Station Eleven barters in stories, investigating how art functions as an extension of ourselves and fills in the gaps when communication stutters. At the heart of the story, the “terrified carnival of trauma” known as the Traveling Symphony performs Shakespeare, and a breadth of art thrives within the show’s world. But HBO Max’s miniseries also dwells in the small fictions resting in our language, and in the show’s finale “Unbroken Circle,” the most heartbreaking story is also the shortest—a simple fabrication intended to assure normalcy to people who need it for a few more seconds: “Well folks, looks like it’s going to be a little longer.”
Miranda Carroll (a showstopping Danielle Deadwyler) lays dying in Malaysia from the lethal Georgia Flu, a viral epidemic in the process of annihilating 99% of the world’s population. But even as she sees her own ending written out, Miranda seeks to protect an old friend and her former love’s child, currently safe in the isolated Severn City airport. Adrift on the tarmac, Gitchegumee Air Flight 452 has been infected; already, it’s part of a ghost story. Miranda, in her plea to convince the plane’s pilot to not disembark, turns to the method of communication she knows best. She tells him a story—how her entire family died in Hurricane Hugo when a live wire floated in their house, electrocuting everyone but the girl sketching atop the kitchen counter. Captain Hugo, named for the same hurricane that wrecked Miranda’s life, turns on the intercom.
Emily St. John Mandel’s source novel about a troupe of actors focuses on the cultural response to a post-apocalyptic event, casting art as an innate human characteristic to make sense of a deeply transformed world. The message shines right there on the side of the Traveling Symphony’s wagons, the line itself borrowed from Star Trek: Voyager: “Survival is insufficient.” Heady material, sure, but what sets the show apart is its refusal to make grandiose proclamations about resilience or how trauma paves the way for character development. Instead, things are just as they are. Showrunner Patrick Somerville takes this idea and digs into it with dialogue that shifts between the lyrical and the plain, getting to the core of how people use storytelling to shape their reality. The show recognizes Clark’s callous interpretation of the people aboard Gitchegumee 452 as a fiction in itself, a way to make himself feel better. Art is an extension of that instinct.
Throughout its 10 episodes, Station Eleven preoccupies itself with gaps in language and communication. Arthur speaks callously about Miranda to his family in Spanish; only later does Tyler ambiguously reveal she could understand him all along. When Frank and Jeevan struggle to take care of Kirsten, they resort to speaking in Hindi to shield her from their situation’s despair, although she can still clearly read their body language. After Kirsten and Jeevan are separated, he can only describe her as “just someone I ended up with.” The words don’t come close to grasping the richness of their relationship, but they’re the only words he has to delineate a new type of relationship. People invent fiction around their lives, talking to the dead and the lost and conceptualized. The fictional Dr. Eleven knocks on a dying Miranda’s door, letting her glimpse the space station that’s frequented her thoughts for years: “I have found you nine times before, maybe 10, and I’ll find you again.”
Similarly, Station Eleven’s in-universe comic book needles itself into Kirsten’s consciousness in a time marred by collective trauma and individual grief. Two things can be true: In cardboard costumes and with its specific world-building terms like the Undersea, the book starts to sound a bit silly, the way all high-concept science fiction and fantasy stories start to sound silly from the outside. Characters recite the novel’s lines like gospel, but the show recognizes that not everyone will find its philosophy profound. Think of Jeevan, mauled by a wolf and painfully making his way back home, flipping through the book during a moment’s rest. “So pretentious!” he groans, slamming it into the snow. The book also brings a great deal of comfort to Kirsten, and helps her process the world around her.
But since to be human is to be flawed, the show wisely rejects a rose-colored lens of what it means to create. Station Eleven the novel sustains Kirsten and Tyler, but it also confines them. Tyler uses the book to indoctrinate children, who latch onto the story and have a distorted perception of reality. Miranda’s single-mindedness on finishing the book damaged her relationships. In the finale, Kirsten seems to let go of the book’s dominance on her life when she allows Haley to run off with her physical copy; she’ll remember the words regardless if she still treats them as scripture. But it’s discomforting watching Tyler and Elizabeth head off with their children’s crusade. (And even if Alex is a 20-year-old adult capable of making her own decisions, clearly she still needs some guidance when she gets taken in by the same rhetoric targeted predominantly at preteens.)
Kirsten’s transition in the finale from actor to director comes naturally. Just as she cast Frank in his own death scene 20 years prior, she orchestrates the Traveling Symphony’s performance of Hamlet as an in-house family drama, casting Tyler as Hamlet and Elizabeth as Gertrude. Somewhere, Freud twitches in his grave, but these roles are perfect for the tortured son and the mom who can’t connect with him. Clark demands the role of Claudius for himself. He previously scoffed that this isn’t art therapy, but in flickering torchlight and spotlight alike, that’s what it becomes. Under the guise of the play, the three characters turned actors unload two decades of grief, anger, and resentment. The moment could’ve felt hokey, but the show has done the groundwork on these characters, how Tyler has always shaped his reality through narrative. Performing brings them catharsis, signaling a path toward healing.
Perhaps key to the show’s idea of art as a way of processing grief, Station Eleven favors the concept of art as a communal experience, something you participate in whether as a creator or an active spectator. (This is where the Museum of Civilization falters with its silent curios from the past.) From Frank’s left-field performance of “Excursions” by A Tribe Called Quest against a stuttering interview tape’s beat to a bombastic presidential monologue from Independence Day, to the finale’s gorgeous rendition of “Midnight Train to Georgia’’ performed by Deborah Cox, the most meaningful performances share feelings of togetherness. Kirsten dances with Frank and Jeevan, the Traveling Symphony encourages auditionee Dan with their cheers, a crowd gently sways in peace.
All these moments carry weight, showing how Station Eleven suggests that what exact stories we tell is slightly inconsequential. What matters more is that we tell them at all. Released in the muddy middle of a pandemic, the finale is a beautiful curtain call to a series that became the very thing it endeavored to be about.
Annie Lyons is a culture writer from Austin, Texas who loves all things coming-of-age and romantic comedy. You can find her on Twitter @anniexlyons probably debating another Moonstruck rewatch.
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