Reviews · TV

‘Station Eleven’ is an Expansive, Exceptional Adaptation

The National Book Award finalist about a devastating flu outbreak has gotten the HBO limited series treatment, and the end result is better than we could’ve imagined.
Station Eleven
By  · Published on December 14th, 2021

In 2021, even the best pandemic stories are a hard sell. For most of us, they’re too soon, and too much, and they’re usually not well made to boot. HBO Max’s Station Eleven, an expansive and arresting adaptation of Emily St. John Mandel’s novel of the same name, is the exception.

The series starts with the onset of an apocalyptic flu, which stops the world in its tracks. This is where its resemblance to our own global crisis ends — a version of reality where people divide into factions not based on who has the most toilet paper but on who can recite Shakespeare with the most gusto. That’s because the majority of the characters in Station Eleven are actors and artists who became stranded in the Great Lakes area when the grid went down.

The 10-episode limited series orbits around one such actor, played by Gael García Bernal — a genius casting choice for a tough character. His name is Arthur, and he is the point of connection among several pandemic survivors over the course of two decades. His ex-wife, Miranda (Danielle Deadwyler), pens a graphic novel, also titled Station Eleven, that becomes vital to two survivors in ways that cause ripples for years to come.

If this all sounds pretty lofty, that’s because it is. Station Eleven is like a game of Cat’s Cradle, constantly changing form and seamlessly intertwining on itself. Early episodes may be disorienting for viewers who haven’t read St. John Mandel’s book, as brief, context-less flash-forwards make the narrative somewhat inscrutable. Yet everything coheres brilliantly over time. The final result is one of the most emotionally engaging, and visually and formally stunning, series of the year.

Station Eleven is unique, but it also holds shades of some of Damon Lindelof’s soul-searching, uber-humane works. There are absurd yet understandable collective reactions to despair that call to mind the wandering souls of The Leftovers’ first season. While some people stick together because they’re all actors, others form sects based on their similarly timed pregnancies or their shared drug habits. There are also points of deep person-to-person connection among a large ensemble that isn’t a far cry from some of Lost’s memorable moments.

There’s not a weak link among the cast. Mackenzie Davis is excellent as a woman who’s been sharpened like a blade by the dangers around her, while Daniel Zovatto captures an unpredictable charm as a mysterious prophet. Caitlin FitzGerald, most recently recognizable as Tabitha from Succession, also gets a meaty role as a commanding actress whose skills come in handy when the airport she’s trapped in falls into chaos.

The series’ secret weapon might be Himesh Patel as Jeevan, a character whose role is hugely expanded from the source material. St. John Mandel’s novel was a National Book Award finalist and has little room for improvement, yet this adaptation finds a way to build organically on an already fantastic story. In the book, Jeevan is a man in the audience of Arthur’s King Lear performance the night the world ends. His character pops up a couple more times afterward but is never central.

In HBO’s version, Jeevan makes a crucial decision that night that turns him into one of the series’ main protagonists. This inciting incident also builds a foundation for what ultimately becomes Station Eleven’s most profound relationship. Every aspect of this show is beautiful, from the overgrown cityscape sets to the striking, inquisitive score, but nothing compares to the core bond forged between two unlikely people when society collapses.

Station Eleven is full of surprises beyond its embellishment of the source material. It has a streak of recurring, offbeat humor, especially when the post-apocalyptic Shakespearean troupe The Traveling Symphony shows up. It circles its characters in an elliptical fashion, coming close to revealing their core truths before zooming out again. Just when you think you know everything about one of the central figures, the flashbacks go one layer deeper, quietly revealing something even more essential to their being.

The series doesn’t overstay its welcome, and that’s rare these days. Its story is structured with a meaningful beginning, middle, and end. HBO has a penchant for turning limited series into multi-season shows, but it shouldn’t dare try as much with this one. The narrative has built-in catharsis, like the Shakespearean plays the show’s characters memorize by heart. Unlike those strictly structured classics, though, it flows freely between the trappings of great comedies and tragedies.

Above all else, Station Eleven is a mesmerizing, ambitious feat of storytelling that builds steadily and stays captivating throughout. What more could you ask for?

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Valerie Ettenhofer is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer, TV-lover, and mac and cheese enthusiast. As a Senior Contributor at Film School Rejects, she covers television through regular reviews and her recurring column, Episodes. She is also a voting member of the Critics Choice Association's television and documentary branches. Twitter: @aandeandval (She/her)