The Airborne Toxic Event

I watched Station Eleven. I do not think it is any good, but we’ll come to that later. Here is what it is about.

The story begins in Chicago. We find out we are on the eve of the outbreak of a deadly flu pandemic that will kill most of the world’s population. Although dates are not given explicitly in the on-screen captions that indicate time-shifts, we can infer this occurred in 2020 from the apparent timeline painted on the walls of the “Museum Of Civilisation” we see in later episodes.

In Chicago, Jeevan is present at a performance of King Lear. The lead is played by big movie star Arthur Leander, trying to prove he can do Serious Theatre and Shakespeare and all that, although Lear is an odd choice for an actor under 50 feeling insecure. Surely Coriolanus would be a better vehicle for showing you have deep thoughts about present-day politics. Arthur drops dead with a heart attack on stage anyway. Jeevan rushes on to assist despite not actually being a doctor or knowing anything medical beyond recognising someone in trouble. Backstage he meets the child actress Kirsten Raymonde. In a sequence of events that is poorly explained and rather creepy, Jeevan takes Kirsten home to stay with him at his brother’s flat. Along the way they stop at a supermarket to stock up on emergency food supplies so they can isolate during the crisis that is unfolding on the news. Oddly, no one else seems to have had that idea.

There are many flashbacks and flashforwards in this story, and only occasionally is it indicated how much further or back we’ve gone. We do find out that in the days before the performance Kirsten was given one of the few copies of Station Eleven, a graphic novel written and self-published by Miranda Carroll, Arthur’s first wife. In addition to being a brilliant illustrator she also has a major job in international logistics and is travelling on business in Malaysia when the crisis breaks.

Station Eleven apparently tells a story of an astronaut returning to Earth in the wake of a global catastrophe and… acting as some of messianic, inspirational figure, we may presume. There is a point where Kirsten explains that the plot involves a timeloop, and that the astronaut returning was in fact a young girl elsewhere in the story. Rather obviously it has an influence on the young people who read it at the time of the pandemic, which includes not just Kirsten but also Tyler, the son of Arthur from his second marriage to a successful actress. Tyler and his mum are stranded at an airport near Chicago at the time of the disaster, along with Clark Thompson, another actor who was best mates with Arthur but they fell apart as the latter got more successful and got married.

We don’t see much of the years after, although we are told there was a period during which “Red Bandana” bandits roamed the land. It seems some of them are still active in the world of 2040, where we spend a lot of time with the “Travelling Symphony”, who go around the area putting on musical and dramatic performances. Kirsten is older and now part of the company. There has been a new generation born since the pandemic, they are curious about “pre-pan” life, such as the ubiquity of smartphones and the internet. Various groups are surviving amongst the wreckage of the old world, and they seem to be doing quite well at it. Inevitably there is a ground-based messianic figure called “The Prophet” out and about, and I’m not spoiling things by revealing that he’s just Tyler 20 years older since that’s such an obvious plot twist once we’d had a sequence interleaving scenes of the sullen young boy at the airport and the wild-eyed beardy guy loose in the countryside.

I understand Station Eleven is loved and admired by a lot of people who watched it. Here’s why I feel strongly that it is garbage. I am only responding to the screen adaptation, I don’t know the source book and I’m not interested.

First of all, I assume we are to take it that this is a future history of the world. It is not a dying vision or shared illusion amongst a small scattered group who did not last much beyond that first winter time. If that is the set-up then it is not established clearly, although the scenes where Miranda meets the astronaut from her book are her own imaginative/hallucinatory experience; the appearance of astronaut figures amongst the child folllowers of The Prophet presumably also represent his mythical importance to them. All of the scenes around the Museum have the same mundane tone and rendering as they did when it was a transport hub in 2020. If this is a dream it is a very dull one.

So if this is a story of an ecological disaster, like Survivors or The Death Of Grass, then the progression of the killing effect is very odd. Unlike Survivors there is no claim that the Survivors are the minority who were able to withstand the infection – which means they have no special immunity, and will be vulnerable to it when they try to move around in the new world and scavenge supplies. That in itself raises a big problem about how any viable numbers last beyond the first year. The infection seems to be so virulent that it spreads and kills astonishingly quickly, but we never have a problem that our survivors may be carriers and latent killers themselves.

Unlike Survivors there is absolutely no origin story for the virus, not even one given to the viewers but not the characters. That’s not a problem, but it is extremely odd that no one ever wonders about this major new disruption, or spread rumours about what caused it. That doesn’t match the lived experience of the actual pandemic of 2020. Perhaps part of the appeal of this show is that it gives an instant alt-history in which our better selves were heroically on display; the selfish baddies absented themselves from the plot quickly and discreetly.

The shutdown of modern comforts is portrayed unevenly. Electricity and the internet stop, but what about sewage and water supplies? How long could people survive in an apartment together once those systems failed, and what about secondary outbreaks of other illnesses triggered by the failures of the main ones? There is never any suggestion of water rationing, and the world of 2040 seems to be one where everyone gets washed and has reasonably clean clothes long, long after organised industrial society became defunct. Surely after 20 years it would be necessary to go further afield in search for petrol or battery supplies, but we never hear that the airport-dwellers are doing so.

The core problems are these characters and their place in their world. Station Eleven is a story of the comfortable, globetrotting cultural elite. It turns out that even a collapse of the world economy does not disrupt their lives of vapid indulgence; they can even hold on to their roles as dispensers of feel-good inspirational public speaking and lifestyle tips. They don’t have to start worrying about who unblocks the toilets; there’s this one guy in airport security who knows technical stuff and he fixes everything for 20 years, somehow. The exact detail of how food and other supplies are maintained, once there are no longer reserves in cities to be pillaged, is not on the agenda. We can carry on putting on rather pretentious Shakespeare adaptations (why not evolve a new post-pandemic drama, which the kids can participate in creating?) and devote space to curating collections of non-functional artefacts; it’s a mystery why they don’t start their own literary festival. The nearest this tale gets to self-consciousness is when Tyler’s mum sees him looking at the wikipedia article about capitalism and she tells him it will be back anyway. Indeed, it never goes away for these people. They are always living a life where they all know each other and can fix things with a private phone call from across the world.

Having a production of Hamlet performed by the travelling players with Tyler in the title role is a rather obvious way to extend the theme that narratives shape the lives of readers (which is what the comic book is doing in this world) but it also emphasises what a petty and silly little princeling The Prophet was and hasn’t grown out of being. He was absorbed in his smartphone, but we never saw any sign of him being superintelligent or remarkable in any way; it is a feature of his middlingly wealthy background that the kids are just assumed to be special without needing to show distinction. Miranda has a backstory of being a hurricane survivor, but it’s all part of a personal brand in a culture where everyone sees themselves as an “achiever” overcoming adversity rather than just the recipient of good fortune. Clark has done well for himself despite his self-pity. The physical appearance he grows into would make him ideal lead for a new production of Lear, but oddly that particular symmetry is not pursued in this story.

Overall this is as deep as an inspirational poster in a call centre, a message of Holding Together and Believing In The Dream or the fantasy or something, very thin spiritual gruel when there’s no dimension of other-worldly salvation and we’re just waiting for a man in a costume to turn up and no one knows what an actual Prophet or Messiah would do. Having plinky-plonk incidental music and lots of staring into the middle distance can only be appreciated by an observer outside the narrative universe.

In some ways Station Eleven is an extended, summertime version of Quintet (1979), with the same problems but lacking the magical mystery of the set designs. There is no more hard science or realism here than in The Bed Sitting Room and it would be better in every way if we had the Travelling Symphony going around a dreamlike desert landscape. But altogether this is not as good as The Last Train, and I wish that was re-released or remade, to get as much attention.

“The Airborne Toxic Event” was a chapter title in White Noise by Don Delillo, a novel about a successful phoney who doesn’t get his comeuppance; it was also taken as a name by a band whose music might have been the sound that Sarah the composer wanted to create.

One thought on “The Airborne Toxic Event

  1. Set designs were the only redeeming feature to QUINTET, it has to be said, although it sounds a masterpiece compared with this drivel.

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