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'Station Eleven' imagines a strangely humane human apocalypse

Jeevan (Himesh Patel) takes Kristen (Matilda Lawler) under his wing as a virus ravages humanity in HBO Max's <em>Station Eleven.</em>
Ian Watson
Jeevan (Himesh Patel) takes Kristen (Matilda Lawler) under his wing as a virus ravages humanity in HBO Max's Station Eleven.

Your personal threshold for pandemic fiction, at this stage in our ongoing global kaleidoscopic bacchanalia of doom, may have dropped precipitously since the post-apocalyptic novel Station Eleven became a sensation in 2014. If so, you may consider the prospect of sitting down to watch a viral pandemic wipe out most of humanity over the course of ten hourlong episodes on HBO Max to be akin to that of attending an immersively tactile theatrical experience called Root Canal: The Musical.

The good news — and it turns out to be very, very good — is the team that adapted Emily St. John Mandel's novel evidently agrees with you. In bringing the novel to the small screen, they have assiduously rounded off its sharper, more despairing edges, and amplified its moments of humor, its small but deeply felt instances of connection and humanity.

Again and again, the series presents situations where its characters could make the kind of shocking, violent, nihilistic choices that characters make so routinely on performatively bleak shows like The Walking Dead. Yet again and again, they — and the series itself — instead choose the more humane, more profound, more hopeful option.

Smartly, the series chops up the chronology, so we actually spend relatively little time amidst the viral outbreak itself, with all of its by now chillingly familiar business: denial, growing concern, more denial, masks, news bulletins, panic, paranoia, still more denial, etc. (The writers are to be commended for not falling back on the narrative crutch of using television reports as a kind of Greek chorus; most of the information we and the characters get about the crisis comes in the form of interpersonal communication — worried texts, frantic phone calls, resigned conversations.)

Consider the case of Jeevan (a soulful, effective Himesh Patel). He's just a guy attending a production of King Lear in Chicago when the lead (Gael Garcia Bernal) collapses onstage. In the chaos that follows, he — very reluctantly — agrees to help Kristen (Matilda Lawler), one of the production's child actors, find her missing parents. They find what they believe to be temporary refuge with his brother Frank (Nabhaan Rizwan) in his apartment, until things blow over.

Things ... do not blow over.

Another thread of the story takes place in a small regional airport, to which several strangers have their planes diverted as civilization crumbles. Their attempt to build a civilization of their own, led by an avuncular Irishman (David Wilmot), a former actress (Caitlin FitzGerald) and a security guard (Milton Barnes), provides some of the series' lighter moments ... and one of its darkest.

Mostly, though, the main thrust of the story takes place 20 years after the virus, in a world overgrown with plant life and devoid of electricity. It follows a troupe of Shakespearean actors who travel a circuit around the Great Lakes, stopping at the few remaining outposts to perform plays and music.

On the surface, the notion of a Shakespearean troupe using old plays to hold onto civilization might seem too simplistic, too overdetermined. In the book, it often does. But here it's brought to life with such empathy, such fumbling, all-too-human earnestness, that it seems like it has the power to single-handedly save humanity from itself.

The troupe's lead actress, played by a steely-eyed Mackenzie Davis, has connections to characters in the series' other plot threads. Gradually, the troupe becomes aware of a growing threat from a mysterious figure known only as The Prophet (Daniel Zovatto), who lures children into the wilderness with sinister intent.

All of this is lifted straight from the book, as is the element that ties the story's disparate threads together: a self-published comic book called Station Eleven whose tale of existential isolation and alienation resonates deeply with various characters.

Precisely how these characters interact — how they split apart, reconnect and meet their ultimate fates — has been greatly altered in many cases. The stakes remain impossibly high, the story uniquely compelling, but the net effect is to find this chronicle of a shattered, scattered human civilization strangely comforting, even hopeful.

It's performances like Patel's and Davis' that drive the series' abiding sense of empathy home. Patel's character Jeevan, in particular, is forever overmatched by his circumstances, whether it's caring for a young child he just met or helping to deliver a baby in an abandoned big box store. Watch his searching, wounded expression shift slightly, whenever his default state of helplessness flares into a brief sense of resolve, and then sinks back into passivity. The historical moment he's living through isn't the one he was made for. But still he tries.

That, ultimately, may be the true reason this tale of viral pandemic, mass death and the crumbling of institutions proves such a strangely heartening comfort. Like Jeevan, the moment we find ourselves in isn't the one any of us were made for.

But still.

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Glen Weldon is a host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. He reviews books, movies, comics and more for the NPR Arts Desk.