Station Eleven & The Underground Railroad.
Mackenzie Davis as Kirsten
Over the last couple of months I’ve watched two highly lauded series, both based on award winning novels, one with an explicit science fictional premise—survival after an apocalyptic event—the other containing elements of fantasy, including one that is crucial to the book’s plot. Despite the praise heaped on them, I found both Station Eleven and The Underground Railroad disappointing. I get that this might be a contrary view, but believe me I wanted to like both series. I’d read Colson Whitehead’s novel when it was first published back in 2016 and loved it, so much so that I read his next two books, The Nickel Boys and Harlem Shuffle. I’d also been a big fan of Barry Jenkins, the show’s creator and director, Oscar winning film Moonlighting.
I haven’t read the source material for Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel, though I was aware that it had won the Arthur C. Clarke Award (as did The Underground Railroad), and had been nominated for numerous other fiction prizes. The show runner and main writer for the TV series is Patrick Somerville, who was one of the writers on what, to this day, remains my all time favourite SF show, The Leftovers.
So, a pretty good pedigree for both shows, right? Sadly, my high expectations weren’t met. If anything, both shows left me feeling distinctly underwhelmed.
Station Eleven attempts to do something unique in post-apocalyptic fiction, in that its focus is not so much on the survival of humanity, as on the endurance of the very things that make us human—family bonds, a sense of community, compassion, and perhaps most of all, our culture, particularly our need to tell each other stories. The show begins with a virulent flu pandemic that sweeps across the world, killing most of its human population. The first episode (and flashbacks in later episodes), for the most part avoid any spectacular set-pieces depicting societal collapse, excepting one plane crash, viewed by the protagonist from a Chicago apartment window. Instead, one character receives a phone call from his sister, a doctor, warning of the contagion; we catch eerily prescient glimpses of TV news reports of the spread of the virus; of panic buying; of characters boarding themselves up in their homes or hotel rooms; in public spaces people cough and splutter and others look on with fear and trepidation; and we see people dying and grieving alone.
That art—and in particular literature—will be central to the story, is foregrounded early on when we witness the lead actor in a production of King Lear, collapse and die during a performance. This act brings together two of the key figures in the narrative—child actor Kirsten (played by Matilda Lawler as a child, in a luminous performance, and by Mackenzie Davis as an adult), and audience member Jeevan (Himesh Patel)—who, in the novel, is training to be a paramedic. The series then moves forward twenty years, with numerous flashbacks to events preceding the pandemic, and to different moments in the intervening years. In this future, Kirsten is a member of a troupe of wandering performers known as the Travelling Symphony, who travel a circuit around one of the Great Lakes, staging Shakespeare plays at various survivor communities. The troupe is made up of a number of disparate individuals, the kind of people used to existing on the margins of society but now given a central role in helping—through storytelling and performance—restore our sense of who and what we were.
In between filling in the backstories of various characters, and introducing a metafictional element in the shape of a graphic novel called Station Eleven that may or may not portend events to come in the main narrative, The Travelling Symphony face various threats from mysterious figures with connections to key members of the troupe. And this, for me, is where the problems lie, for Somerville struggles to bring all these various threads together, and fails to invest anything resembling a distinct identity in many of his key players. It is hard to feel any real emotion after the death of the troupe’s co-founder Gil, or even Sarah (another co-founder), despite a subtle performance by Lori Petty. Various members of the symphony appear as little more than tokenistic cyphers with little in the way of individual personality. The dangers they face lack any real sense of menace—even Tyler (the prophet) turns into something of a saviour figure, helping reunite Kirsten with the Symphony at the Museum of Civilisation. This differs significantly from the book where, apparently, Tyler remains the villain of the piece.
Himesh Patel as Jeevan and Matilda Lawler as the young Kirsten.
A more fundamental problem lies in the premise itself. Following such an apocalyptic event (the strain of flu in the series has a 99% mortality rate), how likely is it that the survivors, particularly in the early years, would devote their energies to culture? Given our reliance on technology and the energy supply that powers everything from planes to phones, from cars to medical equipment, not to mention the means of food production, harvesting and processing, one imagines the survivors of the pandemic would have more pressing concerns. What am I going to eat? How am I going to stay warm? Where can I find shelter? How will I protect myself? In this respect, Station Eleven offers an almost pastoral view of the post-apocalypse compared to, say Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.
I find the idea that we will, somehow, try to cling on to the things that enrich and give meaning to our lives, fascinating, and Mandel and Somerville are to be applauded for trying to engage with the theme. But in giving precedence to art and culture above more primal needs, they undermine the show’s credibility and neuter any hint of existential dread it might have contained. Works such as Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, or Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker, both handle the question of how cultural artefacts and practises are used, exploited, refashioned or suppressed, in more interesting and provocative ways. For anyone who hasn’t read it Riddley Walker in particular, offers an astonishing—and far bleaker—take on how the inhabitants of a distant post-apocalypse future might fuse elements of religion and culture—in this case the mythology of an obscure christian saint, and the rituals of a Punch and Judy show. I’d love to see Hoban’s novel adapted for film or TV, but I won;’t be holding my breath.
So while, there are things to admire in Station Eleven, I suspect that a significant amount of the praise that has been heaped on it, stems from our own experience of the Covid pandemic, and the huge, collective sigh of relief that we have come through it.
The problems with The Underground Railroad have less to do with its central conceit—the literalisation of the metaphor that stood for the secret network of escape routes and safe houses operated by abolitionists and former slaves—than it has to do with the narrative choices made by Jenkins, and, crucially, with its pacing. In fact, positing an actual underground railroad that facilitates the escape of protagonist Cora (a riveting performance by Thuso Mbedu) and Caesar (Aaron Pierre), is one of the more successful elements of the show. As in the novel, as well as serving as the medium through which Cora travels from one locale to another, it also provides a means for introducing many of the characters she encounters, men like Martin, an abolitionist, and Royal (William Jackson Harper), a freedman and agent for the railroad.
Jenkins initially sticks close to Whitehead’s novel, showing Caesar persuading Cora to join him in escaping the Georgia plantation (from which some time previous, her mother Mabel had also escaped). Having killed a young slave catcher, the two eventually find an underground railroad station and are taken to South Carolina, where they are initially offered work and education alongside other runaway slaves. But the townsfolk’s benevolence hides ulterior motives, one of which alludes to eugenics by forcing the black women to be sterilised, another explicitly referencing the 20th century exploitation of black men in the Tuskegee Experiment, where more than 400 black men with syphilis were recruited for drug trials but deliberately left untreated so as to observe the progress of the disease. Unfortunately, the significance of these two experiments in social control is lost somewhat as a consequence of the viewer being dropped into what appears an idyll, and through the poor sound (a recurring annoyance). Still, the show benefits from some marvellous performances apart from those already mentioned, and in particular Joel Edgerton who is both ferocious and mesmerising as slave hunter Ridgeway, and the terrific Chase W Dillon as Homer, Ridgeway’s loyal black child assistant.
Jenkins then decides to arbitrarily introduce a character not present in the book, a young runaway called Grace, who Cora encounters while hiding in the attic of abolitionist Martin, in a town where blacks, whether freedmen or runaways, are killed on sight. I was baffled as to what purpose Grace served, and, more immediately, as to her fate, as the last we see of her after Cora is recaptured by Ridgeway, and Martin and his wife are executed, is her trapped in the attic while the house is consumed by flames. It’s only in a later, fifteen minute episode that flashes back to the fire, which has now spread to the neighbouring houses that we see Grace manage to escape and find a station depot. There, as she begins to tell her story to the station agent, we learn that her real name is Fanny Briggs. Given that this also served as the title of the episode, I assumed there was some significance attached to the name, and duly looked it up (thank you wikipedia). It turns out that there was a real Fanny Briggs, wife to John Briggs, black abolitionists who lived in Massachusetts, and mother to one Martha B. Briggs, who trained as a teacher and went on to teach many of those who had escaped slavery through the underground railroad network. It may be an interesting intertextual link between book, underground railroad and a real person, but does it add anything to the series? If you’re going to introduce a new character in order to foreground the role of black men and women in their own escape and education, then maybe more should have been made of it. As it stands, without any contextualisation, it just seems superfluous, especially when compared to the series’ downplaying of the social experiments going on in the South Carolina episode.
Other irksome inventions include the attempted reconciliation between Ridgeway and his father, and Ridgeway’s killing of his fellow slave hunter Boseman, rather than Boseman dying at the hands of the freedman Royal. I don’t expect or want screenwriters to be constrained and have to follow every plot twist in adapting a literary work, but Jenkins’ interventions seem to elide significant events and add threads that fail to offer clarity or insight to the narrative.
Chase W Dillon as Homer.
Though filmed predominantly in subdued, earthy tones, with many interiors shot in darkly lit cabins or rooms, the series is gorgeous to look at. There are scenes of appalling brutality that we want to turn away from but that we are compelled to witness—the Hellish, scorched earth of Tennessee, the burning alive of a captured runaway—and it’s to Jenkins’ visual sensibility that we owe this compulsion. But against this, while the incidental sounds play a key role, the dialogue is muted almost to the point of incomprehensibility. I don’t know if others have noted this, but there were entire scenes I had to replay with the TV sound at full volume in order to get a sense of what was being said. I’m not deaf—I don’t have this problem with other shows. Sometimes it was the accents, or at least the actors’ attempts to grapple with them, but it seemed more like a technical issue.
Worse though were the longueurs, scenes that dragged on interminably, with little happening or little in the way of dialogue. Yes, we get a sense of recaptured runaway Jasper’s suffering, but do we need endless shots of him dying in the back of Ridgeway’s wagon? What purpose did the interlude with Cora’s dream(?) of running away from Valentine’s farm to some busy station serve? Instead of holding my attention, my mind began to drift when watching these scenes, surely the opposite of what Jenkins intended. Almost every episode had moments where the pacing seemed glacial, working to deaden the visceral impact of key scenes. On top of this, the final episode is distinctly anticlimactic. It’s a trait it shares with the book, and it’s an episode that might well have benefitted from Jenkins’ intervention. To let it stand leaves one feeling somewhat underwhelmed.
It’s a shame because the series, and Station Eleven, both have ambition and moments of lucid brilliance. But sadly, these alone are not enough to carry the weight of the unquestioning and critically flawed praise heaped upon them.