Thursday, May 26

An uplifting pandemic drama? How Station Eleven pulled off the impossible | TV


There is art that mirrors life, life mirroring art – and then there is Station Eleven. In February 2020, filming was under way on an HBO Max adaptation of the critically acclaimed novel, which is set 20 years after a deadly flu outbreak has decimated the global population and brought civilization as we know it to an end. Its plot centers on a nomadic troupe of actors who perform Shakespeare to the scattered settlements of the Great Lakes. But after shooting two episodes showing the “Georgia flu” bringing the city of Chicago to a stop, production was shut down by the very threat it depicted.

The book, which was a bestseller in 2014, was discovered anew as the real-life pandemic made us seek out stories to help process the emerging threat. (See the spike in streams of Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 pandemic thriller Contagion; the return of Camus.) Its author, Emily St John Mandel, is often declared to have “predicted” the future, a claim she resists.

“There are tiers of how much it blew your mind,” says Station Eleven star Mackenzie Davis by phone from Los Angeles. “Talking about a virus making its way round the world from Asia to Europe to Chicago, and then halting production to let that actual event happen – it was really quite chilling.”

If the collapse of fact and fiction was coincidental to the book, it is inherent to the show – and the source of its substantial pathos. Premiering in the UK this week but recently concluded in the US, it has been hailed as a rare uplifting story of the pandemic. Its creator, Patrick Somerville (who also wrote revered post-apocalyptic drama The Leftovers), describes it as: “a post-apocalyptic show about joy”.

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“That’s something I really love about the show … because why survive, if it’s just misery?” says Davis – who is perhaps best known for the Black Mirror episode San Junipero. She plays Kirsten, the Traveling Symphony troupe’s star player, in “year 20” when the threat of the virus is long past and post-pandemic civilization has stabilized. “There has to be something that pushes you to want to live through extreme difficulty and tragedy – and it has to include laughter and joy.”

The events of the 10 episodes tell a story that is extremely nonlinear. Narratives are looping and layered, with the present intruded upon by memories of “year zero”. When the Georgia flu arrives in Chicago, Kirsten is eight years old and acting in a production of King Lear alongside movie star Arthur Leander (Gael García Bernal). Arthur dies on stage, and in the ensuing confusion Kirsten is taken in by audience member Jeevan (Himesh Patel, also seen having a panic attack about the end of the world in Don’t Look Up) and his brother Frank (Nabhaan Rizwan). Meanwhile, Arthur’s ex-wife Miranda (Danielle Deadwyler) has completed her graphic novel, years in the making, about a stranded spaceman –titled Station Eleven.

As society collapses, characters shape each others’ fates in ways that take decades to be uncovered. If these connections sometimes seem dependent on coincidence, they are consistent with how many of us experienced the pandemic: how small our worlds became, the fluidity of past and present.

Matilda Lawler and Himesh Patel in Eleven Station.
Mirroring life… Matilda Lawler and Himesh Patel venture out after lockdown. Photograph: Starzplay

The surrealness of that time still weighs on Davis. “It’s all strange,” she says. “I mean, I keep finding myself in conversations being like: ‘How’s your pandemic? What have you been doing for the last few years?’ Just sort of catching yourself, like, wow, we’re using the word ‘pandemic’ colloquially – the casualness – as a unit of time.”

In the “infinite void” of quarantine, Davis – who holed up with a friend in LA – kept feeling overtaken by memories of places she had once been and past homes. (Davis, 34, is Vancouver-born, but moved from LA to London later in 2020.) “I just kept feeling shuttled back in time, or to other plans of time where I was still living other lives.”

Restarting production on Station Eleven in Toronto in February 2021 – drawing on the recent past, projecting far into the future – blurred her reality even further. “This show was like a living document while we were making it… it felt like excavating the present, in a weird way,” says Davis.

As well as the looping timeline, multiple episodes were shot simultaneously, “so I didn’t have the comfort of thinking: this is a whole narrative with a beginning, middle and end that I fully understand,” she says. “It was weird to explore your relationship to this big, traumatic event when it was still going on, and you had no idea what part of it you were in.”

I found the year zero episodes especially hard to watch, bringing back memories of those weeks in March 2020 when the situation was as fast-moving as it was uncertain; that exhausting oscillation between (as Jeevan succinctly puts it) “it’s going to be OK” and “we’re fucked”. The parallels are often painful: the emptied airports, the thwarted goodbyes, the shortcomings of language. “We need new words,” a woman tells Jeevan, struggling to articulate her relationship to the man she hopes to be reunited with. Depicting a pandemic while actually living it was “an emotionally fraught time”, says Davis. “There were a lot of open, aching hearts.”

Mackenzie Davis in Station Eleven
‘Creation is essential to being alive’ … Mackenzie Davis in Station Eleven. Photograph: HBO Max

The further out from year zero Station Eleven gets, however, the similarities fall away. The Georgia flu quickly ravages the globe, with a survival rate of one in 1,000. In year 20, the trauma of those so-called “first 100” days distinguishes the “pre-pans” from the “post-pans”: the first generation to be born with no memory of the “before”. They press Kirsten for her recollections of smartphones, Uber, the internet. They weren’t that great, she tells them (although she admits she liked Instagram).

What does endure through the collapse of civilization is art: not just Shakespeare but Independence Day, Lisa Loeb, TLC. Even at the violent onset of the pandemic, the instinct to sing, write, stage plays, watch films is as strong as it is to survive.

The young Kirsten clings to Miranda’s self-published graphic novel Station Eleven, its spaceman protagonist’s wistful recollections of a faraway home and the “sweetness of life on Earth” allowing her both to escape her circumstances and process them. “When I read it, it didn’t matter that the world was ending, because it was the world,” she says in year 20, still quoting the story like scripture.

This vision of the post-apocalypse is certainly more peaceful than most, with civilization rebuilt round art and community. The motto of the Traveling Symphony (lifted from Star Trek: Voyager) is “Survival is insufficient”; in humanity and the humanities, Station Eleven suggests, we find something worth living for.

“I like how the show is earnest about the importance of art. It’s not cloying or masturbatory, but it makes the case that creation, for no reason or accolade, is essential to being alive, and I think that’s true,” says Davis.

Kirsten even fulfills her dream of becoming an actor, Davis points out – despite, and because of, her traumatic past. “She figured out how to do it after the world collapsed. There’s something really beautiful about that sort of resilience… You’re always pursuing the thing that makes your heart beat.”

It is a comforting view of the future – but, she adds, humanity’s enormous capacity to adapt is so often applied to the wrong ends. “I think about the space exploration that occurred last year, despite our planet being under the biggest natural threat we’ve ever experienced. This progress at all costs … it’s at the expense of accepting reality.”

Nabhaan Rizwan and Himesh Patel in Station Eleven.
Making the apocalypse look easy? …Station Eleven. Photograph: Parrish Lewis/HBO Max

Indeed, one criticism of Station Eleven the novel was that it made surviving the apocalypse look too easy, with Sigrid Nunez writing in the New York Times in 2014 that Mandel depicted less suffering than the present day.

But the author have said she intended Station Eleven as an appreciation of the best of our world, as much as the story of its end: “a love letter in the form of a requiem”. Whether its vision of a post-pandemic society could arise from our present depends on what we decide to save – you could say we get the apocalypse we deserve.

For now, Station Eleven might be the closest we come to closure. “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” says Davis, quoting the late US writer Joan Didion. “It’s not always beautiful stories, but we crave the sense that there’s some narrator taking care of us, and seeing us through to the end. Because, at the end, things are OK.”

The end might be a way off yet, though. Davis feels the desire for the pandemic to be past, to “declare the end of a thing that isn’t over, because then we can start telling the story of this time … But it’s not a text: it’s not going to end one day , and life gets back to normal. It’s going to bleed into our lives. We’re going to be altered by this for ever.”

Station Eleven is on StarzPlay from Sunday 30 January


www.theguardian.com

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