Station Eleven, Hamlet, and the importance of the stories we tell each other and ourselves

HBO Max’s Station Eleven could’ve been a standard post-apocalyptic drama, but the introduction of a traveling caravan of actors who perform Shakespeare after the world ends, transforms the show into a story about stories.  Their importance, their interpretation, how they are shared and how they change over time, something made apparent in the very first scene.

HBO Max’s Station Eleven has been described by some critics as the best show of the year, combining confident, skilled storytelling, character and world building, with a non-linear narrative that comes together in surprising ways over the course of ten episodes.  On the surface, the plot itself is nothing special, a fairly generic post-apocalyptic drama about humanity’s struggle to survive 20 years after a pandemic swept the planet, killing over 99% of the population.  Once bustling cities are empty and overgrown with vegetation as people retreated to small settlements, scraping out a meager existence with no electricity and none of the conveniences of the modern world.  Some are old enough to remember the time before, others grew up entirely in this desolate new world and speak of the past as if it were some magical place that never existed.  Much of the story centers are Kirsten Raymonde, who was ten years old when the pandemic struck, and possesses some dim memory of what life was like then, but in the present she is part of a troupe of actors and musicians that travels from settlement to settlement, staging plays and playing music in exchange for food and shelter.  They are known as the Traveling Symphony, and are welcome anywhere on The Wheel, the phrase used to describe the route they travel on an annual basis, something like a loop around a lake in the American wilderness.  The existence of the Traveling Symphony itself is a window into Station Eleven’s larger themes and purpose, what fundamentally differentiates this from an ordinary saga about the world ending, and makes the show both interesting and compelling.  Ultimately, Station Eleven is a story about stories.  Their importance, their interpretation, how they are shared and how they change over time, something made apparent in the very first scene.

After a shot of a playbill in a theater overgrown with vegetation, the show opens in the middle of a production of King Lear, a classic story embedded in a new story, a theme that will be repeated and revised throughout the episodes.  Arthur Leander is a world-famous actor who has decided to return to his theatrical roots by playing William Shakespeare’s Lear on the Chicago stage.  We are taken to the premiere performance in the middle of scene four when Lear is already blind, mad, and raving at the world.  “I pardon that man’s life. What was thy cause?  Adultery?  Thou shalt not die. Die for adultery? No.”  The audience watching the famous tragedy doesn’t know it yet, but more than 99% of them will soon be dead themselves, starting with the lead actor.  Arthur himself is about to suffer a heart attack on stage, plunging the theater into chaos as the entire world will quickly follow.  A man in the audience, Jeevan, who was annoyed a moment earlier by a person on their cell phone, is the first to realize Arthur is suffering a heart attack.  He rushes onto the stage to help, but he is not a doctor and no one can save him.  In the commotion afterward, he meets ten-year old Kirsten, who is an aspiring actress playing young Goneril, and realizes she has no way to get home.  The following nine episodes will patiently and cleverly reveal how all of the major characters and plotlines are connected to this performance, turning Arthur himself into a character that looms over events as surely as the ghost of Hamlet’s father.  Jeevan himself, an unemployed writer and content creator, is far from the ideal father figure.  His own sister nicknamed him “Leaving Jeevan” given his penchant for running out when things get tough, but when she calls him from a hospital and tells him the “Georgia flu” is about to decimate the world, he realizes Kirsten has no one else, and over the two years they spend together she teaches him the importance of stories.

The story that is most important to Kirsten at the time is a graphic novel, Station Eleven, from which the series gets its name.  The graphic novel itself was written by Arthur Leander’s ex-wife, Miranda Carroll, as a way to grapple with her own tragic story after her entire family was killed in the destruction of Hurricane Hugo when she was a child.  It was her immersion in art itself that saved her from the same fate.  She was seated on a countertop drawing when the house flooded and a damaged wire electrocuted her parents and siblings, but Miranda herself was too damaged to finish her story for decades.  The past haunted her throughout her unlikely marriage to a worldwide celebrity – she worked in logistics, the story of how things get from point A to point B as the show describes it – and subsequent divorce.  Believing Arthur was cheating on her with a costar, she burned down her studio before leaving him, destroying the story itself at that point in time.  The story she wants to tell also has parallels to the overarching plot of the show.  The graphic novel tells of a post-apocalyptic world, where humanity  struggles to survive on a space station.  There is a time before in that world too, one those people deny existed, and yet it also represents Miranda’s own life.  The time before her family died.  She was able to excise these demons only after finally completing Station Eleven, allowing her to make contact with Arthur once more.  In the intervening years, Arthur got married, had a child, and divorced again himself.  The child, Tyler, is about the same age as Kirsten, and also received a copy of Station Eleven (there were a total of five printed). He too will carry it with him for decades, though he interprets and uses the story in a radically different manner.  It is a story he tells himself as much as he tells others.

We learn that Tyler and his mother were supposed to be at the premiere performance of King Lear, but instead they set out for Chicago the next day and were diverted to a remote airport in Michigan. Also in Michigan is an old actor friend of Arthur’s, Clark Thompson, who was on his way to Chicago to pick up Arthur’s body.  Clark was a veteran of the theater, but he’d given up stories in favor of coaching high powered executives.  This sets up a time before for Clark himself. When he was an artist, and when he wasn’t. It will be 20 years before Clark rediscovers the importance of stories, but in the meantime he is also in Arthur’s shadow, his ghost looming large over his life, another echo of Hamlet.  Clark was a talented actor in his own right, but never a movie star.  He both loves Arthur as a dear friend and hates him as one whom talent and adoration comes all too easy.  Clark is connected to Miranda as well.  He was with Arthur the day they met, and has always felt close to her.  He was even there when they split up and it is he who informs Miranda of Arthur’s death.  Eventually, we learn that Clark has also met Kirsten, albeit briefly when she was a child.  In the meantime, the airport in Michigan is isolated and with no hope of help.  This also has the benefit of limiting their exposure to the pandemic, allowing them to survive. Clark and Caitlin set up something of a partnership, leading and protecting the people there in the aftermath.  The community prospers, but Tyler grows distant and jealous, as if Clark were Claudius from Hamlet, killing his father and marrying his mother.  Shortly after they arrived at the airport, another plane landed, but the people on it were infected and were not allowed to disembark.  One man eventually emerges, only to be killed by the colony.  This is too much for young Tyler to take, and he fakes his own death by burning the plane, disappearing into the wilderness.

At this point, we realize that we’ve already met Tyler when he is older, 20 years after the pandemic.  The structure of Station Eleven itself highlights the importance of these stories.  Of the ten episodes, half effectively “bottles” focused almost entirely on one story and one character as they interact with others, revealing a little more of the larger picture each time.  The remaining five roughly occur in the post pandemic future, taking the viewer forward and backward in time, giving each story a beginning, middle, and end of its own, even as they all form part of the larger tapestry. It also introduces an odd meta-behavior as you watch: We become aware of the pacing of the show, and expect each episode will be both self-contained, while containing another thread of the main narrative.  The Traveling Symphony has been performing Hamlet as part of their annual journey around The Wheel, making the connection between Shakespeare’s masterwork and characters and events in Station Eleven even clearer.  At first, Tyler claims to be a man whose wife has just died, leaving him alone with a teenage son, but Kirsten is immediately suspicious and believes he has dark designs for the Symphony.  She tries to kill him, unsuccessfully stabbing him in the stomach with a dagger.  Tyler escapes and we learn later that he has styled himself The Prophet.  He preaches the gospel of the graphic novel Station Eleven to children, promising them the events will ultimately come to fruition.  He emphatically denies the existence of the time before. This is a perversion of the story from Kirsten’s perspective.  He has shared it far more broadly than she has, but for his own personal ends, transmitting it to a new generation, yet corrupting it.  Kirsten, on the other hand, treasures every word and jealously guards her copy.  She is so influenced by the work, that she transformed Station Eleven into a play of her own design shortly after the pandemic began, recruiting Jeevan and his brother Frank as actors.  Jeevan, at that point, cannot understand her infatuation.  He has yet to find his own story, but he relents to the performance provided they leave the shelter of Frank’s apartment the day after seeking people and food.

Alas, they are one day too late when another person discovers them and seeks to rob them.  Frank is stabbed and killed in the scuffle. Kirsten keeps the knife.  It is the one she will ultimately stab Tyler with, but she can’t possibly know it at the time as she and Jeevan depart Chicago alone.  They find shelter in a house hidden in the woods, coexisting there for some time.  Jeevan, however, is still unable to understand the importance of Station Eleven and while walking through the snow covered woods, he removes it from Kirsten’s backpack and tosses it off the trail, hoping to rid them of what he sees as a useless obsession.  Kirsten is distraught when she discovers the book is missing, but when Jeevan returns to find it, he is attacked by a wolf and kidnapped into yet another story.  This is the one he will ultimately live out, and there were hints of his desire for such a narrative in the opening scene. In this story, a female doctor has taken over a department store and turned it into a shelter for pregnant women, most of whom are expected to give birth on the same day.  She seeks Jeevan’s help in caring for and protecting the women, believing him to be a doctor at first because he claimed the title on a conversation over a shortwave radio earlier in the series.  Jeevan is desperate to return to Kirsten, fearing what might happen to her alone, but the wolf has savaged his foot and ankle.  He is unable to walk for months and grudgingly begins helping the women.  Their story soon becomes his story, and he assumes the role of a doctor for decades.

Kirsten, however, finds her missing copy of Station Eleven covered in blood, and believes Jeevan is dead.  She sets off on a new path, and so her story with the Traveling Symphony begins. Twenty years after the pandemic, Tyler has been traveling from settlement to settlement, gathering as many followers as he can find by telling his own perverted version of the story of Station Eleven.  He plans to return to the airport and destroy the colony, which ultimately styles itself as The Museum of Civilization.  Miranda had never met Tyler in the time before, but realizes they must share at least part of the same story and they are connected to Station Eleven somehow.  Tyler himself is something of an enigma as The Prophet.  The precise motivations for his faking his own death and what happens in the intervening 20 years are unclear, as is his desire to destroy the Museum of Civilization.  The introduction of Hamlet into the story, however, allows us to easily connect him to the titular prince.  His father is dead.  His mother is in partnership with another man.  All he has left of either is his memory of Station Eleven, and a hazy motivation to do something.  We might ask why he waited 20 years.  We can ask the same of Hamlet.  We might ask why he is so estranged from his mother.  Again, we can ask the same of Hamlet who waits until the middle of the play to confront Gertrude with any of his concerns. There are mirrors and reflections, between Station Eleven and Hamlet, and between the characters themselves, as one story continually changes and multiplies.

These threads all come together in a pivotal scene.  The Traveling Symphony has been asked, or rather forced, to perform at the Museum of Civilization.  Tyler uses this as an opportunity to infiltrate the colony and destroy it.  He partially succeeds, setting fire to the control tower and destroying the relics of the past.  His followers cannot be far behind and it seems all is lost until the performance of Hamlet, when the characters in Station Eleven finally assume their proper roles, turning it into a play within a play within a play.  Tyler is the prince.  Clark is Claudius.  Caitlin is Gertrude.  The two most dominant stories are now fused into one. The play within a play serves the story we are watching now.  We witness Hamlet’s estrangement after this father’s death, “But I have that within which passes show, These but the trappings and the suits of woe,” and we know he is speaking for Shakespeare’s words and Tyler’s feelings at the same time.   This, however, is also a story about how stories themselves evolve over time.  We’ve already seen this with Station Eleven itself, and how Kirsten clings to the actual words on the page while Tyler uses it as a quasi-religion of the spoken word.  It is also alluded to in the adaptations of Hamlet the Traveling Symphony performs, including one using the vernacular of “90’s alternative music lyrics.”  Here, Hamlet finds a happier ending.  Tyler and Caitlin reunite and agree to travel together.  Clark himself rediscovers his own story, both by acting again and by realizing the power of the story itself to change all of their fates.  The audience also discovers that all of them owe their lives to Miranda.  It was she who convinced the pilot of the second plane not to let the sick passengers out and infect the people at the airport.  It was the last thing she did before dying, saving the ex-wife and child of the love of her own life, allowing the story to continue.  Thus, this is her story and Arthur’s, though both are long dead, the narrative doesn’t end.  We see this when Kirsten learns Jeevan is alive and living another story.  Station Eleven ends with them taking separate paths through the woods.  Miranda will keep stories alive with the Traveling Symphony and Jeevan will directly live out the story written for him as a doctor.  Stories merge, stories separate, stories change, but that there is always a story is inevitable.

Recently, I opined on the connection between The Northman and HamletThe Northman is described as a “Shakespherean adaptation” because it uses Shakespeare’s original source material, telling its own story while ensuring it can be contrasted with the play itself.  Similarly, Station Eleven takes key elements from Hamlet including the dead father, the match between his mother and another man, and the conflict inherent in the character, but embeds them into the much more expansive, longer narrative of a television show.  The universality of Shakespeare is made clear given his plays survive the end of the world and audiences still clamor for a performance of Hamlet.  For all the characters might insist that there is no time before, Hamlet is from a time even further before, and its continuing relevance suggests a story that never ends.  The moral complexity and ambiguity of the play is reflected in details small and large.  Kirsten tries to kill Tyler before partnering with him.  Clark and Caitlin rule their kingdom with harsh restrictions on anyone coming or going, but that is what enabled them to survive and prosper.  Hamlet himself has been described as an actor searching for a role.  Miranda seemingly knew what her role was over the twenty year arc of events, but Jeevan ultimately had to find his path.  Clark too had to return to something like his original story merging his present self with the time before.  The Prophet had to complete his.  Miranda and Arthur can be seen as the authors of the initial pages, but ultimately any story takes on a life of its own.  What is important, however, is that there are stories in the first place.  They can separate us as Kirsten and Tyler at first, but they also bind us together, telling something about ourselves, even as we change over time.  Humanity has always told stories, painting them on caves thousands of years before the written word.  Station Eleven posits that we will keep telling them even after the end of the world.


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