Pandemic Drama 'Station Eleven' Is the Best Thing You Can Watch About Surviving an Outbreak Right Now
Stop rewatching ‘Contagion’ and binge your way through this thoughtful HBO series instead.
January 28, 2022
When the COVID-19 pandemic began, life as we once knew it changed suddenly, and everything started to feel like something out of a horror or sci-fi movie set in a post-apocalyptic future, films about contagions, outbreaks and infections all became go-to comfort viewing. We flocked to visions of situations similar to our own, even if only slightly, to help us cope with the existence-shattering shift we were all going through. Accordingly, Contagion proved eerily prescient, while I Am Legend and 28 Days Later mirrored the empty streets — and, yes, everyone was watching them.
Next came the spate of flicks that were shot during the pandemic and responded to it. Think: opportunistic fare such as Locked Down and Songbird, neither of which proved memorable. Movies and TV shows will be ruminating upon life in the time of COVID-19 for years and decades to come, obviously; however, the highlights so far have rare. Add Station Eleven to the certain-to-keep-growing pile, but thankfully as one of the very best examples. Indeed, it's unfair to clump this haunting end-of-the-world miniseries in the same group as almost anything else that's emerged since the pandemic began, other than Bo Burnham's exceptional comedy special Inside.
As also proved the case with Y: The Last Man when it reached streaming queues in 2021, Station Eleven's narrative actually predates our current predicament. Its nine-episode run now sits on Stan in Australia and Neon in New Zealand, available to watch in full, after its story first garnered a devoted following on the page. And, it taps into something far deeper than obvious observations about being stuck at home with your significant other for longer than either of you had ever considered, and having to scramble to buy toilet paper when the supermarket shelves are bare.
The focus of this excellent show, and of Emily St. John Mandel's 2014 book before it: how art and community all play immeasurable parts in helping humanity process and navigate existence-shattering traumas, and to find a path out the other side. That's a sentiment that might sound mawkish and self-evident when described in a mere sentence, but nothing about Station Eleven ever earns such terms.
Here, it all starts with a flu that swiftly proves more than just the usual sniffles, coughs, aches and pains. This one spreads lightning fast, too, and strikes down its unlucky victims heartbreakingly quickly. For eight-year-old Shakespearean actor Kirsten (Matilda Lawler, Evil), the chaos descends during a tumultuous opening-night performance of King Lear led by Arthur Leander (Gael García Bernal, Old). In the aftermath, she's stuck traipsing around snowy Chicago with Jeevan (Himesh Patel, Don't Look Up), who she has just met — and then sheltering in his brother Frank's (Nabhaan Rizwa, Mogul Mowgli) high-rise apartment.
That's really just the beginning of this multi-layered narrative, which also jumps forward 20 years to survey Kirsten's (Mackenzie Davis, Happiest Season) adult life. There, she's a key part of a travelling theatre troupe who performs Shakespeare to the outposts of survivors it passes on its annual route — and she's spent almost her entire existence adjusting, like the rest of the planet, to this new normality. Still, while two decades might've passed and little may now resemble all that passed for routine before the flu, the earth remains an anxious and fraught place. So when a mysterious man, known as The Prophet (Daniel Zovatto, Penny Dreadful: City of Angels) to his army of child followers, shows up at one of the Travelling Symphony's stops, Kirsten is immediately and understandably suspicious.
Station Eleven's narrative isn't just about one woman, the men who help her as a child and the other that threatens her status quo as an adult. As well as continually fluttering backwards and forwards between Kirsten's younger and older exploits, it dives into the experiences of others connected to her story in various ways. Before the flu, Miranda Carroll (Danielle Deadwyler, The Harder They Fall) devoted her spare time to writing and illustrating a graphic novel about feeling lost and adrift in space, for instance — and that text, which shares the show's name, is part of the series' broader contemplation of art, tragedy, trauma and dealing with our feelings in general.
Premiering late in 2021, just as Omicron started sweeping the world, Station Eleven might've seemed blighted by unfortunate timing. Nonetheless, it's the ideal show for right now. Shot with a soft grey-blue sheen like it's unearthing watery memories, it cuts close to home but always plays like a beacon of hope — and an ode to endeavouring to make it through, come together and make a difference however one can.
It's impeccably acted, with the broader cast also spanning Orange Is the New Black's Lori Petty, Veronica Mars' Enrico Colantoni, Arrested Development's David Cross, Veep's Timothy Simons, Succession's Caitlin FitzGerald and Little Joe's David Wilmot. It's meticulous and expressive with every shot, and perfects the feeling of simultaneously trying to get by and daring to dream about something other than weathering a pandemic. Rich and layered and cathartic, this is a dystopian disaster tale not just about merely surviving, but about truly enduring. In a sea of pandemic tales — those made before COVID-19 and since — Station Eleven is a lyrical, heartfelt and character-driven apocalyptic musing with an immediate difference.
Check out the trailer below:
Top images: Ian Watson/HBO Max.
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