My review of the novel is here.
My initial review of the TV series is here
My gushing about the soundtrack is here
You are here.
What is a person to do once they’ve finished watching Station Eleven? In my case, almost certainly read the book for the third time. And also, absolutely definitely, watch it again, from the beginning.
I can’t remember the last time I had this feeling about a TV show or film. From the moment I first saw the trailer, I knew it was going to be special. And I know that not everybody has found it so; that many lovers of the book have taken issue with its changes; that others have criticised its pace, or its confused narrative. But now I’ve watched it to the end, I’m here to tell you that I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it, and I think everybody concerned played a blinder.
Let’s go through the departments. Emily St John Mandell’s novel was great source material: a beautiful lyrical story about the things that connect us and the things we share, no matter how different our lives and experience. T S Eliot wrote, These fragments I have shored against my ruin, and Station Eleven is a version of that: an accumulation of fragments, coincidences and connected lives that adds up to an ineffable sense of beauty.
Beyond the great cast, show runner Patrick Somerville assembled a talented team of writers and directors, including Hiro Murai (Atlanta), Jeremy Podeswa (Game of Thrones) and Helen Shaver (whose credits as an actor and director are extensive, but she has directed episodes of Westworld, Travelers, and Orphan Black). Then there are the myriad others involved in making something great: the art director Ruth Ammon, costume designer Helen Huang the composer Dan Romer, the editor David Eisenberg, all of whom make the kind of creative contributions that leave you lost in admiration.
Composer Romer, for example, blends three kinds of music: the folk songs performed by the Traveling Symphony; the diegetic music performed by the Symphony for the play-within-the-show (Hamlet); and the actual non-diegetic soundtrack with the usual themes for individual characters and key moments cued to lines of dialogue. It is an incredible soundtrack that blends together music that could-be might-be performed on improvised instruments 20 years after the apocalypse with the more polished orchestral score that is sometimes incredibly moving (qv “Captain, I Need You to Do an Impossible Task” or “Doctor Eleven”).
Then there are the costumes. What is it that people might be wearing 20 years on? What would children wear? How to make a costume look as if it might indeed have been put together by a child working with what was available? And this is before we get to the world building in the production design. All you need to know about this is: they made the comic book.
On editing: there’s a moment in the last episode where two characters are pictured looking out of a window in the same location 20 years apart. And as the camera moves around them and they converse, we switch back and forth seamlessly.
There might be spoilers in what follows I’m not going to censor myself
And what is the show Station Eleven about? Connections and coincidences, yes, but also ideas about loss leavened by ideas about the importance of coming back. “Survival is insufficient” is the saying borrowed from Star Trek Voyager, and, yes, Station Eleven is about the importance of art and culture in making life meaningful. And here we are, 100 years after Eliot, piecing fragments together to make something that connects us all. It’s Shakespeare’s Hamlet, yes, but its also a mashup. There’s original music, wild costumes, and improvisations, moments when the characters talking to each other are the characters talking to each other, using (at least some of) Shakespeare’s words.
It’s necessarily complex and paced to suit itself. Episode one begins 20 years after the flu pandemic that ended civilisation then flashes back to the night it all started, then back ten days further, then back to Day 0 again, and then 80 days after that, and finishes 20 years later. Every flashback and flash forward fills in another piece of the puzzle, a process that continues over the next nine episodes until the final scenes, which pack the emotional punch you need. Even if you weren’t wrecked by episode nine (I was) you will be by the finale.
Episode one starts also with the idea of making a choice. “People should choose for themselves what they want”, says Jeevan, before saving Kirsten’s life by telling a little white lie and taking her choice away. Jeevan (Himesh Patel) is a brilliantly drawn character: a man who always feels as if he has to look after people, even if he is barely equipped to do so. “Are you a doctor?” he is asked, when he leaps on stage to help the dying Arthur Leander. No, he is not. He’s not even the trainee paramedic he is in the original novel. He’s Mr “I create content… I don’t have a job”. But by the end of episode nine he’s both “Doctor Eleven” from the comic book and Doctor Chaudhary, because what the hell is a doctor 20 years after the end of the pharmaceutical industry and complex technical surgeries? A doctor is a healer, and Jeevan is a healer.
And the final episode too is about choosing. About choosing your path, about being able to make that choice. It’s about holding on to those fragments and letting go at the same time.
“Why are you helping me?” Tyler asks Kirsten.
“Stabbing you didn’t work,” she replies.
Jeevan feels obliged to look after the young Kirsten, a child actress who is abandoned by her “wrangler” and unable to contact her parents when the disaster begins. But she falls on her feet because she has Jeevan, and she has Station Eleven, the very exclusive graphic novel gifted to her by Arthur Leander.
The author of Station Eleven, the comic, is Miranda Carroll, a woman who acts as the glue between different sets of people. Once married to Arthur, friends with Clark (Arthur’s friend), and persuasively on the phone to a pilot at the Severn City airport at a crucial moment. Most importantly, she labours for years on Station Eleven, and then has just five copies printed. One of them finds its way to Arthur’s son – Tyler – and another to Kirsten. Tyler turns it into a prophecy and communicates his child’s understanding of it to other children. Kirsten grows with it, developing her understanding in a more sophisticated way as she gets older.
Jeevan, in a moment of frustration, describes the comic that young Kirsten obsesses over as “so pretentious”, but the point of it is to stand for the art and beauty we create for ourselves. Why do it? Why make art? Why perform a play with three actors and no audience? Why spend years on a graphic novel and print just five copies? This is a question that interests me as someone who creates all the time for a tiny audience. I’ve written and recorded songs that almost nobody has ever heard; self-published novels that almost nobody has ever read; and I’ve been blogging since 2003 with barely any readers. Why do it? We do it for ourselves. Miranda’s motives are the purest there are. She does it because she feels the need to do it and because life would be unbearable without it.
So to the Traveling Symphony, brilliantly realised in the series as a group of spiky, awkward lost souls, a found family who bicker constantly, but also endlessly circle the “wheel” of their regular route, performing Shakespeare for people whose lives have been reduced. They do it for themselves, because survival is insufficient. But the real point of the Traveling Symphony is that they return every year. They come back.
That lost world, the world where the annual Charter Fair wasn’t a tawdry inconvenience but a lifeline, a reminder that life isn’t just for surviving.
In the end this was a shot of love, and I need a shot of love now and then.