This article contains spoilers for Station Eleven.
“I’ve been adrift in the strangest galaxy for a long time. But I’m safe now. I found it again. My home.” – Dr. Eleven
It’s not an original observation that many, if not most, good stories are about stories themselves. After all, they say “write about what you know” and what does a storyteller know if not the power of story?
Even with that in mind, however, HBO Max’s Station Eleven is really about stories. Station Eleven, which just premiered its brilliant finale on Jan. 13, began on Dec. 16 with the end of everything. Starting with a superflu that kills seemingly more than 99% of humanity, the series immediately confronts viewers with images of apocalyptic decay: empty train stations, cracked highways, and theaters drowned in jungle. The world of Station Eleven is unambiguously over.
And yet…those left carry on anyway, as human beings always seem to do. Presented with the ultimate end of the Earth’s story, the survivors just turn to other stories once again. Lead character Kirsten Raymonde (Mackenzie Davis) joins the Traveling Symphony, a caravan of performers that journeys the Great Lakes region in a wheel pattern, bringing the same old Shakespeare stories to the same old audiences year after year. In-between gigs, Kirsten reads the graphic novel “Station Eleven” over and over again, memorizing each word in her heart like they’re from the bard itself.
Even when virtually the entirety of the human population is no longer around to hear them, the stories continue. That’s because good stories never really end. Narrative deep thinkers like Dan Harmon will tell you that a proper story is literally a circle to begin with. In the works of Stephen King, stories are “Ka”, a metaphorical wheel of fate whose only purpose is to turn just like the circular path the Traveling Symphony takes every year.
This pitch perfect Station Eleven finale understands the natures of stories and circles as well as just about anything else ever has. In fact, its name is literally “Unbroken Circle.” The very first lines of the episode feature a flashback conversation between “Station Eleven” graphic novel writer Miranda Carroll (Danielle Deadwyler) and a young Kirsten.
“What kind of job do you have?” Kirsten asks Miranda.
“What does that mean?”
“It’s the path that things take from A to B.”
The path that things take from A to B aptly describes logistics, but it also describes just about everything else. Everyone starts somewhere and then ends up somewhere. More often than not, A and B are the same, it’s just the space between them that varies. “Unbroken Circle” is about coming home in one way or another, just as Miranda’s astronaut Dr. Eleven does in “Station Eleven.”
Here is how it all goes down and why both “Unbroken Circle” and Station Eleven are destined to stand the test of time like Hamlet himself.
Miranda Carroll: Logistical Hero
Just like many other episodes of Station Eleven, “Unbroken Circle” takes place in both the present and the pre-apocalyptic past. This flashback, however, is understandably the most revealing one yet. While artist and ex-wife of Arthur Leander Miranda Carroll is the literal author of the “Station Eleven” graphic novel, she’s also the metaphorical author of the events of Station Eleven.
Clark (David Wilmot), Elizabeth (Caitlin FitzGerald), Tyler (Daniel Zovatto), and the rest of the Severn City airport occupants really were set up perfectly to survive the end of the world. The airport provided plenty of food, shelter, and the potential for electricity, and was also situated on an island south of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Part of that was sheer luck. Another part of that was Miranda Carroll, as it turns out. If the Gitchegumee flight from Chicago had deplaned as planned, the citizens of the Severn City airport would have been infected with the deadly flu. The only reason they didn’t was thanks to Miranda’s intervention.
With her last breaths (and the help of her colleague Jim Felps), Miranda gets a hold of Captain Hugo Bennett, the pilot of the plane. She tells Hugo about how her family died. Hurricane Hugo flooded her home in the Virgin Islands and then an unsecured livewire electrified them all in front of her. Miranda was only spared because she was on top of a counter drawing. Now the Severn City airport can serve as the top of the counter for countless innocent lives.
And so the occupants of the plane die without setting foot back on the Earth’s soil, saving an entire civilization in the show’s most heroic act.
Little More Than Kin
In selecting a moment of climax, many post-apocalyptic stories would resort to some sort of battle or violent event. Stripped of the trappings of society, what is man if not a beast? Well, Station Eleven is obviously a little more sophisticated than that. The climax of this episode and the season at large features, what else?, a play.
The Museum of Civilization at the Severn City Airport is the most advanced and opulent location that the Traveling Symphony has visited yet. As such, they bring out the big guns for them and choose to perform Shakespeare’s most famous play: Hamlet.
While Kirsten is originally going to star in the play, she can’t help but notice there is a rare opportunity afoot. The dynamics among Clark, Elizabeth, and Tyler a.k.a. The Prophet are basically that of the central characters in Hamlet to begin with. Tyler is the brash, young prince of Denmark, Hamlet. Elizabeth is his mom Queen Gertrude. Clark is Claudius, newly-crowned king of Denmark following the death of his brother, Hamlet’s father. Taking on the role of director and casting the family as Hamlet’s leads, Kirsten is betting that the power of story will lead to a friendlier end than what awaited the real Hamlet.
Indeed it does. For while Tyler switches out a prop knife with a real knife, he cannot bring himself to kill his “uncle.” Clark whispers to Tyler that he loved his father too and decades of animosity begin to wash away. In many ways, this is more thrilling than any “final battle” could be. The camera periodically cuts to members of the audience who, watching real life ART being performed in front of them for the first time, wear expressions of rapturous joy and shock. It’s like they’re watching a miracle being performed in front of them, which in truth: they are.
Jeevan and Kirsten
Speaking of miracles, the Station Eleven finale really enjoys teasing its viewers as to whether Kirsten will meet her childhood protector Jeevan Chaudhary (Himesh Patel) again. Jeevan, now a doctor as we saw in episode 9, arrives to the airport early on to care for Clark’s burn wounds. There he also keeps vigil at Sarah’s side as she peacefully passes away.
Jeevan and Kirsten are so close to seeing each other once again. In fact, in one early scene Kirsten and Elizabeth walk past in the background as Jeevan speaks with Miles (Milton Barnes). Still, Station Eleven makes us wait until the performance of Hamlet is complete to reunite the pair.
In the original Station Eleven book written by Emily St. John Mandel, Jeevan and Kirsten don’t share nearly as much screen time. In the show, however, Jeevan’s selfless stewardship of Kirsten for years forms the emotional backbone of the entire story. As such, one can scarcely imagine a more emotional reunion than this one.
In the show’s very last scene, Kirsten and Jeevan walk down the same road together at the tail end of the Traveling Symphony as it rides off to its next destination. Kirsten and Jeevan’s paths will diverge again soon, with Kirsten carrying on to the next location on the wheel and Jeevan returning home to his children. But they’ll see each other again on The Wheel.
“Raising kids is hard, you know. Going in and out of sync. It’s like a yo-yo. You love ‘em but you get angry. You scare ‘em, they run away,” – Jeevan says.
“I was never scared with you,” Kirsten responds.
“I was always scared.”
After that moment of breathtaking honesty and vulnerability, Jeevan lets Kirsten know that he’ll tell his children they met once again. They already know all about her from the stories he’s told them. Perhaps she’ll be more real to Jeevan’s kids now but the truth is she always was. Because if we’ve learned anything from Hamlet and “Station Eleven”, stories are just as powerful as the “real” thing, perhaps moreso.
Will There Be a Station Eleven Season 2?
God, I hope not.
You may have picked up by now that this isn’t so much an “Ending Explained” as it is an opportunity to heap praise on a brilliant show while using an SEO-friendly headline to entrap unwitting readers (ha ha ha gotcha!). In truth, not much needs to be explained about Station Eleven’s ending because it’s basically perfect as is.
There are certainly opportunities for the show to continue. After all, the circle never stops and the story never truly ends. Tyler, Elizabeth, Alex (Philippine Velge), and a veritable army of youthful recruits are attempting to break the circle, heading off into the unknown – far away from the wheel and the Museum of Civilization. There is certainly a story to tell there but I would argue that it doesn’t need to be told.
Like any good logistics expert though, Station Eleven got its characters from point A to point B. Just like Jeevan did with a young Kirsten, Station Eleven walked us all home.