When it comes to TV and movies, you, like me, may not want to see any more apocalypse now. You’d prefer to get some delicatessen or warm up the leftovers, take the road — but definitely not the fury road — to a quiet place, and watch anything other than yet another doomsday set under falling skies. At this point, you judge dread negatively. You’d rather go under the dome protected by barbed wire, metaphorically, or just hide out on the beach, than submit to the 100 — but probably a lot more — tales of contagion, last resort, and invasion.
But “Station Eleven” is a whole different story.
The 10-episode HBO Max limited series, which came to an end this week, is a post-apocalyptic tale with a deeply affirmative twist, as it’s more about the value of storytelling than it is about the usual grimy survivors battling for resources and power. It’s about the role of the arts in our humanity. I’ve fallen into the show despite being exhausted by the genre, and despite the fact that, with the current pandemic and the climate crisis, real life is presenting us with its own immersive terrors, and despite the fact that, since the end of the world as we know it on “Station Eleven” is caused by a lightning-fast pandemic, the premise of the show hits a little too close to home. Based on the 2014 novel by Emily St. John Mandel, and adapted by Patrick Somerville, it’s actually a surprisingly appropriate story at this moment, embracing new life more than it grieves what has been lost.
Of course there’s sorrow afoot during the bulk of the show, which is largely set 20 years after Day Zero, the name for the start of the nightmare. I don’t mean to suggest that the civilization that has survived is cold, with no emotional hangover from having lost so many people so suddenly, much faster than the pace of COVID. They are not the walking emotionally dead. But their focus is on how to rehumanize, how to forge an existence in a place whose cities are overgrown with weeds. Life has become tribal, with small communities of people caring for one another, and with one tribe in particular, a collection of actors and musicians, calling themselves the Traveling Symphony.
The show opens in an empty, dilapidated theater, then quickly flashes back to a production of “King Lear” staged there 20 years earlier, in 2020. Right from the start you know that the arts will be a significant part of the story. An actor collapses onstage in the middle of the show, triggering a series of events that leave our 8-year-old heroine, Kirsten (Matilda Lawler), in the hands of a compassionate stranger just as the pandemic destroys most of the people (including Kirsten’s parents) in its path. In 2040, Kirsten (played as an adult by Mackenzie Davis) is with the Traveling Symphony, whose name is a lot grander than its more rustic reality. They go from tribe to tribe, performing various Shakespeare plays and music, with Kirsten one of the troupe’s most committed actors. When she plays Hamlet at one point, she is telling both his and her stories at the same time, and it’s magnificent.
The Traveling Symphony isn’t a small part of post-apocalyptic life in “Station Eleven.” In the show’s vision of rebuilding, the troupe is a bringer of hope as it tours the Great Lakes region, a reflection of the depth and breadth of humanity, and a means for individual expression, and audiences wait eagerly for its annual visits. You’d think that the arts would be the first things to go when most of the world’s population has been felled, but that’s not the case here. The troupe’s slogan, taken from “Star Trek,” is “Survival is insufficient,” by which they mean that merely finding food is not enough. Survival is about about seeing and understanding ourselves in stories, it’s about sharing those understandings with others, including future generations.
“Station Eleven” also explores the power of art through the titular graphic novel, which Kirsten has held onto since the world changed. It has become her bible of sorts, as well as her connection to the before times, and through it she sees her own way forward. Lines from it, such as “I remember damage,” are written on her soul, and its story, about a lonely astronaut orbiting the planet, speaks directly to her. Even a dog-eared comic book has the power to last in a world where people are a lot less durable. Art reaches across time — a bit like the series, which elegantly (unlike many recent shows) moves between time frames, from before, during, and after the catastrophe.
Faced with a rogue prophet who wants to erase all remnants of the before times, the Traveling Symphony cling more than ever to their texts. The arts are their record of the past, and, as with the show “Station Eleven” itself, their cautionary tales about what might come next.