Station Eleven: The Healing Power of Art, and the Artful Power of Healing


It’s not as hard of a sell as it sounds, a pandemic show in a pandemic. Perhaps it would be, were it filled with CDC jokes and quarantine romances and Zoom calls. But not this pandemic show; one glance at its creators’ resumes and you get a sense of the grander ambitions at play. Station Eleven, liberally adapted from Emily St. John Mandel’s acclaimed 2014 novel, helmed by Leftovers vet and Damon Lindelof protégé Patrick Somerville, and boasting a writing and production team chock-full of the brightest stars from The Leftovers, Watchmen, and Atlanta, was never going to limit its scope to something as simple and awful as a pandemic.

Station Eleven is a “pandemic show” in much the same way The Leftovers was a “rapture show,” more about the people standing on the edge of the sinkhole than the sinkhole itself. Across its infinite and too-quick 10 episodes, it investigates the messy continuum of trauma and grief and violence and healing and forgiveness and love—and, chiefly, the ways that art can catalyze each of those things and provide a guide through them. That’s relevant to their pandemic, and ours, too—but it’s also relevant to breakups and abandonments and losses writ large. The horrors of our own pandemic are not unique to this crisis; once they’re over, we’ll find them elsewhere. Fortunately, the restorative power of art and kindness, which has helped me and so many others through this time, is not unique either; if we try, we can bring it anywhere.


From the jump, both Mandel’s original text and Somerville’s adaptation of Station Eleven do us the great kindness of being about a pandemic crucially different from our own. Sure, there are similarities, most glaring at the beginning—no matter how many booster shots you’ve had, watching characters play out the early stages of a cataclysmic flu is enough to give anyone cold sweats and an instinctive desire to buy toilet paper—but as soon as Station Eleven’s flu hits, it’s over. The soundbites and clippings we gather from the show’s scant technology are enough to paint a gnarly picture of 90%+ mortality rates and near-instant fatalities; if you cough in this world, you’ll likely be dead by sundown.

By the time we’re flung 20 years into the future, what’s left of civilization is what’s been slowly and cautiously rebuilt by the fractional survivors. I say “flung” because time is a game of badminton in Station Eleven, tossing us back and forth between Before (the days leading up to the pandemic and the first few fallout years) and After (20 years later, in the beginnings of the new world). By presenting these two timelines in tandem, the show lays the groundwork for a larger architecture of hope. Simultaneously apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic, Station Eleven implies that while things might not be perfect in the wake of a tragedy, at least they’ll still be

The show’s sprawling cast makes up a galaxy of major and minor planets. Each are vital and interesting in their own ways, but chiefly for how they circle Jeevan and Kirsten’s dual suns. Jeevan: a mid-30s sort-of-blogger whose kind but aimless life might have gone anywhere (or nowhere) had it not been disrupted. Kirsten: the child (Shakespearean!) actor that Jeevan begrudgingly but honorably takes under his wing after the lead actor in King Lear has a heart attack onstage. Huddled together with Jeevan’s brother, Frank, in the latter’s high-rise apartment, they wait out the pandemic with $3000 in groceries and a marked effort to create a life within the confines of their survival. As Station Eleven, the graphic novel Kirsten clings to like a life preserver, puts it, “Survival is insufficient.”

Eventually forced by hunger to leave their sanctuary in the sky, Kirsten and Jeevan journey back into a newly unfamiliar world. We know less about the time between their exodus from Chicago and Kirsten’s life in the After, but we gradually learn how they separated: a tragic confluence of bad luck and petty anger on Jeevan’s part, a scar we can still read across adult Kirsten’s face 20 years later, even as she’s found a new family amongst the lovably odd ranks of a nomadic Shakespearean troupe that calls itself the Traveling Symphony. In between radical productions of Hamlet on ersatz sets with patchwork costumes—golf gloves, if arranged just so, can pass for a prince’s cape much better than you might think—Kirsten has defiantly carved a life out of the cold, empty rock the pandemic left behind. And she’s still clinging to her copy of Station Eleven.     

Elsewhere in the midwest, we witness the emergence of a new world power, relatively. Trapped in the Severn City Airport as the world ended (and air traffic along with it), the same random assortment of travelers you’d find at any airport are forced to build a city of their own within their well-stocked and safely isolated new home. Among those travelers are Clark and Elizabeth, ex-friend and ex-wife of Arthur, the actor who died onstage in Kirsten’s play. Their estranged history is quickly set aside as they leverage their shared theatrical pasts to charismatically wrest control of the airport. They’re joined by Elizabeth and Arthur’s reserved son, Tyler—as well as Tyler’s treasured copy of Station Eleven, the identical twin of Kirsten’s. 

Unknown to each other in their own corners of this crumbling universe, Kirsten and Tyler nonetheless find shared comfort in the same pages, gifted to them separately by the author herself. If Station Eleven stops short of suggesting that this book saves their lives as they each mourn the loss of their parents (and their innocence), it gets most of the way there; at the very least, it hints that their souls are much more intact than they would’ve been without it. So that’s the good news. The bad? The different lessons they take from the novel—Kirsten, resilience through art; Tyler, the obliviation of any painful remnant of Before—act as a particle accelerator, hastening emotional crash courses and sending them in dramatically different directions, a long walk from their ultimate convergence and any shot at redemption. Kirsten’s familial theater collective is a far cry from Tyler’s burgeoning cult, even before he starts recruiting child soldiers. 


Art in Station Eleven—abstract graphic novels and virtuosic piano études and iconic Shakespearean works—brings people together, pushes them apart, makes them angry, and makes them whole. Take Tyler, who becomes the central ‘villain’ figure (to apply a binary role to a show that works with more blended hues): the same graphic novel that comforts him eventually radicalizes him to the point of arson, kidnapping, and violence—but also later serves as an interpersonal bridge to Kirsten, offering an against-the-odds lifeline to someone who can save him.

After years of living separately off the same book, they first meet when Tyler—a self-proclaimed “Prophet” spouting “prophecy” ripped straight from Station Eleven—and his cult sets its sights on the Traveling Symphony. Kirsten immediately smells this in his creepy demeanor, and stabs him. But the show’s winding story eventually sees them forging an unlikely alliance before finding their way to the airport city, where Kirsten learns the true source of Tyler’s anger: his father’s absence and death, his “uncle” Clark’s misplaced anger, his mother’s perceived abandonment. The details of his Before allow Kirsten to see beyond the worst sins of this damaged boy, but had their shared connection over an obscure book not stayed her knife, he wouldn’t have survived long enough to reveal it.

So what is Station Eleven, this mystical graphic novel? Well, it’s confusing. But what we glean from the pages we’re shown seems to speak to its creator’s life as much as it speaks into Kirsten and Tyler’s. 

Written by Miranda Collins (an ex-lover of Arthur, the actor who has a heart attack onstage during King Lear, in yet another pointed twist of coincidence or fate), we learn that she wrote Station Eleven as an act of grief and self-healing in the wake of the horrific loss of her family. “I remember damage,” Dr. Eleven, the story’s hero, says. And so does Miranda, and so does Kirsten, and so does Tyler. Damage, in each of their lives, is an animating force. In animating Miranda to write a book about trauma and sacrifice and self-reflection (via possible time loop? It’s all very abstract) and finding an unlikely way home to healing, Miranda’s damage becomes a minor diasporic event, sending two of her five self-published (!) copies of Station Eleven out into the world to two broken children who need them, and will eventually need each other. In sowing the seeds of connection and healing for others, Miranda posthumously steps into the space boots of her Dr. Eleven, playing the benevolent observer to Kirsten and Tyler—who may not know her, but are forever indebted to her invisible guidance. 

Which, in a way, is the goal of all true artistic endeavors: Miranda went through something horrible and converted her grief into beauty. Kirsten and Tyler lived through a pandemic (and worse) by leaning on the beauty Miranda authored to neutralize their grief. At its best, art can act as a perpetual motion machine, hanging luminous grace notes on even the darkest experiences and healing people until they want to heal people. And it can serve as its own liberating education; if words can sound like this, and images can look like that, then why can’t we stage a punk Hamlet on a golf course? If this is possible, what isn’t?

Perhaps the most moving and regenerative act of creation that comes from Kirsten and Tyler’s connection over Station Eleven is the pivotal, final staging of Hamlet that occurs in the airport city’s atrium, where the Traveling Symphony has converged with most of the show’s other characters and plotlines. Recognizing the uncrossable gulf between Tyler and his mother (as well as his lingering resentment of Clark), Kirsten casts Tyler as Hamlet, overcoming her jealousy of even the potential for a reunited family long enough to gift that potential to this broken one. An odd choice, maybe, except that doing so means he’ll be acting across from his estranged mother—as Hamlet’s estranged mother, Gertrude—and the “uncle” he views as an enemy—as the uncle Hamlet views as an enemy, Claudius. 

This ingenious, too-perfect overlay of art imitating life could easily be written off—as Clark tries to when he first hears of the casting—as “art therapy.” But where else do you get these hurting people, their bonds severed, stepping into characters who have already lived the details of their traumas for centuries—on stages, and in parks and through movie screens—and there finding the courage to both step outside themselves and step into the fullness of their feelings (and Hamlet’s, and Gertrude’s, and Claudius’)? By giving themselves over to the play, they give themselves back to each other, Shakespeare’s words excavating and megaphoning emotions long-buried beneath anger and fear and pain, pain, pain. It’s rare that I cry during any television show—rarer still that I rewind after finishing an episode to relive the catharsis. But as someone who often has an easier time recognizing feelings onscreen than voicing his own, such an emotional blood-letting briefly arrested my soul, electrifying me with every ounce of pain—and relief—on these characters-playing-characters’ faces. 

That a comic book could lead to all that, or that a dramatic re-staging of Hamlet could provide the outlet for this broken family to finally give voice to their wounds and find long-sought catharsis, might sound like artsy-fartsy, pie-in-the-sky stuff. But is it really all that far removed from the bridges we build nearly every single day? How many times have you belted along with a beloved band’s performance, in wondrous synchronicity with thousands of other concert-goers you may vehemently disagree with outside of the boundary-shattering forcefield of that arena, or that cathedral, or that dive bar? How many jumps or laughs have you shared in a dark theater, the glow of the screen generously bathing even the most disparate movie-goers in the same, temporarily unifying light?

As the wildly disparate Kirsten and Tyler find in their shared connection to Station Eleven—or as the Traveling Symphony and many others find in their similarly inexorable affinities for Shakespeare—learning that someone different from you loves a thing you love can be the first passport stamp on a newly opened relationship, sort of the inverse of the enemy of my enemy is my friend. If my enemy is a lover of something I love, maybe the chances of common ground aren’t as slight as I had thought. Even if the reasons we love it are distinct, the shared object of admiration can still function as a common tongue by which to air our grievances and start paving paths to reconciliation. Maybe it’s corny to broach a hard subject with an offended friend by referencing a movie character you both love; but maybe it’s braver to do that than to say nothing at all. 


Discontent to be a reductive disease-outbreak horror show, Station Eleven’s largely post-apocalyptic setting is most notable as a great leveler. Without the distraction of normal life’s trappings and luxuries, we can see which remnants of Before really carry on, either because of their inherent staying power and cultural resonance, or because of our reliance on the truths they illuminate to survive. In the same way, we can see which relics of society stay behind, their obsolescence finally obvious in the absence of any status quo to uphold.

That absence is particularly important to Station Eleven‘s many second-half redemption arcs—though “arc” is perhaps not quite right, as the finale’s title (“Unbroken Circle”) gestures to. In reaching more enlightened forms, each character has to be willing to look backward as well as forward, making a conscious return to the origins of their problems—not least of all because the key to unlocking their soul’s beauty was usually hidden there all along, amidst the rubble and the pain.

Maybe this seemingly simple act of self-examination en route to self-growth feels so radical in this context because these characters are free from the shackles of normal procedures and justice systems, and thus able to take a more honest look at themselves than they might be with the old fear of a retributive hand ready to slap their open palms. If the full extremes of human behavior and action are now shockingly possible (if not totally permissible) in this After-world, then why shouldn’t the full extremes of human accountability—and subsequently, human acceptance and forgiveness—be as well?

There’s something to the freedom of a post-apocalyptic world—good things have been lost, yes, but some bad, too. What Station Eleven offers its characters (and us) is the idea that out there beyond the incumbent machinery of law and punishment is the potential for a more transcendent grace, one that cuts through the worst sins to their inciting pain and offers a balm where traditional systems might offer salt. As the music swells, and scars itch, and broken promises linger, there is still hope because there is still forgiveness. When these characters look up and occasionally see the space-suited Dr. Eleven looking impassively but benevolently down, perhaps they see some larger perspective reflected in the God’s-eye-view of his visor, encompassing even the most outcast and downtrodden in its redemptive gaze. That vantage point suggests a higher calling for each of us—to look past the societally prescribed limits on love and rehabilitation to a better way forward for all, even if they/we deserved their/our casting out in the first place. 

Tyler’s therapeutic turn as Hamlet would never have made it past the jailhouse theater in our world, for example, as his tenure as a cult-leader led (however indirectly) to innocent bloodshed. No, our world—or their Before—would mutter something about accountability and responsibility before marking the end of his effective life with a harsh sentence and a cell door. Which is not to say that he doesn’t deserve to expiate for his sins, but the extreme circumstances of Station Eleven’s After demonstrate that atonement doesn’t have to be exclusively punitive, or mutually exclusive from restoration. Whether you believe Tyler should have even had the opportunity to merge with Hamlet or not, it’s hard to argue that the results weren’t rehabilitative for all involved, even us viewers. And if it’s freely given to Tyler by Kirsten, it still takes a significant self-evaluative lift for Tyler to accept it. It can’t be easy, reliving the pain of his childhood or the pain he bore out of it, but growth isn’t even on the table until he’s re-examined himself with clear eyes—a difficult task if given the opportunity, but an impossible one if you’re locked up and the keys have been tossed. Or so this show seems to suggest. 

But it’s not just our laws that limit our capabilities for re-growth. When Jeevan first meets Kirsten after Arthur’s onstage tragedy, he does so because while the stunned audience stared on in shock, he stood up. Without a medical degree or even proper CPR training, his primal instincts lifted him out of the crowd and carried him onstage, unsure of how to help but certain he had to. It’s this same urge to be useful that drives him to walk the abandoned Kirsten home, which becomes a larger mission as any solid concept of home is promptly atom-bombed by the pandemic. When he is finally separated from Kirsten in a moment of ill-timed anger (how do you hurt an artist more than by throwing out her favorite book?), he’s ultra devastated because his failure to protect her feels like a letting-down of his most primordial purpose to help. When his wayward journey then takes him to one of the show’s most singularly life-affirming creations—an all-women-run, no-questions-asked natal center running out of an abandoned department store, which brings him in because he lied about being a doctor—it feels like an insult to his injury; how better to highlight his ineffectual desire to help than by placing him in the middle of countless women who expect something from him that he’s preposterously unequipped to give? 

It’s fitting, then, that this is the moment when the show decides to go curtains-up on its most wondrous act of grace. Sensing his urge to help (and, possibly, his great shame at not having done so), the natal director gives Jeevan the chance to live up to his appropriated title of Dr. Chaudhary by bringing him in as a sort of emotional support midwife. Even without expertise or any helpful skills, the director reassures Jeevan that what these women really need is for someone to be there, holding their hands and letting them know that it’ll be okay. With abundant mercy, this director flips the script on all of Jeevan’s failures—rewriting his half-baked attempt at saving Arthur, his failure to protect Kirsten, and his deception about doctorhood as the premature signs of a born caregiver, and finally casting him in that role. As beautiful as this pot of gold at the end of Jeevan’s rainbow is, like Tyler’s, it’s a redemption arc that simply wouldn’t have been conceivable in any non-pandemic world. In this timeline, Jeevan doesn’t have the easy excuses of monetary, regulatory, or educational barriers; he has an opportunity to boldly help, and the natal center has the necessity to boldly let him. And how fitting (and funny!) that as one of the only non-artist main characters in the show, even Jeevan’s epiphanic moment occurs on a Shakespearean stage. That we first witness his soul’s spark there in his attempt to save Arthur—and that this raw impulse is fanned into a career of helping and healing—feels like a winking acknowledgment of the unavoidable tractor beam pull of art, and of how determinedly it will find us and mold us, if only we give ourselves to it.

The idea that Kirsten and Jeevan’s meeting (and the branching realities of hurt and love and pain and joy that would follow) never happens if they don’t both show up to King Lear is given a poetic punctuation mark in the show’s full-stop Most Moving Moment: their unexpected reunion after the final staging of Hamlet in the airport. Having long thought the other dead or lost, they spot each other across a crowded room in a stare that becomes a vacuum, their mirrored expressions flipping from recognition, to shock, to disbelief, to acceptance, to joy, to absolution. There’s no better story written anywhere on any Earth than on their two faces as they embrace. Art paved the road to this moment, but here, together, Kirsten and Jeevan get to create their own masterpiece of forgiveness, healing, and love.      

In the end, the show moves hearts and mountains by showing us healing as art (Kirsten and Jeevan) and art as healing (Tyler and Kirsten, or Tyler and Elizabeth, or Tyler and Clark, or…). That we get so many examples of the latter speaks to the creators’ insistence on the universality of art: if you can understand the way a book plucks a particular chord from your enemy’s heartstrings, maybe you can understand why a particular pain of theirs led them to inflict it upon others, if only to finally have something to share. 

The punchline is that love and kindness will always be better things to share than pain—it just takes some courageous employment of your free will to get there. No one in Station Eleven, or in the real-life pandemic, or in “this barbaric slaughterhouse that was once known as humanity” (to borrow a line from Wes Anderson) is forced into redemption; everyone has an opt-out, an ejection seat to a safer isle amidst ever-troubled waters. This miraculous show boldly theorizes that even troubled waters can feel like home if we have people (and art!) to share them with—and the intimidating willingness to embrace one another in all our mutual thorniness. The terra firma of a deserted island might be less risky in a storm, but it will still be deserted when the storm passes. And besides, you can’t restage Shakespeare—or Independence Day—on your own.