Mary McNamara: Given the spiritual undertones of the series, and the repetition of the sentence “I remember damage. And escape,” I am tempted to tell you that whatever imperfections you felt you experienced in “Station Eleven” were deliberate, a kind of cinematic wabi-sabi to remind us that the quest for perfection is not only impossible — it is the wrong quest.
I confess I came to “Station Eleven” reluctantly. Last year, as we all scrambled to create some sort of context for the COVID-19 pandemic, Mandel got all sorts of “what does it feel to have predicted the future?” questions, which seemed very unfair. And though I admire HBO Max for releasing a show about a fictional deadly pandemic in the middle of an actual pandemic (after the show’s production was shut down for months by same), I was not interested in any kind of survival guide. Nor did I want the kind of “There’s Got to Be a Morning After” survival celebration disaster stories so often rely on.
I hadn’t read the book, so I had no idea what I was in for, but I certainly was not prepared for a very young Shakespearean actress trotting around snowy Chicago in her young Goneril costume as the world collapsed. Somewhere around the time Jeevan, her accidental savior, managed to purchase and then bungie-cord together a train of loaded shopping carts and navigate them through many city blocks to his brother’s apartment building, I realized I would either have to surrender to an epic quest and all its potential pitfalls, or not.
The final season of “Game of Thrones” notwithstanding, I remain a big fan of the epic quest, so I chose surrender. In part because the partnership of Jeevan and Kirsten was so odd and hypnotic — that Goneril dress! — but mainly because it quickly became obvious, from the running references to Shakespeare and the (fictional) graphic novel “Station Eleven,” that this story was not about how to survive a pandemic. It was about how art and culture can help people, and civilization, survive complete catastrophe.
As I am Irish, and firmly believe in Thomas Cahill’s premise that Irish monks saved civilization by maintaining texts and libraries while Europe fell into the Dark Ages, I was all in.
There are holes in the story, but that didn’t bother me because “Station Eleven” felt almost immediately like an antidote to every other post-apocalyptic tale I have ever seen. I have seen many, and characters are almost exclusively categorized as hero, villain, victim but never bard, never artist. (Only the Apple TV+ show “See” takes on the importance of myth and art, albeit in a more controlling, prophetic way, but that pandemic left everyone blind, which brings its own issues.)
What you call “the present” showcases people who are neither hero nor villain, except perhaps in their own minds, but they are artists. Adult Kirsten is, per the Katniss Everdeen amendment to the Geneva Convention, a skilled knife thrower and general badass, but she is also the company’s go-to Hamlet, surrounded by a group of people who survived without surrendering their belief in the power of making beautiful things. Even the guy who “auditions” by reciting Bill Pullman’s speech from “Independence Day” believes.
The mere existence of a character like the Conductor, played with bug-eyed, Emmy-worthy brilliance by Petty, made my heart sing. She was the leader of a band of survivors not because she was a ruthless martial arts expert but because she continued to write symphonies, and understood that music and theater fulfill a deep-seated need. “We try to make the world make sense for a minute,” she explains to young Kirsten.
I loved “Station Eleven” because it is the first post-apocalyptic show that revolves around its own holy text, in this case the hypnotic, possibly prophetic, graphic novel “Station Eleven.” We see its origins as, in flashback, Miranda (with Deadwyler in an equally devastating performance), turns her own experience with trauma and loss into a sort of universal language that connects the past with the future and literally helps save civilization.
I definitely had some questions in the end — the Prophet’s use of children as suicide bombers was never really addressed — but I was frankly astonished that Somerville was able to keep so many balls — themes, characters, flashbacks, contexts, relationships — in the air, never mind land them with such optimism and grace. You had to be impressed by that at least. I mean, extra points for level of difficulty, no?