The HBO miniseries Station Eleven is being heralded as a welcome presentation of a gentler, more optimistic post-apocalyptic story. The main difference between this narrative, and many of the works of fiction within this genre that preceded it (post-apocalyptic series like The Walking Dead, The Leftovers, and The Stand) is the prevalence of art. The main story focuses on Shakespearean actors, classical musicians, writers, and the graphic novel with enough gravitas to garner a cult-like following, Station Eleven.
In a capitalist society, art is perceived as a luxury, so in many survival stories, art simply doesn’t exist–there are no campfire songs or stories, and certainly no elaborately-costumed, fully-staged theater productions. Is it possible that what sets Station Eleven apart is its prioritization and glorification of art for art’s sake? What is a life of survival alone? Art adds richness, expression, enjoyment–and in the case of this story, art adds depth and background to the characters, and to their individual arcs. Art also creates and nurtures community, and provides a beautiful reminder to the audience of what art–and living–is really all about.
Arthur Leander as King Lear
Station Eleven begins on opening night of a production of Shakespeare’s King Lear with Arthur Leander (Gael García Bernal) as the title character. The show’s main protagonist Kirsten (Matilda Lawler) is an 8-year-old on the sidelines watching her acting mentor Leander as he collapses of a heart attack on stage. Later on, we meet Tyler (Julien Obradors), Leander’s son with his second wife Elizabeth (Caitlin FitzGerald). It is revealed to us, throughout the miniseries, that Arthur is a charming, exceedingly talented, and very lovable but complicated man–who isn’t always faithful to his partners, and can be selfish, arrogant, and judgmental.
King Lear is, at its core, about a terrible father who decides to retire as king and ration off his kingdom to his children based on who can convince him they love him the most. Ultimately, though, he just can’t let go of the power and tries to sabotage their attempts to rule. Dennis Brown, in his 2001 book “King Lear: The Lost Leader; Group Disintegration, Transformation, and Suspended Reconsolidation” calls Lear’s dysfunction “near-fairytale narcissism.” Over and over again, the story toggles between the loving, generous, kind, and artistic side of Arthur, and the sometimes cruel, self-centered, egotistical, sell-out side.
Though Arthur Leander is the first primary character to die (and does so in the first few minutes of the first episode) his presence in flashbacks, and importance to most of the other central characters, makes him a constant throughout the entire series. Even Jeevan (Himesh Patel) is impacted by Arthur– though he only knew him for a moment– as he was the first person Jeevan ever cared for on his path to becoming a healer. Like King Lear, even as he steps back, out of the spotlight, Arthur remains watching over, guiding, bringing together, and sometimes even tormenting those that continue living after he’s gone.
The Three Hamlets
The Traveling Symphony–the group of artists that Kirsten joins up with after being separated from her (presumed dead) caretaker Jeevan– tours a section of their post-pandemic world they call “The Wheel” putting on adaptations of Shakespeare plays. Post-pandemic Year 20s production is Hamlet. This is the story of a young prince (Hamlet) who is driven mad by his suspicion that his uncle (Claudius) killed his recently deceased father (King Hamlet) and then married his mother (Gertrude). Angsty Hamlet skulks around getting harassed by the ghost of his father while trying to solve the crime by eliciting the help of an acting troupe who has traveled to their kingdom to put on a play. Three characters play the role of Hamlet throughout Station Eleven. The first is Kirsten (Mackenzie Davis), the second is Alex (Philippine Velge), and the third is Tyler (Daniel Zovatto).
Kirsten as Hamlet
As a child during the pandemic, Kirsten lost everything–her mother and father (who it was inferred were already kind of absent), a brother (although this may have been pre-pan), and her mentor Arthur Leander. She was left alone to fend for herself when Jeevan stepped in as a kind of father figure and his recluse brother Frank (Nabhaan Rizwan) a surrogate uncle, but she lost both of them too. As Kirsten shows off her acting chops in the role of brooding, withdrawn Hamlet, the audience sees her pain, her paranoia (down to arming her costumes with secret knives in case she needs to stab someone mid-performance), her feelings of isolation, the true depth of her damage.
The audience follows Kirsten’s coming-of-age as we flip between her 8 and 28-year-old selves. We see her obstinacy and rebellion with Jeevan, we see Jeevan’s clumsiness as a kind of involuntary first-time foster parent and the hurt it causes Kirsten, and we see her step into the role of surrogate parent to “post-pan” free spirit Alexandra–who resents her and rebels against her authority the same way she did Jeevan’s.
Alex as Hamlet
Alex embodies a kind of child-like innocence that Kirsten never possessed, even when she was an innocent child. She is impetuous and irresponsible and doesn’t understand Kirsten’s constant vigilance or paranoia, because she doesn’t carry the same trauma. Despite the freedom she has grown up with, she feels stifled by the monotony of the Traveling Symphony and yearns to individuate. Alex grows increasingly resentful of Kirsten–for telling her what to do, for stopping her from exploring, for infantilizing her, for controlling her every move, and (however petty) for always playing the lead in the Symphony’s productions.
One day, her time to shine finally comes. With less experience, training, and maturity to pull from, Alex’s Hamlet has decidedly less depth than Kirsten’s, but her anger (she furiously glares at Kirsten from across the stage) and her elation at a little glimpse of autonomy foreshadow that her path may be different from the one Kirsten has in mind for her. Like Hamlet, like all children, Alex will break free from her parent figure and become her own person.
Tyler as Hamlet
Tyler Leander is Arthur’s only biological child but never experiences the intimacy with his father that Kirsten seems to. His mother Elizabeth was preoccupied with her own pain throughout his childhood, as she navigated her grief regarding her husband’s infidelities, so Tyler spent most of his early years retreating to the sanctuary of his headphones and the internet. His quiet, distant presence allows him to be privy to information he may not have otherwise known because the adults in his world always assume he’s not listening–though he’s wiser and more prescient than anyone gives him credit for.
Tyler’s Hamlet is–by far–the most gut-wrenching, as he barely needs to act. Clark (David Wilmot) is Claudius–his power-hungry uncle who seemed to be an antagonistic (though confusingly loving) presence to both Arthur and to Elizabeth and Tyler as Arthur’s real family (which ended up being the nail in the coffin of their friendship). Tyler’s resourcefulness and foresight, even as a child, enabled him to overhear Clark’s plans to extricate him from their Severn City airport utopia as Tyler stood in the way of Clark’s authority and his plans to essentially reinvent capitalism. Elizabeth plays Gertrude as she and Tyler/Hamlet gain some catharsis through Shakespeare’s dialogue–mending the parting of ways that came from Tyler faking his own death and embarking on a solo journey in the hopes of one day returning to exact vengeance on his uncle and mother for their betrayal.
Station Eleven, the Graphic Novel
Miranda Carroll (Danielle Deadwyler) is a kind of master-builder for the Station Eleven universe. Carroll is the first wife of Arthur Leander (and arguably the love of his life). She is the real hero of the story on many levels, and she serves as the avatar for the philosophy of Station Eleven. The character of Miranda is a stark juxtaposition to the world of Arthur Leander, who by the time they meet, is a famous movie star. Where Leander and his entourage are artists who have gotten used to the opulence and grandeur of exorbitant financial success and fame–Miranda is an artist for art’s sake. She has been slowly, painstakingly working on a book about survivors of a global apocalypse and the grief that comes with it. Everyone asks her to see her work, which she refuses; and they act confused when she says she doesn’t plan on publishing it. One character even posits the question, “What’s the point of spending all this time making it if no one’s going to see it?” Miranda even goes so far as to burn down her art studio (and all her work with it) when she finds out Arthur showed it to Elizabeth without her permission.
Leander’s inflated ego and his lack of integrity in the projects he chooses to work on cause Carroll to withdraw from him. Once she finds out he doesn’t respect her choices or her integrity and that he may prefer less intense, more success-minded Elizabeth (and may have already begun an affair), she packs her things and leaves. Years later, she ends up rewriting Station Eleven and publishing five copies, one of which ends up with Kirsten and the other Tyler (both via Arthur before his death). The two children become consumed by the book–it is their escape, their coping mechanism, and it comes to serve as a kind of guiding force for both of them. Lines from the book are recited and repeated by multiple characters whenever the story sinks up with the sentiments expressed in the book (“I remember damage. Then escape.”) In one scene, young Kirsten writes a play based on the Station Eleven character Captain Lonegran’s death scene. Through her dialogue, she allows brothers Frank and Jeevan to say goodbye before Frank’s death moments later, thus protecting Jeevan from the grief she feels over never having said goodbye to Arthur.
Art for Art’s Sake
The free, dirty, commune-style nomad life of the Traveling Symphony and the cold, orderly, insular life of the Museum of Civilization are direct reflections of the people who founded them. Sarah (Lori Petty), the conductor of the Traveling Symphony is the definition of a neurotic, tortured artist. In a twist of fate, Jeevan unknowingly discovers that Sarah was his brother Frank’s (another tortured artist) neighbor when scouring their building for supplies–and finds the sheet music to the piece that Sarah had been working on most of her life, Liszt’s “La Campanella”. Sarah thrives while composing for the Traveling Symphony’s productions, finding fulfillment in the process of making the art, and spreading joy to the people who watch their performances, while she speaks of her days of a successful music career with disdain and regret.
Clark, on the other hand, who began his acting career with his best friend Arthur (the two even played Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in a production of Hamlet when they were young), took a different path when his art career proved to be less-than-successful. He became a “CEO Whisperer.” He succumbed to the pressures of capitalism and thrived in a more material way. At the Museum of Civilization, he claimed and maintained his power, ruling with an iron fist, until, through playing the role of Claudius opposite Tyler’s Hamlet in the final production of Hamlet, he was finally able to relinquish control.
The series as a whole is constantly demonstrating that, while creating art can be emotionally taxing, at times frustrating, and definitely heartbreaking, it leads to a more meaningful life full of rich experience, open-heartedness, and emotional expression. In a story where death is so prescient (almost a character all its own), art is also a shot at immortality, as in the case of William Shakespeare, whose work lives on long after the world ends.