We are living in a time of unprecedented trauma. Millions have died from a virus that has pushed us into a third year of purgatory—our lives upended by grief, rage, conspiracy theories, inept governance and culture wars. We are in crisis and the hopelessness of these apocalyptic times have pushed us over the brink.
The lingering grief of a world transformed by a pandemic is at the center of Station Eleven, HBO Max’s audacious and startlingly timely adaptation of Emily St. John Mandel’s 2014 novel of the same name. Station Eleven is one of those shows that linger, long after the final credits roll. It's been on my mind a great deal as we wind down on the first month of a new year in this pandemic hamster wheel we've been running.
Station Eleven succeeds by mostly eschewing the chaos and nihilism we expect to see in shows exploring the catastrophic aftermath of a pandemic. Instead, the storytelling is focused on the beauty of rebuilding humanity and the tenderness of the human spirit and the resilience born out of the collective trauma of profound loss and survival. Both the book and the series follows a nomadic group of actors and musicians who survived the plague and spend their days bringing art to communities of survivors and those who have inherited the pain of a generation altered by the end of the world as they once knew it.
In the post-apocalyptic world of Station Eleven, Shakespeare is the shared language of those bonded by the grief of losing all they once knew—and all of who they once were—and a prescient graphic sci-fi novel about a stranded astronaut has become a Bible of sorts among the youth of this new world. The world had collapsed a long ago so there are no culture wars or political theater or acts of mass violence or anti-vaxxers to divide those who are left. There's only the haunting memories of what once was, and even those are fading as everyone forges a path in a world unencumbered by the Before Times.
I’ve been thinking a lot about a particular thread that played out over the course of Station Eleven. Though much of the series is focused on life in the After with some essential flashbacks to the Before, there’s a moment where the two leads—thoughtful, do-gooder Jeevan (Himesh Patel) and Kristen (played with equal virtuosity by Matilda Lawler and Mackenzie Davis), the young girl he survived the end with—venture to the homes that held versions of themselves they’d lost in the Before Times. They had long lost each other, and themselves, by then and found solace in new communities and new homes and new people to care for. But neither had really grieved the Before Times or given themselves the permission to let go of the guilt they held for having lost each other.
Though Station Eleven’s commitment to finding the beauty of the world ending made it a far more uplifting watch than most pandemic focused fiction, that journey of grief, isolation and loneliness was a painful reminder of the heartbreak that looms over our heads daily as we wade through a third year of this pandemic. Watching Jeevan and Kristen search for the parts of themselves they lost in the Before Times brought me back to those early days of lockdown, when the feeling of isolation was only just starting to test our spirits.
I’d take spend evenings taking advantage of the emptiness of the roads and venture across LA, cruising past the places that held me in different parts of my life here in the way Before Times.
The old Koreatown hotel that had been converted into small studio apartments where I spent my early days struggling to make ends meet. The East Hollywood bungalow where I spent years finding myself. The stunning corner unit overlooking Beachwood Canyon that became symbolic of a time of great shame and pain in my life. I went there the most. I’d sit in my car and stare up at that apartment, thinking about the grief and the fears and the rage that once filled the home. I watched as the occupants that live there now moved about in their own isolation, unaware there was a stranger watching and grieving all the times his world came crashing down in that same living room. The feeling of hopelessness that permeated those walls felt so foreign to me now. I had grieved it all, with the help of my phenomenal therapist). But there was something about venturing back there, to who I once was, that soothed the grief building from the isolation, anxieties and fears of those early days of the pandemic.
Like Jeevan and Kristen, I had been in search of letting go of who I once was in the Before Times. We're still not on the other side of this, and there are days when it feels like we will always be suspended in this pandemic purgatory but grieving what once was has also helped me learn to embrace what will be.