In the End, HBO Max's 'Station Eleven' Insists the Show Must Go On
The dystopian series brings all its narrative threads together for a finale packed with hugs, reunions, and new beginnings.
Despite beginning with King Lear and ending with Hamlet, HBO Max's Station Eleven, an adaptation of Emily St. John Mandel's Shakespeare-obsessed science-fiction novel, does not end in tragedy. Yes, there were tear-strewn faces, epiphany-filled confessions, and knife-wielding encounters. But instead of doubling down on the pandemic doom of its early episodes, the series pivoted to the type of hope, romance, and reunions typically found in one of the Bard's comedies. If all the world's a stage, the finale "Unbroken Circle," written by series creator Patrick Somerville and directed by Jeremy Podewesa, argues that the stage itself can be a place to heal the wounds of the world.
After nine episodes of chronological sleight-of-hand, the finale was relatively straight-forward. The show's haunted protagonist Kirsten, played by Mackenzie Davis as an adult and Matilda Lawler as a child, searched for reconciliation and catharsis throughout the series, ultimately finding it by reuniting the avenging prophet Tyler (Daniel Zovatto) with his grieving mother Elizabeth (Caitlin FitzGerald) in a production for the appreciative audience at the Severn City Airport. After bringing those two together, Kirsten then had her own unexpected meeting: She came face-to-face with a gray-haired Jeevan (Himesh Patel), now actually the doctor he pretended to be in the previous episode. Their stories, whether passed down in a comic or a play or a memory, become how they define themselves.
If that sounds gooey and sentimental, particularly for a show that kicked off with billions dying in a global flu outbreak, it's because it is. Though Station Eleven shares creative DNA with HBO's The Leftovers, a similarly somber end-times show Somerville also worked on, it concluded in a rather earnest, tender manner. Even if it had bits of spiky humor and some horrifying imagery, the show believed in the thrust of its own wild-eyed theater kid exuberance. Compared to Mandel's more distanced and restrained novel, Somerville's adaptation wanted to make you swoon.
Is it unfair to call Station Eleven twee? In its middle section, especially as it chronicled the misadventures of the Traveling Symphony and the early days of the Severn City Airport, the neediness could feel suffocating. The show's best episode, the Hiro Murai directed "Hurricane" about Danielle Deadwyler's Miranda struggling to make art and eventually make peace with her fate, had a rigor and urgency that felt bracing; the premiere had a similar level of precision and exactitude to its construction. Despite featuring incredible performances, the later episodes often lacked that same locked-in focus and sense of purpose.
Luckily, the connect-the-dots momentum of the finale corrected that. All the cross-cutting and the convergence, including the section with Miranda, provides an emotional payoff to stories that might have felt diffuse in earlier episodes. Bitter actor turned tyrannical leader Clark (David Wilmot) insisted that the Hamlet production shouldn't be "fucking art therapy," but that was always how a story like this would end. It's not hard to see how the Traveling Symphony is a metaphor for the utility of art in times of crisis and despair, which becomes a meta argument for the significance of Station Eleven itself as a series and as a book. (Notice the way the graphic novel often gets passed back and forth like a sacred artifact.) Depending on your tolerance for self-reflective storytelling, that's either a profound truth or evidence of self-importance. Maybe it's both?
The larger themes of Station Eleven—the power of storytelling, the endurance of the human spirit, the transformative catharsis of performance, the interplay between the past and the present—are hardly novel, but the execution was often brilliant and singular. And the show introduced enough ambiguity to complicate some of its more shopworn ideas. "We travel for a reason," says Kirsten at one point towards the end. "To come back every single year." It's a circular justification, the perfect swirl of motive and mystery to get lost in—and a fitting way to end this curious show.