Just finished watching the HBO Max sci-fi mini-series Station Eleven (2021) and, what can I say. It’s like watching experimental theatre. Brilliant performances but nothing makes any sense!
By Emad El-Din Aysha, PhD
Don’t take my word for it. The star of the show and not coincidentally one of my favorite actresses on the planet, Mackenzie Davis, herself has said she had no idea what was going on the whole time she was acting. There’s also the whole problem of adaptation since S11 is taken from the post-apocalyptic novel of the same name by Emily St. John Mandel. Wouldn’t you know it, both her and MD are Canadians.
The original novel, which I sadly haven’t read, is set in Canada too, but this TV series was Americanized by the producers, culturally and commercially. Herein lays the problem, as far as I can tell. It had such potential but the approach they chose to tell the story – flashbacks and repeated scenes, spaced out performances and dialogue – combined with incessant cramming of themes (I suspect from elsewhere) and side plots (more like side mentions) is what debilitated it.
It meanders and wastes time and comes off, on many occasions, as ‘pretentious’ (something they mention in the series itself) while being profound and cathartic at other times. It’s unnecessarily politicized too, tapping into things like identity politics and antagonisms in the US in a way that clutters the storyline and doesn’t seem to fit in with the world of the story.
Then there are the many, many mistakes made along the way, inconsistencies and implausibility’s, which adds grist to the mill when it comes to how art-house the narration and construction of so many key scenes are that it further stilts your emotional responses on too many occasions. You also get the feeling that there is some borrowing in the series – I don’t know if this applies to the novel – from other SF works, such as A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959), The Hunger Games movie, and Slipstream (1989). Maybe even Children of the Corn (1984).
As you can see I have strong emotions about this series, good and bad, and still can’t quite make my mind up about it. In all cases it is incredibly well made, production standards and direction, and the acting is superb too, especially the performance of you-know-who. It also makes a worthy contribution to the post-apocalyptic and dystopian sci-fi genres and plays around with some of the constants in a fairly refreshing way. S11 is way better than any of the lackluster pretend sci-fi series out there, like Loki, Batwoman and Star Trek: Discovery. And it’s better than Dennis Villeneuve’s Dune (2021), which is a relief in all of itself!
A Taste of Things to Come
The series follows the interlocking stories of small bands of people during and after a flu pandemic that wipes out most of humanity. The centerpiece, technically, is Kirsten, played as an adult by MD and a child by the cutesy talent that is Matilda Lawler. She’s a Shakespearean actress by upbringing and now part of a post-pandemic theatre group called the Traveling Symphony that moves in a circle around various spots, doing Shakespeare mainly. (This is a common and worthy technique, given how important theatre was before the invention of cinema and television. Hence what Kevin Costner does in The Postman). Kirsten, moreover, holds with her the key to the series, which is a graphic novel called Station Eleven, about a space station full of kids after a tragic accident. It’s this book that keeps Kirsten going after the pandemic has done its worst, and you later learn that another orphan of the apocalypse, the so-called Prophet (Daniel Zovatto), has read the same book and turned it into a Bible for his post-apocalyptic cult of wayward children whom he turns into suicide bombers-child soldiers (more on this below).
This is a nice move on the part of the writer, the novel-within-a-novel technique that you can see with The Grasshopper Lies Heavy novel in The Man in the High Castle novel. It’s also a common technique in the post-apocalyptic genre. There’s a leftover script from the past in A Canticle for Leibowitz and the fictional character of Flyod Thursby in Deathlands: Homeward Bound (2003). A fragment of the past that might not be that significant in itself takes on a new meaning in this new context, divorced from its original historical genesis. So that’s the plot device that’s used to focus the themes of the story. It also sets up the protagonist, Kirsten, and the antagonist in the Prophet, kids who grew up on parallel lines but opposite directions. And the two are related, technically, since he’s Arthur’s son while she worked for Arthur and adored him. As for the themes themselves you see them early on in the very first episode.
The story begins with a play, King Lear, with an Indian guy called Jeevan Chaudhary (Himesh Patel) in the audience taking action when he sees the lead actor – Arthur Leander (Gael García Bernal) – having a heart attack. He can’t actually help him, not being a qualified doctor, but at least he tried to help, which is more than can be said for the passive onlookers. While there he befriends the cutesy little girl Kirsten, helping to take her home to her parents, again a guy who always feels compelled to do the right thing whatever the consequences and without any personal stake in it. That’s when he gets a mobile phone call from his sister, who works at a hospital, warning him about the plague and that he should go to his brother (Nabhaan Rizwan) Frank’s place and barricade themselves in. He takes Kirsten with him given that her parents aren’t answering the door and then we catapult to the present day, post-pandemic world where Kirsten is none other than Mackenzie Davis, and you see her reading Station Eleven and getting ready for a play with the Traveling Symphony. While Jeevan and Kirsten are on the train together you see people wrapped up in their tablets and smartphones, oblivious to the world around them. Even Kirsten uses her own smartphone to check her online accounts among other things, although the battery is almost dead. The fact that her parents aren’t there to pick her up at the play shows you how disconnected society is, as does the fact that Jeevan’s own girlfriend left him while he was still at the theatre dealing with the authorities. Humanity is slowly drifting apart and being dehumanized. (I also assume the scene where the cops are questioning him is a reference to post-9/11 paranoia, since Jeevan could pass for a Muslim with his extensive beard, which causes even more isolation). Race is also a theme given the scene in the hospital where Jeevan’s sister is taking care of a bunch of kids in quarantine and you can’t help but notice how white and blond they all are. Not to mention that Jeevan left medical school to become a content-creator, highlighting the inanity of our internet-dominated existence.
So far so good. But the question is, execution. The problems afflicting this series also become clear in this first episode, when they are all at Frank’s place and they see a passenger plane crashing not too far away. There’s no screaming, no look of shock on anybody’s faces, no ‘get away from the window’, etc. It has this spaced out, obtrusive outside observer feel to it and it emotionally deadens the scene. This problem plagues many, many episodes and key scenes. In episode 3 we see the author of the graphic novel, Miranda Carroll (Danielle Deadwyler), and her story with Arthur and the emotive scene in Malaysia where she breaks down and cries in front of a Chinese delegation after learning of Arthur’s death. This is a good, impactful scene and beautifully written, but the spaced out narrative leading up to that point and the lack of close-ups ruins it and it’s a real, real shame. Even the scene where she confronts Arthur, earlier on in flashback form, thinking he’s sleeping with his celebrity colleague Elizabeth (Caitlin FitzGerald), she keeps sucking in her emotions to the point of dulling the scene.
Miranda’s character is the epitome of the disconnected age we’re living in. She works in logistics and her boss tells her their job is to cut costs even if that means taking longer to transport something. No straight lines between two points anymore in this whacky world of heartless profiteering. And, wouldn’t you know it, she’s a one dimensional person who only thinks about her career and her father worked in the tourist business, on boats, cleaning up after the tourists. So yes I can understand that this is all a reference to globalization. She was constantly on the move as a child, and didn’t want to end up like her dad so ruined her relationship and her one chance at happiness. (There’s the whole race angel too since Arthur, inexplicably, is Mexican and Miranda is African American. Her logistics boss is African African). But condemning a lack of emotion in this overly economical world is one thing. Presenting it in an emotionally bland way is something else. The series is falling prey to its own set of concerns.
They ‘explain’ why she’s so emotionally out of it in the last episode, to be fair, having lost her family to a tropical storm. But that’s falling back on a cliché. Can’t she be cold and stiff for good socio-economic, cultural reasons, like an awful lot of real living breathing people nowadays? She doesn’t want to commit, I can understand given what we learn about her in the last episode, but she did in fact get married to Arthur and what created tension between them was actually her planned graphic novel, which I assume means she didn’t tell him about her personal childhood tragedy (see below), which doesn’t square with the themes. (The sex scene between them was also a bit lacking in energy and intimacy). There’s also Frank’s heroin addiction, which pops up in a scene – a ‘repeated’ scene – but is never heard of again. So why mention it? Does he have enough stuff to last him the whole time they were locked in the high rise apartment? Does he get withdrawal symptoms? Does he get cleaned up because of the life or death situation they’re in? The Symphony is also a sexual commune, with different partners every night, but jealousy and monogamy pop up later on too, so what was the point of highlighting this new social order if it’s not sustainable and none of the badguys is threatening it?
Then there’s the dialogue. It’s abbreviated and muted, hard to hear and hard to understand even when you can hear it. Again, spaced out conversations of an art-house nature that lessens the impact of the drama unfolding and the sense of realism that you need to identify with the admittedly cool characters on display. The strength of the performances help counter this, to an extent, but other problems besot the series along the way, such as the inconsistent handling of characters and their decisions. Not to mention the endless, endless mistakes as you transition from one episode to the next.
On the Trail of Contradictions
The first time we see Arthur he has grey hair and then we see him in flashback, with Miranda’s storyline, and he has dark hair. Then we have another flashback sequence where we see him with his new wife Elizabeth and his troublesome kid Tyler (Julian Obradors) and he has a little grey but his hair is mainly black. But isn’t this supposed to be close to when the story starts, where he has a good amount of grey hair and grey stubble? The first time we see the grown up Kirsten, she’s got that graphic novel with her. Then later on in episode 4 we see her searching through a desk cupboard of a playwright dude (David Cross as Gil) to find it. Kirsten also insists that there’s only one copy of the book in the whole world, the one she has, but we know for a fact there are more because Miranda gives (grey-haired) Arthur a second copy for his son Tyler, and the young Kirsten is there. Later we see the young her talking about the book and you learn that it’s self-published and there are several copies. So why did she think there was only one copy, making her suspicious of the mysterious visitor in episode 2, the Prophet dude?
There’s lots of soap opera antics thrown in here too. In episode 3 Miranda somehow intuits that Arthur is sleeping with Elizabeth, and breaks up with him and destroys her draft paintings of the graphic novel, and Arthur’s supposed best friend Clark (David Wilmot) also agrees with her that Arthur is having an affair. Much later in the series when we see yet more flashbacks, through Clark, Arthur insists again that he wasn’t sleeping with Elizabeth. So are we supposed to hate the guy or love him? We also have a scene where Elizabeth is lying to her son, telling Tyler that Arthur always sent him letters that she burned. Later we discover that Arthur was actually trying to keep in touch with Tyler and keep him in his life, which is why he got him the graphic novel and invited him and his mother to the King Lear performance. So again are we supposed to hate or love him? And why should we care either way? Is he an embodiment of this superficial, on the move type society, or somebody trying to bring people together through art? It’s hard to say and the series loses focus as a consequence.
Clark’s supposed deep and profound friendship with Miranda, another reason he’s angry at Arthur, also makes no sense because he only met her once and then she disappeared back into her on the move logistics life and Arthur reconciling with Clark makes no sense because he badmouths him in episode 3 when he gets the book from Miranda. They also make Clark an advocate of censorship, for some strange reason!?
The theatre group that the adult Kirsten belongs to is clearly meant to be a wondering troop that is both footloose, on the modern model, but a cohesive unit – a big family – that spreads love and hope and brings people together wherever they go. I ‘suppose’ that Arthur is a forerunner of all this. But even here there are problems. The series is portraying the self-indulgent, petty world of before and contrasting that to what happens afterward, where people rediscover how much they need each other. And yet, even here, you find pettiness and loneliness from the very people who are supposed to have overcome these former faults in themselves. The de facto leader of the group, Sarah (Lori Petty of Point Break fame), reminds Gil of how he made her feel rotten when they worked together in the past. And the theatre group generally don’t like him either, even after all that’s happened.
There’s also the dialectic between Kirsten and the Prophet/Tyler, the twin but related poles, and the character of Alexandra (Philippine Velge) who is torn between them. The actor playing the grown up Tyler is very good. He’s short so it makes him look unthreatening, he’s disarmingly charming and is a supremo at human psychology, so he knows how to get under people’s skin and exploit their weaknesses. He almost turns Alex against Kirsten, making her see the Symphony as an oppressive family or cult, but then she discovers who the Prophet really is. Which is great. Then she decides to leave anyway, and even rides a horse through a minefield to make her defiant point, then you find her back with the group in the next episode, minus the horse for some reason. Then in the last episode she decides to stay at the museum of civilization – an isolated airport – for a year till she becomes her own person, then you see her instead leaving with many of the people from the museum after they’ve joined the ranks of the now reformed Prophet. Eh? Am I missing something here?!
Why is all this happening, this accumulation of errors that’s clogging up the free flow of an otherwise impressive and titillating story? I assume it’s the nature of American television. Commercial breaks. They have to have climaxes everywhere and every when to keep the viewers from flicking the channel switch, the problem that afflicted season 4 of Halt and Catch Fire, where nobody seems to be able to make a decision and stick to it. It leaves you with a constant swishing swaying feeling. They never carry through on anything. Ggrrrr!
The episode that really pissed me off was episode 9. Let me explain why. Egyptian television! There was an annoying series once call Al-Ustura (The Legend) where you have the hero (played by Ahmed Ramadan) taking the place of his elder brother, a gangster of sorts, when the man gets killed. Then his mother forces him to marry his dead brother’s wife, a woman older than him and that he considers to be like his (elder) sister. This hero dude has his own wife, a lovely girl that worships him. But, for some damnable reason, she can’t seem to get pregnant from him. Towards the end of the series she does get pregnant, and then his own evil sister does a ploy to make him suspicious of this young, good wife and he strangles the poor girl to death, killing her and his own unborn child, which he still doesn’t know about for plot contrivance reasons. As for his elder wife, he initially agreed to not cohabit with her out of respect to her and his dead elder brother’s memory. Until, conveniently, he gets drunk once and rapes her. And immediately she gets pregnant from him, unlike the poor young girl he is married to who is desperate to have his baby. Conveniently a second time this elder wife doesn’t get killed in a key scene – a business rival machine guns the hero’s old home – and of course she lives to give birth.
If you’re an Egyptian you can recognize all this. The elder wife is like his cousin, blood relative, and so she is more worthy of bedding and impregnating than the ‘stranger’, the younger wife, who isn’t a blood relation. I’m pretty sure the director is a progressive dude – he’s married to the actress playing the younger wife in real life – but directors and writers in Egypt are not in control of their own televised works, the movie star and producer usually are and they’re concerned with pandering to the audience’s prejudices. Author Christina Maria Alongi has talked about this repeatedly in American popular culture when it comes to queer baiting and racist tropes where they play both sides down the middle, pretending to praise a minority group while simultaneously using prejudiced stereotypes of the said group. In one video she noted how blacks are always killed off first, using the character of Darwin in X-Men: First Class. She explained that Darwin had evolved beyond death itself in the comics, but here he’s killed off pronto. I can add that the only black mutant that isn’t killed off switches sides and joins the bad guy, an ex-Nazi. How convenient. (Check out how morally reprehensible, dishonorable and downright ‘unmanly’ both Joe MacMillan and Donna Clarke are in Halt and Catch Fire, trashing a homosexual and a businesswoman). Same thing happens here in episode 9, amazingly enough.
You have yet another flashback with Jeevan radioing someone and claiming he’s a doctor. Then he gets shot in the head by a bean bag from a woman in a crash helmet, and she recognizes him. So you assume it’s the woman from the radio channel. Afterwards he gets mauled by a wolf, retrieving the graphic novel for Kirsten in the snow in the middle of the night for some reason. (He doesn’t wait till daytime, doesn’t get his walkie talkie, doesn’t die from the cold after sleeping in the snowfall and only walking up in the morning to cover himself up, and Kirsten never goes out looking for him at night or early the next day, as headstrong and independent as she is). He then gets found by a woman in a crash helmet – I assume it’s the same person – and wakes up later in a hospital maternity ward with his foot amputated. They desperately need an extra doctor to help with the multiple pregnant women there. On the surface of it this looks good. It has a dystopia, lunatic asylum, cult-like feel to it, him being forced to stay there and get in touch with his feminine side, literally seeing a baby come out at one point. (No comment!) Then what happens? They let him go and he conveniently teams up with the woman with the helmet, and her newborn child (which she describes as a stranger). Along the way he meets a woman named Rose who is pregnant and waiting for her boyfriend Dave to come back and rescue her and settle down. He never comes and, wouldn’t you know it, she out of all of them dies in childbirth because the baby won’t come out right. But why didn’t she do a caesarian? Another woman there does a caesarian and she has a black girlfriend or wife, whereas Rose is as white as they come. And by pure coincidence Rose helps Jeevan escape at one point, derelicting his duties. Sound familiar? Convenient deaths of unwanted characters and pandering to both sides, just like private sector Egyptian TV.
I’m actually cool with Jeevan being forced to stay with the women. It fits a post-apocalyptic narrative and the head doctor has a zany quality to her too. But what happens as well? This head doctor uses her dead husband’s name, defeminizing herself, much like the helmet woman seeing her baby as an alien entity inside her. So is this world not female enough – Jeevan’s hesitancy to help out – or too feminine for its own good? And why on earth does Jeevan of all people need to learn to settle down and get in touch with his feminine side? He’s the care bear who takes in Kirsten and stray animals and wanted his whole family with him – parents, sister, brother, girlfriend – when the pandemic started and he’s constantly portrayed as a wuss who can’t even find batteries for a remote. Kirsten by contrast not only learns how to use a knife – Frank gets killed by a survivalist ‘red bandana’ (see below) – but hunts deer with a sniper rifle. I think they’re getting this from the hunter/gatherer dialectic in The Hunger Games, which was really cool, but it doesn’t work here. Jeevan learns to be ruthless, killing the red bandana guy, and slaughters the deer, chopping it up into little pieces. And his fights with Kirsten are portrayed as if they’re a squabbling couple and that he wants to leave her, like a deadbeat dad (like Han Solo in Force Awakens), but he’s the most responsible person in the whole series, trying to rescue Arthur while everybody else looked on oblivious.
See what I mean by contradictions and inconsistencies. If they did this for artistic reasons maybe I could cut them some slack, but I don’t buy it. Contrast this to a wonderful little cowboy movie starring Naomi Watts, The Outsider (2002), where a rough and tumble hired gun learns to settle down and even births a baby cow, helping him get in touch with his feminine side. The guy is ‘big’ and burly and has a face like Lee Van Cleef. It works perfectly as a consequence. Someone who has panic attacks and throws up from strawberry milk doesn’t need to get in touch with his feminine side, he’s already in touch with it 24 hours a day!
 Adrienne Westenfeld, “How HBO Max's Station Eleven Differs From Emily St. John Mandel's Novel: Show-runner Patrick Somerville set out to make ‘an aggressive adaptation.’ Here's what that looks like.”, Esquire, 13 January 2022, https://www.esquire.com/entertainment/tv/a38530784/station-eleven-book-to-tv-differences/.
[[To be continued!]]