Station Eleven Review: A Hopeful and Human Take on the End of the World

It's December 2021 and humanity is very much living in the after or, perhaps, the during, of a life-altering pandemic. COVID-19 continues to influence our day-to-day with not only infection concerns, but issues with supply chain and shortages as we try to forge forward in a world that is both the same and different jarringly all at once. It's in this strange liminal space that HBO Max's adaptation of Emily St. John Mandel's massively popular 2014 novel about life after a catastrophic pandemic, Station Eleven, arrives and while it may be a stroke of odd timing and even surreal to be considering a book written before the pandemic about a world more dramatically impacted by a hauntingly similar disease as live-action entertainment, don't let any of that keep you from tuning in. The Station Eleven adaptation is a haunting, at times beautiful, and quietly uplifting story about more than simple survival. It's one about hope and the things we hold onto and it is one of the best television series of the year by far.

HBO Max's Station Eleven, somewhat fittingly, treats time very fluidly. In the story, everything begins with an ending, when a flu pandemic wipes out most of humanity with terrifying quickness and efficiency, in a sense changing the way time is perceived within the story. The speed with which the world ends is brought to a fine point in the first episode which opens with a death unconnected to the story's apocalypse but on which much of the rest of the story hinges. Fading actor Arthur Leander (Gael García Bernal) collapses and dies of a heart attack while performing King Lear on stage. It prompts an audience member, Jeevan (Himesh Patel) to try to save his life, ultimately ending up the accidental guardian for a young actor named Kirsten Raymonde (the child version played by Matilda Lawler). What would be just a strange and difficult evening soon takes a life-altering turn when Jeevan is informed by his physician sister that the flu that has been making headlines is vastly more catastrophic than they realized. People are dying within hours, and she urges Jeevan to take shelter with their brother, Frank (Nabhaan Rizwan). He does, taking Kirsten with him for a haunting supply stockpiling trip before holing up for the end of the world.

The first episode, directed by the immeasurably talented Hero Murai, is heady and disorienting, but necessary and if you can get through it — one must recognize that we've all been through our own small end of the world with our own pandemic, so elements of this first episode are almost too real for comfort, despite being beautifully done — the rest of the series is a bit easier to stomach. It also brilliantly sets us up for everything else to come, both in look and feel. Going forward, we end up following a now-grown-up Kirsten (Mackenzie Davis) as a nomadic performer in the Traveling Symphony, a group that brings Shakespeare the remnants of civilization. The story continues to weave back and forth through time, offering breadcrumbs of the early post-pandemic experiences of our characters as well as fleshing out the lives of others. It's at time a little disorienting but disorienting in the way that time loses meaning after trauma. It's an interesting choice, but it's one that allows the series to maintain the rich character study aspect of Mandel's novel despite the adaptation's radical changes. Yes, this series makes some big changes to the book and those changes may at first be a bit difficult for fans of the novel to accept, but they are necessary and incredibly well done. The specific connections between some characters are a bit different, the characterizations of others shift. Even the motivation of the story's antagonist — if you can really call them that — is altered in a way that is almost more chilling. However, none of the changes detract from the core meaning of Station Eleven. At its core, it's a story about connection, hope, the things we hold onto, and transcending survival and all of that is present here. As is the motto of the Traveling Symphony, survival is insufficient.

What makes those themes so present and so authentic are the brilliant performances across every role in the series. Danielle Deadwyler as Miranda, Arthur's first wife and the creator of the Station Eleven comic book that is so integral to Kirsten's life, is easily one of the finest performances in the series as we watch her poised to come full circle perhaps a moment too late. Davis, as Kirsten, beautifully portrays a young woman whose experience is defined by trauma but whose heart is not closed to hope and joy, somehow managing to capture the wonder and strength Lawler so deftly imbues in the younger version of the character. Patel's Jeevan gives the whole story a sense of human realism as well, with his performance taking viewers on a journey that feels very much like our own, one with uncertainty, a sense of duty to continue moving forward, and ultimately love.

The greatest performances in Station Eleven, however, aren't necessarily performances in the traditional sense. They come from the show-within-the-show, as it were. The art itself is a character. A prospective new Symphony member auditions using not Shakespeare but Bill Pullman's monologue from Independence Day. Young Kirsten writes a play based on the Station Eleven comic and gets Frank and Jeevan to perform it with a stunning amount of gravitas. And there's the performances of Hamlet that function both as entertainment, but as a way of processing the world, a reminder that art can be therapy, an anchor, and a celebration all at once — much like Station Eleven itself is.

While pandemic entertainment might be wearying for some and others have concerns about adaptations of beloved novels, Station Eleven is a rare creation that manages to not only rise above those concerns but truly shine. This is a series that transcends the moment it is being released in and manages to improve upon the source material without ever losing the heart of what makes it so beloved. The result is an indelible and honest celebration of the best of the human spirit, one of the finest pieces of television this year, and a work of art all its own.

Rating: 5 out of 5

Station Eleven debuts on HBO Max on December 16th.