Review: In ‘Station Eleven,’ the World Ends, Beautifully

Things could always be worse, and in “Station Eleven,” they are. A powerful flu virus rips across the globe almost overnight, killing most of humanity. Twenty years later, the survivors are eking out a preindustrial life amid the ruins.

But would you believe me if I told you that, somehow, things are also better? Or if not “better” exactly, then far more hopeful than TV’s other apocalypses, from “The Walking Dead” to “Y: The Last Man,” would have led you to expect.

Based on the 2014 novel by Emily St. John Mandel, “Station Eleven,” whose first three episodes arrive Thursday on HBO Max, focuses less on survival (a preoccupation of even the sitcom “The Last Man on Earth” and Netflix’s fanciful “Sweet Tooth”) than on how the human spirit, as expressed through art, insists on thriving. At times dark and heartbreaking, it’s also luminous, wondrous, even funny — the most uplifting show about life after the end of the world that you are likely to see.

It begins with a play: On a wintry night in Chicago, the movie star Arthur Leander (Gael García Bernal) collapses and dies onstage while playing King Lear. The ensuing chaos brings together Jeevan Chaudhary (Himesh Patel), an underemployed writer in the audience, with Kirsten Raymonde (Matilda Lawler), an 8-year-old actress playing one of Lear’s daughters as a child.

Kirsten’s parents are unreachable, the reasons for which dawn chillingly that night as patients begin to crowd the hospitals. After a detour to buy about $10,000 in groceries, the pair seal themselves up in a high-rise apartment with Jeevan’s brother, Frank (Nabhaan Rizwan), where they watch an errant airliner crash into the Chicago skyline.

The 10-episode limited series jumps between the early days of the plague and two decades later, when Kirsten (Mackenzie Davis, “Halt and Catch Fire”) has somehow managed to continue her acting career after the apocalypse. She’s playing Hamlet with the Traveling Symphony, a ragtag theater and music troupe in the Great Lakes. Their life seems almost idyllic, if not for the reminders of the danger that could result if they stray from “The Wheel,” their rigid tour loop.

Governments have collapsed, but civilization has, in small pockets, regrouped. There’s a generation gap between “prepans,” who survived the plague, and “postpans,” born after, who lack the same attachment to the past. (iPhones, to them, are like magical totems from mythology.)

In a way, “Station Eleven” shares as much with frontier stories as with apocalypse stories, in that it is partly about how you start a community from scratch.

The Traveling Symphony, led by the cantankerous Conductor (Lori Petty), is one such group. Another has settled in a regional airport, where its members try to preserve the memories and creature comforts of the past. In one episode, the Symphony members share a dinner of vacuum-sealed M.R.E.s with an old colleague (David Cross), who’s living on a landmine-strewn golf course and writing a giant history he calls “The Book of Joy and Despair.”

The theme, as it emerges, is memory as balm vs. prison. What’s the line between keeping a link to the past and being chained to it?

Patrick Somerville, who adapted Mandel’s novel for television, previously worked on HBO’s “The Leftovers,” which took place after the unexplained disappearance of 2 percent of the world’s population. “Station Eleven” involves a bigger loss but it has a similar sensibility: wistful, sardonic and focused on life after catastrophe rather than the catastrophe itself.

So the series conveys the anguish of the pandemic with a few well-chosen scenes, rather than letting them accumulate to the point of numbness. “Station Eleven” wants to you feel everything — joy and despair, tragedy and comedy. As the elder Kirsten, Davis bursts with expression; as the precocious but vulnerable young Kirsten, Lawler gives one of the best child performances I’ve seen on TV since Kiernan Shipka in “Mad Men.”

The imagery is equally fulsome. The first episode, directed by Hiro Murai (“Atlanta”), renders the apocalypse as both epic and intimate. Its most striking device cuts between scenes from before the plague and the same settings decades later, overgrown with cruelly beautiful vegetation, as if to hold up the skull of civilization and say alas, we knew it well.

There is something graphic-novel-like in how “Station Eleven” juxtaposes images and events across time: Kirsten and Jeevan’s buddy-comedy journey; the Traveling Symphony’s circuit; the prepandemic life of Miranda Carroll (Danielle Deadwyler), a budding cartoonist. The series in fact takes its name from Miranda’s passion-project comic book, about an astronaut trapped on a broken space station. (The metaphor for the state of humanity can be seen from orbit.)

One of the few surviving copies finds its way to Kirsten, who later recalls, “When I read it, I didn’t care that the world was ending, because it was the world.” Another reader, who terms himself The Prophet (Daniel Zovatto), is moved to found a cult, whose mysterious aims drive the shaggy plot.

I can imagine a viewer for whom the pandemic premise hits too close to home. An early image of masked, parentless children in a hospital waiting area socked me straight in the gut. I can also imagine a viewer who sees the quirky, thespian’s-eye treatment of the subject as twee and art for art’s sake. (Some reviews of Mandel’s novel criticized it for not being sufficiently dire.)

But that’s just it: This is art for art’s sake. That is, it’s a work that celebrates humanity by celebrating humanity’s drive to create. Art, in “Station Eleven,” is the human soul conserved in M.R.E. form for future consumption. It’s the way we speak to one another across generations and beyond death. “Station Eleven” finds this power not just in Shakespeare but in comics, in a hip-hop anthem, in a long-ago child’s voice recorded on an electronic keyboard — even in an episode of “Star Trek: Voyager,” which gives the series a repeating mantra, “Survival is insufficient.”

Not everyone agrees on what art is for, of course, and if you want it to help you forget your troubles, “Station Eleven” is not for you. I don’t blame you; it’s been a rough couple of years.

But if you want catharsis and a surprising laugh, I’m not sure I know a better show to go into the next year with. At a time of both sudden and slow-motion catastrophes, “Station Eleven” is a reminder that we never know what life will bring. But the show must go on.

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