SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched the finale of HBO Max’s “Station Eleven.”
Patrick Somerville and Jessica Rhoades — the executive producers who brought an intricate, moving adaptation of Emily St. John Mandel’s 2014 novel to HBO Max — faced the accidental task of creating a show about a pandemic during a pandemic. But they got through it, they said during a joint interview on Wednesday, together. “It is a deeply co-authored experience, from actor to director to producer to writer — above the line and below the line,” Somerville said.
Rhoades echoed that point, saying that their collective experiences during COVID-19 underlined the themes of “Station Eleven,” and deepened the story’s already practically fathomless core. “The show was healing us all as we were making it,” she said. “We were coming together in the middle of a really hard time to create something. And making that art, I think, deeply affected every human being doing it.”
So when it came time to write the final episode — in which long-lost loved ones would once again come together, finally reuniting Kirsten (Mackenzie Davis) and Jeevan (Himesh Patel) — Somerville felt a lot of pressure. “Station Eleven” happened to be on a break in March 2020 when COVID hit, and by the time production started up again in February 2021, the world had changed. And, Somerville said, “We changed.”
He and the writers’ room had sketched out Episode 10, the finale of the limited series, titled “Unbroken Circle,” but the last few episodes weren’t written. He knew he wanted the three worlds of the show — the Traveling Symphony; the often-creepy cult of kids, led by the prophet Tyler (Daniel Zovatto); and the airport survivors, who’ve lived in relative luxury, and have even created a Museum of Civilization — all to come together at the airport.
And he also knew that he wanted Jeevan and Kirsten to share a hug, at long last. “I’m a big sucker for hugs in TV,” Somerville said, mentioning one of his previous — and similarly wrenching — writing jobs. “On ‘Leftovers,’ I was always like, LAURIE HUGS HER DAUGHTER. I was always desperately trying to make people heal.”
So yes, Somerville wanted to bring the hugs to “Station Eleven. “When we pitched the show, I actually pitched the show literally ending on that hug.”
The hug — hugs, plural, actually — turned out to be just one element of the final 10 minutes or so of “Station Eleven,” which was directed by Jeremy Podeswa. Here, Somerville and Rhoades talked Variety through it.
Courtesy of HBO Max
How Kirsten learns not to fight.
Kirsten has found community, art and love in her life — but it hasn’t been easy. She was a child (played by Matilda Lawler) when the Georgia flu killed most of the world’s population, and she survived only because Jeevan, a total stranger, decided to try to walk her home to safety. He then took her in, along with his brother, Frank (Nabhaan Rizwan), and then sets off with her into the post-pandemic world after 80 days. The question of how they got separated is the spine of “Station Eleven.”
“I think the most important thing to Kirsten’s arc was that she has learned that you can’t always fight — that you can’t always kill,” Rhoades said. “That sometimes connection to a stranger is the thing that saves you.”
As the show winds toward its conclusion, Kirsten has shown Haley (Kate Moyer), one of the affectless members of Tyler’s kid cult/army (or whatever they are), her copy of “Station Eleven,” the graphic novel that’s become her bible. And Haley, knowing its totemic importance to Tyler also, runs off with it —this sacred object. So what does Kirsten do?
She lets Haley go. And after a brief, half-hearted chase, she even smiles about it.
Recalling a line Kirsten says about having tried (and failed) to kill Tyler in the show’s second episode, Somerville said of Kirsten’s decision to let Haley go: “It’s all centered around this idea that ‘stabbing you didn’t work’ — it doesn’t work to stab people. It doesn’t!”
“Had she done something violent, there was a child army that would have done something more sinister,” Rhoades said. “But in that moment of peacemaking, she created a ripple effect to that saved everyone in the show.”
Courtesy of HB0 Max
By choosing peace in that intance, Kirsten gets to see Jeevan.
Kirsten and Haley come inside as Wendy (Deborah Cox), a member of the Traveling Symphony, is singing “Midnight Train to Georgia” to honor of the death of Sarah (Lori Petty) earlier in the episode. After deciding to let Haley run away with “Station Eleven,” and seemingly being at peace with her decision, Kirsten turns to the crowd — almost as if she senses Jeevan.
“It’s a great shot,” Somerville said. “Because in terms of sleight of hand, there is no better ‘Look at my hand over here!’ than Deborah Cox singing ‘Midnight Train to Georgia.’”
It had seemed as if Jeevan may have left the airport already to head home to his family without having run into Kirsten — we didn’t see him, after all, at the Symphony’s performance of “Hamlet.”
“We’d planted the seed of a near-miss earlier,” Somerville said. “And I think there’s probably a bit of a dread in some audience members’ hearts that that’s going to be it, and they missed each other.
“It’s a worry.”
But instead, there’s that hug. And it’s a long one. (Here it is again!)
Courtesy of HBO Max
There were, of course, logistics to work out. “Mackenzie and Himesh really talked about who would recognize who?” Somerville said. “Kirsten can recognize Jeevan easier than Jeevan can recognize Kiersten probably. But they both seem to be feeling it simultaneously.”
And as far as Podeswa’s shot of them recognizing one another goes, Somerville said he wanted it to play out slowly. “This whole show, the audience is out in front of the characters in a very unusual way,” he said. “For once, let’s just not try to manage it at all and just let it happen however it happens for everyone who’s watching.”
He credits Podeswa and cinematographer Steve Cosens with that restrained, real-time vibe as the characters take each other in, visually: “It just feels real to me.”
Courtesy of HBO Max
Two roads diverged in a wood — at the actual Station Eleven.
Though they’ve found each other in a world where, as Kirsten angrily says earlier in the episode, “No one finds people from before!,” Jeevan and Kirsten both have their own families now — she has the Symphony, he has his wife and kids. This time, they’re going to separate purposefully, not because one of them (Jeevan) is mauled by a wolf, and taken elsewhere.
For their final scene together before they each go their own way, Somerville didn’t want them to catch up on things the audience already knows. “We didn’t want to do Jeevan and Kirsten stay up all night,” he said. “Like, we know that’s what they did — they told each other what happened!”
“With the tidal wave of emotion that comes with the hug, there was a little space left,” Somerville said. And in that space, he wanted to fill it with things more unsaid than said. Reading aloud from a text chain he’d had with Davis and Patel before they filmed the scene, about each actor’s hopes, Somerville quoted Patel: “Those beats between gearshifts where we’re not quite sure what to say, just walking with each other, waiting for the other one to say something, there’s a beautiful truth to that.”
As for Davis, Somerville quoted Davis’ input as well: “The only request I think we both have is to let it play with the weight it deserves, which is us figuring it out in silence. We both felt like the gentle awkwardness of encountering our grown selves, there’s a really interesting way to play it.”
And that’s how it does feel, as Kirsten and Jeevan approach the fork in the road that will once again separate them. That the scene was filmed in Ontario at the Terra Cotta Conservation Area, on a path that’s actually called Station Eleven, delighted the executive producers, and added to what Somerville termed the “mysticism” of filming a fictional pandemic during a real one.
As for the scene itself, their final conversation, “I wrote it 70 times,” he said with a laugh. The moments of mutual apology and forgiveness that flow between the show’s two central characters do — as Patel and Davis had wanted — mostly play out in silence.
But they also confess to one another. “I was never scared with you,” she tells him, to which he responds, “’I was always scared.” That’s one “lightning bolt,” Somerville said, and for Jeevan both to say and receive those things “is an unburdening.”
As the two of them come to where the path splits, Jeevan jokes that he was just trying to walk a stranger home: “I met this girl, I said I’d walk her home — it was so cold. She forgot her key.” Kirsten looks into the distance, and then turns to him, and says: “You walked her home.” (“That just absolutely destroys me,” Somerville said.) Kirsten then hugs Jeevan again, and says, “Thank you.”
“Go with your family,” Jeevan tells her. They part, with promises to see each other again; he’s told his kids all about her. “I tell them the story,” he says.
“For Jeevan, being scared, having to keep walking, was what saved him too,” Rhoades said. “They saved each other — having a purpose, having something to do.”
Kirsten’s first “bye” to Jeevan was scripted, but Davis improvised a second one as he walks away — and Jeevan turns to look at her again, as the Elton John song “United We Stand” begins to play. “With that second ‘bye,’ I feel like Mackenzie captures an innocence,” Rhoades said. “There’s an actual innocence in her voice.”
The song choice, Somerville said, was a deliberate one, as were all of the needle drops in “Station Eleven.” It was the idea of David Eisenberg, his producing partner, and then pointed his computer toward Eisenberg, who said, “I just had it in my head as soon as I read the script,” a year before they even shot the scene.
But that’s the point of “United We Stand,” Somerville said — and of “Station Eleven” itself.
“That’s how we’re going to get through the pandemic, too,” he said. “That’s how they did it. Stay together. Don’t eat each other alive.
“And I know it’s going be hard! But this is how we get through it.”
Courtesy of HBO Max