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Station Eleven: The Art of Who Knows What When

HBO Max’s slow-burning series Station Eleven keeps the audience on its toes by revealing details a little at a time over its ten-episode run. But how effective is its storytelling style?

One of the first things I’ve learned at film school is the importance of always paying attention to “who knows what when” when it comes to what’s happening in a film or series – that is to say, how much both the characters and the audience know about what’s going on in that film or series at any given time. From a storytelling point of view, a character’s awareness of a story’s course of events dictates the choices they make, and this makes them more well-rounded and believable as a result: if our favorite heroes always knew what our villains were up to, their struggles would be much shorter and there would be very little room for growth. Not only that, but the action itself would be a lot less enthralling: think of horror slasher franchises like Halloween or Scream and how much the narrative would change if Michael Myers and Ghostface’s victims knew they were coming, or even of recent releases like 2021 hit Promising Young Woman and Apple TV+ series Severance and how significantly less effective these stories would become if we were aware of their main twists from the start.

Knowing when to share something with the audience and/or a character is also important. When the viewers are given pieces of information that the film’s protagonists still ignore, it gives the film more gravity because we’re aware of the consequences of their choices: think of how our reaction to Black Widow and Hawkeye’s journey to the planet Vormir in Avengers: Endgame is affected by our knowledge of what took place in Infinity War – even more so since Natasha and Clint ignore it. At the same time, when a character knows something that other characters and/or the audience aren’t aware of, it makes the ultimate reveal so much more impactful: think of how shocking Oldboy‘s big twist is because of when and how it’s delivered first to us, and then to the film’s protagonist.

It’s a story’s unpredictability that makes it so gripping, as it’s intrinsically human to identify with a character and try to anticipate what’s going to happen to them; the success of any given genre depends on whether or not the creative team behind it is able to toy with our expectations in a way that keeps us engaged, whether it’s by building suspense and mystery, shocking and scaring us, creating comedic or absurd scenarios, or even bringing us the comfort and familiarity of nostalgia.

Adapted from Emily St. John Mandel’s bestselling novel of the same name, HBO Max’s ten-episode series Station Eleven is a great example of a series that attempts to keep us hooked by letting us discover pieces of information a little at a time, one episode after the other, until the bigger picture is revealed. This post-apocalyptic saga spans multiple timelines and revolves around a deadly flu pandemic that wipes out most of our planet’s population, following the survivors as they try to reimagine life on Earth and find their own purpose in the process.

Himesh Patel tries to revive Gael García Bernal in the middle of a stage play in the HBO series Station Eleven
Station Eleven: The Art of Who Knows What When – Himesh Patel and Gael García Bernal in Station Eleven (Parrish Lewis/HBO Max)

Episode 1 takes place in 2020, the series’ Year Zero, and begins with a theatre production of “King Lear,” during which famous actor Arthur Leander (Gael García Bernal, of Y Tu Mamá También) suddenly and unexpectedly dies. Coming to his rescue is Jeevan (Himesh Patel, of Tenet), a good-natured audience member who notices that Arthur is unwell; though there’s no chance of survival for the actor, Jeevan notices a young girl on her own and decides to walk her home. But Kirsten (Matilda Lawler, of Flora & Ulysses), who was also acting in the play, ends up spending more time with Jeevan than they both thought she would, eventually ending up at his brother Frank’s (Nabhaan Rizwan, of 1917) place to try and find shelter from the pandemic.

But if Episode 1 leaves us expecting the following episodes to further explore the newly established bond between these characters, Episode 2 defies those expectations and takes us forward in time, to the year 2040 (“Year Twenty”) where a much older Kirsten (now played by Mackenzie Davis, of Happiest Season) has joined a group of actors and musicians who spend their lives travelling and performing Shakespearean plays. Not only is older Kirsten very different than the girl we met in Episode 1, but she’s surrounded by a whole new set of characters, from her “Travelling Symphony” friends to a series of strangers whose personalities and motivations are unclear at best.

But if Episode 2 still manages to raise a lot of questions on Kirsten’s past and Jeevan’s whereabouts, therefore still focusing on the characters we already know, the rest of the series becomes even more elaborate, introducing at least two more storylines – that of a woman named Miranda (Danielle Deadwyler, of The Harder They Fall) who’s on a business trip to Malaysia, that of a man named Clark (David Wilmot, of Anna Karenina) who finds himself stuck at an airport at the outset of the pandemic with a famous actress, her son, and a bunch of strangers. Eventually, Station Eleven does provide us with the answers we’re looking for, as these characters’ journeys are connected to one another in more than one way, starting with a book that most of the series’ protagonists have been obsessing about for twenty years. But before finally showing us the bigger picture, the series asks us to patiently sit through nine episodes where either more questions are raised or nothing really happens, and, if this certainly gives the finale more of an impact, it also makes the experience of watching the entire series a little frustrating.

Since its December 16 release on HBO Max, Station Eleven has been incredibly well-received by both critics and audiences, and this got me thinking even more about the way showrunner Patrick Somerville (Maniac) and the series’ creative team chose to tell this story, making significant changes from Emily St. John Mandel’s novel. Station Eleven certainly excels at getting us thinking about humanity, creativity, the importance of art in all its forms, and the way loss, grief, and guilt define us, but how effective is its storytelling approach? If the series had followed a linear narrative and let us discover its protagonists’ fates and relationships between one another right away, would it have lost its charm or would it have been equally rewarding at the end?

Station Eleven: Trailer (HBO Max)

To answer these questions, what we need to consider is whether or not we would have kept watching the show if we had been shown right away what happens to Jeevan and Kirsten from the moment they reach Frank’s apartment in Year Zero till the time when the series ends, in Year Twenty. A lot happens in those twenty years, and Station Eleven shows it to us by crafting two very different worlds – one that is bursting with life and highly familiar to us, as it reflects our own present-day reality, and one that’s silent and rough, where the only survivors are burdened by the memories of the “before” and always aware of the dangers that lie ahead. Relationships are tense and allegiances are fleeting in Year Twenty, so much so that the Shakespearian plays enacted by our resilient protagonists also define the world in which they live – an almost mythological land where knowledge is fading, rules have no meaning, and art has become a tool for survival, providing our heroes with a moral code to guide them through their journeys, as well as a community that gives them enough purpose to keep going.

The switch from episode 1 to episode 2 marks a significant change of pace for the series, as we realize just how much the world has changed, and this definitely helps deliver the show’s message on the values that make life worth living. On the other hand, the Earth has changed so much in Year Twenty to have become almost unrecognisable, so much so that even Kirsten, an extremely sympathetic and relatable character in episode 1, is incredibly hard to empathize with or even recognize in episode 2. And, with Kirsten feeling like a stranger and Jeevan – undoubtedly the show’s most likeable character – nowhere in sight, the feeling of familiarity we acquired in the premiere gets lost with the following episode. If withholding information from us was meant to make the series more of a mystery and give us a reason to keep watching, it paradoxically has the opposite effect of really testing our patience, as, without any characters left to relate to, our investment in the show decreases. For example, it’s really hard for us to get invested in the Travelling Symphony storyline for the simple reason that we haven’t been given the chance to see them grow into their Year Twenty selves, and that makes it really hard to warm up to them or even care about their fates all that much.

Similar dynamics happen with episodes 3 and 4 – the former introducing to a new character we immediately like (Miranda) and the latter taking us back to an even less familiar Year Twenty populated by prophets and travelers, and asking us to care about Kirsten’s relationship with fellow Symphony member Alex (Philippine Velge, of Summer of 85), another character we know very little about. And, just as we finally start to understand more about Kirsten’s motivations, the same system is applied to the rest of the series, as episode 5 takes us to an airport where a new set of relatable characters is introduced (David Wilmot’s Clark, Caitlin FitzGerald’s Elizabeth, and Julian Obradors’ Tyler), and the following two episodes shift their focus back to Year Twenty Kirsten. By the time we reach episode 9, which is when we finally find out when and how Kirsten and Jeevan get separated from one another, we’ve endured so many cryptic flashbacks and heard so many vague quotes repeated out loud so many times that our desire to find out about our two protagonists’ pasts and fates has significantly faded.

Which brings me to my second issue Station Eleven’s storyline approach: quite simply, its twists and revelations are not entirely unpredictable. The most obvious example is a discovery that Kirsten makes in episode 10 (which I won’t mention to keep this article spoiler-free) that leads to a scene that should feel extremely moving and rewarding to watch, and yet it doesn’t. That is because we, as the audience, have already been let in on the secret in episode 9, and this makes the events in the finale extremely easy to predict, as we knew exactly what would happen and how. Not only that, but even the fact that all these characters are somehow connected to one another is not surprising in the slightly: even if the second half of the series provides us with flashbacks that show us the exact moment in which their lives converged, we had already figured out every single one of those connections on our own. In fact, even without knowing all the details, it’s not hard to predict that, if we’re shown a young character in Year Zero and never told about their fates, that character will show up in Year Twenty too.

Don’t get me wrong: Station Eleven is a clever, insightful show that has a lot to say about the meaning of life, and it’s absolutely worth a watch if only for the haunting worldbuilding and excellent acting on display, as well as more than one engaging Year Zero storyline that will stay with you for a long time. At the same time, Station Eleven is also the puzzling case of a series that employs an incredibly elaborate storytelling approach to keep you more involved and achieves the opposite result instead. If the non-linear way in which the story is told deserves praise for the sheer inventiveness of it all, it’s also precisely what makes it so much harder for us to latch onto any sense of familiarity that would enable us to really care about its characters’ journeys and be more affected by its many twists on an emotional level. In the end, the answer can be found in one of the many quotes Kirsten is fond of: “It was very difficult, but there were moments of beauty”: watching Station Eleven will drain you and exhaust you, but that doesn’t mean you won’t still remember its most poetic, insightful moments.

Station Eleven is now available to watch on HBO Max in the US, and on digital and on demand worldwide.

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