Monday 17 January 2022

Station Eleven - Our paths crossed at the wrong time.

Station Eleven: 1x10 Unbroken Circle. 

So much of Station Eleven has been about the effect of stories on people. It is named after a graphic novel that couldn’t be any more obscure – Miranda never let anyone see it before she finished it and once she did, she printed five copies, but only gave away two. And yet, somehow, the story of Doctor Eleven’s eternal return to save his only friend and his past self from making a terrible decision has reached far beyond Kirsten and Tyler, the two children who received a copy from Arthur Leander. Kirsten performed it with Frank and Jeevan, finding escape and meaning in it while the apocalypse unfolded around her, while a world she had barely lived in disappeared. Tyler destroyed his physical copy but carried the words around in his head and built a whole gospel out of them for his Children of the Undersea, a religious text shared reverently by those who never knew the world before, and are bewildered by the nostalgia of their Elders, who cannot let go. 

That impact is a remarkable achievement for an artist who only ever created for herself, who never sought an audience, who, when asked about what she does, does not tell young Kirsten that she is a writer. Miranda has always had a way of slipping out of people’s lives – we finally hear how she lost her whole family as a child here, how she only escaped death narrowly because she was up on a countertop, colouring, while a hurricane caused a power line to kill everyone she loved in front of her – and since that first trauma, she doesn’t stick around. Clark grieves for her lost and says so in their last phone call, him just arrived at Severn Airport and her sealed up in that Malaysian hotel room – and she says “I don’t stay in touch”. She has seen everyone she ever loved die, but something happens during that phone call with Clark – maybe it’s that she realises that Arthur only contacted her because Clark had that conversation with him about her, that she finished her graphic novel and had it printed because Clark spoke up. She knows she is dying, she is already coughing. But she also brings up a map on her computer and sees that Severn Airport is on an island that is only connected to land through one road, and she realises that every person there can be saved. 

She knows that Tyler and Elizabeth are there, that somehow, even though the world is huge, something has brought Clark to the same place as these two people so intimately connected to Arthur. Miranda asks Clark to protect them, and then does everyone she can to help him do that. She leaves her hotel room – after all, once the cough arrives, it is too late for precautions – and goes over to Jim, maybe because she needs his resources, or maybe because she does not want to die alone. This world that is ending is big, but she has made it her career to figure out how to get things from point A to point B and what the best route to get them there is – and she knows that the only thing that is keeping the people of Severn Airport safe is the fact that the virus isn’t there yet, and they are relatively isolated. But we know that there is an airplane idling right there, on the tarmac, that has arrived from Chicago and is likely carrying ill passengers. It has always been a mystery how the passengers of the Gitchigoomie, safe the one man that Tyler brought inside days later, decided to stay onboard the plane instead of making a run of it: and here we see the life-saving mystery unfold. Somehow, Miranda found out the name of the pilot, and his phone number. Somehow she called him, and told him to go against every instinct in his body to not only preserve his own life but also that of the people he is responsible for, and make them stay on the plane. She tells him her story – the first time she does so, previously she has only hinted – and he makes the connection that the people inside the airport are like young Miranda, up on the countertop, safe but forced to see her loved ones die. Miranda says “they’re all ghosts. So am I, and so are you.”, and the passengers remain inside, and Severn Airport eventually becomes the Museum of Civilization. A whole world built through the actions of one woman. 

Station Eleven is a story about stories, and what could be a greater companion and contrast to the obscurity of the five-copy-graphic novel than the works of William Shakespeare, still performed after 400 years, after the end of the world! The Traveling Symphony has been released from quarantine and is preparing for its performance, and once her idea of leaving immediately and with Sarah is shut down because a doctor is on his way (!), Kirsten instead takes over and radically changes the production. She replaces Elizabeth as the director and moves the pieces around so that the production perfectly mirrors life, with Elizabeth in the role of Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother and the Prophet as Hamlet. They have a discussion about suffering before that, about the nature of loss, in which Kirsten points out to Elizabeth how lucky she is that Tyler returned, because in this world, “no one finds people from before”. This is of course an ominous statement to make to someone who has not only managed to find her son again, but also somehow ended up at the airport with her ex-husband’s best friend, an ex-husband that Kirsten happened to have known. There are invisible threads connecting everyone, and they will only become more obvious and relevant as the finale nears its end. 

Clark grudgingly allows Tyler out of prison for the performance after Elizabeth tells him that this is the only way to speak to him, as he is refusing to otherwise – to Kirsten, she says that’s he barely knows her son now, that he stares at her like she is a ghost – and of course he casts himself as Claudius, Hamlet’s uncle and the villain of the play. After all, Clark was once an ambitious actor too, before he became the CEO whisperer, and he never really left that resentment over not succeeding behind. 

And so the night of the play arrives. Kirsten surrenders all of her knives, gives the one that killed Frank to Alex to look after (Alex gives it to Tyler, who is pondering what he will do with it). Alex tells Kirsten that she wants to stay at the airport for a year, and Kirsten responds that they travel for a reason – “to come back. To come back every single year”, a statement that I’ve thought about a lot, since. Does Kirsten think that the rhythm of the wheel extends protection to both the Symphony and the towns they visit, that the promise of a predictable return is a spell that will keep everyone safe? Is it like a guarantee in a world where, as Kirsten says, you are unlikely to find someone from before, where every new connection is precarious?

Jeevan arrives unseen by Kirsten to treat Clark’s hands, which he injured in the fire, trying to save his Museum, and he is present when Sarah dies – nobody in this episode dies alone, once she goes, even Miranda has Doctor Eleven with her. The Symphony performs Hamlet, and it is beautiful – transformative, revelatory – with the children of the Museum looking on in awe, since they’ve never seen a performance before. Something about it is cathartic, and Tyler comes close to killing Clark, their relationship mirroring that of Hamlet and Claudius. In the moment, in the scene, Clark thinks that Tyler will kill him and he breaks character, telling him that he too loved his father, and instead of running off, Tyler stays. 

After the performance, Kirsten shares the secret she has been keeping from the troupe because she thought they wouldn’t be able to get through the night otherwise. Sarah is dead, and Kirsten is finally grieving, but then a girl approaches – one of the Children of the Undersea – and she is carrying a mine in her bag, which she calls a beacon. The Prophet has lit the torch, and so they have all come. And here this episode makes an amazing, surprising decision: because these mines have been such a dark, ominous cloud hanging over everyone, as if all of this could only ever end in violence, these children creating their own interpretation of the world, untethered from Tyler. Instead, Kirsten takes out her copy of Miranda’s novel, and begins reading it to the girl – the sacred text, no longer just recited from memory, but jotted down, touchable. 

After the play, Tyler apologises for lighting the Museum on fire and Elizabeth says she would have come with him if he asked her to – and so he asks her now to accompany him, and she says yes. After 20 years, Elizabeth is ready to leave Severn Airport and Clark. The Symphony performs Midnight Train to Georgia, one of Sarah’s favourite songs, to remember her by, and during this wake, Kirsten finally sees Jeevan – as if she had conjured him by telling Elizabeth that you never get people back that you’ve lost, a series of impossibilities leading them to the same place almost 20 years after they lost each other. They almost never leave the wheel, but they did to perform at the Museum. Jeevan wouldn’t have come if they didn’t have to call him when Sarah had the heart attack. They meet again, after thinking each other dead, and they can part because they both realise that there is hope of finding each other again. Kirsten will bring the Symphony back to the Museum and Jeevan will bring his whole family to watch a performance, and their unlikely story – a man deciding to make sure that a girl gets home safe, even though he was scared the whole time – will continue to be told, but now without the uncertain ending. 

Random notes: 

A lot in this episode simply left me speechless. Station Eleven is a great, great book, but I think maybe it is an ever greater series.

Cried through Miranda asking the pilot what message he left – the broken promise, that he’d be home soon, with so many people never making it home, or with home changing meaning so radically. It was also a decision to never show the cabin – we can imagine the misery of the dying, the horror the survivor would have endured before escaping, and then being denied sanctuary. 

Glad to see that the soccer team goalie is still thriving!

I am not familiar enough with Hamlet to parse the meaning it holds for Tyler, Elizabeth and Clark when they perform their roles, and work through their issues somewhat, but I trust that it is significant. 

The moment where Clark realises that Kirsten is Kiki, someone whom Arthur loves, and that he will finally see Station Eleven, which Miranda always meant to send to him, is so transformative for him – like something is falling into place for him, after all these years, or like a circle closes. 

Brian is joining the Symphony! Good for him!

It’s a whole episode that thrives on connections and coincidences, so it is not a surprise that the pilot of the Gitchegumee is named after the hurricane that killed Miranda’s family. 

Chekhov’s mines just kind of get left at the airport in bags by the children (and there are SO many of them!), and Tyler and his mother go off with them, to create something new together that isn’t just built on grief and scars. 

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