The timing of HBO Max’s Station Eleven is either unfortunate or spectacular, depending how you look at it. The 10-part adaptation of Emily St. John Mandel’s acclaimed novel, about the aftermath of a flu pandemic that wipes out most of humanity, arrives while we are still fretting about the impact each new Covid variant will have on our lives. Many viewers may simply not have the tolerance for scenes where people cough in public spaces, hoard supplies, or debate the efficacy of masks against an airborne plague.
But the majority of the limited series — adapted by Patrick Somerville (Maniac) and primarily directed by Atlanta’s Hiro Murai — takes place 20 years in the future, when Kirsten (Mackenzie Davis) tours the Midwest with a company of actors and musicians (the “Traveling Symphony”) who perform Shakespeare for survivors eager to experience any bit of culture from the world they once knew. And the exploration of what art can and cannot heal, as well as what pieces of society could — and should — potentially survive such an apocalypse, feels even more relevant and powerful than when the book was published in 2014.
The first episode in particular feels like a high barrier to entry, albeit a necessary one, as it depicts the period immediately before the apocalypse and then the terrible day when the world seemingly dies all at once. There are some interesting inversions of what we know from Covid times — a young Kirsten (Matilda Lawler, expertly matching Davis’ expressive and eerily composed performance) and her accidental guardian Jeevan (Himesh Patel in an effective everyman turn) go on a shopping spree at a grocery store devoid of people but full of food — but it’s still rough sledding even in the age of vaccine boosters. Smartly, HBO Max is dropping the first three episodes all at once. The second takes us into the future timeline where the adult Kirsten is with the Traveling Symphony, while the third revisits the pandemic from an entirely different angle, following Miranda (Danielle Deadwyler), a shipping logistics expert who also happened to write the sci-fi graphic novel that has become a lifetime obsession for Kirsten, and was briefly married to Kirsten’s mentor Arthur (Gael Garcia Bernal). It’s enough to suggest the varied and quirky ways the miniseries will approach material that feels so delicate at this moment in time.
Somerville wrote for HBO’s The Leftovers, and his take on Station Eleven feels kindred in both its profound emotionality (keep tissues handy) and its defiantly idiosyncratic nature. Yes, it’s a postapocalyptic drama, but a weird and whimsical one. Events of Kirsten’s life keep echoing the plot of Miranda’s comic, just as almost everyone she encounters — including a charismatic cult leader (Daniel Zovatto), Arthur’s widow Elizabeth (Caitlin FitzGerald), and his best friend Clark (David Wilmot) — matches up with a character from Hamlet, which is the play Kirsten and her colleagues are performing at the moment. Kirsten theorizes that the comic’s main character is caught in a time loop, and it soon begins to feel as if she and everyone she knows are trapped in similar repeating patterns, in ways that will alternately provoke tears or laughter.
The show’s reliance on flashbacks and other nonlinear storytelling is also by far the smartest and most effective use of those devices TV has seen in quite a while. We see the adult Kirsten, for instance, draw on difficult memories of her early pandemic days with Jeevan and Jeevan’s disabled brother Frank (Nabhaan Rizwan) to help inform her Hamlet performance. The elliptical nature of time is beautifully conveyed by Murai and other directors like Helen Shaver, and Dan Romer’s score is an absolute knockout, elevating moments that are already emotionally potent to the point where they almost feel unfair. (The songs on the soundtrack are just as well-deployed, from Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” to a live rendition of “Midnight Train to Georgia” accompanied by a tuba and keytar.) The performances are all vivid and distinct in both the big roles and the smaller ones, the latter including Lori Petty as the Symphony’s conductor, who brags that her music used to be played on NPR, and Enrico Colantoni sounding not too dissimilar to his performance in Galaxy Quest as the oddball emissary of something called the Museum of Civilization.
Whenever the show seems at risk of getting high on its own supply, Jeevan or another character will point out how irritatingly pretentious the Station Eleven comic is. And despite the seemingly bleak subject matter, and the action and suspense of Kirsten trying to protect her friends from various cults, Station Eleven is often surprisingly goofy and light on its feet. A Symphony fanboy auditions to join the troupe by performing Bill Pullman’s Independence Day monologue, and Veep alum Timothy Simons has perhaps the funniest line delivery of the year in the Miranda episode — albeit one that is hilarious precisely because of the dire circumstances in which it’s spoken. In one episode, young Kirsten enlists Jeevan and Frank to perform a play she’s written based on the graphic novel, and when Frank says the line, “This strange and awful time was the happiest of my life,” it’s not hard to see how it could apply just as much to their reality as to the script.
When Kirsten suggests in a later episode that her traveling symphony’s version of Hamlet might help heal some emotional rifts, Clark scoffs, “It isn’t fucking art therapy; it is civilization!” This beautiful, haunting, and ultimately uplifting show convincingly argues that you can’t have one without the other.
The first three episodes of Station Eleven premiere Dec. 16 on HBO Max, with two episodes releasing each Thursday after that through the Jan. 13 finale. I’ve seen all 10 episodes.