The past few years have really pushed us to consider what the end of the world might look like. And in that sense, HBO Max’s new series Station Eleven, an adaptation of the apocalyptic 2014 novel by Emily St. John Mandel, has unfortunate (or perhaps auspicious) timing. Who wants to watch a show where the world’s population has been ravaged by a pandemic, where characters suffer through what they have lost and debate if hope is a worthy investment? Who wants to inhabit a dark universe that feels just a branch away from our own?
And yet, the 10-episode miniseries pulls off an incredible feat: it is a masterpiece. The timing of our own pandemic escalates the horror and doom of the show, but also makes every emotional beat even stronger. While COVID-19 remains a fresh wound and Station Eleven is not for the faint of heart, it rewards the viewer by finding the artful beauty in a painful world.
The most impressive aspect of Station Eleven is how it works as an adaptation. It is the rare work of audio-visual media that not only skillfully translates the source material, but at times surpasses it. Showrunner and writer Patrick Somerville (a novelist and writer for TV series such as The Leftovers, Maniac, and Made for Love) invents a new telling of the novel that significantly changes much of the plot from the original, but also reconsiders its stories and characters in a beautiful way.
Station Eleven is the story of a world before and after a mutated flu kills most of the population of Earth. The driving narrative is that of the Traveling Symphony, a group of actors and musicians who perform Shakespeare in this post-apocalyptic existence. The narrative spans both decades before and 20 years after the collapse of civilization, following several characters all connected through actor Arthur Leader (Gael García Bernal) and the comic book his ex-wife Miranda (Danielle Deadwyler) wrote just before the end of the world.
In the novel, the characters act as a tableau showing the interconnected narratives and events that link their experiences. They are just actors in one strange story, showing how people can be tied together even when it feels like everything is scattered and lost. But in this regard they act as fleeting individuals swept up in a larger narrative. The show reinvents them by turning them into people fully realized in their joys, fears, and hopes. There isn’t a weak member here; everyone is imbued with an everlasting soul that lingers through the credits and beyond.
Having seen the full series for review, the most inspired change is the rewriting of Kirsten (Matilda Lawler, later Mackenzie Davis) and Jeevan’s (Himesh Patel) relationship. Their paths never cross much in the novel, but in the show they have the most central relationship that spans the series. Newcomer Lawler shines as a young Kirsten, and Himesh Patel only further proves himself as one of the best up-and-coming actors working today. Every scene with them together is captivating; the two actors immediately have chemistry that you can feel would survive through the end of the world.
But if there is one performance that endures above all else it’s Danielle Deadwyler as Miranda. Miranda is perhaps the most important character to the whole narrative of Station Eleven, having written the comic book that the novel and show are named after. Though she does not take up a significant amount of time in the story, her impact within just a few episodes is layered with grief and determination. As an example of the series at its best, the third episode, “Hurricane,” inhabits Miranda’s life where we can get glimpses of the person she was and the mark she’ll leave on the new world.
The nonlinear narrative of the novel makes for outstanding showcase episodes, as time refuses to be left in the past or unfold on its own in the future. The end result is a series that is all at once, where memories keep the old world alive while a new one unfolds. It also allows for “Station Eleven,” the in-universe comic book, to come to life in the impactful way St. John Mandel wrote it. Not many screen adaptations of novels so defined by language know how to fill that void. Station Eleven cracks the code by finding the perfect blend of sound and images to communicate the wonder and horror of St. John Mandel’s language.
The influence of music and sound on the narrative is one of the standout aspects of Station Eleven. Composer Dan Romer builds an emotionally dynamic score, a spiritual successor to his work on Beasts of the Southern Wild. The collection of acoustic guitars and horns evoke a world rebuilding itself with the remains of what survives-the types of songs that you might hear through distant trees. But it’s accompanied by the pop music of a time in the past, both with acoustic covers and the original versions, as the world of before refuses to leave the minds of those who survived.
Station Eleven remakes itself by taking the casual themes of the novel and making them the bones of the series. The Traveling Symphony already stood for the resilient nature of art, combined with Kirsten’ love for the “Station Eleven” comic book. But the show also leans into the impact art can have on the world, and how it’s possible to both create new art or inhabit what has already been made. The performances by the Symphony work even better on the screen than on the page, evoking some career-high scenes for Mackenzie Davis.
Further, the show replaces the themes of religious zealotry with that of obsession and an inability to cope with what has been lost. It is something that makes Somerville’s work on The Leftovers much more apparent, but Station Eleven sides with hope before it ever reaches the depths of The Leftovers’ depression. It also never reaches the cruelty and evil the novel predicts will descend upon the world.
Station Eleven’s pandemic is very different from our own: it is quick. In only a few days the world is forever changed, very few get to say goodbye. The series dives into this pain, and asks if parting is something one can learn to endure in a world that takes each character on their own path. For a series so inspired by the legacy of Shakespeare, it seems fittingly impacted by “parting is such sweet sorrow.” Station Eleven ventures to dwell on both the sweet and sorrow, that both can exist at once all the time.
“I remember damage,” the astronaut left adrift says in the comic book. It’s a line repeated through the series. Memory is a powerful, eternal thing. But the characters of the series can also remember the good, if they’re willing. And they can forge ahead, in a new world that grew from the damage of the old one.
Station Eleven premieres with three episodes Thursday, December 16th on HBO Max, followed by a two-episode release weekly after that.
Leila Jordan is the TV intern for Paste Magazine. To talk about all things movies, TV, and useless trivia you can find her @galaxyleila
For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.