Yes, it’s a show about a pandemic. But rather than being too much, Station Eleven is a profound viewing experience partly because of the global situation we find ourselves in.
Let’s just get this out of the way quickly: Station Eleven is about a flu virus that descends at Christmas 2020 and has a survival rate of something like 2%. Yes, the first episode depicting pandemic mayhem in amongst Christmas decorations was a lot to process when this series premiered in December last year.
And I completely appreciate that watching a show about a deadly pandemic that kills millions might seem like a terrible idea when you’re living through a deadly pandemic that kills millions.
Based on the wildly popular 2014 book, Station Eleven takes place from just before the pandemic to twenty years in the future, flitting between timelines with great ease, and also covers off the immediate aftermath as humanity grinds to a global holt. Here’s why it is surprisingly, well, comforting: firstly, this is like a Contagion-level plague where everyone dies within about a 72-hour period, so there’s the old ‘well, it could be worse?’ feeling when you watch it.
Station Eleven is less interested in the virus and more about what survives it – when the world has become a lush, overgrown and quieter planet. There are no zombies, but there’s also no technology.
And secondly, it shows us something we haven’t yet experienced: an end date. The pandemic doesn’t last forever and life goes on afterwards, very differently but very beautifully. Station Eleven is less interested in the virus and more about what survives it – when the world has become a lush, overgrown and quieter planet. There are no zombies, but there’s also no technology. Life on earth has a 1700’s feel to it, for the most part – but what they lack in smart phones, they make up for in art.
Our eyes and ears of the pandemic start with Kristen, a very serious eight-year-old who gets separated from her adults on the night of the pandemic and ends up attaching herself to Jeevan, a nice but not particularly ambitious 30-something male who’s also trying to get home, but feels guilty in letting this child catch the train home alone as festive Chicago disintegrates into chaos.
(“I’m a reporter… like a reporter. Or a cultural critic slash… I had a website. I create content… I don’t have a job,” is how Jeevan answers Kristen’s question of what does he do for work as they travel on the train together. “It must be hard not knowing what you want to be,” Kristen answers kindly, already the adult in the friendship.)
While on the train, Jeevan’s doctor sister rings him with a warning that it’s too late to run and he has to get inside. “Build a barricade… it’s your only chance of surviving.” Jeevan and Kirsten end up becoming stranded together for the next year, at first in Jeevan’s brother’s apartment and then later, out in the wild.
But 20 years later, there’s no sign of Jeevan and Kristen is part of an acting troupe called The Travelling Symphony – a ragtag bunch of artists who travel around and perform Shakespeare for the surviving factions of people.
But while technology disappears, cultural artefacts remain: Hamlet, Lisa Loeb’s Stay, a beloved comic book, the ‘July 4th’ speech from Independence Day are all passed down the generations with equal reverence.
The troupe’s tagline – borrowed from Star Trek – is ‘Survival is insufficient’ and that’s exactly the theme of the show. As much as the doom is very gloomy when it happens, it’s ultimately a series about hope and art and love, about what survives when all of our things – and many of our people – have disappeared for good. Items from our 2022 present – smart phones, televisions – are such archaic mementos they literally belong in the makeshift ‘Museum of Civilisation’.
But while technology disappears, cultural artefacts remain: Hamlet, Lisa Loeb’s Stay, a beloved comic book, the ‘July 4th’ speech from Independence Day are all passed down the generations with equal reverence. I would not have expected a show about a pandemic to be one of the most hopeful, heart-warming and poignant viewing experiences I’ve had in my life but here we are. We live in strange times – but Station Eleven is a celebration of what it means to be human, and what is worth saving.