I’m the first to call out the limited tv series with a non-linear narrative which simply serves to make a by-the-numbers plot seem more complex than it is. It’s the classic, “What can we do to make this shit interesting?” trope, a lazy fallback for the kind of undemanding tv likely to be striped across summer weeknights on ITV when there’s little else on.
Station Eleven is not that kind of tv show, though it does have the same kind of non-linear narrative as the book which acts as its source. In Station Eleven, non-linear storytelling is not there to trick you into thinking this is interesting, or to conceal an obvious ending from a jaded audience. Here, non-linearity is the whole point, because memory is non-linear, and past and present set up house together in our brains, each housemate starting to resemble the other, like Jennifer Jason Leigh and Bridget Fonda in Single White Female.
Time and space collapse together like cards in a slick deal, and the memories play out in random order, one triggering another. A person steps through a doorway and emerges thousands of miles and five years away.
The biggest shame about this is that this popular book has been adapted – really well – for tv, but here in the UK it is available only on Starzplay*, which is one of the minor streaming services, and perhaps a technical step or a click too far for many people. The original US network (just a month ago) was HBO Max, but for some reason Sky Atlantic (often the home for HBO shows) didn’t pick it up.
Warning: I make no attempt to avoid spoilers here. There’s no point with a narrative like this
The premise of Station Eleven ought to be familiar by now, though it’s really hard to set down, mainly because non-linearity is baked into it. There’s a pandemic and most people die. That’s the set up. This “Georgia Flu” is actually far too deadly to ever be as successful as it is. That’s beside the point, but a reminder that this is fiction and not a gritty re-enactment of the past two years. This isn’t one of those worthy two-handers set in a care home and supposed to make you angry. It’s really just a plot device to end this civilisation, the one we’re in. The one with an over dependence on mobile phones, in which people are alienated from themselves and from each other, a world in which we have such a surfeit of stuff that we’re unable to appreciate the things that really matter. In the novel, we jump 20-some years into the future, into a society transformed by the loss of 99% of the population, and we encounter the new world in the company of The Traveling Symphony, a rag-tag caravan of actors and musicians, who perform Shakespeare for the leftovers.
I mention The Leftovers, because the showrunner of this adaptation of Station Eleven was one of the writers of that earlier show, which featured timeline in which a mere 2% of the population simply disappeared, leaving everybody else behind to pick up the pieces and ask questions. Spoiler ahead: the big payoff of the show was that there was another timeline in which 98% of the population disappeared.
So here we are. Station Eleven: 99% of humanity has gone, which means that the vast technological underpinnings of our society no longer function and people have to discover a new way to survive. On the one hand: plenty of space. On the other: survival is insufficient.
But to suggest that there is a pandemic and then 20 years later here we are is to really miss the point. Because the point is that, for many people, there was life before, and there was the first two years, and then there was after that. And for others, younger, there is no before.
You’ll read in the publicity for this show that the tv series makes some changes to the detail of the novel. Well, of course it does. And on the other hand, not. For me, right from the day I first saw the trailer, this show felt as if it was going to capture the atmosphere of the book perfectly. And it does. Sure, there are some differences in plot and where characters go and when, but the feel of it is the same.
Jeevan Chaudhary (Himesh Patel) is at the theatre when the lead actor Arthur Leander (Gael García Bernal) collapses on stage. In the confusing aftermath of this sudden death, he realises that nobody is looking after Kirsten (Matilda Lawler), a child actor who was on the stage when Arthur collapsed.
See, it’s already complicated enough without throwing in the nonlinear storytelling. But here we are. We’ve already seen the abandoned and ruined theatre, overgrown with vegetation, 20 years later. And we keep seeing shots of locations as they have changed, 20 years after the world ended.
Jeevan tries to get Kirsten home, but ends up taking her to his brother’s flat. They’ve stocked up on essentials from the supermarket, and they hole up and wait.
20 years later, no sign of Jeevan, but Miranda (Mackenzie Davis) has found The Traveling Symphony. Playing Hamlet one night on stage, her memories of the first days of the pandemic are triggered.
Meanwhile, we learn that Arthur Leander, earlier that day, had met up with his ex wife, Miranda (Danielle Deadwyler), a woman who works in shipping but who has a side project in the form of a graphic novel she has been working on for years. She gives a copy of the finished book to Arthur, who apparently passes it on to Kirsten. Miranda then flies to Malaysia, where she learns that the pandemic has started.
In the future, Kirsten still has the graphic novel, and then is disturbed when a creepy guy with an unconvincing back story quotes a line from it.
Quotes from this graphic novel are important. Sometimes Miranda’s voice over is all quotes from it. And lines like, “Survival is insufficient”, or “I remember damage” also come from it. These gnomic sayings pepper the script like breadcrumbs, leading is into the past and the future.
The graphic novel is, of course, Station Eleven. Holed up in her hotel room in Malaysia, Miranda hears a knock on the door, and when she opens it a space-suited figure from the pages of her work appears, saying, “There is no rescue mission.”
Notes and observations
The casting is excellent. When I read the book I don’t suppose I pictured any of the characters properly (I don’t do that), but any feeling you might have had that all the characters are white, for example, quickly vanishes. Danielle Deadwyler is exactly right for the quietly observant and intensely creative Miranda; and McKenzie Davis really does remember damage as the older, and deeply traumatised Miranda.
Lighting. For months, I’ve been thinking there might be something wrong with my tv, as programme after programme plunged me into darkness so deep that I could see nothing on the screen but the reflection of light from the room I was in. Apple TV Plus’s Invasion was unwatchable, and I’ve had similar complaints about many other recent shows. Station Eleven is a well-lit show, and I can’t believe I just typed that sentence. It does not all take place in broad daylight, but the cinematographer has at least shown me people’s faces, even in the dark, even by firelight, because (and this is the point) you can go too far in your pursuit of “realism”. Even then, I would say, the human eye can adapt to the dark, so no scene in any tv show should remain so pitch black as to make details impossible to see. That’s not how sight works.
Music. After the performance of Hamlet, the Symphony sits in a circle and plays a song. I don’t know what the song was, but it was beautiful and perfect for the moment they were evoking.
Mise-en-scène: so good. Miranda, claustrophobic on a bus heading for the docks. A woman coughing. The space unbearably tight. She calls for the bus to stop. On the way down the steps to the boat she’s supposed to catch she gets the news that Arthur is dead and falls down the steps. Cut. Miranda, at home with Leander, from whom she is clearly already estranged. He is shown in an extreme long shot, far away from her across his pool area, a distant figure from Miranda’s p.o.v. at her studio in the pool house. Cut. The pool house on fire. Later: a dinner party at which it becomes clear that Arthur is having an affair. They’re sitting at opposite ends of a long table, which seems unnecessary because there aren’t that many people there. The space between them is the space between them. Cut. Outside, Miranda dangles her feet in the pool. Cut. Miranda packing a bag. Leaves. “The pool house is on fire,” she says.
It’s not just that it’s an adaptation of a wonderful book. It’s a wonderful tv show, period.
*So here’s how to get Starzplay. You’ll need to already be subscribing to Amazon Prime or Apple TV. Within those services, you will find additional Channels to which you can subscribe. Starzplay is a £4.99 monthly subscription within your subscription, a mise-en-abyme of subscriptions. There’s other stuff on there, if you care to look. Veronica Mars is good, as is Fringe. There are films, if you like that kind of thing. I don’t.
The first three episodes were released on Sunday – over a month after the programme first aired on HBO Max. I was determined to watch. My preference would be a Series Link, and pay just for the show and watch it forever. As it is, I’ll stick with Starzplay until the run is over and then cancel.