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‘Station Eleven,’ like the Shakespeare that sustains it, is something of a miracle

A man and a little girl stand before a frosted window with hearts on it
Himesh Patel and Matilda Lawler in “Station Eleven.”
(HBO Max)

“Station Eleven,” whose first three episodes (of 10) premiered Thursday on HBO Max, is a post-post-apocalypse tale, set largely two decades into the future — 2040 by the series’ timeline — and also just as and some time before a flu pandemic wipes out nearly everybody on Earth. The years of chaos have largely passed, and the survivors we meet, in the environs of the Great Lakes, live a largely communitarian, pastoral life, free from the usual neo-feudal warlords and Mad Max types; it is more Renaissance Faire than New Dark Ages.

Like Emily St. John Mandel’s 2014 novel, on which it’s based but from which it departs significantly in details, events, characters and characterizations, it jumps between periods to build out character relations and motivations, and to plant the seeds of coincidence that will flower into closure.

It is an action film nearly drained of action. There is only one brief big special effect to denote the End of the World, which is largely handled through absence, as people lock themselves away in hope of survival or die off-camera — empty public places, shots of stranded cars, piles of snow and ranks of icicles where a functioning society would have called in the plows and heaters, and quick cuts between the before and after. Silence and stillness are the series’ aesthetic hallmarks, against which even small gestures register. When something violent happens, it is against that same unemphatic, unexplicit background, minus disturbing sound effects and musical underscoring. (There is some sparing, canny use of 20th century pop music, including a moving live rendition, for voice and tuba, of “Midnight Train to Georgia.”)

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The first images in the series are of a Chicago theater overtaken by wildlife, which quickly flash back to “the present” — Christmas 2020 — where Arthur Leander (Gael García Bernal), a stage actor turned movie star returning to the stage, has a heart attack while playing King Lear; and Jeevan Chaudhary (Himesh Patel), an EMT in training, goes onstage to try to help and later takes charge of Kirsten (Matilda Lawler), a child actor whose caretakers have vanished. In the course of attempting to deliver her to her parents, Jeevan gets a call from his sister, an emergency room doctor, who tells him to take cover.

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Earlier on the same day (we will eventually see), Arthur is visited by Miranda (Danielle Deadwyler), an ex who has brought him a couple of copies of a graphic novel she has just had privately printed called “Station Eleven,” about an astronaut stranded above a dying world. One of these finds its way into Kirsten’s hands and will become a linchpin to the story; phrases from the boom repeat in unexpected places, resonating with action and creating a mystery: “I remember damage. Then escape.” And, “To the monsters, we are the monsters.” And, “I have found you nine times before, maybe 10, and I’ll find you again.”

In a later flashback, set earlier and picturing the meeting of Arthur and Miranda, we meet Arthur’s old friend Clark (David Wilmot, bringing the Irish), who used to act but now works as a “CEO whisperer.” ”Civilization is a complex self-correcting mechanism,” Clark will have occasion to observe, “as complex as a person, only self-aware to a degree.”

Twenty years later in a brave new world with significantly fewer people in it, Kirsten, now played by Mackenzie Davis, is a member of the Traveling Symphony, a collective of itinerant actors and musicians who perform Shakespeare to small communities in a circuit around Lake Michigan they call “The Wheel” and to which they adhere with almost superstitious rigor. “We try to make the world make sense for a minute,” says the Conductor (Lori Petty), who composes for and leads the orchestra.

Modern technology is a thing of the past — cars and trucks are drawn by horses now — but art has survived. What ought to be preserved and what should be left behind is a central theme that determines the course of more than one relationship.

A woman rides a horse as people look on in a scene from  "Station Eleven."
Mackenzie Davis in the post-post-apocalyptic society of “Station Eleven.”
(Ian Watson/HBO Max)

For all their differences, the novel and the miniseries agree that art is sustaining. “Survival is insufficient” is the troupe’s motto, a line, as has often been noted, borrowed from an episode of “Star Trek: Voyager.” Shakespeare, of course, is the right writer for this job, a miracle regularly performed four centuries on, on stage and screen. (Joel Coen’s film of “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” with Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand, opens in theaters Christmas Day and streams on Apple TV+ Jan. 14.)

The forests and fields through which the players ramble suggest some of Shakespeare’s most enchanted settings — the Forest of Arden where an exiled duke and his followers “live like the old Robin Hood of England” or the woods outside of Athens where “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (a play performed in the book but not the series) takes place. Even for a person like me more accustomed to asphalt and concrete, there is romance in this future Old World, even stripped of the machines that have made the series and this review possible.

The series’ several plotlines, which tend to tie eventually into neat bows, mean there are a lot of characters. The performances, in a cast that also includes Enrico Colantoni, Caitlin FitzGerald and David Cross, are all unimpeachable, but the series depends especially on the excellent Davis and Lawler, who are particularly well-matched as young and old Kirsten, deep, intense, fretful and brave. Formed by the old times and the new times and the time between, Kirsten is the series’ main protagonist and heroine, a character one might encounter in any number of YA fantasy novels, if perhaps a more psychologically fraught one. Having come of age in an era of mass death and (unpictured) horror, she has one eye always out for danger. She carries knives and has a wrist tattooed with marks for the people she has had to kill. “You’re charged with that Day Zero pain,“ a mysterious character, later identified as the Prophet (Daniel Zovatto), tells her. “It’s like you never left.”

Kirsten has a highly protective, sisterly-maternal relation with Alexandra (Philippine Velge), a younger member of the troupe, born after the pandemic, who is less suspicious of strangers and growing interested in the world beyond the Traveling Symphony, raising a point with some relevance to our own pandemic: What should we fear, and when should we let go of fear? (With the difference, of course, that this pandemic is not actually over.) That older people are worried about things that younger people are not, because they have lived through them, is of course every generation’s story.

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As adapted by showrunner Patrick Somerville (“Maniac”), the story can get messy. There are times — I would be more definite but for spoilers — when the desire for an effect seems to be driving the narrative, rather than its being allowed to emerge naturally, or logically, from situation or character. One of the more striking oddities, generating key scenes, is the notion that having once appeared in, or read, or been informed that for the first time you are going to participate in a play — a Shakespeare play — you can pull off a central performance within hours.

Though “Lear” kicks things off, and provides some meaningful lines (“The worst is not as long as we can say this is the worst”), Somerville has made “Hamlet” the troupe’s central performance and at times a strained metaphor. (The Traveling Symphony itself becomes a sort of “Hamlet” reference, like the players who come to Elsinore, to a similarly triggering effect.) “Hamlet” is, among many other things, a play about playacting, which makes it useful to the present purpose, and a play whose importance precedes it, one that viewers are likely to recognize and even know well. But the arc of “Station Eleven,” and what might be called its extended family drama, is less “Hamlet,” with its stage of littered dead, than it is “The Winter’s Tale,” with its several reunions. And if “Station Eleven” relies a little much on coincidence, the Bard of Avon was no stranger to that stratagem.

Style, or stylishness, frequently substitutes for substance in TV series and films; they can look good and have nothing to say, and many are happy with that. Still, if “Station Eleven” were less well made, its content would have less, perhaps little force — which, after all, might be true of all art: Shakespeare is Shakespeare not because of his plots but because of his poetry.

On the style-substance spectrum, “Station Eleven” registers as a flawed but engrossing work whose narrative imperfections are masked by the considerable craft of its execution. (Hiro Murai and Christian Sprenger, the director and director of photography of the first and second episode, previously teamed on “Atlanta.”) And where it stumbles in terms of sense is often when it is also most beautiful. Shakespeare himself got away with that more than a few times.

‘Station Eleven’





Where: HBO Max

When: Anytime

Rated: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)






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