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By grounding itself, Station Eleven created a refreshing take on the post-apocalyptic drama

  • "There is no way to talk about HBO’s magnificent miniseries Station Eleven without talking about The Leftovers," says Shane Ryan. "Beyond the thematic similarities—humanity trying to cope in the aftermath of an unexpected global disaster—the creator, Patrick Somerville, was a writer for The Leftovers, and it’s evident from the start that despite the many distinctions, there is a lineal atmospheric relationship here. You could argue that in order for Station Eleven to exist in its best possible form, The Leftovers had to come first. (And perhaps Lost had to come even before The Leftovers, and so on and so forth back to the first moving image of a train going through a tunnel.) What distinguishes Station Eleven from its stylistic predecessors, and what makes it better, is how Somerville, his writers, and the ridiculously talented quartet of directors who took the helm in Season 1 have managed to plant their narrative roots firmly in the ground, rejecting the crutch of inexplicable supernaturalism even in a post-apocalyptic world where doing so is a serious challenge. Nor do they go the other way—the way of The Walking Dead—and succumb to the allure of grim horror that must be so tempting in a world bereft of law and order. It’s a narrow line to walk, but Somerville’s team have mastered this particular tight rope in a way that no show of the genre has ever quite managed; the result can be almost unbearably beautiful. And if they have a god, that god is art. None of this is meant to diminish The Leftovers or Lost, but only to point out that with Station Eleven, we’ve reached the next stage of the genre’s evolution. The apocalypse is very much on our collective minds lately, apocalypse art is especially compelling, and The Leftovers established a new artistic standard over three gorgeous seasons. Yet if you ever overhear a conversation in which one person tries to convince another to watch, or if you’ve been part of such a conversation yourself, inevitably this line comes up." Ryan adds: "How Station Eleven succeeds in grounding itself is by combining the animating spirit with human endeavor. Art serves both purposes, and because people are creating it—rather than some unseen force snapping its fingers and deleting 10% of the population—the source of the drama is laid bare. It’s us. Not a notion of good or evil, not something invisible we pray to or fear."

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    • Station Eleven is something else entirely when compared to Emily St. John Mandel's book: "Where the book felt stylized, more like poetry or a fable, the series embraces the messiness, range, and complexity of life as real people live it," says Katy Waldman. "One doesn’t binge it; ideally one watches its ten episodes slowly, more than once. And it differentiates the novel’s characters, allowing them to summon a wider breadth of experience. On a superficial level, Miranda is now a Black woman with roots in the Caribbean. Arthur was born in Mexico, not British Columbia, and is also more than simply charming; he exudes a sly, almost dangerous sweetness. Jeevan (a soulful Himesh Patel) becomes a freelance culture critic—'I don’t have a job,' he clarifies—who, rather than surge into action during Arthur’s heart attack, can only stand by helplessly. He adopts a girl—an eight-year-old Kirsten—whose parents have disappeared with the onset of the virus, and one of the show’s time lines follows him, the child, and Jeevan’s brother Frank as they hole up in Frank’s apartment tower to wait out the apocalypse."
    • Station Eleven is half masterpiece, half not: "In a way, Station Eleven is an interesting Rorschach test of apocalyptcism’s appeal," says Matt Brennan. "For me, it’s what I’ve taken to calling the series’ 'present' — the scenes set around a flu pandemic that wipes out 99% of the world’s population — that vibrate with acute emotional energy. I’d long since grown skeptical of most “topical” art, often so calculated in its conclusions, but as Omicron surged and 2022 plans were suddenly canceled, Station Eleven began to feel like the first great screen fiction about the pandemic. As the season unfurled, though, I found myself frustrated by a structure that, roughly speaking, toggled between the pandemic’s onset and a time, 20 years on, in which Kirsten and her Traveling Symphony have forged a new society through the cyclical performance of plays. Drawn from Emily St. John Mandel’s novel, the series’s speculative future edges up, in its most ill-conceived moments, to a kind of Walking Dead-meets-Terrence Malick self-indulgence, and it rarely convinced me, or held me by the throat, the way its speculative present did; I even weighed whether to skip the episodes set along the Wheel, the Great Lakes circle the Symphony traced. (Not to worry, I slogged through.) I’ve spent the entire season trying to reconcile the above with my deep and abiding affection for the episodes — 'Hurricane,' 'The Severn City Airport,' 'Goodbye My Damaged Home,' 'Dr. Chaudhary' — that stuck, as the series has it, to the surprises of 'just what happened,' and so actualized our own collapsing civilization through burning houses and corpse jets and big box stores-turned-maternity wards. Bearing the unmistakable mark of The Leftovers, the masterful apocalyptic fiction on which Somerville cut his teeth, these installments felt alive to me in a way the others never did. I admit that it probably says something about where I am at right now that I wanted more of the disaster and less of the hope."
    • Is it unfair to call Station Eleven twee?: "In its middle section, especially as it chronicled the misadventures of the Traveling Symphony and the early days of the Severn City Airport, the neediness could feel suffocating," says Dan Jackson. "The show's best episode, the Hiro Murai directed 'Hurricane' about Danielle Deadwyler's Miranda struggling to make art and eventually make peace with her fate, had a rigor and urgency that felt bracing; the premiere had a similar level of precision and exactitude to its construction. Despite featuring incredible performances, the later episodes often lacked that same locked-in focus and sense of purpose. Luckily, the connect-the-dots momentum of the finale corrected that."
    • Why Station Eleven created a colorful post-apocalyptic world: “We chose a lot of locations that had artificial lighting, subway stations, a theater, even the streets at night. Everything has this stark, manmade aesthetic,” says cinematographer Christian Sprenger. “We intended to let that be what the sci-fi future aesthetic normally feels like. And when you jump forward to the future, that almost feels like 200 years ago.” As Emily VanDerWerff notes: "That imagined future is lush and green and beautiful. It’s an iconoclastic choice for a post-apocalyptic tale. The first episode of Station Eleven drops viewers in a now-familiar fictional setting: The world is ending, and a handful of characters are trying to navigate that fact. The episode is mostly set in our present-day world, in a snowy Chicago that is about to be devastated by the deadly Georgia Flu. The story takes place over a few hours at night, and the images are stark and white, snow everywhere. But look more closely and you’ll see the episode makes distinctive use of color. Christmas lights twinkle, and the whiteness of the snow is so, so white. A young girl wears a pink jacket over a cream-colored dress. The inside of a subway train features brief, bright pops of color."
    • Creator Patrick Somerville recalls filming the first episodes in January and February of 2020 as the pandemic was setting in: "It was a slow creep," he says. "Different members of the company had a different sensitivity on their radar to it. I remember news reports at one point saying Americans probably wouldn’t have to worry about it. Then we were filming one of the last scenes of that block in Chicago before I had to fly back to L.A., and our props guy came and handed me two KN95 masks from the shoot."
    • Here are the differences between Station Eleven the series and Emily St. John Mandel's novel
    • Executive producers Patrick Somerville and Jessica Rhoades explain the finale
    • Somerville says "I had a couple of hazy intuitions about what it needed to do in order to work as a television show"
    • Somerville and Rhoades discuss their favorite moment from the series
    • "The past is not the past. The future doesn’t exist," says Somerville: "It’s a made-up idea," he adds. "Every mapping that we do of the future is a fabrication of our imagination. It’s good to fantasize about that, but it’s unbearable to carry the weight of a massively imagined future and still be present right now. Emily’s novel was engaging in deep conceptual, spiritual elements that I needed to go to, not just as a writer, but for my life. I was drawn to it in ways I didn’t really understand. I found some things I needed to reckon with in my life in the experience of making Station Eleven."
    • Emily St. John Mandel credits the show with enhancing her Station Eleven story and capturing the joy of her book: "The show deepened the story in a lot of really interesting ways," she says. "There are some things they did that I really love, that I felt took ideas that I suggested in the book and carried them further, like the importance of Hamlet in the story. In my book, it was important that they perform Shakespeare, but in the series, Shakespeare is integrated into the plot in this really deep way that I feel like I only scratched the surface of in the book. I love what the series did with the Jeevan character, where in the book I could never really figure out how to integrate him with the other characters without it seeming a little bit too forced, really coincidental. I love that they just have Kirsten go back to Frank’s place with him. That completely solved that problem. It’s just such a wonderful emotional architecture for the story. What they really did beautifully was capture the joy in the book. It is a post-apocalyptic world, but something that I thought about a lot when I was writing the book was how beautiful that world would be. I was just imagining trees and grass, and flowers overtaking our structures. I thought of the beauty of that world, but also the joy. This is a group of people who travel together because they love playing music together and doing Shakespeare, and there is real joy in that."

    TOPICS: Station Eleven, HBO Max, The Leftovers, Christian Sprenger, Emily St. John Mandel, Himesh Patel, Jessica Rhoades, Patrick Somerville, Cinematography




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