Now that it seems that the corona pandemic is on its last legs, the first investigative reports are starting to come out on how our administrators responded to the pandemic. What is immediately noticeable is that the approach was completely guided by what is measurable: the number of patients, the number of hospital beds, the R number. Rarely or almost never the softer values were taken into account such as quality of life. The measures did not consider the hundreds of elderly people who died in care homes where their relatives were not allowed to come to them to care for them or if only to hold their hand one last time. The non-measurable, such as the night, art or culture and human encounters in general did not play a role in the fight against the virus. These immediately became side issues: the things that we could easily miss.
And now there this show on HBO: Station Eleven. Here and there you read that it would be about a comic book. Or how great the main characters in the series play – which is absolutely true. I’ve seen something else. It’s all well put together. That is interesting when you know that the makers started filming the first episodes before there even was a pandemic. The show is based on a book by Emily St. John Mandel written in 2014. Filming continued during the pandemic and the final result could only now be released. Station Eleven is a story about what could happen after a pandemic – in the book it is a swine fever – when in a couple of weeks almost the entire world population has been killed.
The people that are still alive (are they the lucky ones?) could only survive because at the moment the virus raged, they were inside closed pockets of environments where the virus could not reach them. Telephone and internet networks are down. International travel is no longer possible. The people we meet live in the Great Lakes region at the border of the USA and Canada. They have no idea if there are other people alive elsewhere. They have long given up their hope of salvation. They know that they are the survivors. The series switches between the moment the pandemic rages (the first hundred days) and twenty years after. In the first timeline we see where they were when everything started. How they survived and how they escaped. The world is broken and one big chaos. In the second timeline we are 20 years in the future. The world is lush with greens instead of greys. We recognize some people that we have met before. The flu seems to be gone although nobody can be really certain. Nature has taken over the world. Man is only the visitor.
Museum of Civilization
There is a group of people who have barricaded themselves in a deserted airport just above Chicago, a place their plane had diverted to because it could no longer land at the main airport. In the control tower they have put all items on display that no longer work, such as IPads and computers. They have started a small new society. They get power from solar panels, luckily there are some engineers and tinkerers among them. Children have already been born and there is a school. They also have high fences and security protocols. Anyone who threatens to enter unsolicited will be shot. I think that when they started filming, the makers had no idea about the wearing of face masks. You don’t see anyone doing it in the first episodes. But here at the airport during the later episodes everyone does. An isolation protocol for desired visitors has also been introduced. When another plane lands during the start of the pandemic, it is quickly decided not to let them disembark and have them die on the plane. They would die anyway, now at least they can’t infect anyone.
The travelling symphony
Then there is this other group of people that is now a troupe of actors calling themselves the Traveling Symphony. Their caravans are old cars and these are pulled by horses. They play Hamlet for the scattered plague survivors. The Traveling Symphony is invited to come and play at the Museum of Civilization. When the travellers arrive there, they initially feel safe. But “fake news” is not far off. Conditions are set. It turns out that they don’t really intend to perform at all. Way too dangerous! “It isn’t fucking art therapy; it is civilization!” It’s not enough to avoid death, is what this show tells us. We also need meaning through community, friendship and art.
The conflict that the show is essentially about is between what is measurable and what is not measurable. About hardware and software. This hardware that is mistakenly called civilization but is nothing more than fences, a roof, heating, clean water and weapons. On the other hand, that what is not measurable and which is called art, but which is mainly about feeling. The motto of the Traveling Symphony is “Survival is insufficient.” That conflict is everywhere. Also, among the reviewers of the show where one of them says: “Even in 2014, I was sceptical that there would be such an appetite for art”. Where another one writes: “This show is about life after the ‘end’ of the world, about the healing power of art, about finding joy in the most difficult situations, about human deficiency.” And a third one says: “This beautiful, haunting, and ultimately uplifting show convincingly argues that you can’t have one without the other.” Which is an advice that I fully agree with and that would have been poignant had Station Eleven arrived in ‘normal’ times. Against the backdrop of Covid-19, its potency is damn almost nuclear.