Based on the novel by Emily St. John Mandel, STATION ELEVEN (HBO) is a miniseries about a group of connected people experiencing the end of the world due to a superflu and the efforts to carry on and rebuild civilization in the aftermath. Beautifully directed, well acted, and emotionally powerful, the effort fell a bit short for me in coherence and believable character motivation, resulting in a show that seemed to say, “Don’t think too hard, just feel.”
I’d read the novel and found it very well written and rich in nostalgia and feeling even if I wasn’t sure what it was all for or trying to do other than say we’re all connected and don’t want to be alone. The story just sort of ends without really tying it all together other than in a very general theme. So I was curious about what direction a screen adaptation might take.
During a presentation of Shakespeare’s KING LEAR in Chicago, a famous movie actor playing the star role dies of a heart attack just before the world begins to fall apart in a mass die-off due to a new superflu that mutates, becoming highly contagious and lethal. What we see is a group of people all connected to this actor and a graphic novel his estranged ex Miranda created, titled STATION ELEVEN, as they live their lives before the flu, suffer the end of the world, and survive in the aftermath.
There is no single main character, though if one were to be chosen, it would fall on Kirsten, who at the age of eight served as the actor’s understudy for KING LEAR, survived with two brothers, and years later is a performer in an acting and musical group known as The Traveling Symphony, which tours settlements each year performing Shakespeare. Trouble arrives when a settlement calling itself the Museum of Civilization wants them to come perform, while a mysterious group of children led by a man called The Prophet seemingly wants to destroy all vestiges of the old so the world can renew itself with a clean slate.
It starts off like a literary and apocalyptic dream, quite beautifully directed with numerous artistic touches and plenty of attention for detail such as an apocalyptic Chicago. The show writers made some directions that went off the novel that I thought were fairly worthwhile, fleshing things out and tying the people together more closely while more deeply exploring the ideas of Shakespeare’s HAMLET, about a young man angry at his absent father and resorting to destruction to make his own mark. (With the exception of a young Kirsten, the young do not come off well in all this, deranged and angry and lashing out at being denied an inheritance their elders know but they themselves don’t even understand.) Unfortunately, the way it comes together in the last act felt forced for me as I puzzled over character motivations and became uncertain even about the story’s coherence. As a result, a lot of the soaring emotional impact the show intended to deliver in the last act was kind of lost on me.
Overall, I liked STATION ELEVEN–loved it, actually–for its better qualities. I just wish its conclusion realized its ambition by coming together with greater clarity.