Station Eleven: The Virtue of Being an Artist and Answering Death with Beauty
** Spoiler Alert: This article contains spoilers for Station Eleven **
Beauty Worth Surviving For, Beauty That Feeds You
At the heart of the ten-episode series Station Eleven is a conflict between two instincts about the world as it is—between the affirmation of Life as a whole (the good and the bad together), and the negation of Life in protest of its dark and painful underbelly (better to let it all burn).
Affirmation wins: the victor of Station Eleven is neither its devastating global pandemic nor its pyromaniac prophet of nihilism, but the artists—the writers, painters, actors, singers, musicians, composers, and costume designers who find fragments of beauty in the post-apocalyptic mess, and reassemble the world, piece by piece.
This artistic affirmation of Life, while rooted in memory, isn’t about preserving the past behind glass, but about making meaning in the present. According to philosopher Marshall McLuhan, “Art is not a retrieval system of precious moments of past cultures. Art has a live, ongoing function.” Although meaningful “in itself” and not for its utility, art was never meant for mere display, as in a gallery. Museums that house historical “prestige objects ” are quite modern inventions: they are cemeteries for dead liturgical things we cannot meaningfully use—the places where art goes to be looked upon as it lies “in state” (the Museum of Civilization in Station Eleven represents this backward-looking, preservative attitude).
But living art that is still in circulation is meant for something other than observation and nostalgia; it invites participation in a higher purpose as an organ of perception, helping people to see and celebrate reality. The word “art” comes from a root that means “to fit together.” In the words of Orthodox icon carver Jonathan Pageau,
You don’t ‘make art,’ you use art to make things . . . Art is the skill, art is the capacity you have mastered to make an object. So then that object needs to have a function in the world. It needs to be integrated within a purpose.
Art—as both a beautiful, purposeful object and the living skill of fitting pieces together—is what makes the story of Station Eleven so profoundly hopeful. Art is the way these characters take their suffering and work with it, kneading it like dough, until it yields under their skilled hands and becomes something nourishing, shareable, and communally enriching, something that is “worth surviving for,” that “would feed you,” in the words of main actor Mackenzie Davis. Artists take the world’s dark underbelly and manage somehow to rearrange the pieces into the makings of a festival.
This is true of the Traveling Symphony within the story, and it’s also true of Station Eleven’s creators, cast, and crew who crafted this pandemic tale during a real-world pandemic that surprised and interrupted their plans. The “meta” nature of their endeavor—of answering death with beauty—was ever-present in their minds, as life imitated art.
“Just Tryin’ to Make the World Make Sense for a Minute”
The graphic novel Station Eleven, which becomes the “Bible” of this series and gives the show its name, was written and drawn by Miranda Carroll (Danielle Deadwyler). When she was a child, Miranda’s entire family was killed in hurricane Hugo, electrocuted by a live wire that struck the water submerging their home. She alone survived—up on the countertop high and dry, coloring with crayons. What saved her by chance as a child is the very practice that heals and homes her as an adult: creating pictures that mean something, that make the world make sense for a minute.
Although Miranda herself dies in the pandemic that serves as the show’s tragic premise, her brilliant graphic novel lives on in the possession of two traumatized children (Kirsten and Tyler) who rely on its wisdom as the world disintegrates around them. “When I read it, it didn’t matter that the world was ending, because it was the world,” Kirsten (Mackenzie Davis) says in Year Twenty after the crisis, remembering her eight-year-old obsession with Station Eleven. Its words (decades later) could still flow over her tongue with the consoling immediacy of the Hail Mary or the Our Father. Station Eleven was truly “alive,” integrated within a higher purpose as a liturgical script for grief, anger, terror, despair, loneliness, hope, connection, and comfort, like a pocket-sized book of Psalms.
Young Kirsten (Matilda Lawler) even wrote a play based on the death scene from Miranda’s novel, and performed it with her adult caregivers Jeevan and Frank Chaudhary. Their little family drama not only provided the brothers a chance to say goodbye to each other using Miranda’s poignant words, but also gave Kirsten the chance to practice being the monster she would need to become to survive on her own (quite presciently, she casts herself as the killer).
When Kirsten meets “the Conductor” Sarah (Lori Petty) in Year Two, she is invited into the nomadic life of a Shakespearean acting troupe which circles Lake Michigan performing a different play each year. “We’re the Traveling Symphony. We travel for a reason,” Sarah explains. “We burn the house down, and then we go! Just tryin’ to make the world make sense for a minute. You know, they blame you if you stay, but they love you—like you saved ’em—when you come back.” Sarah understands that the feast-and-fasting, cyclical-and-celebratory nature of the musical drama they share with the community is what keeps their art fresh. By always moving on (yet always coming back), they cultivate their audience’s anticipation, giving them something to look forward to, providing a festive occasion to an otherwise difficult life of manual labor.
In the post-pan world, Shakespeare doesn’t exist as a book of plays collecting dust; his work isn’t passively consumed through screens and headphones, or studied by experts in graduate programs (all of which are gone). Shakespeare is a verb: it’s something these people do. His spirit is embodied by this motley crew of actors and musicians, dressed in costumes made from supplies you’d find at Costco, using props scavenged from abandoned settlements. Shakespeare is the highlight of the year for regular folks—a festival commenced by the arrival of the Symphony’s horse-drawn caravan, as their tuba player belts out “Give Up The Funk,” and crowds gather to wave and welcome them in. The pandemic may have killed 99.99% of humanity, but Shakespeare is very much alive.
“Survival Is Insufficient”
The verbal and visual art of Miranda’s graphic novel, and the dramatic art of Hamlet, are accompanied by a series of beautiful and spontaneous songs that grace the story. In episode two (“A Hawk from a Handsaw”), we are granted a seat around the Traveling Symphony’s campfire as they relax and mingle with their hosts, and strike up what can only be described as a hootenanny:
There ain’t no movies
On a silver screen
There ain’t no television
Playing scene after scene
There ain’t no metro
With a rock ’n’ roll band
But come on darlin’, grab my hand…
’Cause we can go wandering under the moon
The stars are brighter now after the doom
Cell phones and tablets—they won’t be back soon
So we can go wandering under the moon
The musicians make a list of their losses, hang them on a tune, and—in a light-hearted rebuttal of death’s damage—decide that maybe things are kinda better now than they were before. Maybe joy is still possible after suffering (as long as there’s a hand to grab, folks to join you on the chorus, and a backup trombone).
This intuition that joy is inextinguishable, that Life deserves a round of applause no matter what hell it puts you through, is seen vividly in episode seven (“Goodbye My Damaged Home”), which flashes back to young Kirsten, Jeevan (Himesh Patel), and Frank (Nabhaan Rizwan) barricaded in an apartment during the first one hundred days of the pandemic—an anxiety-ridden and horrifying time.
When Kirsten discovers that everyone she ever knew and loved is dead, amidst tears and screams she gropes for comfort: “I don’t even know how many days it is until Christmas!” she confesses. Jeevan and Frank are unsure how best to console her, but they do have a calendar (it’s eleven days till Christmas); they have colorful lights they can string up, ugly Christmas sweaters for all three of them to wear, and plenty of wrapping paper and eggnog. The attempt at festivity is nearly destroyed by the drone of the last remaining newscaster—“Chicago isn’t Chicago anymore. It’s just 2.5 million bodies…”—until Jeevan turns off the TV, and they sit in their sadness. Kirsten breaks the silence with “The First Noel,” and somehow manages to smile while singing. And into the darkness of that dead city, Christ comes. Jeevan isn’t the only one who gets teary hearing Kirsten’s voice: according to the show’s creator Patrick Sommerville, the whole crew filming the scene also burst into tears.
Another occasion of joy breaking in had the cast and crew not crying, but dancing: “It’s real. It’s a way to stay hot,” Frank tells Jeevan and Kirsten in all seriousness, before busting out in a spontaneous rap cover of “Excursions” (by A Tribe Called Quest) which gets them all out of their huddled, frozen seats to laugh and dance together around the dining room table.
Get in a zone of positivity
’Cause we gotta strive for longevity
Frank, usually quiet and reserved, seizes the moment to utter his unambiguous, full-throated Yes! to Life, and to bring his family into that rhythm with him. At this point in the story, he’s probably realized that, given their scant resources and his crippled leg, Jeevan and Kirsten will both have a better chance of surviving if he sacrifices himself and stays behind when it’s time to move on. And still, he blesses them with a dance party.
Surrounded by death and loss, these two songs—one of God’s visitation and the other of human aspiration—punctuate the darkness with light, and bring warmth to the paralyzing chill of a Chicago winter without electricity. Kirsten and Frank don’t create this music themselves (unlike the Traveling Symphony and their newly-minted folk songs), but they take traditions, both old and new, and pull them into the present moment. They affirm the goodness of being alive, even when all they can see around them is damage. The Traveling Symphony’s slogan—“Survival Is Insufficient”—forms the wellspring of festivity, not only for the troupe, but for that isolated trio who reached out for beauty and held on for dear life.
“This Strange and Awful Time Was the Happiest of My Life”
In the slim volume In Tune with the World: A Theory of Festivity, Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper writes that there is a many-stranded relationship linking the arts to festivity, and that underlying all festive joy in particular circumstances is
an absolutely universal affirmation extending to the world as a whole, to the reality of things and the existence of man himself . . . the prime festive occasion, which alone can ultimately justify all celebration, really exists; that . . . at bottom everything that is, is good, and it is good to exist.
This must be the paradoxical conclusion that Christians come to, for the God who is “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world” (Rev. 13:8 NKJV) and died on the cross for us, is the same God who saw everything He had made and declared it “good.” This is ultimately the higher purpose that all living art is integrated with: delight in the beauty God has made, and delight in participating in His patterned world in such a way that even darkness and death are “metabolized” into the Whole, rather than being granted the power to destroy the Whole. As the resurrection of Jesus Christ shows us, death is not avoided, but accepted and then transcended. Death and hell are destroyed from the inside out.
“The whole world is an organic unity,” Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck wrote, “upheld by one thought, led by one will, directed to one goal . . . a building that grows and a body that is built. It is a work of art from the Supreme Artist and from the Master Builder of the universe.” To recognize ourselves as a small part of that organic unity—as works of art who can make works of art—provides us with a meaning that no amount of suffering and loss can take away, and that even nonbelievers can participate in without (yet) recognizing the holy ground they’re standing on. As Frank says on the day of his death, quoting Station Eleven for Kirsten’s play, “This strange and awful time was the happiest of my life.” Strange, awful, and happy can somehow co-exist (without canceling each other out) when they are incorporated into a beautiful whole. That skilled “fitting together” of disparate pieces is what art is.
The cast and crew of Station Eleven developed a practice that skillfully fitted together their creative task of making this show with the sad and scary fact of COVID-19. Main actor Mackenzie Davis initiated a weekly, face-to-face moment of connection and celebration for the otherwise masked and distanced coworkers. Station Eleven embodied beautiful patterns both on screen and behind the scenes. As cinematographer Steve Cosens describes,
[W]e would all stand in a big circle . . . somebody would step into the middle of the ring and remove their mask so that people, the whole crew, could see what their face looked like. Because we were all of course totally covered. Everybody would, you know, you’d get in the middle, you’d be all shy and self-conscious and you’d take your mask off. And everybody would applaud, and then you put your mask back on and go on with the day. But we started to do that every Friday and it was such a beautiful thing that [Mackenzie] initiated, and it really made us all realize just also the value of connecting with each other.
To greet the face of another person with applause—to make the revelation of another’s smile a nigh-liturgical act—is a creative way to turn separation into communion, to turn the “relational fast” of pandemic restrictions and isolation into a festive circle. The sorrow is simultaneously accepted and transcended by a beautiful new pattern. Affirmation wins.
When chaos, pain, or death break apart the pattern of our living, of our family, of our home, of our society, the way we cope is to establish a new pattern out of the pieces. We take what is ready-to-hand and arrange it just so to create meaning and beauty again; or we inhabit and “put on” the words and creations of others who have done this beauty-making work before us and entrust our hearts to their wisdom. That’s why a song can heal you, a movie can remake you, a book, a poem, a liturgy, or a painting can stitch you back together. As Sommerville said, “[A]rt can hold and help people [even when] the author of the art isn’t there.” There’s no knowing what healing and joy you’ve brought to others (unknown to you in this life) through something beautiful you have made.
As Anglican priest Tish Warren Harrison writes, “Beauty doesn’t take away the pain of suffering or vulnerability,” nor does it “resolve our questions or tie anything up in a nice metaphysical bow,” but it can be enough to get us through the next hour, to enable us to hold a painful mystery without hating it. And maybe, just maybe, it can open a crack large enough for joy to get a foot in the door. He’s always there, knocking (Rev. 3:20).
This was the last of a four-part series on Station Eleven. In case you missed them, read the intro and my take on the other primary virtues of the show: helping even when you don’t know what you’re doing, and risky hospitality.