** Spoiler Alert: This article contains spoilers for episodes 1, 9, and 10 of Station Eleven **
Don’t talk to strangers, our parents told us, and if a stranger offers to take you somewhere, don’t go along. In childhood, we all heard something like this from grown-ups who cared, and we now repackage it for our kids. It’s pretty good advice (the world has its share of creeps). But when the world is ending, fear of “stranger danger” may actually get in the way of an even better piece of advice (queue Mr. Rogers): “Look for the helpers.”
When Patrick Somerville adapted the novel Station Eleven for TV (on HBO Max), he envisioned a post-apocalyptic world in which 99% of the population died of the flu, and among the remaining 1%, there were three kinds of survivors: those who (metaphorically-speaking) carried a gun in their pocket, those who carried a harmonica in their pocket, and those who carried one of each (just in case). Every encounter between strangers would involve some careful sussing out: What do you have in your pockets? Can I trust you, or are you going to shoot me? Can we make some music? It’s a world in which intuition is everything, and if you don’t trust your gut when it comes time for a draw, you’ll wind up dead or friendless (which will sooner or later amount to the same thing).
In this “survivor’s world” where everyone is a stranger, how does a kid tell who’s got a harmonica in their pocket?
Look for the Stage Jumpers
In a darkened, crowded Chicago theater, a cough breaks the silence. King Lear fumbles his lines, and teeters on stage. Amidst bored texters and nonchalant observers, one man realizes that the actor isn’t acting. He’s having a heart attack. Jeevan Chaudhary (Himesh Patel) leaves his seat, climbs awkwardly over other theatergoers, jumps the stage, and kneels down over the dying man. He calls for a doctor, distressed and at a loss. “I can’t do this,” Jeevan admits. “I don’t know how to.”
That’s Station Eleven’s opening scene: a good-hearted person who doesn’t know what the heck he’s doing shows up anyway: no plan, just pure concern. Jeevan lacks the skills and credentials of a doctor, but he has the right instincts. He moves toward human suffering instead of away from it. He doesn’t talk himself out of helping, like many of us are prone to do: Maybe it’s not as bad as it looks. They’ll be fine. I’m sure someone else will take care of it. I’m not trained for this. I might make things worse. What if I do more harm than good? What if people misunderstand my intentions? That person is not my responsibility.
While Jeevan didn’t (and couldn’t have) saved that dying actor’s life, he’s immediately given another chance to help a stranger. Off in the wings of the stage, a little costumed girl named Kirsten (Matilda Lawler) just watched her beloved mentor and friend die. The adult “wrangler” in charge of her is MIA, and her parents are unreachable. On a frigid city night, surrounded by strangers and equipped with little more than a dying cell phone, a winter coat, and a backpack with coloring books and comics, Kirsten is stranded. Breaking every rule that tacitly exists between adult male strangers and innocent little girls, Jeevan introduces himself to Kirsten and offers to walk her to the El Train, and accompany her home.
Kirsten breaks the rules too, and accepts his help. She intuitively trusts him, because she saw him jump the stage to help her friend. With a child’s fine-tuned radar for “looking for the helpers,” Kirsten senses some tenderness in Jeevan and pokes around with curiosity. She’s surprised to discover that even though he ran to help, he has no special medical training. “But you were the first one in the theater to know,” she insists. “Or, just the first one who stood up,” Jeevan shrugs.
If not for Jeevan’s intervention, Kirsten would no doubt have died from the flu that forms this story’s horrifying backdrop (and which our main characters learn about through a fortuitous phone call while riding the El). Jeevan just meant to walk Kirsten home; that’s all he signed up for. But when she can’t reach her parents or get inside of her house, when the only other adult who cared about her just died of a heart attack — and in light of their new knowledge that everyone is dying and contagious — the stranger-become-neighbor has to take on an even harder role: functional father.
Kirsten has to decide whether or not to accept Jeevan’s invitation to accompany him to his brother’s apartment (along with six carts of groceries), where they will barricade the door and wait out the carnage. Jeevan refuses to force her (“That’s kidnapping, I think”), but knowing her childlike need for parental permission to do something so obviously against the rules, he fibs for her. He makes up some story about how her parents texted him and said it was fine, and that they know his brother Frank from some work thing, so it’s alright. Kirsten sees right through his story, but she also sees that it comes from a desperate tenderness — she sees the harmonica poking out of his pocket. She trusts him and his lovingly-meant lie, and so she survives.
Get Sucked in and Share the Suffering
As author Elizabeth Goudge puts it, “Most of us tend to belittle all suffering except our own” because we’re afraid. “We don’t want to come too near in case we’re sucked in and have to share it.” For whatever reason, Jeevan’s desire to help is stronger than his fear. He feels the tug and he moves toward the pain, at the precise moment when others pretend they don’t see. He acts like a Good Samaritan, but without the handsome resources of money, bandages, and a donkey. He shows up empty-handed.
Himesh Patel, the actor who plays Jeevan, describes his character’s inner dialogue with his conscience: “I don’t want to do this, but fine — I’ll do it.” “He never wants to do the right thing,” Patel says of Jeevan, “but he does it.” Jeevan isn’t the most articulate person or the most talented, brave, or patient. He can turn petty under stress, he can twist the knife in an argument, he suffers from panic attacks, and he somehow earned the unpromising childhood nickname “Leavin’ Jeevan,” as later episodes reveal. He’s a bit of a moocher, an aimless millennial with less of a life plan than eight year old Kirsten the Actor.
But his back-to-back choices to be neighborly toward suffering strangers lands him in the unlikely position of Apocalypse Foster Parent. Jeevan doesn’t present as classic “hero material,” but he shows up and moves toward the problem, and that’s enough.
The Courage to Bear Witness to Death is the Job
Nearly a year post-pandemic, Jeevan and Kirsten are living in a secluded cabin on the other side of Lake Michigan. Through a series of mutual mistakes and bad luck, they get separated from each other. Maimed by a wolf and unconscious, Jeevan is picked up by a motorcycling stranger named Lara (Tattiawna Jones). She brings him to a former department store inhabited by over a dozen pregnant women, unaware that by nabbing him she’s leaving a vulnerable little girl all alone. Days later, Jeevan wakes up in bed, hooked to an IV, disoriented, horrified, and heartbroken. By the time Lara goes back to search for Kirsten, she’s long gone. Jeevan is convinced he’s failed her.
Under the (false) assumption that Jeevan is a doctor, these women have both “shanghaied” and healed him, expecting his help in return when the babies are due (which is, bizarrely, on the same night: the winter solstice). The one doctor present at this makeshift birthing center, Terry, knows that she can’t safely and simultaneously deliver all these babies herself (“It’s a f****** time bomb of joy!”). She needs backup, fast.
While Jeevan has no experience delivering babies, he does have experience with death. “My brother died right in front of me,” he tells Terry. “Then you’re already qualified,” she assures him as she passes him a bottle of liquor. “The courage to bear witness to death is the job. The courage to be there.” “I don’t want anybody else to die,” Jeevan admits. “Or get hurt. Or be in pain.”
And so, despite his initial protests of inexperience, he follows his compassionate, helping instincts and becomes what those women need: “Dr. Chaudhary.” They all know he’s faking it, but when it comes to birthing (just as with dying), presence matters more than training. He helps them through labor, holds their hands, tells them it’s okay, and catches babies — one crippled man in a ward full of women, bringing new life into a dead world.
The first woman whose baby Jeevan delivers tells him later that evening, “You’re a healer.” And there it is — the identity and vocation which always eluded him “pre-pan” is dropped into his lap like the newborns he was catching just hours before. He never would have found this calling if he had waited until he was “qualified.” The instinct that drew him on stage toward a dying man, that focused his eyes on a vulnerable child, that made him take an awkward seat between the legs of groaning mothers-to-be — that was his true self all along.
When we see Jeevan twenty years later, he is not only married to Lara (whose child he helped deliver), but they have two more kids of their own, and live on a small island together. He’s known by all those around as “the doctor.” No longer aimless, anxious, and whiny, the settled peacefulness on his face speaks volumes. Still no credentials, of course, but he has become useful, experienced, and necessary to the folks in the surrounding area. In the show’s last episode, we watch him skillfully tend to a burn victim and gently grant permission to a dying woman to “let go,” whispering, “You’re not alone.” He finally has the confidence in his calling that Kirsten had in hers when she was only eight.
Forming Covalent Bonds with Strangers
Because the creators of this show are decent human beings, they give us that twenty-years-later reunion scene between Kirsten and Jeevan that our hearts needed. That wordless, shocked embrace is priceless, and the director lets us linger with them for a good long time. Although Kirsten and Jeevan have each formed their own families in the intervening years and will walk different paths, their hearts are unbreakably tethered to each other.
As Kirsten and Jeevan prepare to say goodbye (not forever, but just for a year, till her acting troupe completes its annual circuit and returns to the area), Jeevan tells Kirsten how hard it is to raise kids: “You love ‘em, but you get angry; you scare ‘em, they run away.” When Kirsten says, “I was never scared with you,” he admits, “I was always scared. And then I met this girl. Said I’d walk her home. It was so cold. She forgot her key…” And in the awkward, quiet space of his unfinished sentence lie all the apologies, love, admiration, and gratitude of their unique bond that turned two unlikely strangers into family.
“You walked her home,” Kirsten assures him, with tears and a hug. His help wasn’t perfect and it didn’t last forever, but it was enough. It was just what Kirsten needed to be able to survive, and to find her way to the next stranger with a harmonica in their pocket. In the backstage of a Chicago theater, on a crowded sidewalk, on a noisy El, and in an empty grocery store parking lot, Jeevan and Kirsten formed what author John Koenig calls a “covalent bond”:
[A] moment of sudden involvement in a stranger’s personal life — rushing over to break up a fight, helping a teary-eyed parent struggling with a stroller, righting someone’s bike after a bad fall — that shatters the invisible glass box that usually surrounds us in public, the one we prefer to pretend is impenetrable, which somehow renders us unable to speak. From covalence, literally “shared strength.”The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows
When Jeevan broke through that glass box of individualism — those invisible borders of not-my-problem — he thought he was doing something small, but he ended up saving Kirsten’s life. As the show’s writer Patrick Somerville puts it, it doesn’t take a global pandemic for someone’s world to end. A person can lose their whole world with one tragic phone call during a dinner party, an unlucky misstep, a betrayal, an accident, or a diagnosis — a personal apocalypse. Opportunities for forming “covalent bonds” — whether it’s saving someone’s world or just sitting beside them as it burns — surround us all the time.
The Ways People Find to Make Each Other Safe Again
Station Eleven, for all of its sad and scary moments, was created to highlight “the moments of repair and healing, and the ways people find to make each other safe again” (Patrick Somerville). According to Catholic priest and author Henri Nouwen, we are all called to be healers; we can’t leave that task solely to the credentialed specialists. “Healing is the humble but also very demanding task of creating and offering a friendly empty space where strangers can reflect on [or just “sit in”] their pain and suffering without fear.”
This doesn’t require a degree. But it does require a willingness to be sucked in and share someone’s suffering; to show up and bear witness to pain even if you can’t alleviate it; to hold someone’s hand, to hold their gaze, and to let them know they’re not alone. That’s one of the myriad meanings contained in the Cross: that God doesn’t belittle our suffering or look the other way. He’s the first one to know we’re in trouble; He jumps the stage for us; He walks us home.
Being a follower of Jesus means picking up your cross by helping someone else shoulder theirs. The only way to get closer to Him is to get closer to people who are hurting. It’s okay to feel inadequate or even disqualified when you’re called to something difficult: the prophet Isaiah sure did (Isaiah 6), as did Saint Peter (Luke 5:1-11) and Saint Paul (1 Corinthians 15:9-11). It’s okay to come empty-handed, to admit like Jeevan, “I can’t do this. I don’t know how to.”
Just show up; the courage to be there is enough.