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art at the end of everything
On 'Station Eleven,' the end of the year, grief, and art at the end of the world
‘Because whatever has happened to humanity, whatever is currently happening to humanity, it is happening to all of us. No matter how hidden the cruelty, no matter how far off the screams of pain and terror, we live in one world.” - Alice Walker
“WHAT WAS LOST IN THE COLLAPSE: almost everything, almost everyone, but there is still such beauty.” - from Station Eleven, Chapter 11
I can’t stop thinking about the end of the world.
This past January, I was trying to make sense of the grief I’ve been feeling. I couldn’t figure out where exactly the grief was coming from, or where it was going. It was a compounded grief for the state and fate of the world and everyone in it, how ugly everything is. It was a grief that I thought had reached its apex in the summer of 2020 but, by 2022, showed no sign of easing up or tapering off. How could it? That’s not how grief works, after all. It doesn’t actually get smaller over time. Instead, we just grow around it, with it.
The world is currently experiencing a moment of big big grief. I don’t think it would be at all inaccurate to say that we are living through what feels like end times. Of course, human beings have always been living in some form of end times. The problem is that in our current era of simultaneous chaos and absurdity, of rampant hatred and the worship of misinformation, it is especially hard to discern what in fact is ending.
So this year, to soothe myself in this doom-time, or perhaps to simply better understand it, I’ve watched a lot of movies and TV shows set in apocalyptic futures.
Among the apocalyptic shows and films I watched in 2022 were: The Day After Tomorrow, with its lush cinematic prophecies of climate disaster. War of The Worlds (2005), Spielberg’s reimagining of the H.G. Wells story told from the perspective of the traumatized and paranoid post-9/11 age. Shaun of the Dead, a satire of the zombie-like mundanities of modern life. Contagion, a pandemic story that’s perhaps the perfect zombie apocalypse movie despite the absence of any zombies. Y: The Last Man, which imagines a world without men and The Tribe, which imagines a world without adults. Melancholia, which uses an interplanetary cataclysm as a metaphor for the catastrophe of depression. All of The Umbrella Academy thus far, each season following super-hero siblings fighting a never-ending apocalypse as they deal with the fallout of their abusive and toxic childhoods. And Don’t Look Up, a movie about how awful humans can be to each other, for largely the most arbitrary and inconsequential reasons, even though we’re all going to die anyway.
I find stories about the end weirdly calming. Perhaps because there is a kind of honesty in acknowledging the end in these stories that you don’t get the chance to sit with too often in real life. In real life, there is no time to be honest about anything. You must endure in the face of calamity without contemplating too deeply what it is you are enduring. Bills have to be paid, and all that. But art suspends time and, in doing so, gives us space to think about the unthinkable. Which is all I ever want to do.
Humans have been imagining the apocalypse since we first began to imagine. Great floods, giant radioactive lizards, the reanimated dead, alien invasions, asteroids and interplanetary collisions, etc. But so many apocalyptic stories are rarely ever really about the end of the world. Instead, they are about the desperate hope to prevent the end from coming. That desperation, that scramble, can be compelling and also confronting, because it’s what we’re all feeling all the time.
But what does hope look like at the end of everything? What happens when hope has to adapt?
My favorite show this year was one that wrestled beautifully with these questions: Station Eleven. I love it so much. It was the best thing I watched about the end of the world in 2022, a series that, in the wake of the pandemic and amidst the churning chaos of “real life,” loss, and my own unrelenting depression, indulged a very specific craving: to watch something that would tenderly hold my hand and whisper that life is still worth living even when it doesn’t seem practical or tenable or, quite frankly, bearable. I love witnessing the ambition of that kind of hope even if I can’t always access it within myself.
If you haven’t seen it, Station Eleven (just a warning, there will be spoilers in this essay) is a 10-part limited series adapted from a novel of the same name by Emily St. John Mandel. It follows several survivors in the wake of a global pandemic that wipes out most of the Earth’s population and takes humanity back to a pre-internet, pre-global society. We follow the characters as they navigate the aftermath, all linked by a mysterious graphic novel about an astronaut on a mission to save the world also called “Station Eleven.” The core relationship of the series is between a little girl named Kirsten (Matilda Lawler) and 30-something-year-old slacker named Jeevan (Hamish Patel) who inadvertently become family when they lose everyone and everything else.
Station Eleven is imperfect but ambitious, grasping for a kind of scope and breadth that could maybe be described as cinematic but which ultimately is specific to the television form. And these days ambitious TV is far more interesting to me than so-called prestige television (i.e. TV that wants so badly to be taken seriously that it forgets to be experimental, interesting, or novel — all the things that make television as a medium so exciting).
And like all ambitious stories Station Eleven is about many things. Much of it is about art — the power and permanence of art. It’s about how the interpretation of art is what activates it. It’s about how art has a power to heal and a power to wound. It’s about family. It’s about love in its many forms. It’s about what we owe each other, at the end of everything. And, of course, it is about grief. What we can do with grief, and what we can shape it into.
The graphic novel that forms a connection point for so many of the characters in the series represents what the wet clay of grief can be molded into. It is written and illustrated by a woman named Miranda (played by Danielle Deadwyler), who spent decades obsessively working on it as a way to process losing her entire family during Hurricane Hugo. Upon completion, she prints just five copies. At the start of the pandemic, one copy finds its way into the hands of young Kirsten, who clings to it in her grief. The other finds its way to a young boy named Tyler, who uses it as a kind of beacon, a roadmap for surviving trauma.
Danielle Deadwyler’s performance as Miranda was a map for me. It affirmed and confirmed so much of the grief I’ve been holding. For Miranda, art and grief are inextricable, and Deadwyler plays that constant presence of grief and dedication to recording the carnage of grief with a beautiful quiet precision, a sharp melancholy. She is an active volcano mistaken for an ancient and dormant mountain — to watch her erupt onscreen is like watching an act of Nature.
When the Emmy nominations were announced earlier this year, I was disappointed and a little shocked not to see her name amongst the nominees because while everyone on the show is fantastic, Deadwyler’s performance is not only the best in the series, it is the beating heart of Station Eleven. Miranda doesn’t just write the graphic novel that forms a catalyst for so much of this decades-spanning story. She also saves, if not the world, what’s left of it. She dies alone, stranded in a hotel room somewhere in Singapore, unaware of what her art has set into motion. She is the thesis of the show, personified.
In episode three, the flu is spreading rapidly and the world is officially going to shit. Miranda is in Singapore to give a presentation to a client for her logistics firm. It’s during this presentation that she delivers the most important monologue in the series, one that demonstrates why this show was such a balm for me amidst the turmoil of 2022: it was hopeful. Addressing the clients in a conference room as the world plunges into chaos outside, she says,
“You all seem to know that the world is coming to an end. So, it’s a good reminder that nothing we have done or do matters at all. But it does. It does.”
This idea that everything we do or have done matters and yet doesn’t, pairs nicely with an essential law of the universe: things get worse. Scientifically speaking, and also spiritually, disorder is the fate of everything. Entropy, which is in essence the measure of the disorder of things, is getting bigger all the time. At some point in the future, long after you and I and the internet and war and TV shows and this planet are gone, the universe will reach maximum entropy, maximum disorder. The universe itself will one day die. Must die. And yet, we exist anyway. We matter and we don’t matter at all.
To me, this is a comforting thought, a hopeful concept. It’s what Station Eleven is ultimately about. One of the greatest utilities of art about the end is how it invites us to consider not only the future but grieve alternate versions of the past. In Funny Weather: Art In An Emergency, Olivia Laing quotes Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s essay on paranoid vs reparative reading during the AIDS pandemic. Sedgwick writes that “to read from a reparative position is to surrender the knowing, anxious paranoid determination that no horror, however apparently unthinkable, shall ever come to the reader as new.” Reparative reading, then, revolves heavily around hope.
“Because the reader has room to realize that the future may be different from the present,” Sedgwick writes, “It is also possible for her to entertain such profoundly painful, profoundly relieving, ethically crucial possibilities as that the past, in turn, could have happened differently from the way it actually did.”
Like art, like death, it’s these ethically crucial possibilities that truly connect us. In an interview for Vulture earlier this year, Danielle Deadwyler discussed Miranda’s sacrifice at the end of the series, those last moments as she urges Clark to save the people at Severn City Airport. She said,
“I [as Miranda] have the capacity to take the last vestiges of my energy to express a deep, profound, unselfish love and enable others to thrive and create and do something beyond survival.”
I think art and connection is the something beyond survival that she speaks of. It’s the answer to death and destruction and apocalypse. It’s the reminder that survival cannot be just about ourselves. The world will end, and yet we are expected to go on unconcerned with that inevitability until it is on our doorstep, in our homes, rummaging amongst the clutter of our lives. We have found ourselves stranded at the intersection of several calamities, each more complex and difficult to attend to than the next, with seemingly no space to put our anxiety.
But what if the unwinding and collapsing of life can in fact be constructive even in its destruction? Well, then, there really is no need to panic. If death is an end, a kind of apocalypse, it means that ends are a foundation on which to build, expand, get bigger all the time. So, from death comes grief. From grief comes art. From art comes understanding. From understanding comes connection, the realization that when we find ways to connect with each other we are tapping into the soul of the collective, a single breathing organism made up of flesh and earth and stars.
Earlier this month, my friend Ashley’s husband Rob passed away. It’s hard to believe that I’ll never get to see Rob and Ashley playfully riff off each other at one of their legendary barbecues, or get to witness Rob’s incredibly sharp wit in action. In the moments after Ashley called to tell me the news, all I could do was cry. All I could do was repeat over and over in a haze, “I don’t know what to do I don’t know what to do.” And then, that Station Eleven quote burst into my mind: “Nothing we have done or do matters at all. But it does. It does.”
With the remembrance of the quote came the quiet reminder that the world is made up, held together really, by words, ideas, images, stories. I think I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the end of the world because I haven’t been able to stop thinking about what happens to stories — the stories we tell and the stories we are — at the end of everything. I’ve been rewatching Station Eleven, and on second viewing the answer to that question becomes more and more defined. We can’t control when the end comes, or what it will do to us. And we can’t control what the stories we tell do in the world once we let them go. All we can do is trust that they will connect to something, someone, out there. And that connection will form a little point of eternity, whatever happens.
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