The following contains spoilers for Station Eleven Episode 6, “Survival is Insufficient” (written by Sarah McCarron and directed by Helen Shaver) and Episode 7, “Goodbye My Damaged Home” (written by Kim Steele and directed by Lucy Tcherniak)
“This strange and awful time… was the happiest of my life.”
We continue to navigate the endless ravages of the pandemic. Sometimes it seems that life will never be anything but an endless stream of mistakes and mishaps that carry with them the endless specter of death. The world did not end, or at least it has not yet ended, but the dread and fear and feelings of hopeless anticipation have only seemed to grow as time goes on.
Into that world it can be hard to inject hope, especially with a piece as seemingly void of hope as Station Eleven. And yet Patrick Somerville’s adaptation of Emily St. John Mandel’s novel continues to do just that. Infusing every moment with all too real dread but also an incredibly welcome dose of hope. The show has been praised from the start for the way it integrates art and performance into the post-pandemic world. But even as it continues to be deeper and darker, the mysteries and power of the performances are only making it more interesting.
There is an alchemical madness to what makes a story transcendent. It does not have to be obvious. We speak now of the works of Dickens and Shakespeare in hallowed tones, but it is important to remember that those were not the works considered the “artistic classics” of their time. They were popular stories, made for the masses, but, crucially, they had something to say. Shakespeare, even at his most popular, explored the human condition. Dickens spoke truth to power. Emily St. John Mandel pulls the beauty from the decaying world. The power of story, and art in all its forms is storytelling, is great and almost unknowable.
That leads us back to the present, and Station Eleven the television show. Even in the worst of times, with the plague, or industrialization, or disconnection and isolation ravaging us all, there is a need to connect, to tell stories and have stories told. The Traveling Symphony must run the wheel. Kirsten Raymonde must complete her play. Even at the greatest of cost, we will follow stories and characters to the end of the world.
Episode 6: “Survival is Insufficient”
Brian, the messenger played by Enrico Colantoni who first appeared back in “A Hawk From A Handsaw” when he invited the Travelling Symphony to the Museum of Civilization, has been lurking in plain sight. Ever since then, he has been following the Symphony, occasionally inviting them to the Museum and seemingly innocent, with his Keith Mars style demeanor and cute bicyclist getup, but the show has well established that there is always a menace to strangers in this world. And so, he always seemed to be a bit strange and suspicious as well.
Then, in “The Severn City Airport” we also got his origin, as he was Elizabeth’s (Caitlin FitzGerald) Italian assistant and perhaps lover, a part of her life with Tyler and the early days of the airport civilization. At least he was until he left the airport with the cult-like Homeland Security agent and the girls soccer team. We do not know how he got from there to here and, if we are to believe his statements in “Survival is Insufficient,” neither does he. It was clear that this was intended to make us suspect him of some form of shadiness, but it did not prepare me for the dread I felt at his every move in Station Eleven Episode 6.
Brian and some other scary, armed, but still claiming to be “unthreatening” friends take The Conductor (Lori Petty), Dieter (Joe Pingue) and the rest of the Symphony captive. Every time Colantoni stutters and waves a gun around while claiming to be only trying to help he becomes more concerning.
The Symphony is led through back roads and then tunnels until they ultimately arrive at an airport. (I am not yet ready to concede that this is actually “The Severn City Airport” though that is certainly what Brian claims.) Throughout this journey, The Conductor becomes more and more anxious and disoriented. Her glasses are broken so she leaves them behind with a note for Kirsten that she hopes will signal her about where they have gone.
Once they reach the airport, things get really bad. The rest of the Symphony go outside to reunite with the musicians while she stays behind in a building. Brian and the others with him get into a (working) elevator and it all seems to be too much for The Conductor. She collapses, leaving only a screaming Dieter and the others staring in the fogging windows. It is unclear what happened but the entire experience is unsettling to the utmost degree, and sets the stage well for whatever troubles lie ahead for the Symphony.
Meanwhile, Kirsten spends the episode in the “Undersea.” She is swept away by The Prophet’s (Daniel Zovatto) child army and taken to visit him at his dystopian stronghold. Zovatto perfectly plays the charm and the deception in every chilling scene. We know that Tyler is lying to Kirsten, and so does she, but neither of us can get a grasp on exactly how, or even why. He claims that he did not send the kids with land mines strapped to them that killed Gil (David Cross), but the entire time it seems as though he is just trying to convince Kirsten to trust him.
Davis and Zovatto are great in these scenes, neither of them opening up to the other even as the stakes continue to get higher and higher throughout. The Prophet tells some of the stories of his “previous life” as Tyler Leander that we saw in “The Severn City Airport” but everything he says is filtered through some sort of lies and distortion. Kirsten refuses to budge much, really only following along because it is clear that The Prophet’s creepy child cult will kill her if she were to kill Tyler. He walks away from his tower, seemingly completely recovered, and the children swarm around him like he is a god.
It all seems to be a plot, some sort of ploy to lure Kirsten into his web or maybe to push her to reveal something else that he wants. She refuses to play along though, at least until the end when they are attacked on the road and the one of The Prophet’s followers who had been opening up to Kirsten is killed. She displays her true, deadly, colors by pushing The Prophet to safety and fighting off a horde of attackers. In the end she is surrounded and Helen Shaver pulls the camera away, cutting to black as it seems all hope is lost. As the title of the episode, taken from both the book and Star Trek: Voyager, states “Survival is Insufficient” and without each other the members of the Symphony will be unable to create the art and connection they need to keep going.
Episode 7: “Goodbye My Damaged Home”
Station Eleven Episode 7 flashes back to the early days of the end of the world, with Kirsten (Matilda Lawler), Jeevan (Himesh Patel) and Frank (Nabhaan Rizwan) still living in Frank’s Chicago apartment. But the structure is different from the previous flashback because this time the older Mackenzie Davis version of Kirsten is also present. “Goodbye My Damaged Home” plays out in a liminal space halfway between time-travel and a dream.
The older Kirsten moves in and out of the scenes, observing both what she saw initially and also the things she missed as she lived out this sweet but tragic first act of her life in the new world. She is no mere specter though, she gives her previous self advice and tries to push her to make different choices. Which, of course, is impossible. Like Lost’s seminal episode ”The Constant” reminded us, “whatever happened, happened.”
And what happened is an incredible showcase for the four principal actors. “Goodbye My Damaged Home” is a bottle episode, with all of the action taking place in Frank’s apartment, though Station Eleven is a show that is probably beyond such easy classification. Each scene is set not based on the proximity to the outbreak of the flu, when Jeevan and Kirsten met, but instead to the moment that Kirsten considers her most traumatic experience of all—the day that they staged her play adapting the events of Station Eleven.
We get to see much more of the relationship between Jeevan and Frank. The brothers had been so estranged that when their sister Sia called to tell him Jeevan was coming and that they needed to stay safe together, Frank said he was not going to let Jeevan into his apartment. Ultimately he did, and we see a replay of many of the moments from the first episode. Except they are now fragmented. This is Kirsten’s memory, or some extensive vision based in her memory, so there is little connection of logic to the flow of the scenes. Director Lucy Tcherniak intersperses moments from Jeevan and Kirsten leaving and the cabin at points, usually when things get most intense. It is almost as though Kirsten is reliving all of this and it is too much for her to bear.
In those moments Mackenzie Davis’s Kirsten steps in and tries to help Matilda Lawler’s version of the character through her trauma. Lawler continues to be amazing in the role, showing Kirsten’s vulnerability, her love for Jeevan and Frank, and ultimately her transition to the much harder and world weary character that Davis embodies. The two of them together show us this character at different ends of the timeline, but both embody her fundamental strength. And the unending pull that Station Eleven has on her life.
The biggest spotlight of Station Eleven Episode 7 falls on Frank, who we know will never make it out of his apartment, and Nabhaan Rizwan does not disappoint. We learn how Frank’s injury led to him abandoning his life as an award winning journalist and becoming a reclusive ghost writer. Rizwan plays the dejected hermit and the recovering addict with a subtle and passionate grace. Frank is hiding his troubles from Kirsten, even as the two of them connect emotionally, all while leaving his brother to pick up the pieces.
As always with Station Eleven though, there is joy and artistry in the midst of the despair. Frank is able to fashion a radio into a beatbox and Rizwan delivers an incredible, cathartic, rap that pushes the three of them to dizzy heights of joy. When Kirsten decides to write her own version of the Station Eleven graphic novel for them to perform this winds up being a part of their undoing.
When Kirsten finally finishes the play it is a day later than Jeevan wanted to leave. The fear is real, as winter breathes down on them things will get more dangerous, so time is of the essence. Jeevan finally breaks the seal on their apartment to look around, encountering the smell of death all around them and the destruction of the city on the other side of the building. This is also symbolic breaking of the seal of their little life away from the pains. Inside the bubble of Frank’s apartment, they had each other but now things will be different. And far more painful.
When the play is finally staged, Jeevan and Frank play the main characters and Kirsten is a member of the Undersea who kills Frank. As the play ends a burly man walks into the apartment and tells them it is now his. Jeevan tries to get them to leave, but Frank never had any intention of going, he goads the man into attacking him and is stabbed. Jeevan is forced to kill the man and then lies with his brother on the floor. As Frank dies, his real blood pours out from behind the red ribbon that signified his blood in the play. Art, life, and death are intertwined once more.
At the end of Station Eleven Episode 7, young Kirsten and Jeevan leave to start the journey we have already seen them take, but Older Kirsten does not follow them or revert back to her real life in the “present.” She stays behind with Frank’s body, even as the scene jumps to the “20 years later” present. Kirsten finally gets to say goodbye to someone she lost, but only in this half broken, half beautiful, nightmare vision. With Kirsten sitting at the foot of Frank’s bed, looking lovingly down at his 20 years decomposing body, Episode 7 ends and Station Eleven rolls into the last stretch of episodes having hit an incredible high with these series of scenes and interactions on par with any from any show.