Each week, Joe and Terry review an episode of HBO Max’s dystopian drama Station Eleven, alternating between our respective sites — queerhorrormovies.com and gaylydreadful.com.
Spoilers for episodes 1-3: “Wheel of Fire”, “A Hawk from a Handsaw” and “Hurricane”
“Wheel of Fire”
Alright Terry, we’re going to do our coverage of Station Eleven a little differently. Because there are multiple full length episodes dropping each week, we’re going to do one round of back and forth for each episode so that folks can read each section before they hit play on the next episode.
Now onto the show!
This was always going to be an ambitious miniseries. I’ve read the book and, while I don’t remember it well, I recall the sprawling narrative spread out across decades as a flu-like pandemic kills the majority of the world’s population (timely!) and what remains of humanity presses on.
The first sign that this is a different kind of epidemic series is the way that Station Eleven handles its gore and disease. It’s hard not to compare this to another pandemic text we’ve covered: the CBS All Access interpretation of Stephen King’s The Stand, which delighted in showing the gooey, gory effects of Captain Tripps. Here it’s much simpler: as we navigate a small number of core characters making their way through a chilly Chicago night, the illness escalates from minor sniffles by a few people on the L train to violent coughing fits and decreased mobility in the people at the hospital and a man in a crashed car.
Our protagonist is Jeevan (Himesh Patel), an unemployed everyman whose night at the theatre is interrupted by the unexpected heart attack and death of lead performer Arthur (Gael Garcia Bernal). Jeevan is noticeably the first (and really only) spectator who acts, even though he lacks the proper medical training to help. This foreshadows two key elements of Jeevan’s personality: 1) his ability to react quickly in an emergency and 2) his willingness to aid strangers.
The latter quality could be perceived as a fatal flaw considering his encounter with Arthur separates him from his girlfriend and leaves him unintentionally saddled with the responsibility of getting young actress Kirsten (Matilda Lawler) home safely. It’s a (dark) comedy of errors as Kirsten’s handler – also Arthur’s lover – abandons her and then Jeevan can’t reach the girl’s parents just as the wave of flu cases begins to crest. Ultimately Jeevan makes the unorthodox choice to keep Kirsten by his side as he stocks up at an all-night grocer, then barricades them in his brother Frank (Nabhaan Rizwan)’s condo as the world outside dies.
Overall “Wheel of Fire” is a deliberately paced, intriguing first episode that wisely keeps the show’s focus on two very relatable characters. I was really impressed with the natural chemistry between Patel and Lawler, the latter of whom nails the exact right mix of childhood naivety and wise beyond their years awareness. It’s really Patel’s show, though; his resigned hero is the perfect guide through the escalating threat and his subway panic attack after learning the scope of the infection from his sister was extremely affecting.
This barely scratches the surface of Station Eleven, including the brief glimpse of Mackenzie Davis as adult Kirsten reading Arthur’s comic. But Terry, I’ll turn it over to you here: What did you think of the way Station Eleven incorporates snapshots of the desolate, overgrown Chicago of the future? Were you as charmed as me by the easy chemistry between Jeevan and Kirsten? Were you expecting to meet more characters or get a better sense of where this is all going? And why the hell wasn’t Jeevan’s sister wearing a mask in the hospital in the middle of a catastrophic pandemic? (Or does she already know she and all of her colleagues are goners?)
Unlike you, Joe, I’ve never read Station Eleven and, to be honest, I didn’t really know what to expect. I knew it was about a super flu that wipes out the population and I knew that it took place in different time periods…but I wasn’t sure about the rest of it. Was it going to be novelist Emily St. John Mandel’s version of The Stand and the survivors would take on some supernatural element? Was it going to be one of survival, with our heroes fighting against a lawless Mad Max-style future? Was it going to be more personal? After this first episode, I’m still not very sure what Station Eleven is going to be about…and that kind of excites me.
It certainly hints at some weird connections, particularly surrounding the titular graphic novel Station Eleven that Kirsten ends up with and is seen reading as an adult, twenty years later. What intrigues me, though, was a shot at the end of “Wheel of Fire” of cars frozen in a traffic jam, the camera pulling up and up until it encompasses the world, as if from space, before transitioning to an astronaut in a very specific space suit. At first, I wondered about people being stuck on the space station while the world dies below them…particularly how horrifying that would be, knowing there’s probably no way home. But then the narrative does something a little weird, cutting to Mackenzie Davis’ adult Kirsten reading the novel and focusing on an astronaut dressed exactly like this person. Was that image in the space station just from the book? Or is there something else going on?
Another missing piece of information is what happened in the eighty days Jeevan, Kirsten and Frank are barricaded in Frank’s upscale apartment. Frank is presented as an eccentric, rich, Pulitzer Prize winner who doesn’t leave his apartment and uses a cane to get around. At first, he’s not too pleased to see Jeevan and after that brief introduction to their possibly rocky relationship, the narrative jumps eighty days later as Jeevan and Kirsten leave the apartment…sans Frank. What happened there? Why is Frank not with them? Why is Jeevan so focused on reaching some lake? And what/who killed the apartment’s security guard, who’s seen dead at his station? Did he simply stay at his guard until he died? Were there looters? Did the flu take him very quickly?
I have questions, Joe.
Mysteries aside, I was completely charmed by the relationship between Jeevan and Kirsten. I particularly loved the dichotomy between the two. Kirsten’s childlike innocence married with a sense of world-weary understanding coupled with Jeevan’s quiet panic as he attempts to hide how fucked the situation is from the young kid. Matilda Lawler (who was also excellent in The Block Island Sound) is a fantastic young actress and she holds her own with Himesh Patel. I know the narrative will bounce back and forth between the days after the flu and twenty years in the future, but I hope we get to see more of their relationship because the two have an easy chemistry together.
The time jumps were very effective in this episode and reminded me a bit of how nature took over in the video game The Last of Us. While it gave us glimpses of what’s to come (and how much nature can overtake civilization in two decades), the narrative is at its best when it was focused on the two leads. I have a feeling that the world is going to open up quite a bit in the next few episodes as it reorients life with Adult Kirsten (side note: we’re covering two shows right now where the action takes place both in the past and the future…an odd coincidence). Mostly, I’m just excited to see where the journey is going to take us…
“A Hawk from a Handsaw”
…and take us it does. If “Wheel of Flames” was very centered on the two leads, “A Hawk from a Handsaw” adds a whole lot of characters, relationships and confusing situations. It feels like the narrative allowed us to wade in the shallow end of the pool for an episode before unceremoniously dropping us in the deep end. In a way, it feels like a mirror episode to the first. Whereas “Wheels of Flames” kept us mostly in the past and gave us tantalizing glimpses of the future, we’re now firmly in the future with tantalizing glimpses into the past. It certainly keeps things mysterious, even as it tosses a whole lot of characters (who already know each other) at us and expects us to keep up.
It begins at Year Two with Kirsten leaning against a building. She’s alone, her hair’s a mess, she looks just this side of feral and she is armed with a knife that she obviously knows how to use. She’s awakened by the sound of music and it’s here where we’re introduced to the first new character who’s credited as The Conductor on IMDb. Played by Lori Petty from Orange is the New Black, this character shows Kirsten kindness and then asks her to join the Traveling Symphony. The narrative then jumps back to the twenty years later storyline as we see Mackenzie Davis’s Kirsten on a horse. When she was a child, she got her start on Broadway and now she’s playing Hamlet in a traveling troupe that goes from village to village.
It turns out that there is room for the arts in the post apocalypse!
“A Hawk from a Handsaw” throws a lot of information and characters at us, sometimes without explaining who they are or even their names. There’s Dieter (Joe Pingue), the director of the troupe who is introduced when a man named Dan (Dylan Taylor) auditions (for the millionth time) to join the troupe. I did laugh that Dan begged to audition with something other than Shakespeare (that seems to be the troupe’s go-to schtick) and ended up doing Bill Pullman’s monologue from Independence Day. The other seemingly important characters are a woman who’s very pregnant and Alex (Philippine Velge), a precocious young woman who was born after the plague. I appreciated the little moments in this episode, such as when Kirsten explains to Alex how a ride share app on a phone would work.
As Station Eleven reorients us with life in this new normal, Kirsten gets very vivid flashbacks or recollections of the past that gives us a few hints of what happened between her, Jeevan and Frank. The most soul-crushing are little vignettes of Kirsten struggling with life away from her parents, texting them and calling them. She doesn’t eat and she’s closetted herself away from the two brothers. And then we see texts show up on her phone from her mom and dad’s phones. “I got weird texts,” she tells Jeevan and then shows him the heartbreak: “The body of the owner of this phone is located at the morgue…don’t come.” It’s devastating that that is the way she has to say goodbye to them; a callous text from some unknown person.
But I’m dancing around the most curious development of this episode. Along with the travelling troupe, we’re also introduced to a mysterious man played by Penny Dreadful: City of Angels’ star Daniel Zovatto. So I’ll leave that for you to unpack, Joe. I know you said you have only vague memories of the novel, but do you remember this character? What do you make of him, his brother and the knowledge he seems to have about Kirsten’s book? Were you equally overwhelmed at the amount of characters and information “A Hawk from a Hacksaw” throws at us? And what about the man with the wildly creepy smile who offers them the chance to perform at the Museum of Civilization?
This is going to sound hilariously vague and unhelpful, but I remember two big things about the book: 1) it highlights that even in a future filled with strife and uncertainty, art (the comic, the Traveling Symphony) is a beacon and symbol of humanity and 2) even after a devastating catastrophe, there will always be human conflict (it is a dystopia, after all).
You’re right, Terry, that if the first episode is a hand-holding introduction, then this 20 years later episode is a crash course. For what it’s worth, the fact that we can’t identify all of the characters feels less important than the overall impression we get of the Traveling Symphony. I, for one, definitely dig the casual “hippie commune” vibe of this group: it’s evident that these people have played “the Wheel” – a specific summer touring schedule consisting of small towns like Saint Deborah-by-the-water – for many years together and the camaraderie and jovial nature of the interactions when Dan auditions makes it all feel very welcoming.
Which is, of course, why Zovatto’s Prophet is such an important figure. He, his brother Cody (Luca Villacis), and even his dead wife story, all feel very suspect from the jump. And just in case Zovatto isn’t acting shifty enough, we’re cued as an audience by the tense strings on the score, which basically telegraph “don’t trust this dude!”
What’s fascinating is how the series keeps things close to its chest, though. There’s a casual line about Kirsten having bisexual relationships hidden in her panicked, judgey response to her pregnant friend’s sudden decision to leave the troupe behind for a year to raise her baby. And, of course, the central mystery that The Prophet raises concerns his knowledge of the comic (considering that as far as we know that comic was one of a kind, it suggests The Prophets may have had ties to its creator…whoever that is).
And then there’s Kirsten’s tattoos, which are revealed to be a symbol or form of communication when Kirsten does her perimeter sweep and discovers a real life version tied to a gate. Initially I thought that this might be tied to the absence of Jeevan or Frank, who are both nowhere to be seen in the future timeline past that initial exit en route to the lake. Considering how protective both men are of Kirsten – consoling her about that terribly cold text about her parents; bonding with her in the closet over the comic – I can’t imagine they would have let her become the feral, knife-wielding creature who The Conductor befriends.
So yeah…a lot of mysteries, a lot of time-traveling shenanigans, and a potential conflict now that Kirsten stabbed a man who didn’t die, but did threaten the safety of the caravan. Whether or not The Prophet is tied to Brian (Enrico Colantoni), the emissary from the Museum of Civilization, is unclear but the whole invitation feels like it could go either way. Does the group need to escape the Wheel and seek out the assistance of the Museum folks…or is that part of the danger than The Prophet is promising?
Only time will tell, and clearly, as we saw in Yellowjackets, when this mode of storytelling is thoughtfully constructed, the potential for mystery and intrigue is high. You’re right that it’s odd that we’re covering two similar time-hopping shows, but the greater irony is that they’re worlds apart in their execution. There’s a utopian feel to the lush greenery, the open lake and the simplicity of a night of Hamlet in front of the fire that I find incredibly appealing, so I’m definitely glad to spend time in Station Eleven.
Although something tells me the calm won’t last…
Of the three episodes that we’ve seen of the show, “Hurricane” is by far my favourite. It’s another character-driven episode – a snapshot of the evolution of a relationship between two people who desperately love each other but can’t quite ever manage to make it work.
We met Miranda (Danielle Deadwyler) back in the first episode when she dropped off the comic with Arthur, but how they knew each other was unclear. “Hurricane” explores all of the highs and lows of their roughly fifteen year relationship, including their marriage and presumed divorce.
Things begin in 2005 when Miranda takes a job with a supply chain company in Chicago and randomly meets Arthur at a diner as she’s drawing. He attracted to her art, but we learn from his friend Clark (David Wilmot) – the gay man making phone calls after Arthur died – the thespian likes to “collect” interesting people.
Miranda and Arthur fall into a fun, sexy relationship and she eventually moves to Hollywood with him, marries him and continues to secretly work on her comic in the guest room as he makes a series of shitty sounding blockbuster films. Things come to a head at a dinner party when it’s confirmed that Arthur has begun an affair with an actress named Elizabeth (Caitlin FitzGerald), but more significantly, has shown her Miranda’s art, which she has been creating solely for herself.
The relationship combusts (literally) and Miranda dedicates herself to her work, stopping over briefly to deliver the comic before she goes to Malaysia on the eve of the outbreak where she and her dumb co-worker Jim Felps (Timothy Simons) seal themselves in their hotel rooms.
This overview does absolutely no justice to the emotional wallop “Hurricane” leaves in its wake, which is quietly devastating. It took me until now to realize, Terry, that this show – and more specifically this episode – reminds me of The Leftovers, which is my pick for the best series of the last twenty years. So yeah, to say this is a great fucking hour of TV is an understatement.
We can credit writer Shannon Houston for littering the script with dialogue and visual iconography that anticipates future developments (e.g.: the Hamlet connection and the logistics conversation with her boss Leon). We can credit director Hiro Murai for seamlessly interweaving the timelines in an easy to follow fashion.
We can credit the sparks between Deadwyler and Garcia Bernal, whose playful, tangible chemistry feels achingly real, even when they’re sabotaging their romance with affairs and too much work (caveat: I find Garcia Bernal incredibly sexy, so I’m also very biased).
But mostly, “Hurricane” belongs to Deadwyler, who is absolutely captivating as Miranda. She’s a deadpan comedian. She’s a workaholic with a photographic memory. She’s an artist who makes work solely for herself (I loved her rationale at the dinner party that she doesn’t need to publish because it makes her happy). And she’s clearly someone who doesn’t suffer fools or let her guard down easily, which is why her scenes with Arthur – and even Clark at the pool – hit so hard.
Miranda is that rare soul who is so wise and intelligent that it’s impossible not to feel an innate desire to protect her and wish her the best, so seeing Arthur betray that confidence for a generic floozy is soul-crushing.
Even if this performance wasn’t instantly iconic, the way “Hurricane” expands on the series’ thematic interests about art, love, memory and regret feels completely in keeping with the first two episodes, despite barely featuring Kristen and not featuring Jeevan at all. I’m astonished at how quickly and easily Station Eleven is at introducing new characters and immediately making audiences (emotionally) invest in them. And Miranda is just…everything.
But Terry, perhaps you think I’m being hyperbolic. What did you think of this “different, but same” episode? What did you think of Deadwyler and Garcia Bernal’s performances? And did you glean any significant nuggets out of the content of the comic, which Elizabeth meaningfully begins to describe, but then stops short of spelling it out?
“Hurricane” is the reason we watch TV, Joe. Writer Shannon Houston has given us a pitch perfect 50 minutes of television that’s intently focused on character work. It’s the kind of hyper-focus that movies cannot deliver. Your assessment that this episode felt like The Leftovers is incredibly on the money. You watched this episode before I did and your messages sounded a bit hyperbolic, but then I sat down and was just taken in by the emotional grief and playfully flirtatious dialogue “Hurricane” brought to the table. I don’t think there’s a whole lot more I can add to the conversation of the acting in this episode; it’s impeccable.
Where has Deadwyler been my whole life?
She has such a command of her physicality, keeping up a wall to everyone, including the viewers. But sometimes she lets it down, such as when we’re first introduced to her during an interview for a logistics job. When her soon-to-be-boss talks logistics as the right path from point of origin to end point, he asks if she understands…and the look of glee and excitement on her face is one of the few rare moments where we get to see her unbridled self. Through most of “Hurricane,” she remains guarded, coolly surveying the rooms and the people around her and not betraying much of what she’s thinking. “It was better to not be noticed,” her interior monologue says at one point. And after her first date with Arthur, waking up on the pull-out couch in his grandmother’s house, the first thing she says, in near horror, is, “I talked about myself.”
The other time we truly get to see her cool exterior crack is when she realizes that she could have–maybe should have–stayed in Chicago instead of heading to Malaysia. That she should have been in the audience. That she shouldn’t have missed the last few moments she could have spent with the person she loves more than anything. And when she’s delivering this line–in a darkly comedic fashion to a group of businessmen–her voice breaks. She groans that I’m-trying-not-to-bawl-groan. It’s emotional and powerful. And human. I want to know more about her, Joe. Does she survive this epidemic? Will we see her in the future, twenty years from now?
Like her guarded self, I still feel as if the narrative is holding the importance of Station Eleven at arm’s length. You mentioned that “Hurricane” smartly tied the episode’s themes of art to the major themes the show explores, and you’re absolutely right. We get two different glimpses of art; one in which the art is performed for commerce and others’ entertainment. While it’s not Shakespeare quality writing, it’s easy to draw a line from the work Arthur did to entertain and the way the Travelling Symphony in the future continues to spread art to those who need it.
But we also get that internal need to create, even if we never show it to anyone…and would, in fact, destroy it and start over if someone saw it. I’m still questioning the importance of the astronaut and whether it’s a real thing or if it’s a metaphoric idea. Or if it’s a manifestation of art coming to life…that maybe, in the end, it’s art that saves the world.
Hopefully we’ll find out more next week, when we go to Gayly Dreadful for the next two episodes.
Station Eleven airs multiple episodes each Thursday on HBO Max.