Why is there such an insatiable demand for the post-apocalyptic story these days? Is it because we’re all terrified of the end of our possibly teetering civilisation – or because we crave it?
The safe answer, I guess, is both. The vision of a blank slate – of a pure and primal way of being alive – can seem either enchanting or sickening, perhaps depending on how long it’s been since your last round of load shedding.
Station Eleven, the new HBO show based on Emily St John Mandel’s bestselling novel, nails the enchantment part of the equation. It is an exploration of courage as a kind of art and art as a form of courage. And it honours the ineradicable human appetite for myth as a sustaining mirror – we desperately need stories to make sense of ourselves, whether we’re surviving a virtual metropolis or a very real forest.
Unlike so many bloodstained TV renditions of calamitous futures, the show decides not to be sickening. In fact, creator Patrick Somerville has been comically evasive about the likely grimness of life in a nomadic no-tech commune in the wilds of the American Midwest.
The apocalypse to blame is a mutant flu pandemic, which killed 99 out of every 100 humans in a matter of days in late 2020 – and 20 years later, our heroine, Kirsten Raymonde (Mackenzie Davis) is one of the survivors. She is the quick-tempered, knife-wielding star of the Travelling Symphony – a wagon troupe of Shakespeare actors who endlessly tour a circuit of Michigan woodland called the Wheel.
But despite 20 years of zero manufacturing, science, agribusiness, trade or modern medicine, the good folk of the Wheel are uncannily healthy, bright-eyed and well-fed, and all of them rocking a wardrobe of Brooklyn boho chic that looks like it was bought last week and made in a sweatshop the week before. The rather important issue of food is dodged almost entirely. Eating is for normies, apparently.
Instead, the Symphony’s major problem is an unnerving prophet (Daniel Zovatto) who wanders into their terrain. It turns out he wants to eliminate all the survivors of the plague, with the help of a cult squad of brainwashed children.
In the series, the titular Station Eleven is a mysterious sci-fi comic book, drawn by Arthur Leander’s visionary ex-wife Miranda Carroll in the before times, which dominates the imaginations of both the prophet and of Kirsten, for intriguing reasons that cannot be revealed here.
The most compelling moments of the show are concentrated in the recurring flashbacks to Kirsten’s experience of the pandemic. As a precocious eight-year-old actor, she is backstage at her theatre when her friend and mentor, a celebrity actor called Arthur (Gael Garcia Bernal) dies on stage. With her parents missing in action, Kirsten falls in with a sad and kind stranger, the unemployed culture writer Jeevan Chaudhary (the excellent Himesh Patel). That freezing night, Chicago falls to the virus.
Matilda Lawler plays the young Kirsten – in one of the most delicately controlled performances by a child actor you’re ever likely to see. The pair and Jeevan’s brother Frank Chaudhary (Nabhaan Rizwan) hole up together in a high-rise apartment, waiting for the plague to pass and the world to die. The weight of loneliness, love and terror that gathers in their apartment is almost physically taxing to witness.
Eventually, Jeevan and Kirsten make their way into the wilderness, but the full story of their journey remains untold until the climactic episodes. Until that resolution, we share the survivors’ gnawing, nostalgic craving – for a tale that will console us, that will absorb and anchor the shock of the real. Thankfully, we get it.