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HBO Max's Station Eleven is a profound must-watch experience, even if it takes place in the aftermath of pandemic

  • "I know what you’re going to say about Station Eleven, and I get it. After nearly two years of living through a pandemic in real life, the last thing you want to do is watch a show about a pandemic," says Jen Chaney. "But here’s the thing, and I say this with the utmost respect and love: You are wrong. Station Eleven, an adaptation of Emily St. John Mandel’s superb, unexpectedly prescient 2014 novel, is a limited series you should see, not despite the stress we’ve endured in 2020 and 2021 but because of it. Created by Patrick Somerville, whose past credits include Made for Love, Maniac, and, most tellingly, The Leftovers, Station Eleven is a beautifully wrought piece of storytelling that will certainly remind audiences of the coronavirus — it focuses on a flu that spreads rapidly, causing panic, quarantining, and an immense loss of life — but it also presents a much more extreme version of a pandemic than the one we’ve confronted. The sickness in this HBO Max series ... instantly starts taking out humans and basic infrastructure to such an extent that it seems non-hyperbolic when it is referred to as 'the end of the world.'...Yet Station Eleven is, at its core, an uplifting reaffirmation of the value of life and human connection that argues that Americans can and will come together to help one another in the most dire of circumstances."


    • Station Eleven is the spiritual successor to The Leftovers: "Like The Leftovers, this version of Station Eleven is melancholy, enigmatic, character-driven, and ravishing," says Laura Miller. "The end of the world is exquisitely photographed, whether it’s images of a theater or hotel room segueing into the same place, years later, taken over by grass, ferns, and animals, or the eerily vast, dim, low-ceilinged spaces of a chain department store that’s been converted into a post-apocalyptic birthing center. In the early episodes of the series, the stark beauty of the ruined world the characters inhabit is fully capable of carrying the show, but it doesn’t need to. Strong performances all around, particularly from Lawler as the child Kirsten, and scripts grounded in the characters’ relationships make every episode indelible. Things start to disintegrate toward the end, unfortunately. The series creators have seen fit to make major alterations to Mandel’s plot, some astute, others simply confusing."
    • Station Eleven is scattershot and transfixing: It is an "adaptation that honors much of (Emily St. John) Mandel’s tone and intent but alters and expands (not always for the better) the world she so wondrously built," says Richard Lawson. "The bones are the same, with some location shifts. A flu breaks out in 2020. Most people die quickly, but some—naturally immune or just very lucky—make it through. An 8-year-old girl, Kirsten (Matilda Lawler), is thrown into the protective custody of a hangdog journalist, Jeevan (Himesh Patel), once it becomes clear her family died while Kirsten was at the theater where she was to play a minor role in a Chicago production of King Lear, starring a movie star, Arthur Leander (Gael Garcia Bernal). Arthur’s ex-wife, Miranda (Danielle Deadwyler), a logistics expert in the shipping industry who is also working on a graphic novel called 'Station Eleven,' gets stuck in Malaysia as the crisis reaches a frenzied crescendo, while Arthur’s sodden old friend, Clark (David Wilmot), finds himself marooned at a small Michigan airport with another of Arthur’s exes, actress Elizabeth (Caitlin FitzGerald). These characters, and more, are spun off on different trajectories that, in their elliptical structure, occasionally intersect as the years tumble along. The show, like so many mini-series of the moment, is told in multiple timelines—a frustrating device on even an assured show such as this. Mandel’s novel also jumps around between present and future, but that’s easier to follow on the page. Station Eleven the series smartly mitigates some of that disorientation (while encouraging it elsewhere) by devoting certain episodes to a handful of characters in one time and place. The grander mural of interconnectivity—all this fate and chance dancing around these curious happenings, following these characters over the course of their lives—is revealed only in aggregate, once the viewer has made their way through all 10 episodes and can regard the finished product in its quilted completion."
    • HBO Max's version reimagines Emily St. John Mandel’s beloved novel: "Few fictional works in the wake of Covid-19 have felt as restorative to me as this TV adaptation from Leftovers writer Patrick Somerville and Atlanta director Hiro Murai," says Emily VanDerWerff. "Rather than imagining something bleak, Station Eleven takes Mandel’s book and amps up its sense of a cozy post-apocalypse, where humanity comes together, rather than drifting apart. I entered the series deeply skeptical, and I left it feeling at least semi-hopeful for what humanity might yet become, even after the end." VanDerWerff adds: "Somerville’s approach to the material is perhaps best echoed by a line a character says in the series’ trailer: 'This strange and awful time was the happiest of my life.' The TV version of Station Eleven utilizes all those unlikely connections to express wonder at the fact that human beings form any connection at all."
    • Why would Station Eleven deliberately ditch its source material’s best quality?: "While the two versions do have more in common than a title, they also differ quite a lot," says Malcolm Jones. "I’m not going to spoil it for you, though, or not much anyway. Because honestly, I could tell you the whole story from the novel and you’d still have nearly the entire limited TV series to enjoy without knowing what’s coming next. And herein lies a mystery: The novel has a gorgeous, meticulously worked-out plot; pivoting on the more or less present day, it goes back and forward in time to describe a world overcome by a deadly flu that makes COVID look almost picnic-like. To tell this story, Mandel sets four or five plot lines in motion and somehow, miraculously, the past, the present, and the future weave in and out seamlessly without ever tripping over each other. Why, I kept asking while watching the first couple of episodes of the TV version, would you want to mess with something that works as well as this book does? Why would you want to make it more confusing, more random—in a word, worse?"
    • Station Eleven's reliance on flashbacks and other nonlinear storytelling is also by far the smartest and most effective use of those devices TV has seen in quite a while: "We see the adult Kirsten, for instance, draw on difficult memories of her early pandemic days with Jeevan and Jeevan’s disabled brother Frank (Nabhaan Rizwan) to help inform her Hamlet performance," says Alan Sepinwall. "The elliptical nature of time is beautifully conveyed by Murai and other directors like Helen Shaver, and Dan Romer’s score is an absolute knockout, elevating moments that are already emotionally potent to the point where they almost feel unfair. (The songs on the soundtrack are just as well-deployed, from Bob Dylan’s 'Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right' to a live rendition of 'Midnight Train to Georgia' accompanied by a tuba and keytar.) The performances are all vivid and distinct in both the big roles and the smaller ones, the latter including Lori Petty as the Symphony’s conductor, who brags that her music used to be played on NPR, and Enrico Colantoni sounding not too dissimilar to his performance in Galaxy Quest as the oddball emissary of something called the Museum of Civilization."
    • Station Eleven doesn't avoid modern parallels: "Death is depicted differently in Station Eleven," says Ben Travers. "TV typically relishes its bedside goodbyes, milking those lingering close-ups of the sick or dying for every last tear. Dystopian disaster stories tend to go one step further, honing in on gruesome fatalities or honoring last breaths from the battlefield, exhaled in the arms of their best friends. But in Patrick Somerville’s apocalyptic HBO Max limited series, characters rarely get that close. By physical distance or time itself, they’re removed from their loved ones’ sudden departure. They hear their partner’s last words over a voicemail. They learn of their family’s fate via a stranger’s text. Sometimes there is no confirmation. The implication is enough. Station Eleven begins as a flu-like virus spreads across the globe, killing 99 percent of the people it infects. Its present day looks like ours, then flashes forward (and back again) to tell an eerie, intimate tale. The modern parallels are unavoidable, and Somerville, along with pilot director and executive producer Hiro Murai, doesn’t duck them. There are shots of overrun hospitals, grocery store shopping sprees, airports filled with stranded passengers, and people in masks. Even the series’ respectful distance from death may be too evocative for some viewers. Being kept from relatives during their final moments is a memory no one wants to relive, nor should they. But there are no slow-motion shots of doctors and nurses holding back bereft mourners. There is simply an acknowledgment that a loss has happened. That it is happening. And that’s enough."
    • Station Eleven does an often potent job of splitting the difference with the real-world pandemic: "Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of War of the Worlds is about an alien invasion and its chaotic aftermath, but it remains perhaps the best depiction to date of the confusion and paranoia that set in after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001," says Daniel Fienberg. "It’s the nature of art that the best representation of something unfathomable is rarely the most direct representation (I’m looking at you, 'Isaac and Ishmael' episode of The West Wing). It’s why my favorite piece of art tied to the past 20 months is the first finale of HBO’s How To with John Wilson, a half-hour about basic human kindness and connection that only becomes about COVID-19 in its last 10 minutes. HBO Max’s new limited series Station Eleven does an often potent job of splitting the difference between depicting and evoking a global catastrophe that will invariably be compared to our current pandemic, even if the Emily St. John Mandel novel it’s based upon was published in 2014. Patrick Somerville’s 10-episode adaptation occasionally mines the visceral terror of a society in the midst of a burgeoning flu and it wouldn’t be unjustified for that to scare some viewers off. But Station Eleven is much more about contemplating the aftermath, delving into notions of healing and how much any 'new normal'  should resemble the old. On the page, it’s a frequently ephemeral theme, one that has maybe been over-articulated for the screen, without necessarily draining the story of its power."
    • Station Eleven chooses to not present a world that is too despairing: "Your personal threshold for pandemic fiction, at this stage in our ongoing global kaleidoscopic bacchanalia of doom, may have dropped precipitously since the post-apocalyptic novel Station Eleven became a sensation in 2014," says Glen Weldon. "If so, you may consider the prospect of sitting down to watch a viral pandemic wipe out most of humanity over the course of ten hourlong episodes on HBO Max to be akin to that of attending an immersively tactile theatrical experience called 'Root Canal: The Musical.' The good news — and it turns out to be very, very good — is the team that adapted Emily St. John Mandel's novel evidently agrees with you. In bringing the novel to the small screen, they have assiduously rounded off its sharper, more despairing edges, and amplified its moments of humor, its small but deeply felt instances of connection and humanity. Again and again, the series presents situations where its characters could make the kind of shocking, violent, nihilistic choices that characters make so routinely on performatively bleak shows like The Walking Dead. Yet again and again, they — and the series itself — instead choose the more humane, more profound, more hopeful option."
    • Station Eleven presents worldwide catastrophe as an opportunity for human resilience and kindness to arise out of the wreckage: "We've seen the world end in so many ways across TV and film," says Melanie McFarland. "Some of these scenarios' accompanying sights have recurred frequently enough to become central to our apocalyptic visual lexicon: planes dropping from the sky, highways choked by lifeless cars or riderless horses.  Each efficiently sounds the alarm that nobody is steering civilization's tillers anymore. That would seem to make Patrick Somerville's choice to incorporate each within Station Eleven nearly obligatory, and not in a good way. But as is the case with any piece of art, context is the border dividing cliché and inspiration. Instead of following the lead of shows such as The 100 or Y: The Last Man, falling back on the popular assumption that society's collapse would bring out the worst in humankind, Station Eleven takes the opposite route, presenting worldwide catastrophe as an opportunity for human resilience and kindness to arise out of the wreckage."
    • Station Eleven may be too attached to its rose-colored glasses: "Station Eleven is not without its effective, if sometimes tonally jarring, genre thrills (Refreshingly, gun action is at a minimum.)," says Inkoo Kang. "But the show is mostly about how nearly every character finds a sense of purpose and learns to become a better person after catastrophe. And, personally speaking, there’s something about that vision of doomsday uplift that — while stellarly acted and cleverly against-the-grain — just doesn’t resonate with or ring true to me. Sure, the helpers will always be there. So will the opportunists. Perhaps that’s why the series doesn’t truly kick in for me until the fourth installment, when recognizable human darkness — in the form of a morally unjustifiable yet deeply familiar tribalism, armed with a willingness to enact violence in its name — encroaches upon the characters. A number of satisfying twists go into reuniting almost everyone who loved Arthur, whose imperfections become more glaring the more we view him through the eyes of those who knew him best. But in the end, Station Eleven may be too attached to its rose-colored glasses."
    • Station Eleven registers as a flawed but engrossing work whose narrative imperfections are masked by the considerable craft of its execution: "As adapted by showrunner Patrick Somerville, the story can get messy," says Robert Lloyd. "There are times — I would be more definite but for spoilers — when the desire for an effect seems to be driving the narrative, rather than its being allowed to emerge naturally, or logically, from situation or character. One of the more striking oddities, generating key scenes, is the notion that having once appeared in, or read, or been informed that for the first time you are going to participate in a play — a Shakespeare play — you can pull off a central performance within hours."
    • In a way, Station Eleven shares as much with frontier stories as with apocalypse stories: "It is partly about how you start a community from scratch," says James Poniewozik, adding: "The theme, as it emerges, is memory as balm vs. prison. What’s the line between keeping a link to the past and being chained to it? Patrick Somerville, who adapted Mandel’s novel for television, previously worked on HBO’s The Leftovers, which took place after the unexplained disappearance of 2 percent of the world’s population. Station Eleven involves a bigger loss but it has a similar sensibility: wistful, sardonic and focused on life after catastrophe rather than the catastrophe itself. So the series conveys the anguish of the pandemic with a few well-chosen scenes, rather than letting them accumulate to the point of numbness. Station Eleven wants to you feel everything — joy and despair, tragedy and comedy."
    • The most impressive aspect of Station Eleven is how it works as an adaptation: "It is the rare work of audio-visual media that not only skillfully translates the source material, but at times surpasses it," says Leila Jordan. "Showrunner and writer Patrick Somerville (a novelist and writer for TV series such as The Leftovers, Maniac, and Made for Love) invents a new telling of the novel that significantly changes much of the plot from the original, but also reconsiders its stories and characters in a beautiful way."
    • Much of Station Eleven's warmth is shaped by three key visual choices in the first episode: The Flash-forward Glimpses, The Dr. Eleven–Eye View and The Intimate Close-up
    • How Station Eleven differs from Emily St. John Mandel's novel
    • Mackenzie Davis saw Station Eleven as an opportunity to demonstrate her emotional range: It was also a chance for her to grapple with her own intense feelings of loss and isolation. “It’s been an unsettling few years,” Davis said, with a flat laugh.
    • Station Eleven creator Patrick Somerville got Emily St. John Mandel on his key changes: “I think we both agreed that it’ll be healthy and make more sense for both our lives and the creative process to wall it off,” Somerville says of meeting with Mandel. “As a novelist who is also a TV writer, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen bad sh*t happen to books I love,” he adds. “A lot of times, producers think you can just do a one-to-one mapping of a novel into a script, and you just can’t. I love the book so much and wanted to do it justice, and I really loved the idea of adaptation being done at a high level in order to protect something of value.”
    • Somerville on what makes Station Eleven distinct from other “post-apocalyptic” series: “The 'post' implies that it’s all after and we’re actually pretty balanced in the end between the before and after,” he says, noting that the pandemic is only in the in between, which is not really seen or explored in real time outside the premiere. 

    TOPICS: Station Eleven, HBO Max, Emily St. John Mandel, Mackenzie Davis, Patrick Somerville