Is the pandemic-set 'Station Eleven' great TV or not? We fight it out

Matt Brennan and Mary McNamara, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

Brennan: Look, I’m not calling “Station Eleven” a failure, or a disaster, or even a half-assed genre entry. I’m calling it a partial masterpiece! And one that in its most poignant moments reaches the same depths of emotion as the greatest television dramas: as “Beasts of the Southern Wild” composer Dan Romer’s roadside jug-band score measures the heartbeat of the end of the world; as the camera catches the glimmer of tears in Tyler’s eyes during that final performance of “Hamlet”; as an impromptu rap song or homemade costume render the pain of the human condition at a single human’s scale. This is the half of “Station Eleven” that persuades me, the half set in the realm of its “Hamlet,” its “Lear”: the half about human connection and isolation, about love, betrayal and, unavoidably, collapse.

But I fear the social future “Station Eleven” imagines is implausible, if not disingenuous. There is nothing in the history of human endeavor, not the Bible, Shakespeare or the annals of HBO, to suggest that we are capable of the regeneration it depicts in the span of one lifetime, much less 20 years. Watching it from the perspective of our own existential crisis — a devastating pandemic and a climate apocalypse, each worsened by the twilight of democracy — I was struck by the notion that only those who come of age in a time of optimism can draw the conclusion that “progress” is our natural state; for others (hello, fellow millennials!), entropy reigns. I even caught myself asking a blasphemous question: If art were truly capable of saving us, wouldn’t we already have been saved?

This reaction, of course, is a reflection of our own “present,” in which art seems to swim ceaselessly against the tide. Still, my sense that the series is too Pollyanna-ish for its own good — that its conclusions about the uses of art in the world are ultimately unearned — stems from the fact that these sections are often dramatically inert to begin with. The generation gap between those born “before” and “after” is gestured at but scarcely plumbed. The question of class distinctions (resource hoarding) is left mostly to an episode’s worth of country-club symbolism and a ruinously miscast David Cross. The “red bandanas” turn up and disappear in one fell swoop to provide a cliffhanger between episodes; ditto the strained “mystery” of the the Prophet. To believe that the series is guilty of doubtful creative choices is not to spurn art — it’s to know what it’s capable of and to expect more of it.

If one of the precepts of the series’ own “holy text,” a graphic novel, is “show, don’t tell,” it seems to me indicative of the series’ strengths that its most moving moments feature spliced-in images, memories, of the characters’ former selves. It began to read to me as a tacit acknowledgement that its vision of the future is not as immersive as its vision of the present or past. And during the montage of embraces between Jeevan and Kirsten near the end of “Dr. Chaudhary,” it finally clicked: “Station Eleven” soars when it rejects the mantra “There is no before” — when it acknowledges that the future is a science fiction.

Because in the now, “the before” is all we have.

McNamara: As a nonmillennial I’m not going to dive into those murky generation-defined existential waters, debate the historical nature of “progress” or try to predict the fate of democracy, though I think we can agree any television show that sparks debate about those things is a damn good television show.

As for the issue of whether or not art has “saved” us, there is no way of knowing, though it certainly has functioned, at the very least, like the COVID-19 vaccinations — incapable of eradicating evil but allowing more people to survive it.

Does “Station Eleven” depict an unrealistic social “regeneration”? Maybe, though people appear to be living in small, mostly primitive communities and the fact that the story confines itself to the shoreline of Lake Michigan (at least I think it’s Michigan) serves the narrative both spiritually and logistically. I did find it hilarious that, during the winter flashback, the roads were plowed, a sleight of hand Somerville admits was necessary for production to continue. But I also know that if any survivor owned a snowplow, he or she would use it because snowplowing is a calling and an art form in itself.


You are right about how the timeframe jumps from immediate crisis to a relatively established recovery. I certainly did not quite understand why Jeevan chose to take Kirsten out into the Chicago winter rather than do a bit more exploring in that very large apartment building. Yes, there were dangers there, but no doubt there was also a lot of food and, potentially, fellow nonmurderous survivors.

But then why did the One Ring choose Frodo? (Sorry, it all always comes back to “Lord of the Rings.”) Because this is an epic quest and those kinds of stories make certain demands. Yes, “Station Eleven” is wildly optimistic and unapologetically sentimental, but I appreciated the problem-solving we did see — the airport community, as you mentioned, and the golf resort, even the Symphony’s decision to stay within the Wheel for safety reasons. Frankly I was grateful to skip all the store-looting and scavenging we are inevitably treated to in these kinds of tales. Instead we got a department store turned into a maternity ward and an Oreo used to demonstrate a cervix dilated to five centimeters. That episode, which straddles the before and the after, was totally crazy and completely glorious; of course some female doctor would create a maternity ward in a place that once sold beds. The scene in which a dozen women give birth was the before giving way to the future, just as all the scenes in which Miranda struggles to write “Station Eleven” were.

One of the things that drove me away from “The Walking Dead” was the core characters’ lack of expertise and inability to problem-solve. Why, I kept asking myself, are they still living on the ground? Zombies show no talent for climbing; is there no engineer or architect among them who could construct an elevated village? The Swiss Family Robinson managed, and they were mostly kids!

Obviously, it is a narrative cheat to just slide on by all the work and infighting that went into creating those communities, but that isn’t what “Station Eleven” is about. Instead of examining all the light/dark political dynamics of rebuilding a post-catastrophe society, it concedes that capturing mass trauma is impossible — and potentially unhelpful. Every individual experiences what she or he experiences and deals with it in a different way. Art and literature can, the series argues, offer some safety rails, some moments of connection.

Which may be enough.


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