I recently started watching the newest HBO apocalyptic show, Station Eleven, with my husband and immediately felt compelled not just by the direct parallel to our current global crisis, but by the intimate and layered episodic storytelling.
I’m not yet finished with the series (we were waiting for the finale to air before we started it), but if someone were to ask me why they should watch it, my foremost answer would be its point of view. Specifically, its drastic shifts in point of view and how they inform not just the story at hand, but the titular story that frames the narrative.
At first glance, viewers might assume that the dystopian, post-pandemic, futuristic setting contains some sort of “Station Eleven” that supplies the title. But early on in episode one, we see that the title comes from a comic book with a “blink-and-you’ll-miss-it” mention. Canny viewers will wonder about this, especially since we don’t know that the child in possession of the comic will be our protagonist for the long haul and because rarely is a thing so seemingly innocuous rendered so manifestly conspicuous by the camera.
When we pick up with episode two and realize our point of view has shifted to an adult Kirsten, we hark back to the significant time jump from the very beginning of the series, and recognize that we are not being fed linear facts, but instead, being asked to participate in the spinning of a fantastic yarn.
It reminded me immediately of Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel, which we also recently watched on HBO Max. It, too, revolves around a singular event with multiple points of view, but the experience of it is far less participatory and far more compulsory.
For one, the central event of The Last Duel is the account of the sexual assault of a noblewoman, but we do not find out about it until halfway through the film. We are instead given to believe that the duel itself is the pivotal event and the dissolution of a male friendship through betrayal is the catalyst.
When we are thrust back into the story via a second point of view, the effect is jarring and irritating. By the time we arrive at the third revolution of the same events, it’s become annoying and bleak. Settled within the second and third points-of-view is the assault itself, which grates not just for the sake of being forced to watch it – twice – but because it relegates the woman’s experience last, after the two male points-of-view have already sown doubt over how the audience and they should interpret it.
Contrast that with how we experience point of view in Station Eleven, where each shift in perspective and time provides a dutiful and truthful exposition of events (even when the narrator is unreliable), complete with imagery and emotion that better inform what we’ve seen before. For instance, we rarely even see death despite the surety that it has happened all around our characters; there is no relish in gore or the emotional manipulation of bereavement. Trauma and death are realities, but they are not devices.
We spin through inference, orientation, time and realization in a manner that best tells the story, while simultaneously framing the story for us. The linear, calculated and predictable way of the Traveling Symphony that never leaves the wheel or meets with a stranger belies the way the showrunners have mapped out our play.
And this spiral story-telling makes for a far better audience experience than the bludgeon of Choose Your Own Adventure misdirection.
You can watch all of Station Eleven and The Last Duel on HBO Max.
Beth is the proud sponsor of two little women and a huge fan of fandom. She took 3 years of Latin in high school and now speaks fluent pretension, which fully explains her current preference for gay wizard regency novels. She will roll over for a giant book with a map in the front. She takes comic book recommendations every day but Wednesday and TV recommendations never (she knows what's good).