TL;DR – This stunningly beautiful show is about the connections we make and how love can triumph even in the darkest of worlds.
Disclosure – I paid for the Stan subscription that viewed this series.
Station Eleven Review –
I came into Station Eleven not knowing anything really about what I was getting myself into. I had heard vague mentions that it was pretty good, and I knew it was post-apocalyptic, but not much more than that. So I was completely unaware that I would inhale this show in the space of a week and everything about it. It has been a long while since a show has affected me like this, and goodness, what a ride it was.
So to set the scene, one night in Chicago, Jeevan Chaudhary (Himesh Patel) is seeing to opening night of the play King Lear. However, halfway through, something odd happens on stage and star Arthur Leander (Gael García Bernal) collapses on stage. Jeevan rushes to help, but Arthur dies of a heart attack. As chaos erupts around him, Jeevan finds one of the child actors, Kirsten (Matilda Lawler), has been forgotten, so he offers to walk her home. But after finding no one home at Kirsten’s house, Jeevan got a call from his sister (Tiya Sircar), that works at the hospital. The flu spreading across Europe is not usual. The death rate was 999 in 1000, and a kid had arrived in Chicago from Moscow that day. The flu is here, and it will rip through the population in 24 hours. Jeevan has to get supplies and head to his brother Fred’s (Nabhaan Rizwan) apartment, don’t talk to anyone because society is about to collapse. Just one problem, what does he do with Kirsten? Now from here, we will be looking at the season as a whole, so there will be [SPOILERS] ahead.
It is almost hard to find a place to start with a series as good as this because so much is competing for attention. But if I were to pick one thing that this show does better than almost anyone else in the business, it would be how they deal with multiple timelines. Jumping between points in time is an increasingly common narrative technique, and you can see it in The Witcher, The Last of Us Part 2, Westworld, and The Book of Boba Fett. However, it can often come off as feeling forced, as the fractured story lessons the whole. Here this is not the case as the different timelines are written into the very DNA of the show, and you feel it at all times. The first episode, Wheel of Fire, will cut to the future when vegetation has retaken over that location we see in the present. This not only reinforces the terror in those first few hours as people struggle to find shelter, but it prepares you for the fact that it will not be static in time which the show nails down with three different time jumps in the closing moments of the show. But this is just the start of the multifaceted approach to timeframes.
Most shows would have been happy just cutting back to Day One while still focusing the main story on 20-years-later. Well, with Station 11, the different timelines are woven throughout every episode. The show will show you a scene, giving you some context, before three episodes later revealing that you had the completely wrong context. This deception could be frustrating if it were not handled as well. The show will suddenly jump back in time and explore a character’s life, wondering why they are doing this, only for it all to make sense by the end. Different times start blending into the other, even before the show begins questioning what a dream is and real life, adding a whole new layer to the narrative framework. It is like watching an artist paint a landscape, moving from spot to spot all over the canvas, slowly and deliberately revealing the masterwork from behind the fog.
This narrative framework would not work if the cast were not 100% behind it, which is another reason why the show works as well as it does. I don’t think I have ever seen a role played by two different people equally responsible for its success. Our main character for this show is Kirsten, played in tandem by Matilda Lawler in Year One and Mackenzie Davis in Year Twenty. This show would not work if either of them were not as compelling as they were, but each actor is both sharing the role of Kirsten and is Kirsten. A level of artistic commitment makes the two performances jell together, which you see in Goodbye, My Damaged Home when a poisoned Kirsten dreams about her time in that first year. This is counterpointed with Himesh Patel giving a heart-breaking performance of someone who has a giant heart and always wants to help but never has had the chance to show it.
Everyone other cast member is also bringing their A-game as we explore society collapsing or trying to live through the aftermath. Gael García Bernal is perfect as Arthur, an actor trying to reinvent himself while struggling with his personal life and the weight of his past choices. You see him trying to reinvent his life, redeem it, only to get cut down the moment it comes to fruition. David Wilmot is Clark Thompson, who has always lived in Arthur’s shadow, and though he becomes a leader in the new world, his old friend can strike out from the grave and wound him. Danielle Deadwyler as Miranda Carroll, who might be the film’s thematic heart, and whose story leads me to tears at more than one point. Lori Petty is Sarah who has the energy of an oncoming thunderstorm, every loving, but never cross her. We also see this in some more complex characters to nail down, like Daniel Zovatto as Tyler Leander/The Profit. Tyler is someone that is suffered immense trauma in his life. He is charismatic, but the force of his charisma is directed almost solely at children, which makes a character that you are not sure if he is exploitative or supportive even by the end.
You also see this in the production of the whole series, in the broad strokes and the fine details. Often post-apocalyptic shows have the habit of being just brown nothingness or at least mono-toned. Here we see the world at many stages of life, the frosty chills of autumn, deep winter whites, and then the summer warmth. We also see this in the way they incorporated the post-apocalyptic decline. There are buildings in complete decline, others that survided the fall, and others that were repurposed from their original use. There are details in every costume that add to the characterisation while also feeling right in the world. Where you see this intersection of narrative and design comes in the form of the Traveling Symphony. Each wagon is evocative of a time gone past, a time lost, and a world rebuilt.
This all leads us to the final point I want to talk about: the narrative. Watching a show set in a world eradicated by a virus will always be a hard sell in January in the year of our Lord 2022. Station Eleven understands this and immediately captures you with its characters and stories while painting with shades of light and dark. For every moment of radicalised children wearing landmines, you get Dan (Dylan Taylor) doing a pitch-perfect rendition of the speech from Independence Day as his audition. Because of these moments and the cast’s commitment to make every scene work, that makes you watch every moment. This show will take the time to make you care about every character, so coincidence does not matter. The story of Miranda is presented at the start as just a way to get the novel into the hands of Kirsten. But as the narrative continues, we see more of who she is and what she drives her, becoming one of the show’s core elements.
If there is one focus the show keeps coming back to, that is trauma. Everyone is walking scared by the past because everyone either lost someone and/or had to kill to make it to the after times. The Prophet uses that trauma to recruit his child followers. It led Pingtree to plant mines around the place, Severn City Airport, to wall itself off and venerate the Museum of Civilization, and it also impacts everything Kirsten does. We also see trauma physically shown, like Jeevan getting mauled by a wolf, Frank staring down an eloper, and the trauma of pregnancy, which I think this is the first show (at least that I have seen) that showed it front on. However, many shows/movies out there base their narratives on trauma. What sets Station 11 apart is that it is always looking for catharsis. For example, we know that three people go into the apartment from the first episode, but only two come out. We then learn that Jeevan and Kirsten stayed one day too long, with Kirsten blaming herself because she made Jeevan and Frank do a play of her favourite novel. This one incident has shaped every facet of Kirsten and drives her choices. But while the show uses a drug haze to facilitate it, she gets her catharsis as she sees a moment from her childhood through her now mature eyes. Indeed, I am not sure many shows could have pulled off the narrative’s climax, being a performance of Shakespeare and Hamlet, no less. Watching people coming to terms with each other and their past actions through the medium of theatre should be very much on the nose, but the commitment to catharsis shines through.
In the end, do we recommend Station Eleven? Absolutely. I have not seen a show impact me like this in an age. Every part of the narrative, design, and acting all come together to make an extraordinary whole. This show is based off an novel and from looking at it they cover the entirety of the novel. So this might be all we get of this world, in which I will be happy with what we got, but also I am more than happy if this was the first of more. If you have a chance to watch this, I highly recommend you do. If you liked Station Eleven, I would also recommend Mad Max Fury Road to you.
By Brian MacNamara: You can follow Brian on Twitter Here, when he’s not chatting about Movies and TV, he’ll be talking about International Relations, or the Solar System.
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Credits – All images were created by the cast, crew, and production companies of Station Eleven
Directed by – Hiro Murai, Jeremy Podeswa, Helen Shaver & Lucy Tcherniak
Written by – Patrick Somerville, Shannon Houston, Nick Cuse, Cord Jefferson, Sarah McCarron, Kim Steele, Sarah McCarron & Will Weggel
Created by – Patrick Somerville
Based on – Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
Production/Distribution Companies – Super Frog, Pacesetter Productions, Stone Village Television, Shadowfox Productions, Tractor Beam, Paramount Television Studios, HBOmax & Stan
Starring – Mackenzie Davis, Matilda Lawler, Himesh Patel, David Wilmot, Nabhaan Rizwan, Daniel Zovatto, Julian Obradors, Philippine Velge, Lori Petty, Gael García Bernal, Danielle Deadwyler & Caitlin FitzGerald with Andy McQueen, David Cross, Enrico Colantoni, Deborah Cox, Luca Villacis, Prince Amponsah, Dylan Taylor, Joe Pingue, Maxwell McCabe-Lokos, Ajahnis Charley, Milton Barnes & Kate Moyer and Tiya Sircar, Clark Backo, Timothy Simons, Erin Alexis, Kurt Yue, Matthew Lawler, Andrew Ahmed, Danielle Ayow, Deborah Drakeford, Tina Daheley, Gordon Harper, Victoria Sawal, Sarah Slywchuk, Tre Smith, Myrthin Stagg, Jenny Young, Alex Friesen, Maxwell McCabe-Lokos, Luca Villacis, David MacInnis, Joyce Chan, Tattiawna Jones, Tara Nicodemo, Rebecca Applebaum, Delia Chambers, Kelsey Falconer, Somkele Iyamah, Lee Lawson, Chelsea Preston, Sabryn Rock
Episodes Covered – Wheel of Fire, A Hawk from a Handsaw, Hurricane, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Aren’t Dead, The Severn City Airport, Survival is Insufficient, Goodbye My Damaged Home, Who’s There?, Dr. Chaudhary & Unbroken Circle