February 2022


‘Station Eleven’

By Harry Windsor
Still from ‘Station Eleven’
The TV adaptation of Emily St. John Mandel’s pandemic novel ties its complexities up too neatly

Station Eleven (Stan) begins with a performance of King Lear in Chicago. Playing the title role, Arthur (Gael García Bernal) suffers a heart attack in the middle of the show. An audience member (Himesh Patel) jumps onstage to assist, and afterwards he consoles Kirsten (Matilda Lawler), the child actor playing Goneril (it’s a newfangled staging). This event – before the fall but presaging it – later assumes mythic proportions in their minds because it coincides with a highly contagious new flu arriving on a plane from Moscow. Soon the virus has wiped out 99 per cent of the global population.

A 10-part limited series, Station Eleven retains the main characters from Emily St. John Mandel’s book, as well as its nonlinear structure, jumping back and forth between scenes from before and after the apocalypse. But it also scrambles the story in a way that reflects both the exigencies of episodic television and the historical moment in which it was made.

Mandel’s novel was a mosaic with characters that briefly intersected but whose stories were otherwise discrete, whereas the series puts them together to face the end. That’s understandable, even if the degree of convergence begins to feel slightly neat and totalising. Directed with style by Hiro Murai (Atlanta) among others, the series mostly jettisons the genre thrills we associate with this kind of dystopian fiction, and dials up the bright saturated colours we don’t.

Twenty years after civilisation’s collapse, Kirsten (played as an adult by Mackenzie Davis) is a member of the “Traveling Symphony”, a group of actors and musicians touring the makeshift towns along Lake Michigan that have sprung up since electricity, the internet and most other humans simply disappeared. They’re famous, at least locally, and the troupe is invited to perform at the “Museum of Civilization”, an isolated airport where Arthur’s best friend and ex-wife were diverted en route to his funeral and have remained ever since.

Jeopardising the security of their compound is Arthur’s son Tyler (Daniel Zovatto), a cult leader who has adopted as a foundational text a graphic novel his father gifted him as a child, Station Eleven. Those familiar with Mandel’s book will have a better understanding of the comic’s significance than the show affords its viewers. It’s about a space station inhabited by the last vestiges of humanity after an alien invasion forced them off Earth. The survivors are divided between those who want to return home and take their chances and those determined to build a new future liberated from the past. To ensure such a future here, a clean slate, Tyler wants to destroy the Museum of Civilization, in which relics from the old world are preserved.

Station Eleven concludes with a medley of reconciliation, and even drops the Brotherhood of Man track “United We Stand” over the credits. Given they made it during a real pandemic, the showrunners might be forgiven for underlining hope and togetherness. But it’s all a bit frictionless, with none of the complex human messiness of the classics it invokes.

Harry Windsor

Harry Windsor is a Sydney-based writer.

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