It’s natural to cast a suspicious eye on any work of art that extols the value of art. It can read as self-congratulatory or even as a reflex against criticism of the work in question. (Look no further than the Game of Thrones finale and its speech on “the power of stories.” A swing and a miss.) Now and then, though, a work truly does make the case for the transformative power of art and entertainment. In adapting Emily St. John Mandel’s novel Station Eleven, showrunner Patrick Somerville and his team have reshaped an already beautiful story into something even more stunning. The series finale of Station Eleven is a testament to the healing power of art that is, itself, worthy of the adoration it bestows upon the canon that inspired it.
“Unbroken Circle” picks up with the Traveling Symphony, including Kirsten (Mackenzie Davis), finally released from quarantine and invited inside the Severn City Airport, where they’re scheduled to perform Hamlet. The Prophet/Tyler (Daniel Zovatto) is incarcerated following his bombing of the Museum of Civilization, which is seemingly mourned only by Clark (David Wilmot). It was, ultimately, only a collection of things that life had already gone on without. What’s left behind are people who need mending, and in the truest spirit of Station Eleven, the path to healing runs through theater.
In truly remarkable fashion, Station Eleven brings five characters’ stories to a conclusion through a rendition of Hamlet, Act I, Scene ii, the beginning of that story but the climax of ours. Seeking a way to bring Tyler back from the brink, Kirsten conscripts him into the Symphony to play the Prince of Demark, who is likewise a torn-up adult child driven by suspicion and vengeance after his father’s death. Opposite him, Kirsten casts Tyler’s mother Elizabeth (Caitlin FitzGerald) as Queen Gertrude, who struggles to reach her son through the fog of depression. Clark, though skeptical at first, sees the value in this attempt at art therapy and volunteers to play Claudius, accepting his role as the villainous false father that he’s become in Tyler’s eyes. Even Alex (Philippine Velge), who has lived with the Symphony her entire life, symbolically asks for Kirsten’s permission to depart through her performance as Laertes.
For Kirsten, stepping out of the spotlight to direct represents her own growth and ability to accept change. She, alone, knows that the Symphony’s matriarch Sarah has passed away, but rather than to run from this loss (as was her impulse last week), Kirsten steps into a leadership role in her absence. She takes on the highest office of an artist, to heal by healing others. And as the late Sarah’s musical score rises over the performance, Clark, Elizabeth, and Tyler find a peace that their characters do not. A tragedy is averted; the play catches the conscience of the king, queen, and prince alike.
Parallel to the Year 20 narrative, we return to the story of Miranda Carroll (Danielle Deadwyler), author of the Station Eleven graphic novel, as she quarantines in her hotel room in Malaysia at the beginning of the pandemic. There, she receives a phone call from Clark, who is somehow still healthy at the Severn City Airport. Miranda, who isn’t so lucky, commits herself to keeping Clark and the rest of the airport safe. Using her resources as a logistics expert and her empathy as a child of tragedy, Miranda contacts the pilot of the small aircraft that’s been idling outside Severn City and convinces him to keep his doors sealed and save the rest of the airport from the plague. The strange connection between the pilot and Miranda (that he is named after the hurricane that killed her entire family) is the most far-fetched of Station Eleven’s thematic coincidences, but it works here because Danielle Deadwyler’s performance is simply undeniable. Despite being featured in only two out of ten chapters, she is the muscle that binds the entire series. Miranda leaves behind more than her art to the survivors at the Severn City Airport. Their very lives are her legacy.
Maybe it’s the contrast of Miranda’s bittersweet final hours that keeps the otherwise sunny finale of Station Eleven from becoming saccharine. For a cable drama aimed at adults, an uncommon number of characters get a happy ending. War between the airport and the Prophet’s followers is averted, and Tyler returns to his flock a changed man, accompanied by his mother. (Granted, Tyler’s redemption is only narratively possible because we are five real-life weeks separated from the Pingtree suicide bombing.) Clark has lost his museum, but he still has Miles and, seemingly, his self-respect. And, of course, there’s the tearful reunion of Kirsten and Jeevan, which the storytellers withhold until just the right moment. Each resolution is executed with too much care and sincerity to dismiss as a Hollywood Ending. Or, perhaps, it’s the world into which Station Eleven was released that makes its optimism so poignant. We’re entering Year Three of our own deadly pandemic, with so many of us still isolated from or mourning our loved ones. In this drought of direct human connection, we look to the arts, not just for diversion but for meaning. Can we be moved, can we be changed, can we be redeemed by a powerful work of fiction? Can we find unity in the shared experience of theater? Can we leave something of our souls for generations, civilizations to come to explore and repurpose? Station Eleven proclaims that we can. Further, it asserts that great art is not merely an artifact to be preserved but a living companion, not only to remember but to carry forward.