It’s no surprise that The Last of Us has been a colossal hit for HBO. Based on a smash hit video game and a perfect fit for the network that made gritty adult genre television a sensation in the first place, The Last of Us hits the Game of Thrones sweet spot between mainstream and prestige television. But put aside its almost universal acclaim for a moment, because The Last of Us is not HBO’s most interesting or daring post-apocalyptic drama. That honor goes to last year’s underappreciated Station Eleven, a series with a great deal of conceptual and thematic overlap with The Last of Us, but one key distinction: While no less mature or complex, Station Eleven has the courage to be humanist and optimistic, even when facing the end of days.
Full spoilers ahead for The Last of Us, but only minor ones for Station Eleven.
The season finale of The Last of Us sees emotionally wounded father Joel (Pedro Pascal) choose the life of his surrogate daughter Ellie (Bella Ramsey) over the future of the human race, murdering an entire Firefly resistance cell that sought to harvest Ellie’s body to generate a cure for the cordyceps infection that has ravaged the planet. Though Ellie is never directly asked to consent to this operation, she has previously expressed a willingness to do whatever it takes to bring an end to the fungal holocaust into which she was born. She’s willing to sacrifice herself to save the world, but Joel isn’t willing to live without her. Thus, dozens of soldiers, the surgeon who was supposed to perform the procedure, and countless others had to die in order to keep Joel’s heart from breaking a second time. The sunniest reading of this twist ending is that it’s unconscionable to sacrifice one innocent life regardless of how many other lives it might save, or perhaps that the bond of this found family is as worthy of preservation as civilization itself. Less charitably, The Last of Us is yet another bleak representation of humanity’s selfish nature, the very thing that makes us unable to bind together to save our ecosystem before its impending collapse in the century ahead.
Shocking as this ending might have been when players first encountered it in 2013, this dark development feels sadly typical for modern prestige television. As I wrote in my review of the series, as both a game and a series, The Last of Us employs a common shortcut to add a sense of maturity to a work of genre fiction: they’re unfailingly grim. With the exception of the Jackson commune seen in Episode 6, every group of human survivors that Joel and Ellie encounter is some sort of hell, whether it be a fascist military dictatorship, an equally tarnished post-revolutionary state, or a reactionary religious cult. In the absence of modern structure and convenience, humanity has become more animalistic, cruel, and territorial. Throughout the season, Joel and Ellie are no better, rarely hesitating to blast holes in anyone they encounter (even when they themselves are the trespassers). And, finally, Joel doubles down on this view of humanity by committing mass murder in order to protect his own interests over that of the entire species.
Is it an interesting story? Does it feel true to the character? Does it fly in the face of the classic Hollywood ending? Yes to all. But it’s hardly a groundbreaking twist in the world of post-Game of Thrones TV, and in a world that feels increasingly doomed it’s worth asking what purpose it serves. Right, it’s not the responsibility of fiction to model the best in humanity, and right, representation not only isn’t endorsement, it might be critique. But harsh reflections of the apocalypse aren’t a hard sell to an audience that has seen a thousand doomsdays on TV and may make the one unfolding now seem, well, not so bad by comparison.
This is what makes Station Eleven, which premiered in December 2021, such a rare and powerful work of television. The miniseries, based on the novel by Emily St. John Mandel, centers around a deadly global pandemic and its aftermath. Like The Last of Us, it takes an extended look at an America decades after most of its people are dead and things like government, electricity, and the Internet are distant memories. There are bands of marauders and creepy, violent cults out on the road, stealing and murdering to their hearts’ content. Station Eleven, however, is not about those people. Station Eleven is about the people who have inherited the ruins of a dead civilization and said, “What can we do to make this more bearable? What comes after the end of the world?”
Its story bounces back and forth through time, from before the nightmarish outbreak to 20 years after, centering on a handful of individuals whose lives have been touched by the same work of art, a surreal graphic novel with eerie narrative parallels to the actual end of the world. Rather than focusing on the way that humanity has been splintered by disease and destruction, the series is woven out of the human connections that cannot be broken, even by death. It looks at the profound ways that acts of cruelty or kindness can reverberate across generations. Make no mistake, Station Eleven is not cozy viewing. Its depictions of its global pandemic (shot mostly before the COVID-19 outbreak) may tug at still-healing wounds or recall recent memories of loss and despair. There are a few plot twists as grim as anything seen on this season of The Last of Us. But, ultimately, showrunner Patrick Somerville and company have a far braver statement to make: That even after everything we now have is gone forever, there will still be a future.
Station Eleven is currently available to stream on HBO Max.