It’s understandable if the last thing you want to watch during a pandemic is a TV show about a world laid waste by a pandemic. But Station Eleven is the rare, perhaps the only, post-apocalyptic story that might make you feel a little bit better about the end of the world. Covering the onset of and the first 20 years after a flu outbreak that leaves only one in a thousand alive, the HBO Max series finds the people who are left not just struggling to survive but to find meaning in their new world. Two decades after the fall of civilization, the series, which was adapted by Patrick Somerville from Emily St. John Mandel’s novel, falls in with the Traveling Symphony, a group of wandering players who bring music and Shakespeare to the scattered settlements that remain. (Their leader, played by Mackenzie Davis, does a mean Hamlet, but she’s also handy with a knife.) It’s a story in which, rather than society being stripped to its bare essentials, surprising remnants of human culture remain, and Lisa Loeb’s “Stay” is passed down among the generations like a sacred text. In other words, it’s about what we’re trying to hold onto right now.
The day before the finale, Somerville, wearing a Grateful Dead hoodie for the occasion, got on Zoom to discuss making Shakespeare with Costco materials, why he decided to make certain changes to the book, and whether COVID has made him more or less confident that the apocalypse might end well. (This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.)
Sam Adams: Station Eleven is radically different from Emily St. John Mandel’s source novel. You overlap and expand storylines, even in some cases change whether characters live or die. What was the first thing you knew you needed to change?
Patrick Somerville: I had a couple of hazy intuitions about what it needed to do in order to work as a television show. The first one was, I ended up phrasing it, “All roads had to lead to the airport.” Unlike the way Emily deployed it, one step at a time, I was really interested in seeing the Symphony, the cult, and the museum all collapsed into one space, to watch the various conflicts that existed between those three points of view play out—at the human level, at the character level, but at the ideological level too. And also, if you make TV, if you’re going to build an airport, you better get your money’s worth.
It just felt like there was an opportunity for more confrontation between the people who had things in common for rich drama to play out. The other thing that we really wanted to do was expand Jeevan’s role in the story somehow. He’s a very memorable character in the novel, but he’s very much in his head. You need someone to talk to someone. It just very naturally presented itself as a way to both deepen young Kirsten, enrich the story of the 80 days trapped in the apartment, and possibly make it not three forces that unite at the end, but maybe there would be a way for a fourth force, Jeevan in year 20, to somehow end up at that airport too. We had a mini [writers] room that was just two weeks in the early days, and we left the mini room with those insights, but without knowing how we were going to do any of that.
That changes the story on a structural and technical level. Did it change what the story was about for you?
It made it easier for me to see what the story was about, but I would say that it’s in harmony with Emily’s novel. Thinking about not Frank and Jeevan alone in the apartment, but Frank, Kirsten, and Jeevan alone in the apartment, that story in the novel was about repairing old wounds, reinvestigating old dynamics, looking at hard decisions, but also reviving a love. And it’s about family-making. So we made adjustments to make a vacuum for young Kirsten to step into, like, “There’s a missing person here and it’s our sister, but we happen to have a young child. We know what to do.” I think that’s very much the book: How do you rebuild? It’s a very common thing to say “chosen family” now, in the last 10 years especially, and it’s a powerful idea, but I find it to be a hard idea too, one that requires a little bit more investigation than simply saying, “Here I am with my friends.” It’s not so easy to be in any family, even if it’s a chosen family. So you fight in your chosen family, too, and I liked the idea that we could tell a story about a chosen family—or not exactly chosen, but a remade family—but make it clear that you still fight with your siblings in a chosen family, and that’s OK.
The premise of Station Eleven is unavoidably bleak. You’re talking about a pandemic that wipes out 99.99 percent of human life. But even from the first shot of the overgrown theater, there’s an almost bucolic quality to “post-pan” life.
I should say, Sam, you know those pigs ate all those people at that theater.
I mean, sure.
Don’t get too sunny and optimistic.
It’s a good apocalypse for the pigs, at least. But there is hope even for the humans. You said in one of HBO’s after-the-episode videos that the apocalypse itself is not good, but what it brings out in people is good.
There’s a balance that often gets lost in this genre, and I have to overstate it sometimes and say “a post-apocalyptic show about joy.” But actually I think the wonderful balance that’s in the novel that we try to do is to say, “Sometimes the apocalypse is happening at a cocktail party with seven people, and the stakes are the end of the world there, in the before, and sometimes you can fall in love in the after, and the stakes are tremendous there.” It’s all about scale and stakes to me. The genre tends to confuse those two things. And I’m more like, “The world can end anywhere at any scale emotionally for a person, and someone can save the world with a phone call.”
It’s the dramatic version of—and here I am, paraphrasing Joseph Stalin—the idea that one death is a tragedy and millions is a statistic.
Well, of course he said that. But Terry even says it in [Episode] 9: “A big pile of bodies in the employee parking lot.” We didn’t want to make a show that looked at a big pile of bodies. And if that many billions of people die between the first and second episode of your show, that is enough death. How can you do that and then keep mining death as the source of drama for the rest of the way?
You do keep a balance. There is optimism in the show, even sentimentality, but it’s hard-earned. Anyone who has seen a TV show before can tell you that Kirsten and Jeevan will be reunited after being separated for years, but right up until it happened, I felt like there was a chance it wouldn’t.
Oh, I love it. You weren’t quite sure?
No. I wanted it, obviously. I’m not made of stone. But it felt like there was a distinct possibility you’d just do the melancholic ships-passing-in-the-night thing.
The extremely high-taste academic side of all of us would have begrudgingly accepted the near-miss at the end. But I’m the most cynical teddy bear you’ve ever met. I want to get to a hug with people crying as the end of every story. But in Episode 10, for example, I don’t think that would’ve been fair unless I also had to listen to Miranda talk a captain into sealing a number of people into a plane to die who didn’t deserve to be sealed into a plane to die. That part, to me, is one of the most brutal truths of the show. When she’s at the door and we’re hearing Captain Hugo say, “They don’t deserve it.” And she looks right back at Dr. Eleven and says, “You’re right. They don’t deserve it.” And then says nothing more. It’s so hard to say a true thing like that and not follow up. Just say, “They died and they didn’t deserve it.”
With COVID, too, we want to find a way to blame it on something. And we want to find a way to honor who we’ve lost, and we want to find a way to understand it, but there is not an answer sometimes. It felt like that [scene] is earning the ability to cry at the end, and to have such a sweetness between Jeevan and Kirsten as they’re saying goodbye in the lush forest. You can’t do one without the other. I think I’d call bullshit on myself if I did.
One of the things I did after I finished Station Eleven was go back to the very beginning and look at the opening images, where we see not just a theater overgrown with weeds but a program for Arthur Leander’s King Lear, the one he dies performing, lying in a puddle. Obviously, theater, or at least Shakespeare, survives in your world. But theaters do not. Art survives, but it mutates. That’s in the novel, but it almost feels like the spine of the series: You have Lear in the first episode and Hamlet in the last, and the Traveling Symphony’s motto, taken from an episode of Star Trek: Voyager: “Survival is insufficient.” What was important about that theme for you?
I think there’s a nugget of very important truth somewhere in the idea that art persists. But it’s like the chosen family thing for me, like “Can we investigate this a little bit? Because, no, it doesn’t.” Or why? Or “Shakespeare is incredibly boring to me.” I was an English major, so I had to take Shakespeare, but I read it as a text. I was not a theater person. So yes, a professor can escort me through the incredible figurative language and explain to me the meaning of this or that. But I don’t think, when I was in college, I was feeling very much, other than some combination of awe and boredom. Before this project, if I closed my eyes and thought of Shakespeare, I would think of a gigantic book that I had to buy, a hard cover, really heavy with very thin pages, and that was not where I wanted to go. I think my asterisk on the sentence is, “art persists, because humans persist, and humans continue communicating, and that’s all art is.” Art is trying to communicate really, really, really well.
My guard automatically goes up when I read a story by a person who tells stories for a living that concludes, what’s really important is this thing that I do.
Oh, I know. My God. I remember when, I used to teach creative writing, and of course, you teach Ulysses and “Araby.” But after a couple cycles of that class, I’m like, OK, this is an amazing story. But also, this is not exactly accessible to 19-year-old undergrads. Yes, we can get there. But I was like, “Would you guys ever tell ‘Araby’ around a campfire?” Literary fiction has a habit, I think, of getting quite preoccupied with its own style and its own subtlety. But the folk of storytelling really has been stripped out of the genre in the 20th century. That’s OK. I love “Araby.” I love very high-minded, incredibly opaque short stories. But I also love folk music. I love ghost stories around campfires, too. And I think part of this project was to remember both of those things as much as we could, both in what we were showing, and in how we were telling the story. It needed to be fun to watch. If you’re going to try to sell a bill of goods about art, you need to make it actually entertaining and fun too.
You have a world where Shakespeare persists, but so does Bill Pullman’s monologue from Independence Day.
And so does Parliament.
Of course. We’re not worth saving otherwise. I know Arthur’s King Lear, which features child versions of his adult daughters, was based on a real production that Emily St. John Mandel saw. But I’m curious about the Traveling Symphony’s Hamlet, especially the costumes: Gertrude has this huge May Queen headdress and Hamlet wears a jacket that has about a dozen stuffed arms protruding from the back. What inspired those?
It was just a very conceptual undertaking right the start, and Helen Huang and her team had exactly the right approach, which was exactly the same conceptually as Ruth Ammon, our production designer, which was, it’s not a destroyed world. It is an empty world. There are Cotscos full of product. There are shipping containers full of all of our stuff. There’s stuff around. It didn’t get hoarded and taken because there weren’t enough people. So stuff’s around, but it’s probably deteriorated and weathered and you’ve got to work with what’s around. That was the spirit of every department’s way of getting into this. With that idea in place, Helen and her team took a look back at, “What did it look like when Shakespeare was being put on in 1590 or whatever? What were they doing? OK, now, what if we took only what is in a CVS and then tried to do what they were doing?” You know that scene in Apollo 13 when Gary Sinise is down on the ground with a bunch of engineers and he takes out a box and says, “OK, this is what they have. How do you solve the problem with only this?” That was the starting place for all our departments about where design came from. Lisa Layman, our makeup artist, found out how they used to make makeup in 1590 and then made it out of things that she could find at a Walgreen’s. Everybody was all in on staying true to the idea, and I think you can feel it. It populates the frame of the screen, even in the background. That’s a tremendous amount of work with all our departments, trying to stay true to the one idea of the show.
You mentioned Parliament, and music is one of the things that persists, in many different forms: the Traveling Symphony’s music, the conductor’s CD, the karaoke machine, even Liszt sheet music. How did you think about the role music had to play in this world?
I remember early on, trying to imagine this world where everyone who survived was alone to start, and just walking around in those first days like strangers. If you come upon another stranger, this is a big deal. They’re probably also by themselves, and you’re going to have to decide what you’re going to do as you approach each other on the road. What I described is when we were selling the show, I was like, “Imagine a holster with two sides. Some people have two guns in their holsters. Some people have one gun and one harmonica, because if they see someone else with a harmonica, instead of killing each other, they can sit down and play songs together. And then some people probably have two harmonicas, and they’re quite vulnerable if they run into a two-gun person.” You know what I mean?
You do not want to bring two harmonicas to a gun fight.
No. I love folk music. I play it too. We actually wrote seven folk songs, Dan Romer and I, our composer. A few of them are in the show, but all of them are on the soundtrack. And I love folk music because of the word, folk. This is just the situation that often people encountered in 1825, walking down a mountain trail. You could find a person who you didn’t know who knew a song you knew. There’s that moment at the beginning of [Episode] 2 when Kirsten’s really hurt and she comes upon the Conductor. The Conductor’s a holster–harmonica person. And she’s like, “I’ll kill you but—but if you’re into art, maybe we can talk.” I just think that it’s true in 2022 as well. You meet a person, size each other up, and it’s like, “Are you like me? OK, we can talk.”
There’s an interesting dialogue in the show going on between art and knowledge and technology. You blow up the Museum of Civilization.
Tyler did. I didn’t.
OK, not you personally. But you let it happen. And the museum is mostly technological artifacts: It’s iPhones and gaming consoles. But in the last episode, there’s still Shakespeare and people teaching science, and there’s “Midnight Train to Georgia,” and tubas—
And keytars. My question is, it seemed like the show was going in the direction that society can be rebuilt, but you have to tear it all down first. And that’s not quite where it ends up.
We’re a little sloppier than that. We’re a little bit more like, “Some of this and some of that.” I think Clark and Tyler are fundamentalists in their point of view, and the artists are the ones who straddle the before and the after, and the show naturally is aligned with the artists ideologically. The Conductor doesn’t care that she’s writing her score on a keytar. She’s using what’s available to compose an incredibly complicated piece of music. I think it’s awesome when you see kids playing drums on a bucket in the subway, and they’re so much better than you could ever be at playing, even if you’ve got a great fucking drum kit.
It’s good to be reminded that all technology is humans solving a problem. When I first read that book, I finished it and I was like, “This book is about the internet.” I felt like Emily was perceiving this thing that was happening around 2014 that was unsaid and still is in some ways. I think we’ve invented the greatest piece of technology we’ve ever invented, and I don’t think we actually realize that right now. It’s so easy to be the person in the conversation like, “Man, I don’t want cell phones.” Or it’s so easy to be the person in the conversation that’s like, “I didn’t know how to live until the internet existed. How could you live without that?” It’s so easy to say it’s the worst thing that ever happened or the best thing that ever happened, but the pandemic showed this for us. It saved us, but it harmed us. And it continues. Everyone’s fractured and everyone’s siloed, and the way that information selectively flows to different people is extremely dangerous for democracy. And yet we didn’t go crazy during the pandemic because we could see each other and play games with each other. There isn’t a yes or a no. This is what it is now. The only thing that we can do is use it in a better way, and be aware of how it’s integrating into our consciousness.
There’s that moment where Alex, who’s a “post-pan,” is playing with a dead iPhone, and is like “OK, so I call a car to take me anywhere, and then I talk to anyone, anywhere in the world.”
It sounds like magic. It doesn’t sound real.
And my thought was, “Well, yeah, but no one wants to talk on the phone.”
Kirsten even says it right there. She’s like, “They weren’t that great.” It’s like, “Hey, there’s magic. It used to exist and it’s gone now.” And you’re like, “Oh, I wish I could have lived there.” And it’s like, “It sucked.”
The good news is we’re all connected to each other all the time. The bad news is we’re all connected to each other all the time. Our brains aren’t built to handle that.
It’s just like sugar.
Speaking of connections, Station Eleven is a show that rewards careful watching and rewatching, which will tell you who Alex’s mother is, or where the Deborah in St. Deborah by the Water came from. But there are other things, like the Conductor’s struggle to play Liszt’s “La Campanella,” and the sheet music to that song being on a piano in Frank’s apartment building with “It’s impossible” scrawled on it—that seem more open to interpretation. How much did you intend for the viewer to connect those dots?
I’ll be honest. I never once thought “La Campanella” being on the piano in [Episode] 7 would insinuate that, that’s where Sarah used to live. I’m just like, “This is a really famous piece of music that everyone thinks is impossible.” Not to mention the fact that whoever lived in that apartment seems to have thrown themselves out the window. I don’t mean to pop anyone’s bubbles also, because there are many of those that are very much like, “Maybe, maybe not.” There’s a birth certificate in [Episode] 9 that pretty clearly states the name of that baby born, that Jeevan participated in delivering, and I’m like, “That’s that baby.” But there’s a lot of big question marks that I want to be there, like, there was a chemical fire, OK. Who lit that? The “La Campanella” one surprised me a bit, but it’s fair game, I get it. When we’re trying to circle back and make connections, we run the risk. But I guess I would say about that one, there’s a big hole in the window for a reason.
You shot two episodes before COVID shut down production, and then finished the show in the middle of the pandemic. Did that change anything for you?
I think you’ll relate to this because everyone will: It changed because I changed. And it changed because we changed. We had our story points and our guiding lights and our north stars, starting with that hug and starting with “All roads lead to the airport.” But I think it’s in the inflection and the spirit, and you can feel it in the actors, too. When we got back together in Canada in January 2021, we had all just lived that year and not seen anyone or done anything or been together. So even though it felt like a sci-fi prison to be standing on set with our masks and our zones and our protocols, I got to listen to Matilda [Lawler] sing “The First Noel” with a bunch of people together, all of us listening, and the whole crew burst into tears. We got to be together and work, which was really pretty special. It was really hard, too, and it’s hard to make a TV show, but it changed because we changed.
We started with the idea that the apocalypse might bring out the best in some people. After two years of COVID, do you feel more or less secure in that conclusion?
More. I feel like it’s amazing how strong we can become after absorbing something awful. It’s not necessarily true that we do. In a time like now—I won’t say it’s the end of the pandemic, I’ll say it’s the back half—I think that we have a tendency to underestimate our own strength, because we’re tired. But I think we’ve changed. We’ve been hurt, but we have new armor and resources inside of us now, and those new tools we have are going to be the things that we use to overcome scary things happening with democracy and to better understand the internet and to more aggressively communicate in the right way at the right time about what matters. It’s not necessarily true that you’re going to survive a pandemic, but I do think the new version of us on the other end of it is going to be better equipped to tackle some of the problems that were latent right before COVID came. That’s my hope.