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Station Eleven may be the last great post-apocalyptic drama because of the COVID-19 pandemic

  • "Emily St. John Mandel did not set out to kill 99.99 percent of the human race when she began writing Station Eleven," says Chris Taylor. "The 2014 bestseller, on which the acclaimed (and now complete) HBO Max series is based, started as a series of scenes about a traveling band of performers much like her real-life friends from dance theater school in Toronto. She pictured them performing Shakespeare in rural Canada, where she grew up; a hard but good life without many of the comforts of modern technology. But what would send Shakespearean actors permanently to the woods, performing plays for tech-free towns? Well, the same thing that leads the hero of The Postman (a similar 1985 novel by David Brin, also a 1997 movie starring Kevin Costner) to travel around doing Shakespeare for shanty-town audiences: the end of civilization. Both stories are fundamentally optimistic in their visions of a world rebuilding — but both required their authors to reverse-engineer a backstory of how and why billions of us had died. The mechanism Mandel happened to choose was a pandemic, unaware that a real one would strike six years after she wrote Station Eleven. (The HBO series was also commissioned long before anyone uttered the words COVID-19.) But audiences are wiser now. We are more aware of how hard it is to kill off that much of our world with a virus, even one that mutates. The faster it kills its hosts, the less it can spread. 'The virus in Station Eleven would have burned out before it could kill off the entire population,' Mandel freely admitted to Vulture in March 2020. Given that we've logged all the potential civilization-killing asteroids, given that climate change is a persistent, present crisis best represented metaphorically (as in Don't Look Up), creators are running out of ways to end the world as briskly and cleanly as our apocalypse fantasies seem to demand. Mandel wanted an event that would guarantee a blank canvas, a '20 years after' filled with the joy of everlasting art as much as the sorrow of unspeakable trauma. She may end up as the last writer who could do so in a fashion her contemporaries found believable. Station Eleven could mark the end of the end of the world."


    • How did Station Eleven succeed while eschewing puzzle-box mysteries?: "'Plot holes' aren’t really something to worry about with this drama," says Lili Loofbourow. "That’s partly because the end of civilization has left the world within the show so fractured that sense-making is inherently difficult, and partly because it’s a story about trauma that mercifully transcends it by subordinating plot mechanics to the pleasures of poetic echoes and personal as well as symbolic connections. Patrick Somerville, Station Eleven’s showrunner, also worked on The Leftovers, and Station Eleven shares with that earlier show a commitment to questions over answers. What I mean by that isn’t that the post-apocalyptic drama doesn’t supply answers—it does, in increasingly rewarding layers as the miniseries unfolds until a fullish picture of the past emerges—but rather that the questions that really matter can’t be addressed through plot mechanics. We are not interested (for example) in how the pandemic started, or who (if anyone) engineered it, or even how exactly it works. None of that matters. We don’t even especially need to know the particulars of the 'Station Eleven' graphic novel within the show. What matters far more is the feeling the book creates and what that feeling does. The result is that Station Eleven sidesteps puzzle-box elements that fire up fan communities in shows like I, Robot and Westworld and yes, Yellowjackets. The latter, a great show which has been airing concurrently with Station Eleven, shares a number of features with it including abdominal stabbings, secret symbols, split timelines, and survivalist communities, but it couldn’t be more different in style, mood, structure, and intent. If Yellowjackets, with its group of plane-crash survivors, riffs inventively on the antihero genre and revels in red herrings, Station Eleven plays with the audience by almost manically hyperlinking between its various storylines and characters. Sure, Station Eleven effectively portrays the devastation of losing everything. But then—almost as an act of mercy toward the viewers—it eases those psychic blows by saturating its plotlines with (excessive, frankly rococo) connections."
    • Station Eleven was able to find a silver lining in the apocalypse: "As in Mandel’s novel, these people’s lives are intertwined," says Nicole Clark. "Their connections grow apparent over the course of the show, as episodes shift time and subject, between the more immediate collapse of society and life 20 years after. This rhythm is an effective departure from the storytelling of the book, putting various timelines in more consistent conversation with each other. The show layers the Act 1, Scene 2 monologue from Hamlet — Hamlet is still dressed in mourning for his father, three months later — over the scene of a child receiving a text message from a morgue. It weaves together scenes where a character is dead immediately with scenes where that character is still alive, across one episode — often using similar framing techniques to create the impression that the pandemic is always at every point of its inception, that every character lives in a liminal space where they are both alive and dead, both corporeal and not. These mixed timelines give actors space to perform the fear, austerity, and grit required of survival across numerous points in their life. It’s the show’s indulgence, and with any other subject it might have read as tacky or like naive camp. In Station Eleven the effect is suffocating, claustrophobic, and unrelenting, like the flu is always about to happen, always happening, always having just happened. It’s a lot like living through the past two years, where the ground underfoot keeps shifting. The rules of what we know about the pandemic change, and what is considered safe or unsafe is under constant evolution. Only the bewildering sense of loss remains consistent: Loss of routine or the pleasure of being around other people, loss of faith, loss of life. COVID-19 has turned the contemporary plague novel into a kind of predictive totem, though few have reached the kind of critical darling status as Mandel’s novel. Many of the poignant images in Station Eleven’s opening episodes have real life analogues. There’s the constant vigilance against sickness, and that moment you realize the people around you — the bustling fabric of the crowd on public transit, the friends in your apartment — become a potential threat."
    • How Station Eleven's costumes speak to viewers in ways that aren't overtly written into the script: "When I costume, I costume from emotion," says Station Eleven costume designer Helen Huang. Her costumes become the fabric that joins civilization's past to a culturally rich future built around community, expressing the limitless possibility and creativity that can rise out of massive loss. Huang notes that post-apocalyptic works almost always operate as if there is no existence of the previous world. I didn't want that. I wanted the clothes have a lot of memory of the world that we currently know…I wanted a lot of logo. I just wanted a lot of connection to our past. I also really wanted to make it very gender fluid . . . The regular gender norm constructs have faded, and people gravitated towards the practical and what they like. Even in times of uncertainty, people still want to create and still want to dress creatively, and the need for dress, and the need to communicate through dress is very apparent in Year 20 for Station Eleven. Going through our own pandemic made me realize that, you know, that in dire times, people still want to create. If you really look at what people gravitated towards when they were on lockdown – like baking bread, or going back to crafts, all these things involving working with your hands  – art is sort of intrinsic within us and that doesn't really go away in times of trauma."

    TOPICS: Station Eleven, HBO Max