The first season finale of Eleven station, the extraordinary and luxuriously made HBO Max show based on the best-selling novel of 2014 by Emily St. John Mandel, was both extremely satisfying and faithful to the complex universe created by the limited series. Tragically separated protagonists are reunited, latent grievances are buried, and an army of child suicide bombers is disbanded.
The episode, first available in the app at 3 a.m. Eastern Thursday, is a fitting ending to Eleven station, a series that depicted the extinction of human civilization as we know it, but managed to be the most promising work of art of the year – a complex and heartfelt narrative poem that affirmed the ineffable beauty of human being in a broken world.
By now, the standard post-apocalypse universe is familiar. A sin The road Where The Walking Dead, the survivors of a global catastrophe navigate a relentlessly dark landscape of ruin, beset by bands of sociopaths or cannibals, trying and failing to rebuild small-scale human communities. Human remains are grizzled, cynical, suspicious of everyone they meet, and usually with good reason. The collapse of civilization turns life into a war of all against all, a fierce fight that leaves no room for altruism. Almost all of these stories take a dim view of humanity’s likely reaction to the end of the world. Kindness is punished.
Eleven station – for which many spoilers will follow here – is not that kind of doomsday spectacle. There are bandits and violence, but it is clear that what remains of humanity did not immediately start forming gangs of rapists and slavers. The survivors depicted 20 years after the collapse are satisfied, though they have clearly failed to recreate their lost civilization. An oft-repeated line from the titular graphic novel is, “I stood looking at the damage, trying to remember how sweet life was on Earth.” The questions the show’s characters wrestle with are whether life was sweeter before or after the world ended, how much pain they have to forget to move on, and who or what before they can keep in this new world.
A skillfully orchestrated affair, Eleven station defies easy summarization, especially because the showrunners frequently jump between timelines within and between episodes. The series follows its characters beginning years before the apocalypse, through the night of the collapse and the days and months that followed, up to 20 years later.
Kirsten Raymonde (Matilda Lawler) is a child actress who witnesses the onstage death of Arthur Leander (Gael Garcia Bernal), a movie star trying to revive his career in a Chicago theater production. King Lear, and is escorted home by Jeevan (Himesh Patel), an audience member who can’t bring himself to leave the forgotten little girl stranded outside the theater.
Nobody answers the door of his family’s house, which we soon learn because his parents died, as almost everyone soon will, from a new flu virus at the level of extinction that makes it look like COVID to a bad hangover. On the train, Jeevan receives a call from his sister Siya, an ER doctor, who warns him of the coming flu and begs him to barricade himself with their brother Frank in his high-rise apartment. After grocery shopping for almost $10,000, they do, and it’s clear that Siya (Tiya Sircar, who shoplifts her handful of scenes) already knows she’s almost dead.
It’s all pretty straightforward for the start of an apocalypse show. But on the train, Kirsten is seen looking at a graphic novel called Eleven station, and over the next few episodes we learn how it came into his possession.
Arthur was once married to Miranda Carroll (Danielle Deadwyler), who worked in shipping logistics and slowly and carefully penned the novel at nights and weekends. During the immediate post-apocalyptic months with Jeevan and Frank, the book becomes an object of almost religious devotion for Kirsten, who clings to it fiercely and later acts as if she believes its plot to be real.
When she discovers Arthur is cheating on her with co-star Elizabeth Colton (Caitlin Fitzgerald), Miranda leaves him after giving a dinner closing speech that ends with the line “Burn all the parasites, motherfucker, alive.” Years later, days before the pandemic, Miranda comes to Chicago to give Arthur his finished work, Eleven station, and during their brief reunion, Kirsten wanders off. Miranda is then sent to Malaysia by her employer, where she receives a call from Arthur’s friend Clark Thompson (David Wilmot) with news of Arthur’s death. Overwhelmed with grief, she chooses to stay at her hotel rather than jump on the container ship her boss has arranged to get her off the deadly path of the flu. We only see her again at the end.
Despite the ongoing pandemic (one of the show’s obvious implausibilities is that air traffic is not blocked), Clark boards a plane for Arthur’s funeral, which is diverted to a fictional airport in the city. fictitious from Severn City, Michigan. Miraculously, no one on the plane or at the airport has the flu, but another plane arrives and the sick passengers are held captive, presumably to die. Clark, his traveling companions, and some airport employees hunker down, eventually building a small, walled society that includes the “Museum of Civilization,” a collection of trinkets, like a lost-world laptop, housed in the airport control tower.
On the flight with Clark are Arthur’s wife, Elizabeth, and their son Tyler (Julian Obradors). Halfway through the series, we see that Tyler also receives one of the five copies of Eleven station. When a passenger escapes the doomed plane onto the tarmac, Tyler escorts him inside, where the passenger is shot. Elizabeth and Tyler are quarantined separately until an outraged and bitter Tyler flees. By the end of the episode, it’s clear that he’s the mysterious “post-pan” cult leader (those born after the pandemic) in the future timeline, whom we first met in the second episode. There, Tyler is known as The Prophet and has amassed an army of kids he calls The Undersea, kids he made believe the text of Eleven station is a prophecy.
The central characters of the future timeline are a group of performers called The Traveling Symphony who make a recurring geographic loop around Lake Michigan they call The Wheel, stopping at surviving towns and settlements to perform Shakespeare and music. After separating from Jeevan about a year after the flu, Kirsten survived on her own before running into Sarah (Lori Petty), who brought her into the band. Now, 20 years later, Kirsten (Mackenzie Davis) travels and performs with this adorable group of theater nerds until they meet The Prophet/Tyler, who swears to kill Kirsten and her friends. “There is no before,” he says ominously and repeatedly.
Tyler wants to return to Severn City Airport and destroy the Museum of Civilization as part of a project to completely erase what’s left of the past. In the eighth episode, with the symphony en route to the airport at gunpoint (the Severn City band is a bit of an outfit not to be taken for an answer), Tyler traps Kirsten and convinces her to help sneak. bring him to the airport under the guise of being an actor. It works when they perform a scene from Eleven station for Clark, but after blowing up the museum, Tyler is confronted by his mother, who he still resents for what happened 20 years earlier. Clark has Tyler knocked out and chained.
We meet Jeevan again as a survivor at the end of the ninth episode, who finally recounts how he was separated from Kirsten: after half-jokingly posing as a doctor on ham radio, he was abducted by a group of women who were looking for more skilled hands in childbirth. Unable to find Kirsten, who had left the house they lived in, he falls in with the group, builds a life with his captor, and actually becomes a de facto doctor, shaking up one of the show’s clever gags, set up in the first episode by Jeevan’s shameful decision to act like a doctor while watching Lear.
The finale manages to wrap up all those threads in a tight 59 minutes. We return first to Miranda, dying in her Malaysian hotel room. We see that she first began to imagine Eleven station when his family died after Hurricane Hugo, a devious explanation of why she was so determined to finish the book on her terms. With a co-worker, she figures out how to call the pilot (also named Hugo) on Severn City’s jammed tarmac plane and convince him to keep everyone on board to rescue those at the airport. When the sun comes up, they are both dead.
Back in Michigan, it turns out that Jeevan is the airport’s “doctor” on call, and he’s summoned, a day’s drive away, to help treat Sarah, who has had a heart attack, and Clark, which was badly burned trying to save the museum. Believing Tyler to be reachable, Kirsten insists he play Hamlet with Elizabeth as her mother, Queen Gertrude. Sarah dies before the performance and Kirsten does not tell the band until the show is over, after which she encounters one of Tyler’s underwater puppets, who is ready to roll into destruction mode with a bag full of landmines. Kirsten shows the child her copy of Eleven station and convinces her that it’s just a book; Tyler and his mother reconcile; and Kirsten and Jeevan are finally reunited when they spot each other at the symphony performance after Hamlet. Tyler and his mother set off together to places unknown, while Kirsten promises to put the airport on The Wheel and asks Jeevan to bring her family the following year.
I’ve sketched out the entire season, but a simple plot recap is insufficient to grasp just how emotional this finale was. It was full of happy endings, but they were so well deserved. The actors on Eleven station deserve a gigantic pile of Emmys, neither do Lawler – whose incredible layered performance as young Kirsten anchors the entire series in pathos, loss and hope – and Patel – whose journey of failure without purpose to post-apocalypse family man and city doctor is portrayed with nuance, humor and restraint.
Particularly during what may seem like the darkest days of our pandemic, it was surprisingly uplifting to remember that whatever is on the other side of the nightmare we are living through, life on Earth will always be full of sweetness. We can remember the damage and yet escape with our humanity and our capacity for love, art, joy and community intact.
Speaking only to myself, I really needed to hear it.