GLEN WELDON, HOST:
The HBO Max miniseries "Station Eleven" begins with a highly contagious and deadly virus, wiping out 99% of humanity. Now, that might not sound like comfort viewing, but hear me out. It's a show about loss and grief, sure, but it's also about resilience, empathy, humor and how difficult it can be to figure out what to keep and what to leave behind as we all move collectively into an uncertain future. I'm Glen Weldon, and today we're talking about "Station Eleven" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR.
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WELDON: Joining us today is Inkoo Kang. She's the TV critic at The Washington Post. Welcome back, Inkoo.
INKOO KANG: Greetings from the future.
WELDON: Absolutely. Also with us is writer Katie Presley. Howdy, Katie.
KATIE PRESLEY: Howdy.
WELDON: "Station Eleven" is based on Emily St. John Mandel's bestselling novel, though showrunner Patrick Somerville and the writers do make significant changes. The net effect is to round down many of the book's sharper edges, its more bleak aspects, in favor of mining its humanity and its humor. Over the show's 10 episodes, we follow several different characters as their individual stories intersect, both in the hundred days after the virus hits and 20 years later as civilization attempts to rebuild.
There's a lot of characters in this mix, but we'll tick off some of the major ones. Himesh Patel is Jeevan, a profoundly soulful, kind of hapless guy attending a performance of "King Lear" in Chicago when its lead actor Arthur, played by Gael Garcia Bernal, collapses. Jeevan tries to help but only succeeds in reluctantly looking after one of the production's child actors, Kirsten, played by Matilda Lawler. As the virus rampages through the population, Jeevan takes Kirsten to the apartment of his brother Frank, played by Nabhaan Rizwan, until things blow over. They don't blow over.
In another timeline, Mackenzie Davis plays an adult Kirsten who is now part of a roving troupe of actors and musicians who travel around Lake Michigan, performing for the few remaining human outposts. They're threatened by a mysterious and deadly figure called The Prophet, played by Daniel Zovatto. And in still another storyline, a small municipal airport becomes a miniature civilization in the aftermath of the virus. Linking all of these stories together is a very weird, very emo self-published science fiction graphic novel called "Station Eleven" created by Miranda, played by Danielle Deadwyler. She's got connections to everyone in the other storylines, and her graphic novel will be linked to just about every character's ultimate fate in one way or the other.
As we tape this, nine of the series' 10 episodes have aired, and the 10th will air the day after this episode drops. We've seen all 10, but we'll restrict our discussions to those nine episodes that have aired. Katie, let me start with you. What did you make of "Station Eleven"?
PRESLEY: The first thing to say about this show is I cannot imagine a show synopsis that makes it more difficult to separate what we are living...
PRESLEY: ...And what we are watching. So with that in mind, here goes. The very first thing I thought of watching this show was a tweet. In March 2020, the author of "Station Eleven," Emily St. John Mandel, tweeted, maybe don't read my book right now. Maybe give it a couple months. If you haven't read it yet, give it a couple months. Of course, bless my heart, I did read that book in 2020. But I think that has to be said here. Like, go easy on yourself watching this show. It is definitely a pandemic show. We are in a pandemic. There is pain. There's panic. There's contagion. There's quarantines.
If you do choose to watch it, though, I think there are treasures galore. I think that the show does a really beautiful job of giving us examples of the way that community can spring forth after trauma, love can spring forth. The show does a great job of showing us those things in really beautiful ways. It also poses a series of questions that I think are at the heart of the show, which you alluded to, Glen, which are, what do you do when the world almost ends but doesn't quite.
PRESLEY: Do you cling to what you knew? Do you cling to the old world, its trappings? Do you build, say, a shrine to it? Do you forget the old world? There is no old world. The old world does not exist. Or do you let what happened, like, live beside you as you try to make a new life with what you have?
We see characters that give us examples of all of those ways of thinking about how to live in a post-pandemic world. And I think the show just asks those questions so poignantly. And, of course, they are questions that we humans are also asking.
PRESLEY: And my elevator pitch is you will probably be triggered watching this show. If you are willing to live with that, you will be very rewarded.
WELDON: That makes sense. That makes sense. I mean, yes, there's a lot to deal with, particularly in the first episode. A lot of what we're talking about now, all the medical stuff, all alarmist stuff is in that first episode. Once the show settles in, it becomes a kind of weirdly goofy show in places. There's a sense of humor to the show that actually helps ameliorate it. The presence of David Cross, I think, helps a lot. Inkoo, you didn't read the book. You're like most people who are coming to the show, so what'd you make of it?
KANG: I thought this was a show that was wholly dependent in its enjoyability on your sensibility and basically your mood. I have to say, doomsday uplift is not really my thing.
KANG: A show about how almost everyone becomes a better person after living through this civilizational collapse, a post-apocalyptic show that follows a bunch of actors as if actors are people that you want to be around after the apocalypse...
WELDON: Speaking my language.
KANG: ...I mean, those are just things that do not work in my brain and do not really resonate with what is left of my tiny, tiny heart. And so I am going to be the negative nelly here, I guess.
KANG: I understand why people love it. I thought that the little moments of humor, like when someone gives a really great monologue of the "Independence Day" speech.
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UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) We will not vanish without a fight. We're going to live on. We're going to survive. Today, we celebrate our independence day.
KANG: That was really great. But yeah, I just wanted more humor.
WELDON: I hear you. I've got advice for you. Don't read the book.
WELDON: To me, they took a look at the book and interrogated some of its more high-minded, self-congratulatory, kind of very literary fiction conceits, I guess. One of the themes here is that art can save us, art can lift us up, can provide comfort and refuge. And I buy that completely, but I had kind of the same disconnect here that you did, Inkoo, 'cause is it Shakespeare that can lift us up? 'Cause, like, that was one of the least convincing parts of the book for me.
I got to say, like, so if I'm fighting off bandits and death cults and I'm hunting and gathering and I'm reaping and sowing and, I don't know, a bunch of grungy hippies rolls into town in fingerless gloves - what ho - you know? It's like...
PRESLEY: Playing (ph) Parliament as they come into town.
WELDON: Exactly. Attend me, thou grubby post-apocalyptic masses. Cease gnawing on that woodchuck, for we present "Coriolanus."
WELDON: You know, that is not going to scratch my itch. But instead, we get this future as envisioned by a bunch of tenured comp lit professors. And we're saying this on a public radio-adjacent podcast, so some of y'all are going to get your shawl neck cardigans in a bunch.
PRESLEY: Yes. For the seventh-grade English teachers listening, this is your new favorite show. You're going to show these scenes of "Hamlet" performances, life imitating art, for years to come.
WELDON: This is the thing, right? 'Cause, I mean, there is something elitist about it. Anybody who argues for Shakespeare's enduring appeal - I'm sorry - there's something precious about that...
WELDON: ...Something kind of twee. I felt that in the novel. I don't feel it here, though. And that's why I think it improves upon it. Because in the novel, they are thespians performing japes and spoofs. But here, they're just a bunch of - as you mentioned, Inkoo - just a bunch of annoying...
WELDON: ...Theater people, right?
KANG: They sure are.
WELDON: And they're convinced that Shakespeare is important, and they're convinced that they can save the world, but of course they would...
WELDON: ...Because they're theater people, and that story checks out. The other thing I think that's important is the glimpses we get of this graphic novel called "Station Eleven," which is so hugely important to motivating so many different characters. What I like about this show is it does not simply assert that the graphic novel is capital-g Good or deep or moving. It just asserts that it's weird.
WELDON: Right? I love that moment when Jeevan says, this is so pretentious, because thank you; yes, it is.
PRESLEY: He, like, yells it. Like, this is so pretentious, like, throws it aside.
WELDON: Right. But that's important, right? There has been some criticism I've read where they're like, well, the comic wouldn't attain that kind of power 'cause it's too weird. It's like, exactly. It's important that that comic is Miranda's self-published, like, zine, basically...
WELDON: ...Because it's not mass produced. It's one person's deeply idiosyncratic vision that won't find wide appeal. But to a very small number of people, as it does in this show, it has a very deep appeal. And if you go...
WELDON: ...To the Small Press Expo, you come across what - this a terrible term, but art comics that are stapled together in somebody's basement. You pick up one, and it's like, this is gibberish; I don't get this. But you pick up the other one, and it's - it gets its hooks in you and will not let go. That's what completely sold it on me.
PRESLEY: The people that "Station Eleven" the graphic novel makes the most impression on is, like, two supremely traumatized children.
PRESLEY: There's no amount of weirdness that is too weird to make it - to preclude it getting its hooks into these two particular kids.
WELDON: Exactly. Yeah.
PRESLEY: Watching this show, you get the sense that this entire graphic novel has approximately 50 words in it. You know, they show so many pages, like, examples of the art from it that are just black pages with four words.
WELDON: (Laughter) Yup.
PRESLEY: Then I remind myself, wait, wait, wait, wait. The people that are obsessed with it are the kids. And then I'm like, oh, yeah, it could be as weird as you please.
PRESLEY: Kids love weird stuff.
KANG: Also does not seem to be (ph) any other books left. And so of course that's going to be the one thing that they read.
WELDON: Yeah. Inkoo, how would you pitch this to somebody? I mean, you wouldn't pitch it to somebody because you're not totally down with it. But like, how would you distill this into - maybe encourage people to at least check it out?
KANG: I tweeted that my alt headline for my review was we found love in a hopeless place. And if that works for you, that's great.
WELDON: There you go.
KANG: As we're thinking about scarcity and as we're thinking about what that does to us and as we're talking about how, for many of us, small inconveniences during the pandemic and what it's doing to people - if I think about that stuff, you know, what I am seeing is not that people are becoming better people as a result of calamity. And so I think mindset wise, it was just really hard for me.
I will say coming from a TV adaptation angle, I don't know if this is the case with the book, but I really love the rotating protagonist structure of the series. I think this was definitely rooted in Kirsten, both the girl that she was and the woman that she grows up to be. I think that the giant leaps in time is one of the things that gives it this really great airiness and also this sense of scale, this epicness. And I really love stories that take place across a huge expanse of time. And I think that this does that really well.
Many of the characters transform into utterly different types of people. I was a little snarky about this earlier when I said that everyone becomes, like, a good person and it's sort of annoying to watch that. And I maintain wholly that that is true, but one of the things that I really love is when you can sort of see the core of what a character used to be even before the calamity transfer over to their later self. An insecure actor is, on some level, always going to be an insecure actor. And it was really fun to see those glimpses of a person's whole life lived.
WELDON: You picked up on something there, Inkoo. Yes, people become better people. That's not necessarily true in the novel. The novel does have, as we mentioned, sharper edges. The Prophet is a much more sinister character in the novel, a much more deadly character in the novel.
And over and over again, when the show makes changes, it seems to me like it's making changes in the direction of being more humane and less bleak. The relationship between Jeevan and Kirsten is glancingly asserted in the book. It becomes this - one of my favorite parts of the damn show here. Katie, what did you think?
PRESLEY: I completely agree. I can't really say that the book was missing something that the show did because I think the book also does nice things that the show just, like, couldn't have done. But that connection between Jeevan and Kirsten makes the whole project worthwhile to me.
PRESLEY: I don't know what kind of sociopath this makes me, but any post-apocalyptic thing, I want the nitty-gritty, like, literally, how did you survive? What did you eat? And you do get enough of that. But we actually, like, really get to see them eating a frozen can of beans, you know? The show really did choose to go in a direction of putting more people together and letting them react off of each other than the book did, and it was fundamentally optimistic.
WELDON: It is fundamentally optimistic. Inkoo, were you more impatient with one storyline than the other? Was there one that you were eager to get back to, one you were eager to not get back to?
KANG: I loved Clark.
KANG: Clark is just this insecure actor who is never going to change and yet sort of finds it within himself to adapt to this new world and try to figure out how he can use his skills of the theater in this new world.
PRESLEY: Oh, yes.
KANG: I also really loved Lori Petty as the conductor.
WELDON: Right. Surprising.
KANG: She has a really, I would say, like, underwritten role, but, honestly, being Lori Petty was good enough for certain scenes to be carried through. The other character that I thought we would not go back to, and then we eventually did, was Jeevan because we see that Jeevan and Kirsten diverge at some point. And I think that for a long time, we're supposed to assume that he has died. And then it turns out he was sort of ferried away by these much larger forces. And I think the episode in which we find out what happened to him and how he was sort of taken away from Kirsten against his will, that was probably my favorite episode of the entire season.
PRESLEY: It's the episode which I lovingly refer to as Bed, Birth and Beyond.
PRESLEY: You know I'm a doula, and you're wondering, is that what it's like - cesarean sections in the aisles of a Target, followed immediately by a dance party to "Creep" by TLC. The answer is yes. That is exactly what it is like.
WELDON: Good to know.
KANG: I think one of the really fun things about a lot of these slightly lighter post-apocalyptic shows like "The Last Man On Earth" or "Y: The Last Man" is when they take sort of these, like, gigantic corporate stores and refurbish them. I think "Y: The Last Man" - like, my favorite episode takes place in a redone Costco. And even though I keep seeing it, I keep loving it.
KANG: I disagree with Katie slightly about all of the logistical details. I just kept thinking, like, once the women left the hospital, like, where do they go? Do they not want prenatal care?
PRESLEY: Oh, totally. Totally.
KANG: There were, I think, like, enough little tropes of post-apocalyptic stuff that thankfully weren't, like, incredibly depressing that made it a really interesting watch in terms of which tropes of post-apocalyptic fiction is this show sort of playing with? And that was fun for me. You guys, I'm saying too many good things about this show, which is, like...
WELDON: No, no, go back to it.
PRESLEY: Ha-ha, gotcha (ph).
KANG: ...How I feel about this.
KANG: I read a book review that noted that the novel doesn't, like, really fully take into account all of the loss suffered by the characters, and I think that that is true here. I think that once you, for example, learn of Kirsten's parents dying, you get, like, a little bit of that. But overall, I never really fully got the sense that these people had experienced devastating loss. And I understand that that's not the point of the show. The point is rebuilding and that the show wants to be as emotionally grounded and as emotionally sophisticated as it wants to be. Missing that sense of loss, again, was one of those things where it just didn't quite resonate with what I wanted from the show, I guess.
WELDON: I hear what you're saying because there is - if there was a false note to the show at all, it was in the first episode when Jeevan is on a subway, gets a call from his sister who works in a hospital, and she is telling him everything is about to go down. And there wasn't quite the sense of creeping dread and horror that I felt a moment like that required to land. It was just a call that changes his mind. It wasn't something that separates the world we know from the world to come, right? I thought that moment needed to land harder, and I don't think it did.
PRESLEY: But I would argue that moments like that don't have necessarily clear before and afters until you have hindsight. His sister is telling him, I am trying to tell you how to survive, and he doesn't know what to do with that. He has a panic attack, which is a pretty relatable thing to do, getting news like that. But he puts one foot in front of the other, sort of launches himself off the subway to go buy $10,000 worth of groceries. I don't really know how it could have landed harder because that's certainly how COVID has felt in its unrolling is like, you know, we sort of came home from work one day thinking, you know, good thing I remembered my laptop because I might not be back till Tuesday.
PRESLEY: So - and it's only in hindsight that we can say, wow, I remember the first time I heard the word.
PRESLEY: I remember the first phone call, whatever. So I would say that the kind of relatively glancing mentions to staggering loss mirror how surreal losses that huge are. There's a moment in the birth episode where the sort of kooky doctor midwife lady says we lost 9 billion last year, but right now, we have 10 or 15 new lives - 9 billion versus 10. So, yeah, these babies in some way balance the scales.
WELDON: Well, we want to know what you think about "Station Eleven." Find us at facebook.com/pchh and on Twitter @pchh. That brings us to the end of our show. Thanks to both of you for being here.
PRESLEY: Thank you.
WELDON: And of course, thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. We will see you all tomorrow.
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