When my mother told me that Station Eleven was “the best show she’d ever seen,” I was mildly skeptical. I would regret thinking that one episode in.
Station Eleven is an HBO Max mini-series adapted from the book of the same name by Emily St. John Mandel. It follows the survivors of a pandemic between 2020 and 2040. The main characters are an aspiring actor, Kirsten (played by Matilda Lawler and Mackenzie Davis), and an audience member, Jeevan (Himesh Patel), who meet in December 2020 (outbreak day) at a production of King Lear. The show switches between the beginning of the outbreak and twenty years later, following a group of traveling actors and musicians, aptly named The Travelling Symphony.
While being a postapocalyptic show, Station Eleven differs from its competitors because instead of focusing on survival, it focuses on art and human connection. The Traveling Symphony, as a large group of artists (pretty much a huge family) are a perfect manifestation of this theme. Two character relationships that stand out are between Kirsten and Alex (Kirsten’s adopted sister, played by Phillippine Velge) and Kirsten and Sarah (the composer for The Traveling Symphony, played by Lori Petty). Without spoiling too much, these relationships both tie to the show’s ultimate themes and mirror previous events in Kirsten’s life that are slowly revealed to the audience. Her relationship with Alex is especially unique due to how it mirrors her relationship with Jeevan and the conflict that tears them apart.
The connection to art and relationships doesn’t stop there, though. The Prophet’s (played by Daniel Zovatto) relationship to his family is narratively paralleled to that of Hamlet, the play the Travelling Symphony performs in the last half of the series. Shakespeare plays are a huge motif in the show, with the first episode of Station Eleven opening on a Broadway staging of King Lear, a meta choice for a show focused on art and a traveling theater group. Arthur Leander (played by Gael García Bernal) and his friend Clark Tompson (played by David Wilmot) repeatedly compare themselves to characters from Hamlet,Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, which connects to their arcs through the show.
In addition to the complex characters and narrative, the cinematography and sound design shine throughout Station Eleven. Not only is the camera work beautiful, but shots only tell the bare minimum that the audience needs to piece the narrative together. Certain framings of characters and visual motifs are brought up in different episodes to represent the passage of time and events’ lasting effects. The music also follows suit, stirring emotions as chaotic chords collide with climatic scenes.
The most important art-related aspect of Station Eleven, however, is the graphic novel. In-universe, Station Eleven refers to a graphic novel illustrated and written by a character named Miranda Carroll (played by Danielle Deadwyler). The Station Eleven graphic novel is, pretty much, one huge foreshadowing and thematic device. While some plot of the graphic novel is revealed (it follows an astronaut, named Dr. Eleven, who is stranded in space) it mainly connects to Miranda’s own life and decisions. As both a graphic novelist and writer, Miranda embodies the importance of art, specifically as a tool to process trauma.
This integration of the graphic novel contributes to how Station Eleven reveals its plot to the viewer in a nonlinear way. You won’t get the full reasoning behind each character’s actions, or even the full context for scenes at times. The show reveals just enough information for the viewer to piece it all together in a way that is immensely satisfying. Harsh cuts and auditory motifs help integrate flash-backs and small amounts of context to keep the viewer on edge. They can also give more context to a character’s actions by splitting the present moment with a parallel of something from their past.
The most important phrase from the graphic novel is the “I remember damage” speech. If you find and listen to a recording or clip with no further context of the show, without its arcs and its final conclusion, it sounds nice but won’t make complete sense. With a full understanding of Station Eleven’s foreshadowing, character connections and message, however, it carries an immense amount of meaning. Ultimately, the point of Station Eleven as a show is about the value of love, art, and caring for one another–which is why you should watch it.