The Unlikely Brilliance of Station Eleven‘s Hamlet ScenePhoto Courtesy of HBO Max TV Features Station Eleven
It wasn’t until after I finished watching the Station Eleven finale that it hit me, and it didn’t hit me naturally, but only because a friend mentioned it. We were discussing what we had just seen, and our conversation immediately turned to the play from the middle of the episode, a shortened version of Act 1, Scene 2 from Hamlet.
“I feel like if the story had been carried through any other way,” he said, “that would have been so on the nose that it made you wince.”
This comment really opened my eyes, because he was absolutely right. If you’re reading this, my hope is that you’ve already seen the finale and aren’t spoiling it for yourself, so I’ll take the shortcut to the premise leading up to the scene: Kirsten has convinced Elizabeth that in order to truly communicate with her long-lost son, Tyler, she must play Gertrude in the upcoming performance and Tyler must play Hamlet. Clark, as a condition of approving the change, casts himself as Claudius. Each character not only memorizes the required text, but performs it sublimely—including one character who has never acted before—and in the eight-minute scene that follows, the interpersonal drama of decades plays out on stage and leads to a long-awaited catharsis.
Seeing this laid out in words, without the context of the actual show, how would you describe it? Someone like me, who is constantly bothered by unrealistic behavior or plots in TV shows to the point of annoying people around me—perhaps to the point of being persnickety or snobby— would quickly reach for a word like “contrived,” or worse.
So why, instead, did I spend the eight minutes of that scene (self-embarrassment alert) crying? Why did it take a third party to make me even vaguely aware of the potential forced artifice of that premise? Why, now aware of that possibility, did I just watch it again, on a freezing morning in a furnished shed that has not sufficiently warmed up, and have the same exact reaction as the first time around?
The short answer is “art.” As in, the undeniable sheer ungodly force of great art that overwhelms all your defenses. Which leads to another word: “immersion.” How can you be anything but grateful that after consuming so much content over so many years, something like the Station Eleven finale, and that scene in particular, can capture you so completely that it’s impossible to retreat into a space of sober rationality, impossible to resist being carried away into their world to the point that, for at least one hour, you are in reality, and you’d no more nitpick the premise than you’d nitpick the truth of the sunrise outside your window on any morning?
We can only ever write about these things from a point of personal bias, but to me, it’s the most affecting scene of television I’ve ever watched, or at least that I can remember. The entire finale was gorgeous, and if you had laid it out to me beforehand, I would have guessed that the reunion of Kirsten and Jeevan would be the centerpiece. Instead, all I can think about is the Hamlet scene. The “why” of it is tricky, because it depends on so many elements working in unison, and on so much story that built up over the preceding nine hours. There’s also the sense that by trying to explain it, I’m trying to put a label on magic; the dramatic equivalent of explaining a perfect joke.
But I’ll give it a shot: Yes, the build-up matters quite a lot, and after the total success of the first nine episodes, I came into the finale primed for something special. Within that framework, nothing about the set-up felt off-putting, but rather like the natural last steps before an explosion. Appropriately, for a show about the redemptive power of art, that explosion came in the form of theater, and was utterly transporting. In that scene, you can’t isolate any one element—the gorgeous costumes, the flickering torch-light, the swelling orchestra (not since Wes Anderson and Mark Mothersbaugh can I remember a more perfect combination of acting and music, right down to the harpsichord—take a bow, Dan Romer), and of course the performances. In a show where the two Kirstens, Mackenzie Davis and Matilda Lawler, have earned the lion’s share of praise (and rightfully so), David Wilmot as Clark might be one of the most underrated performers in the past few years of television. He has been magnificent at every turn, and no more so than here as Claudius. Opposite him, Daniel Zovatto emerges from the defensive, almost smug posture that defines him as the Prophet, and true to Kirsten’s prediction, shows profound vulnerability in a moment that is doubly intense and doubly moving because this is a range that Zovatto has saved for the moment of greatest impact. When he puts his knife to Clarke’s throat, and Clarke responds with that beautiful line, “I loved him too, Tyler,” it’s almost too devastating to bear.
The direction, too, is in perfect harmony. Just before the climactic line, there are two cutaways to Tyler as a child, once with his mother, and once with Clark. It’s the briefest reminder of what came before—the pain, but also the love, the desperate need they all feel to embrace one another, and the forces that acted in opposition to that pure love and pulled them apart. Tyler wants to murder Clark, but he also wants to be held by him, to be loved, and those dueling emotional impulses work between every character here, and every direction, such that they find the ideal resolution in this play that represents the most famous depiction of a conflicted family. And this, too, is a coup—Station Eleven, among everything else it does, heightens our appreciation for a writer whose piercing gift is always in danger of being lost to the distance of academia and language.
And what more is there to say? Even the writing of this essay is little more than me feeling compelled to recognize something great, to share that feeling with other people in the world who I know are feeling the same thing; to point at a work of art and say, “this was stunning.” Most of all, I’m impressed with the bravery of the creators, for the act of making a show about art, envisioning this artistic payoff, and knowing, because they’re so clearly intelligent, that if they didn’t pull it off, they’d look foolish in the process. They were vulnerable here too, but they leaned into that vulnerability rather than looking for an escape. It would have been so easy to guide this terrific season to a safe landing, but they’ve operated under the principle that great art doesn’t come without risk, and they saved their greatest gamble—and by far their greatest payoff—for last.
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