Station Eleven — Navigating the Past
Flashbacks are, undeniably, one of the hardest tricks to master in screenwriting. More often than not, they serve as expository distractions which halt the momentum of the story’s central plot. Very rarely do you get a show in which flashbacks are utilized often with entirely positive results. Luckily, Station Eleven is one of those rare shows.
Patrick Somerville, having adapted the series from the novel by Emily St. John Mandel, makes the bold choice to have nearly half of the show’s events occur entirely in the past, effectively splitting the show’s narrative into two- one which occurs in the past, and one which occurs in the present. This would reasonably be a red flag for any viewer, given the obvious difficulty in a story which is so reliant on flashback. Rather than shy away from the use of flashback, Somerville embraces it. The end result is a story which unfolds and ultimately connects through two timelines, both of which are filled with moments of tension, emotion, and catharsis built by the deft use of this dual-timeline mechanic.
In this post, I want to figure out just how such a lofty narrative, filled with themes built around compassion, community, existentialism, art, and trauma, is able to succeed in this dual-timeline structure. I’ll look at:
- How the dual timeline structure allows for significant tension
- How the dual timelines help us care for each character
- How the dual timelines create emotional climaxes
- How the dual timelines are integral to the show’s message
Also, I will be spoiling a ton of the show, so please please please watch it. The mystery aspect is one of the best things about this show, and if you get it spoiled for you, it will affect how you view it.
Anyways, let’s start.
1. Tension and Timelines
One of the most obvious ways in which Station Eleven uses it’s dual-timeline structure to it’s advantage lies in how it gives the audience information which is inaccessible to many of the show’s present-day characters. This use of dramatic irony creates a variety of tense encounters and, in some cases, can create tensions which last for multiple episodes.
Example: This technique is utilized exceptionally in Episode 5 (“The Severn City Airport”), where we learn that Arthur’s son, Tyler, is the true identity of the apparent present-day antagonist, a mysterious preacher-type character introduced as The Prophet. It’s not until the very end of Episode 8 that this true identity is revealed to the other characters, each of whom share their own personal connection to Arthur and his son. This means that, for three entire episodes, the audience is waiting in anticipation of this identity being revealed to the present-day characters.
2. Characters and Timelines
Naturally, the more characters we care about, the more invested we are in the show. Because nearly half of the show takes place through these flashback episodes, the cast becomes expanded and the characters who exist in the present-day are offered layers beyond what we may first see from them.
Example: Clark is at first introduced in flashback sections as the friend/confidant of Arthur, yet isn’t necessarily developed as anything more than that. Of course, as the series progresses and Clark’s present-day character becomes more involved in the story, his presence in the flashback sequences expands greatly. He’s revealed to be someone who struggled with addiction and subsequent relapses- someone who, deep down, may hate himself. We get to see how his paranoia about the outside world festered, and how it turned him into the person we meet in the present — a closed-off old man, terrified of any sort of change to his routine and control. This not only gives his character a deeper psychology, but it makes the conclusion of his arc, in which he allows himself a moment of honest vulnerability, that much more satisfying and emotional.
3. Emotion and Timelines
Another way in which the show’s dual-timeline structure is a clear strength is revealed in how it manipulates and empowers the audience’s emotional relationship to certain scenes. By cutting between two scenes, one in the present and one from the past, the show is often able to create a singular, outstanding moment which is both cathartic and emotionally powerful.
Example: In Episode 2 (“A Hawk From a Handsaw”), we see present-day Kirsten perform as Hamlet as part of the traveling symphony, while simultaneously witnessing a heartbreaking scene from her past in which she learns her parents have died. By combining an otherwise routine scene with an emotionally intense flashback, we get this elevated moment in which we can see and feel Kirsten viscerally attempting to process her trauma through her performance. Suddenly, the film imbues Kirsten’s acting- something we’ll see her do constantly throughout the series- with her trauma. Not only does this moment resonate emotionally- it resonates thematically, and serves as something of a starting point for the series’ discussion of art and trauma.
4. Theme and Timelines
This is undeniably one of the most thematically packed shows I’ve ever seen. One of the ways it’s able to so coherently hold numerous discussions about topics like compassion, existentialism, hope, and trauma is through explicit use of it’s dual-timeline structure. Through this structure, we’re able to see the cause and effect of every action, therefore allowing even the smallest of actions to be imbued with huge thematic meaning.
Example: In the season finale, Kirsten is confronted with a bomb-wielding child, seemingly intent on destroying the airport which her and her friends have been taking shelter in. Kirsten doesn’t fight her, or even attempt to subdue her. Instead, she approaches this confused child with outright compassion and hands her a copy of Station Eleven- the graphic novel-turned-bible which has informed both Kirsten’s and the child’s life. This moment is intercut with a flashback of young Kirsten and Frank, bonding over the very same novel. By connecting these moments with one another, the writers craft a clear and concise message, one which posits that we ought to approach each other not with paranoia and anger, but with kindness and trust. It’s an arguably simple message, sure, but damn if it isn’t showcased powerfully throughout the series.
Station Eleven is a really good show, and one which is incredibly satisfying and uplifting to watch. Through manipulating the show’s two timelines and powerfully allowing them to inform and enhance one another, showrunner Patrick Somerville creates a series which contains some of the most memorable and smart scenes you’ll ever get to watch.