Nonlinear Delivery Options: The Times of "Station Eleven"

January 14, 2022   •   By Jorge Cotte

Spoilers! Beware! If you have not finished Station Eleven, the HBO Max miniseries, you should probably do that.

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THE WORST PART of the end of the world is finding out the world didn’t take you with it. Station Eleven starts before that moment, with an eight-year-old girl who is left alone and a young man in need of a purpose. Those are Kirsten and Jeevan, and they have a head start on the apocalypse thanks to Jeevan’s sister who works in an ER. Episode two leaps 20 years ahead where Kirsten has found a family with a group of artists called the Traveling Symphony, and every summer they follow a prescribed touring schedule around Lake Michigan called “the wheel.” “We travel for a reason,” the conductor tells Kirsten, “they blame you if you stay, but they love you like you saved ’em when you come back.” The Symphony encounters an Entity called the Prophet who gathers children around himself (post-pans, he calls them) and speaks in the vernacular of “Station Eleven,” a limited release graphic novel set on a space station that was Kirsten’s companion and obsession in the years after the flu. This sounds like a lot, but the centrality of this cultural detritus is vital to the show. Station Eleven is earnest about the role of art in making life possible. The series is about what survives the apocalypse, what people hold onto when there’s nothing left to do the holding for them.

What distinguishes Station Eleven structurally is how symmetrically it braids its two alternating timelines. One strand (the odd-numbered episodes) hews close to the end of the world and its fallout; after Kirsten and Jeevan, it introduces Miranda, Clark, Frank, Elizabeth, and young Tyler, who will become the Prophet. The second strand (even-numbered episodes) follows the disruption of the Symphony’s touring wheel and catches us up with the surviving characters, methodically orchestrating a reunion. The odd episodes weave in pre-pandemic flashbacks, which are devoted to Miranda and Clark, their relationships and last encounters with actor Arthur Leander. There are flashbacks within Year Twenty, too. Primarily motivated by Kirsten’s unruly memories, they encroach any time the emotional shape of the present echoes the past: the particularity of loss, her relationship with the youngest member of the Symphony, Alex, and her fear of losing people, of being abandoned. Like Watchmen (2019), another series obsessed with time and continuity, Station Eleven designs an intricate intertextual architecture. But where the former elaborates on the events and legacy of the 1986 comic book and the real-life 1921 Attack on Greenwood, Station Eleven’s construction is recursive, layering upon itself a net of memories, drawing resonances between pre- and post-pandemic, between the first hundred days and year twenty, between Hamlet and Kirsten, Hamlet and Tyler, between “Station Eleven,” the fictional graphic novel, and everything else.

Logistics is what Miranda calls the path things take. “Things” include: a graphic novel, a traveling symphony, your children, grandchildren, a flight to Chicago, a serrated knife, salvaged landmines, Hamlet, Hamlet, Hugo, a live wire, gold lighter, poison dart, and poison from said dart, ghosts, memories, survivors, the before, a future, the future, time itself. The paths things take, Miranda’s boss stresses, are not necessarily linear (point A to point B, map it, line drawn, done). The shortest path is the most direct, but the right path might be one step back, another direction, or in the past; it might be the opposite of direct. The right path in Station Eleven is often circuitous.

Episode 10, the finale, is the realization of the show’s narrative logistics. Every line bends toward the final meeting — the Museum of Civilization’s isolationism, the Symphony’s break from the wheel, Tyler’s drive to return, Jeevan’s obstetrics internship — Kirsten, Tyler, Jeevan, Elizabeth, and Clark, 20 years later, all in the same place. This could feel contrived but it’s in line with Station Eleven’s preoccupation with cycles of departure and return. Its emotional epiphany is drawn from the precise alchemy of a scene we have seen, but different. And it happens on stage.

Earlier: a young Miranda Carroll draws in a circle, around and again, her pen spins like the graphic of hurricane Hugo on her TV (like the solar system above which she signs her initials on the first page of her graphic novel). The darkening spiral becomes Dr. Eleven’s visage in her first rendition of the figure that recurs in Miranda’s art and in the series, but the spiral begins as a pit of despair. Miranda becomes the person who will write and illustrate “Station Eleven,” a space station drama about the intractability of loss, and the only thing that makes sense to eight-year-olds Kirsten and Tyler, each of whom has seen the world end and must somehow make a life. Kirsten comes to believe that Dr. Eleven and the Rebel Undersea Leader, who passes for a villain in that story, are the same person. “She’s in a time loop,” Kirsten says, and so she is. Moments later, a slew of poison darts burrow into Kirsten’s arm, and she is back to her days sheltering with Jeevan and Frank. Like Eleven, Kirsten becomes a figure that observes but cannot interfere, except to comfort her younger self, “This isn’t your fault. This is just what happened.” Like Eleven, Kirsten is caught in a time loop. She shouts for Jeevan, missing, almost a year after the pandemic; she shouts for Alex, crawled away, a few years later; she shouts for Alex in year twenty, no longer crawling but still running. Kirsten’s unruly memories flatten the distance between events that share the same emotional shape — a discontinuity of time defined by a too-much continuity of loss.

There’s a business meeting in Malaysia at the end of the world, and after Miranda delivers her contender for Best Meltdown Pitch on TV (Don Draper Hershey monologue, watch out!), her lanky, aloof partner Jim starts off with his own: “When mankind first looked up to the stars, mankind thought: nonlinear delivery options — what are those things?” It’s a gag to end the scene, playing on the contrast in tone and content between two business partners, but, really, what is nonlinear delivery? Nonlinear delivery is text with hyperlinks. Asynchronous lectures. How you optimize supply chains at scale. Nonlinear delivery is the wrong way to ask a test question. The ads you get when you watch TV in any way other than live on cable. Nonlinear structures might be networks, trees, or cycles, forms at risk when content is serialized. Nonlinear delivery options might also name storytelling conventions now commonplace in TV. We no longer blink when a story has multiple storylines and hops back and forth, or when a show or episode starts in the future to end up in the past and then ahead again and maybe right back where we started. Often, these devices of space and time foreground echoes, rhymes, and resonances within a text. 

Historical time narrows after the end of the world. Because it is malleable and in flux, it operates at the level of belief systems and must be ritualized to cohere. Each of the central communities in Station Eleven — the Undersea, the Museum, the Symphony — literalizes a different relationship to time. Eleven, in Miranda’s graphic novel, anticipates each stance, stamping them in three distinct sentences: “There is no before. No after. Only now.”

“There is no before,” the Prophet recites, eschewing the rest of the quote. “Station Eleven” has become his gospel, but he has, as he admits to Kirsten, “Forgot some parts.” The Prophet and his Undersea appeal to post-pans because they advocate a complete break from the past. He attracts children because they are unsullied from the grime of suffering through a human world. They are, as he tells Alex, “the first human generation to be rid from trauma.” Their freedom allows them to imagine after. The Museum of Civilization, however, is arrested in its first days, isolated by their grip on before. Early in his rise to leadership, Clark yells, “We must abandon the future!” Their special circumstance allows them to keep the power going, but they are isolationist in response, hostile to an outside where their world has ended. They set up a school and exhibit all the lifeless totems from a past they try to keep alive. Like Captain Lonagan replying to Eleven’s view, “I don’t buy it. Past is safe. Everything after… changes.” The past might be safe, but it is insular and limited. The past can only imagine recreating itself.

The Traveling Symphony builds its present from a dependency on repetition and reliving. When they first appear, they do the same thing every year: tour the prescribed route around Lake Michigan, performing Shakespeare without updating it and with Kirsten as the star. On the wheel, the past is just behind you, and the future is always just ahead, and both are a matter of where you stand. Their uncompromising wheel bridges past and future while cementing them. Alex, the post-pan in the troupe, is the sole dissenting voice: “You never deviate. Rules. Routines. We never split the troupe. We never go off-wheel. Ah, wow! Hooray! They’re here. It’s the… terrified carnival of trauma!” Later Kirsten tells Alex: “We travel for a reason — to come back.” We are always leaving and always coming back (again). The Undersea claims to live without trauma; the Symphony has enshrined it.

Blazing torches light the set, the troupe in elaborate, makeshift costume. The first performance we see in Year Twenty is the Symphony’s star performer doing Hamlet for the people of St. Deborah-by-the-Water. Mournful soliloquies abound in the play, but here, it is Act 1 Scene 2 which swells. Gertrude asks Hamlet why his grief lingers — after all, everyone dies. Hamlet is a ghost story, and Kirsten sees ghosts. In Frank’s apartment, refusing to eat, she is realizing her parents are dead everyone is dead. The detour weighs on every word. Most productions of Shakespeare’s longest play hasten — Laurence Olivier gets from “‘Seems,’ madam?” to “suits of woe” in half a minute — but Kirsten is unhurried, drawing the camera and audience in for Hamlet’s riposte, for grief’s unyielding particularity. Lest we confuse those discharging emotional memories as an acting method on which Kirsten depends, the conductor will call it a discontinuity of self, telling the actor, “something had you for a second.” That day zero pain, looping back again.  

Everything comes full circle in “Unbroken Circle.” Hamlet loops back in a different face. On stage, the serrated knife, traced from intruder to torso to target practice, and then into the bodies of encroaching Bandanas, hurled into a tree near Tyler’s face, the knife surrendered to Alex, that knife, comes back in the hands of another. Kirsten makes Elizabeth Gertrude and Tyler Hamlet, so mother and son may have words. (The path things take: roles change hands like knives do.) As in Frank’s apartment, the knife intrudes. Violence makes its argument before the night is through. It happens on stage, at the scene of artifice, where action is meant only to be a semblance of itself. Tyler, no longer prophesizing, collapses words into a feeling that becomes the edge at the tip of his fingers; as Hamlet, Prophet, son, he chooses, in that moment, not violence. Everything else follows like the loop of a spiral, closing, closing, (open).

If traumatic memories attach themselves to the shapes of recurring scenes, plays are dependable ways of drawing out an emotional impasse in Station Eleven. At the golf course, Kirsten and Alex play Ophelia and Hamlet, respectively, in a daring retelling that plays out their unresolved tension between love and independence. The play in Frank’s apartment gives Frank and Jeevan the opportunity to say goodbye, Kirsten and Tyler’s performance allows Kirsten to speak directly to Clark, and in episode ten, Kirsten casts Elizabeth as Gertrude and Tyler as Hamlet, opening the door to resolution. Only one of these performances, the last, causes a shift, but all encounters make resonances appear. The claims Station Eleven makes for art, then, are colossal and slight. Detached from the graphic novel, the words from “Station Eleven” become a portentous prophecy that even its author cannot control. But also, through the impersonality of another’s words and shared pursuit, drama becomes a scaffolding, a space for vulnerability to air and maybe do something new.

Episode 10 plays out in a way we might expect from the Symphony’s other performances — the play, the music and release in the aftermath, and finally, violence. Except the threat from the Undersea never explodes. Kirsten, the girl who grabbed that knife in Frank’s apartment, whose instinct has been to meet a threat with proactive violence, instead shares her book with another little girl. “Station Eleven” becomes a book again. The conductor’s last words to Kirsten, “The play’s the thing,” come to mean not art for art’s sake, but art as a wedge that might breach possibility. Art as that which can alter the path things take. Kirsten takes control as director, and learns to let go: her knives, her book, and Alex, too. She yields the spotlight and alters the wheel. The “Unbroken Circle” is not quite unbroken. The time loop loosens into a spiral, still curving, leaving and returning, but opening ground to new landing spots.

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