“There is no before.” This is a phrase that is repeated many times throughout HBO’s recent limited-series STATION ELEVEN. One cannot help thinking about it in the context of our current world situation. It’s unlikely things will ever go back to exactly the way we were “before”. Coincidentally, the series is about a deadly flu virus that wipes out most of the earth’s population during the winter of 2020-2021. Based on the 2014 novel by Canadian author Emily St. John Mandel, STATION ELEVEN joins a long list of content about the near-apocalypse of the human race. The rest of the story, tone, characters, and just about everything else are incredibly unique and quickly won me over. STATION ELEVEN is one of the best limited-series I’ve seen in the 2000s, quite possibly ever.
You might be thinking – oh another show about a plague? Stephen King’s THE STAND wrapped up less than a year ago. The tone of this series has more in common with THE LEFTOVERS, although not as grim and grounded more in reality. One of the many wonderful things about STATION ELEVEN is that we barely see the flu that kills almost everyone. This is a story about survival, hope, and human connection. The title stems from a graphic novel written within the series by one of the lovely characters we meet. Even though only a few copies of it exist within the story, it’s had a profound effect on many of our protagonists.
At the center of the story are Kirsten, an 8-year old stage actor, and Jeevan, an audience member at Kirsten’s play. A chance circumstance at the onset of the pandemic leads these strangers to form a kinship they’ll both need to survive. Newcomer Matilda Lawler as young Kirsten is a break-out star, showing deep emotion and maturity in every scene, while MacKenzie Davis as adult Kirsten is also incredible. Speaking of break-out stars, you might recognize Jeevan (Himesh Patel) from TENET or YESTERDAY, or perhaps East Enders if you’re a Brit. Jeevan was my favorite character of the series, the most unlikely of heroes, and absolutely the type of paragon we need now in real life. As far as great fictional protagonists of the 21st century go, I’d put Jeevan near the top, which is saying something since we’ve had a lot of excellent content these last two decades. Each episode shifts effortlessly between small focuses on one or two characters’ perspectives to the larger ensemble cast of interconnected lives and stories.
At the heart of the STATION ELEVEN is the survival of art and our very human connection to it – whether it be a book, a comic, a Shakespearean play, a song, or a piece of music. Almost the entire world’s population has died off, but art lives on. Here it not only drives the characters’ hope and optimism, but it also becomes a crutch that some rely on so heavily, they’re unable to see a bigger world around them. STATION ELEVEN isn’t the first apocalyptic tale to ask “What do we become when we’ve lost everything that made us who we are?”, but it is unique in how it examines and answers that.
As we enter year 3 of a worldwide pandemic, it’s comforting to find art that is both inspirational and aspirational. That challenges us in such a way that when we hear “There is no before”, we have to ask ourselves – what about before do we truly want to keep and what do we want to leave in the past?
STATION ELEVEN, the entire limited series, is streaming on HBO Max.