Station Eleven (2021/2022)

Well, this miniseries doesn't fit in with any of my existing approaches to defining or addressing Christmas media. A few years ago, I'd just have written up the first and ninth episodes, as those - and only those - are set around the holidays (on different years, no less). Only Station Eleven is highly serialized and intended as a unified piece. More than that, the Christmas episodes (to the extent the term even applies) are set around the holidays for thematic reasons pertaining to the miniseries as a whole.

Technically, if I still cared about justifying this kind of thing, I'd point to that as a reason to write this up despite falling well short of the 50% threshold for automatic consideration as Christmas media. Really, I'm writing it up because I think it makes for an interesting anomaly exploring aspects of the season in a fairly unique and interesting (to me, at least) way.

I'm not even sure how to approach a synopsis for the series. It's not so much that there's a lot going on over the ten episodes; more that what's happening is set across multiple years and follows a number of characters. Quite literally, there are interwoven plot lines connecting across time through character relationships and connections. This is a story about the invisible connections between people, art, pop culture, and history. It's complicated.

The title is taken from an unpublished graphic novel several of the characters are connected to. Also, multiple Shakespeare plays are significant, namely King Lear, Hamlet, and A Midsummer Night's Dream. Oh, and of course Christmas is in there, as well. Actually, it's Christmas in year 1 and the Winter Solstice in year 2. And of course most of the screen time between them is a few decades later, because this story isn't told linearly.

It's all based on a book, I should add, though skimming the Wikipedia article, it's pretty clear the entire second half plays out differently. That might be partly because of the actual, real-life pandemic that occurred in 2020 and put production on hold. Keep in mind the catalyst for this whole story is a fictional pandemic, also presumably set in 2020.

The first episode, set during the holidays, focuses on the outbreak. Actually, it's a little awkward watching now, because we all now know pandemics don't actually work the way they're depicted here. The virus seems to spread more like light than, you know, airborne particles. An actual disease with a mortality rate above 99% and a near-instantaneous incubation would be horrific, but it would be relatively easy to identify and contain.

But realism's not the point, so we'll give that a pass. The first episode establishes Kirsten as young girl, connects her to an actor who dies of an unrelated cause, introduces the titular graphic novel, and brings her together with Jeevan, a man who serves as her adoptive father for the next year. Kirsten's relationship with Jeevan is fairly significant to her arc as an adult. She's traumatized by losing her family and then him without ever getting to say goodbye. It's not until episode nine that we learn what happens to Jeevan - more on that in a moment.

Again, all this happens at Christmas. Why? Because Christmas traditionally marks the end of the calendar year, which often symbolizes the end of an era. So, in a weird way, this is set at Christmas for many of the same reasons as Prometheus.

This ties to a recurring image used throughout the miniseries. After losing Jeevan, Kirsten is adopted by The Traveling Symphony, a troop of Shakespearean actors going from village to village around the Great Lakes. They call their route "The Wheel," and it takes them exactly a year to go around. So the year is the wheel, time is circular, and so on and so forth. 

You'll actually find the same metaphor in all three adaptations of Gawain and the Green Knight. That's not a coincidence. Neither is the fact the play Kirsten's in at the beginning is King Lear, which tells the story of a dying man at the end of his reign (I told you this was playing with some of the same ideas as Prometheus).

In a sense, time stops at the winter solstice and the summer solstice. Viewed symbolically, these are the end of eras. But you can't end an era without starting a new one, and it turns out that's what episode nine is about! That tells Jeevan's story in the days before the Winter Solstice (to be clear, there's a countdown to the Solstice, not Christmas, through the whole episode). He and Kirsten are in the midst of a fight (it's complicated), and they're separated when he goes to find her graphic novel after dropping it in the woods (even more complicated).

Long story short, he's mauled by a wolf, found by a woman who believes he's a doctor, then taken to a makeshift maternity hospital in the remnants of a mall department store. The hospital is full of women who are due to give birth at the solstice. The only doctor there tends to Jeevan, but has to amputate his foot to save him. She then teaches him to assist her, as she desperately needs the help. Over the course of the episode, he essentially becomes the doctor they need him to be. At the end, he returns to the house he's been living in with Kirsten, but she's already gone. We know from flashbacks in an earlier episode that she found the graphic novel along with Jeevan's blood and naturally believes he's dead.

I should note all of this is essentially backstory. The A-plot follows Kirsten and the Symphony as they become entangled with a community calling itself The Museum of Civilization and a man called "The Prophet." As mentioned earlier, everything and everyone's connected through the graphic novel: the Prophet is the son of the actor who gave Station Eleven to Kirsten, the two heads of the Museum are the actor's best friend and wife (who's also the mother of the Prophet). And if I try to explain how the writer of that graphic novel fits in and is responsible for almost everyone being alive, this article is going to go on forever. This show is less about plot than connections, anyway, so I suppose it's appropriate there's more backstory than story, anyway.

The tenth and final episode is set during the Summer Solstice. The wheel the Traveling Symphony uses as a sort of map is ever turning, because time is ever turning, and even when it seems like the world has ended... the seasons go on. The old leader of the Symphony dies, and Kirsten takes her place: things change, they don't end.

These themes are spelled out in numerous ways, including through cryptic passages about cyclical time and fluid personal identity from the graphic novel. I'm not going to try explaining it, because I don't think any of it was constructed to be straightforward. This is structured more like a musical composition than a conventional narrative: repetition of themes and ideas create a sense of the whole. There is a story you can find by reassembling the pieces, but it's shown out of order to emphasize theme over plot.

I should add I'm barely scratching the surface when it comes to theme. There's a lot going on here in terms of ideas; I'm mainly focusing on the stuff that's directly relevant to this blog, namely Christmas and Christmas adjacent.

If you're thinking all this sounds weird... yeah, bingo, you got it. Actually, it's even weirder than I'm making it out to be, because I haven't touched on tone and subgenre yet. Honestly, I'm still trying to decide whether I think the tonal decisions are neat or a misstep. The series has a sort of fluid nature with the reality it inhabits. Overall, it's relatively grounded (at least compared with most post-apocalyptic stories, which tend to go completely off the rails). The world of Station Eleven isn't at war with dark forces, there aren't inhuman monsters, and the virus that wiped out the old world seems to be gone. It's more a cultural reset than the typical descent into a Mad Max-style hellscape.

Only it occasionally backslides in odd ways. One of the most obvious concerns Kirsten's aptitude with knives - she is essentially an action heroine. In one episode, she manages to kill a half-dozen attackers armed with far more dangerous weapons - at least one has a crossbow. But while he can't hit her, she's able to drop him with a thrown knife easily. It's like we're following the protagonist from a typical post-apocalyptic story in a different, less terrifying world.

I'm not sure whether it's intentional or not. The miniseries shifts tones a few times, seemingly mirroring the characters' uncertainty with the world they inhabit. The Prophet is ambiguously the kind of dangerous, sociopathic nihilist you expect to encounter leading a cult in this sort of story... or he's just another traumatized human being doing his best to confront his own problems and lead those around him to a better world. You can read the shifting subgenre as reacting to Kirsten's perspective.

I should probably note that in the novel the Prophet appears to ultimately be an evil cult leader. The ending of the miniseries goes in a very different direction, dropping a few suspenseful threads in favor of a more dramatic and ultimately optimistic resolution. It ends with healing and understanding rather than conflict: depending on what you're looking for, that can either come off as a powerful statement or as an underwhelming bait-and-switch.

Regardless, there's no denying the show is consistently compelling. The weird twists and turns, coupled with the time jumps are reminiscent of Lost, with the advantage that this one ends without overstaying its welcome.

Production values are impressive - they do a good job selling the world as sparsely populated and overgrown (just don't think too hard about some of the details). Even more impressive is the cast, led by Mackenzie Davis, Himesh Patel, Daniel Zovatto, Matilda Lawler, and Lori Petty. All are perfectly cast - it's really the performances that hold this bizarre thing together. 

Television has improved dramatically over the past decade, and this is absolutely a prime example. It's a great show, albeit it's definitely not for everyone. The layered story and shifting style are going to alienate some viewers while causing others to fall head-over-heels in love with the show. If you're looking for a litmus test to gauge where you're likely to fall on that spectrum, I'm afraid you'll need to check elsewhere. I watched all ten episodes, and I'm still not entirely sure how I feel about it.