dies instantly, along with scenes where the character is still alive, across one episode – often using similar framing techniques to create the impression that the pandemic is always at any point in its beginning. , that each character lives in a liminal space where they are both alive and dead, both bodily and not. These mixed timelines give actors space to carry out the fear, frugality, and cruelty required to survive, across several points in their lives. It’s the show’s indulgence, and with any other subject it could have read as tacky or as naive camp.

IN Station eleven the effect is suffocating, claustrophobic and persistent, just as the flu is always happening, always happening, always just happening. It’s a lot like living through the last two years where the ground under your feet keeps moving. The rules for what we know about whether the pandemic is changing and what is considered safe or unsafe are constantly evolving. Only the confusing feeling of loss remains consistent: loss of routine or the joy of being with other people, loss of faith, loss of life.

Jeevan and Kirsten (as children) hold each other's hands and walk 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 that kind of critically beloved status as Mandel’s novel. Many of the gripping images in Station eleven‘s opening episodes have analogues from real life. There is the constant vigilance against illness, and in that moment you realize that the people around you – the busy substance of the crowd on public transport, the friends in your apartment – are becoming a potential threat.

The show’s post-apocalyptic world never ceases to feel real. Beautiful, lush cinematography gives scenes a sense of contemporaneity – and resists the gloomy tones that often mark the apocalypse genre. While the traveling Shakespeare troupe rounds The Wheel and performs at various camps, their horses pull “carts” that are, in fact, old pickup trucks. Costumes are made from saved materials. Sumptuous, well-stocked buildings – an old country club, a sprawling airport – become hubs from which society sprouts. “Pre-pan” members (those who were alive before the pandemic) explain artifacts of technology to “post-pan”. There were phones and one could use them to find anyone and look everything up; you could save all of Shakespeare’s plays on them. Many of these artifacts of civilization feel more and more junky as the Scottish tape that holds the infrastructure together peels off.

COVID-19 has revealed the flaws in the US infrastructure. There is the absolute pressure on hospital staff – even more strained after two years – and other important workers, many of whom found themselves branded as “heroes” and yet lack meaningful work protection. There is a lack of support for working parents and more generally working people who need to find a way to pay rent and feed their families. We are moving forward, even though living under capitalism in the late stages increasingly feels like an achievement that cannot continue. We continue to work because we have no other choice, which affects normality, even though things are radically difficult.

The show’s finale aired near the biennial of the first COVID case discovered in the United States; even though much has changed, it’s just as scary to think about how much has remained the same. Today’s life is as inflexible as ever, the indifference of capitalism to an already established norm. In the third section of Station eleven, Miranda Carroll (Danielle Deadwyler) travels to Malaysia to pitch an opportunity for a working partnership in the logistics industry. Earlier that day, she finds out she is trapped there as the flu goes around the country. She also learns that her ex-husband – the man she loved and left, who has since remarried and had a son – has died on stage. Nevertheless, she participates in 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 released from a bus at Station Eleven

Photo: Warrick Page / HBO

Station eleven is overshadowed by this trauma. Each person’s story is attacked from so many directions that it feels like looking at them through a kaleidoscope, breaking their experiences through the context of their entire personality and their entire grief. But it is just as concerned with what it means to do more than to survive – grief is an endless condition, one we must find ways to live with, if never moves beyond.

People find different ways to cope. They lie to protect themselves, they lie to give others the dignity of hope. They get cooler, they get nostalgic. They carry these heavy burdens, they continue to wake up every day. Kirsten becomes fiercely protective of her found family in the traveling symphony and uses various knives for self-defense, as the show flashes like Chekov’s weapon. Older timers cling to the memory of civilization as it was before. The survivors who form an enclave at Severn City Airport create a museum where pre-pan technology is displayed. One of the series’ primary antagonists, “The Prophet”, uses most of it Station eleven insists on erasing the past.

From this compulsion grow the seeds of life: a Shakespeare troupe, a large box transformed into a maternity ward, Severn City Airport’s interim classroom where children are taught. Station eleven is the rare piece of pandemic media that dwells less on the heroism of a solution, or the excitement of a core issue, and more on the idea of ​​community persistence and the creation of art. Although the series creates several interchangeable connections between the characters, much of its plot is left open. The show’s vignettes act more like a collage that conveys emotional tones. “Survival is inadequate” is more than a mantra painted on the side of the troupe’s chariot. It is a thread that binds episodes together; it’s a reason to stay alive at all.

Have I had it the same way in the last two years? While I have been going on my little silly walks, tried picnicking in the park and busy a dozen or so quickly abandoned hobbies. Joy has felt accessible, if it was distant, every brief moment a kind of ecstatic reminder of what it felt like to move more freely, worry less about the people in my life. I have struggled for the last two years trying to create emotional distance – between myself and others, between myself and myself – although in the end I have only found relief by making new friends where I can, even though I have struggled to see the friends and family that I care about the most. I still get time to read and write, though I can not say if there is any point other than sticking to what feels normal and gathering my feelings in the medium that has always made the most sense to me .

As Station eleven‘s society is slowly rebuilding, art remains worthwhile; however, true to Shakespeare’s concerns, art also survives many of the series’ characters. For the traveling troupe, the performance remains a reason to keep going; or a way to make sense out of a horrible situation. The airport community curates their museum and processes the losses of the past. Miranda writes the graphic novel Station eleven (the book of the show in a book) to make sense of losing his family. For Kirsten and Jeevan – whose relationship contains the heart of the show in the microcosm – art ends up promoting their unlikely reunion. These lucky survivors are finally given the opportunity to say goodbye on their own terms, this time it can only be temporary to know goodbye. That seems to be reason enough to hope.

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