In the opening scenes of Station Eleven, a new miniseries on HBO Max adapted from the best-selling Emily St. John-Mandel novel of the same name, we quickly meet a man sitting in the audience of a production of Hamlet.
People around him seem largely distracted, glancing down at their phones, resting their eyes, whispering to their neighbors, but Jeevan is watching the performance, and he immediately recognizes the signs that the star of the show, an actor named Arthur Leander, is having a heart attack. Leaping onto the stage, Jeevan attempts to help Arthur. His attempts are unsuccessful. Arthur dies.
It’s only a few scenes later when we learn that Jeevan is not a doctor. In fact, we never actually learn what Jeevan’s job is. Or, I should say, was.
Station Eleven is another show in a long line of post-apocalyptic shows, books, and movies, joining the ranks of The Hunger Games, The Walking Dead, and Y: The Last Man. The 10-episode miniseries follows a few intersecting characters and timelines, all beginning at the moment the world as we know it ends. Ninety-nine percent of the human population dies from a deadly flu, and as everything comes to an immediate halt in the first few hours of this pandemic, we meet some of the survivors.
There’s Kiersten, an 8-year-old child actor who was on stage when Arthur died during Hamlet; Frank, Jeevan’s physically disabled brother; Clark, Elizabeth, and Tyler, three people who end up at tiny airport in the Midwest when flights are grounded; a troupe of actors called The Traveling Symphony who travel around Lake Michigan performing Shakespeare in this post-apocalyptic world; and Miranda, the author of a self-published sci-fi comic that gives the title to the show, Station Eleven.
At every twist and turn, in moments when people die, fight for their lives, scavenge for food, grapple with loss, solve problems, and ultimately try to survive in a world that no longer has the things we are familiar with (electricity, internet, gasoline, plumbing, basic infrastructure), the audience is invited to ponder a question, simple and yet intensely relevant in the moment in which we currently find ourselves (albeit, a much less deadly pandemic than 99% of the world population being wiped out).
Is survival enough? Is it enough to just beat this flu and survive another day in a wasteland of a world? Is it enough to simply “make it” to the next moment? Or do we humans long for something more?
The human heart would say yes, we do long for something more. It isn’t enough to merely survive and simply make it. We long to thrive and flourish, because we know, innately, that we’re made for good, true, and beautiful things that bring deeper meaning to our lives. Station Eleven shows us how these people – actors and artists, stranded people in an airport, and a random guy at a play – each figure out how to flourish in the face of the world ending.
And it seems the way they (and perhaps we, too) flourish and thrive is by forging relationships, growing in community, and looking to a hopeful tomorrow because we surround ourselves with people who want to survive, and thrive, with us.
There’s a moment in episode 8 of the series where Jeevan, with Kiersten in a cabin in the woods, seems to be at a breaking point. “You need kids … I need other adults …” and he begins to lament how the circumstances that brought them together and have since led them to trying to survive post-pandemic have ultimately placed him in a position where he’s unable to make any decisions for himself. Selfishly, he complains. He then quickly apologizes. And later, when he and Kiersten are separated and he’s unable to return to care for her, he cries out in pain and sadness, because he realizes both he and she are now alone.
And in the apocalypse, alone is the last thing you want to be.
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, alone is the last place any of us have wanted to be.
We long to see the people around us, and understand both who they are and what they need, and slowly we come to recognize the interconnectedness of each human person. The way we thrive, and not merely survive, is realizing that we do not exist as islands unto ourselves. In the post-apocalyptic world of Station Eleven, the few people left begin to find one another and are instantly unified not just by the desire to survive and live to see another day, but in finding moments of joy, in seeing the goodness of another, in celebrating accomplishments, in performing Shakespeare, in laughing at silly things, in falling in love, in making it to the next morning when there’s one more day to live in a world turned upside down.
And in the third year of a pandemic that still has many unknowns and more than a few frustrations, it’s in continuing to remember our interconnectedness and need for one another that we “make it” to the next day and thrive on the journey. It’s when we notice one another – and take note of the value of one another – that we endure the hardship of a world that looks unfamiliar and at times feels unsafe.
Jeevan, the first character we meet, is sitting in a crowded theater and notices that Arthur Leander is having a heart attack. In the whole audience, he’s the only one that notices. And then, he’s the only one that notices Kiersten, eight years old and standing alone backstage, with no one there to take her home. And then he’s the only one there to care for her in the first days of this flu killing 99% of the world’s population. They forge a family by necessity and notice the needs of one another. It’s in that community, Jeevan and Kiersten, and then his brother Frank, that they are able to somehow survive, and even in some small way thrive, and then when they are separated, continue to thrive in the new relationship they become forced to form.
It’s in the noticing of others that something human, perhaps even holy, grows within us. That we realize we do not exist simply only for our own purposes and desires, but need one another. And in the needing of one another’s help, encouragement, insights, joys, companionship, honesty, prayers, and time that we get through what seems almost impossible.
Station Eleven does not answer every single question most post-apocalyptic television or literature tries to answer. We don’t know the ins and outs of how people grow food or find clean water or travel. We walk with these characters only over a few hundred miles around greater Chicago. We don’t even meet that many people. But, we do see a snapshot of how when community is formed – and when people see the needs of others as deeply connected to their own – we are able to do a lot more than merely make it through and survive. We are able to find the very best of life, and enjoy that life, with others, and not alone.
As the show asks us to ponder the question, “Is survival enough?” we begin to confidently answer “No. It isn’t enough. I need others to thrive.” We’d do well to remember that these days, and find those others we need.
Station Eleven is well worth a watch. Put the kids to bed, fire up the TV, and escape to a pandemic far worse than the one we find ourselves in, and yet somehow, immensely more hopeful.