Discussing the excesses of the limited series is, recently, fashionable. Paul Thomas Anderson honed in, while on the road promoting “Licorice Pizza,” on the genre’s easy appeal to a filmmaker with a bloated story: “The solution is not to just use a lot of B-material and make a longer-form thing. The solution would be cut down, get to your good material, tell your story properly and make a film.” But don’t conflate the fluff with the sinew. Where “The Queen’s Gambit” was swampy, Michaela Coel’s “I May Destroy You” called mate. The format has brought us some of the best media of late, and Patrick Somerville’s “Station Eleven” adds to the list.
Somerville (who also holds credits on “Maniac” and “The Leftovers”) has steered a format which tends toward the clunky and overwrought into something that sparkles with the momentum its peers overlook: Like any good roller coaster, “Station Eleven” lets gravity do the work. It pushes its way uphill, and when it’s time for us to go over the edge, it lets go — and we keep going and going.
The series cuts through time and place with the elegance of a hummingbird. It draws life from humanity and art, and very often from what we do with the latter, or what it does to us. The show’s lead, for example, Kirsten (Mackenzie Davis) has navigated most of her life — most of which has been spent in the “After,” or life after a flu decimates society — by way of a comic book, also titled “Station Eleven,” created by Miranda (Danielle Deadwyler). Miranda was, for a time, married to Arthur (Gael Garciá Bernal), to whom Kirsten was an understudy.
Arthur is mentioned in the show more in name than face, yet he acts as its linchpin as much as Kirsten does. He fell onstage playing Lear as one of the first victims of the flu. A man from the audience, Jeevan (Himesh Patel), took care of the then-young Kirsten (Matilda Lawler) as governments crumbled, the internet failed and the world around them descended into anarchy.
The show intercuts Kirsten’s story with those linked by “Station Eleven,” and those linked by Arthur. Clark (David Wilmot), a dear friend of Arthur’s, builds a community in a small regional airport on Lake Michigan with Elizabeth (Caitlin FitzGerald), Arthur’s second ex, and with whom she had a child. Meanwhile, Kirsten, an actor like Elizabeth and Clark, joins a traveling symphony which mostly performs Shakespeare.
“Station Eleven” operates nonlinearly, a choice that allows its creators to delve into the show’s undercurrent of brutality as easily they do with the love engendered by its communities. In one moment, Kirsten may be throwing knives at post-apocalyptic marauders in the woods; in the next, she might be a child in Chicago, buried under a puffer and the tassels of her beanie, telling Jeevan she takes the “L” home. Then she was innocent, now she’s flinging knives. Once a student of Arthur’s, now she’s the thespian. When did she learn to do that? What happened?
Surely “Station Eleven” would like audiences to ask those questions. These inquiries motivate the show’s adaptation, for the screen, of “strategic opacity” — a term the critic Parul Seghal recently borrowed from Stephen Greenblatt, who defined it as the way Shakespeare omitted his character’s motivations, replacing causality with the tangents of imagination. Yet, as the show makes hard, hard cuts between past and present — steel to the flint of the show’s passion, kindling a spark in our hearts — you have to wonder further.
Pop culture decorates the set design, Shakespeare splotches the camera’s lens. Why so much art? “Station Eleven” answers that question in fits and spurts. The series chugs along, dropping saplings of plot here and there. They eventually grow into a story that prizes art beyond its meaning to us, in its ability to contextualize our experiences: “Station Eleven” knows we turn to fiction to understand phenomena in reality.
Perhaps we turn to it even more for distraction. “I loved Instagram,” Kirsten says, a line that fringes on pop art. Davis’ delivery leaves no doubt Kirsten really did love Instagram, but Davis lets a sigh trail out. Instagram may have helped Kirsten through the “Before,” but “Station Eleven” reared her. Art transforms Kirsten, just as it reshapes the series.