I feel a sense of urgency to write about the best television series made to date, due to the impending arrival of an adjacent show that will be highly acclaimed, The Last of Us.
But Station Eleven was first. It was very much first. The book was published in 2014. The TV limited series debuted in 2021 into a very much fresh-pandemic world. (Limited series meaning that it only consists of 10 episodes, it’s not an on-going seasonal TV series.)
Stop me if this sounds familiar, Station Eleven deals with a global pandemic that ravages the world and changes the way humanity approaches daily life and forces everyone to ask “What’s valuable?” and “What keeps us alive?”
The author, Emily St. John Mandel is demure when asked about her talent for prophecy. “What becomes really obvious, if you research pandemics, is that there was always going to be another pandemic,” Mandel says. “It’s just something that happens in our history. There will be something else after Covid-19, and something else after that. It’s like if a novelist had written a novel in the sixties about a fictional war. Does that mean they predicted the Vietnam War? No—there was always going to be another war.”She told Esquire magazine in December of 2021.
When this TV series came out in December of 2021, I was not ready to watch it and I even questioned why anyone would watch such a heavy show for entertainment. 2021 was post-vaccine but a variant-heavy time for the world dealing with COVID. I hadn’t heard about the book at all. So this world-ending due to a pandemic show seemed too raw, too real for me, especially since I was not too many months away from my own life possibly ending.
From word-of-mouth and podcast recommendations, I gave it a shot by myself on a boring Sunday night in the fall of 2022. By 2022 kids were going to school without masks on, meet-the-teacher was back, and things seemed to be in a mode of recovery. The first episode was so heavy I considered stopping. But like all good TV it introduced characters, and you found yourself becoming attached to them– it made you ask questions about their immediate future.
I think the thing that kept me going was that there was an unexpected calm moment in the first episode. And I needed to know more about that moment. (You’ll know it when you see it.)
Spoiler alert: The “Georgia virus” (only named in the novel) introduced in Station Eleven is way worse and a lot more deadly than COVID.
Most of the time, TV and movie adaptions do not hold up to the experience of reading the book that serves as the source material. The adaption takes short-cuts, the characters are not allowed to develop as much, sometimes entire parts are left out, and everyone walks away saying “The book was better,” with much confidence. (Unless you’re my children, it seems.)
That can’t be said about Station Eleven. It’s an experience that is wholly different and richer than the book. It appears that the author doesn’t take this as a slight. “Honestly, I wish I’d thought of that,” she told Esquire regarding the connection and of two central characters in the TV limited series that are both on independent journeys and only have a short, chance meeting in the novel.
The TV limited series also adds plot elements that enhance the characters introduced in St. John Mandel’s novel. There is a whole backstory and moving plot with one of the characters that crystallizes a moment in the TV limited series that’s not in the novel.
As I’ve mentioned Station Eleven deals with a global pandemic and its aftershocks on the surviving population. When we say surviving people, we’re talking about 1% of people left. The characters have to make choices about how to survive and what brings meaning to the world, all the while it has the feel like they’re living-in-someone-else’s-house–they move and live in what’s left of a planet that was historically built for a large populace but now has little to no usable resources remaining. This sounds gritty and difficult– and it is. The novel and adaption don’t hide that but it’s not agony on the audience. A theme among some of the survivors is the phrase “Survival is insufficient.” It’s a phrase that originated in a Star Trek TV episode, but some character choose it as a motto to live by, some even getting a tattoo of the phrase. The novel and TV series are not about just survival but what meaning looks like when the world has to begin again.
The characters are that lived through the on-set of the pandemic (known as year zero) are forced to reflect on a dead world and its former comforts and ease, along with their own regrets and reflections on the missteps of that time. The people born after year zero say that most of those survivors “lost their minds.”
We see some characters before year zero and then after and watch their perceptions and identities change. Both the novel and the TV series alternate back and forth between the pre and post-pandemic world.
In the novel before year zero, a corporate work-coach character has this encounter: (anything spoiler or things related to the plot have been omitted)
“Twenty-third Street wasn’t busy–a little early for the lunch crowd–but he kept getting trapped behind iPhone zombies, people half his age who wandered in a dream with their eyes fixed on their screens. He jostled two of them on purpose, walking faster than usual, upset in a fundamental way that made him feel like punching walls, like running full-speed, like throwing himself across a dance floor although he hadn’t done that in two decades…A young woman stopped abruptly at the top of the subway stairs and he almost crashed into her, glared as he brushed past–she didn’t notice, enraptured by her screen–and he stepped aboard a train just before the doors closed, the day’s first small moment of grace. He stewed all the way to Grand Central Station, where he took the stairs two at a time to a marble corridor just off the main concourse, passed briefly through the spiced air of Grand Central Market and down a connecting passage to the Graybar Building.
“I’m sorry I’m late,” he said to his interviewee, who shrugged and gestured him into the visitor’s chair.
“If you think two minutes counts as late, we’re not going to get along very well.” Was that a Texas accent? Dahlia was in her late thirties or early forties, with a sharp-edged haircut and red-framed glasses that matched her lipstick.
Clark went into the usual introduction and preamble about the 360° they were doing, her boss as the target, the way he was interviewing fifteen people and it would all be anonymous, comments split off and categorized into separate reports for subordinates, peers, and superiors with a minimum of three in each group, etc. He listened to his voice from a distance and was pleased to note that it sounded steady.
“So the point,” she said, “if I’m understanding correctly, is to change my boss?”
“Well, to address areas of potential weakness,” Clark said…
“To change him,” she insisted with a smile.
“I suppose you could see it that way.”
She nodded. “I don’t believe in the perfectibility of the individual,” she said.
“Ah,” he said. The thought that crossed his mind was that she looked a little old to be talking like a philosophy undergrad. “How about the improvement of the individual, then?”
“I don’t know.” She leaned back in her chair, arms folded, considering the question. Her tone was light, but he was beginning to realize that there was nothing flippant about her. He was remembering some of the offhand comments her colleagues had made about her in previous interviews, when his questions had come around to the team. Someone had called her a little different. Someone else, he remembered, had used the word intense. “You’ve been doing this for a while, you said?”
“These people you coach, do they ever actually change? I mean in any kind of lasting, notable way?”
He hesitated. This was actually something he’d wondered about. “They change their behaviors,” he said, “some of them. Often people will simply have no idea that they’re perceived as needing improvement in a certain area, but then they see the report…”
She nodded. “You differentiate between changing people and changing behaviors, then.”
“Here’s the thing,” Dahlia said. “I’ll bet you can coach Dan, and probably he’ll exhibit a turnaround of sorts, he’ll improve in concrete areas, but he’ll still be a joyless bastard.”
“No, wait, don’t write that down. Let me rephrase that. Okay, let’s say he’ll change a little, probably, if you coach him, but he’ll still be a successful-but-unhappy person who works until nine p.m. every night because he’s got a terrible marriage and doesn’t want to go home, and don’t ask how I know that, everyone knows when you’ve got a terrible marriage, it’s like having bad breath, you get close enough to a person and it’s obvious. And you know, I’m reaching here, but I’m talking about someone who just seems like he wishes he’d done something different with his life, I mean really actually almost anything–is this too much?”
“No. Please, go on.”
“Okay, I love my job, and I’m not just saying that because my boss is going to see my interview comments, which by the way I don’t believe he won’t be able to tell who said what, anonymous or not. But anyway, I look around sometimes and I think this will maybe sound weird-it’s like the corporate world’s full of ghosts. And actually, let me revise that, my parents are in academia so I’ve had front-row seats for that horror show, I know academia’s no different, so maybe a fairer way of putting this would be to say that adulthood’s full of ghosts.”
“I’m sorry, I’m not sure I quite—”
“I’m talking about these people who’ve ended up in one life instead of another and they are just so disappointed. Do you know what I mean? They’ve done what’s expected of them. They want to do something different but it’s impossible now, there’s a mortgage, kids, whatever, they’re trapped. Dan’s like that.”
“You don’t think he likes his job, then.”
“Correct,” she said, “but I don’t think he even realizes it. You probably encounter people like him all the time. High-functioning sleepwalkers, essentially.”
What was it in this statement that made Clark want to weep? He was nodding, taking down as much as he could. “Do you think he’d describe himself as unhappy in his work?”
“No,” Dahlia said, “because I think people like him think work is supposed to be drudgery punctuated by very occasional moments of happiness, but when I say happiness, I mostly mean distraction. You know what I mean?”
“No, please elaborate.”
“Okay, say you go into the break room,” she said, “and a couple people you like are there, say someone’s telling a funny story, you laugh a little, you feel included, everyone’s so funny, you go back to your desk with a sort of, I don’t know, I guess afterglow would be the word? You go back to your desk with an afterglow, but then by four or five o’clock the day’s just turned into yet another day, and you go on like that, looking forward to five o’clock and then the weekend and then your two or three annual weeks of paid vacation time, day in day out, and that’s what happens to your life.”
“Right,” Clark said. He was filled in that moment with an inexpressible longing. The previous day he’d gone into the break room and spent five minutes laughing at a colleague’s impression of a Daily Show bit.
“That’s what passes for a life, I should say. That’s what passes for happiness, for most people. Guys like Dan, they’re like sleepwalkers,” she said, “and nothing ever jolts them awake.”
He got through the rest of the interview, shook her hand, walked out through the vaulted lobby of the Graybar Building to Lexington Avenue. The air was cold but he longed to be outside, away from other people. He took a long and circuitous route, veering two avenues east to the relative quiet of Second Avenue.
He was thinking of the book, and thinking of what Dahlia had said about sleepwalking…Because he had been sleepwalking, Clark realized, moving half-asleep through the motions of his life for a while now, years; not specifically unhappy, but when had he last found real joy in his work? When was the last time he’d been truly moved by anything? When had he last felt awe or inspiration? He wished he could somehow go back and find the iPhone people whom he’d jostled on the sidewalk earlier, apologize to them–I’m sorry, I’ve just realized that I’m as minimally present in this world as you are, I had no right to judge–and also he wanted to call every target of every 360° report and apologize to them too, because it’s an awful thing to appear in someone else’s report, he saw that now, it’s an awful thing to be the target.
The following conversation happens a long while after the pandemic between survivors. It’s apparent that conversations like below take place a lot between survivors. There’s no new information related but these talks become the needed “Remember-the-time?” they need to have over-and-over to live with each other in a post-pandemic world. (Again, there are no spoilers or plot elements below.)
“”Did I ever tell you about my last phone call?” Garrett asked.
“Yes,” Clark said gently. “I believe you did.”
Garrett had had a wife and four-year-old twins in Halifax, but the last call he’d ever made was to his boss. The last words he’d spoken into a telephone were a bouquet of corporate clichés, seared horribly into memory. “Let’s touch base with Nancy,” he remembered saying, “and then we should reach out to Bob and circle back next week. I’ll shoot Larry an email.” Now he said the words “Circle back next week” under his breath, perhaps not consciously. He cleared his throat. “Why did we always say we were going to shoot emails?”
“I don’t know. I’ve wondered that too.”
“Why couldn’t we just say we were going to send them? We we just pressing a button, were we not?”
“Not even a real button. A picture of a button on a screen.”
“Yes,” Garrett said, “that’s exactly what I’m talking about.”
“There was not, in fact, an email gun. Although that would’ve been nice. I would’ve preferred that.”
Garrett made his fingers into a gun and aimed it at the tree line.
“Ka-pow!” he whispered. And then, louder, “I used to write ‘T-H-X’ when I wanted to say ‘thank you.”
“I did that too. Because, what, it would’ve taken too much time and effort to punch in an extra three letters and just say thanks? I can’t fathom it.”
“The phrase ‘circle back’ always secretly made me think of boats. You leave someone onshore, and then you circle back later to them.” Garrett was quiet for a moment. “I like this one,” he said. “‘He’s a high-functioning sleepwalker, essentially.'”
“I remember the woman who said that.” Clark wondered had happened to her.”
To be fair, the passages above only are found in the novel and only a medium like writing can express the weight of what’s being conveyed to the reader.
However, there’s also something to be said about the incredible artwork of the graphic novel Station Eleven seen in the TV series. I wish I could see a real copy the completed comic. Fans have tried to assemble a completed copy. It plays a heavy role in both the TV series and the novel, but is only visually depicted in the TV series.
I think Station Eleven should be watched and read. They’re both too good to pass up, even though they are very different at certain points. I can see why Barack Obama has Emily St. John Mandel’s work as one his Favorite Books of 2022 for her latest novel, The Sea of Tranquility. I hope the world will be paying close attention to this young, Canadian, female science fiction writer.
I could go on and on about how good this novel and TV series is. In the end, Station Eleven shows us that when the world is empty, art will keep us alive.
Station Eleven is available wherever books are sold. The TV series is available on HBO Max and is soon to be released on blu-ray.
If you’re already a fan and have made it this far, or just more interested in Station Eleven I recommend checking out these sources I used in the write-up above:
Interview and profile on Station Eleven author Emily St. John Mandel in Esquire on the novel during COVID and the TV series:
Interview with Maria Nguyen on Station Eleven’s comic book art featured in the TV series: