** Spoiler Alert: This article contains spoilers for Station Eleven **
To The Monsters, We Are the Monsters
Station Eleven takes place in the sparsely populated, parochial world of former Chicago and the perimeter of Lake Michigan. The few folks lucky enough to survive a deadly global pandemic reconstitute society in small groups. Chance encounters between strangers lead to mutual avoidance, attack, or trust. Gone are the days of national institutions and patriotic cohesion, of affinity groups, echo chambers, and consumer choice. Post-pan individuals seldom have the privilege of self-sorting by preference, or of even assuming that their neighbors are benign. It’s a game of roulette, this business of who you end up with.
The way an encounter between strangers plays out in a lawless environment like this has a lot to do with the problem of threat perception. Traditional hero tales involve a man perceiving a threat, interpreting it as legit, and then proceeding to destroy it (think of St. George and the Dragon, Beowulf, and most MCU movies). But as I mentioned before, Station Eleven explores traditionally feminine virtues in extremis, rather than masculine ones, showing us the incompleteness of the paradigm in which “strange = evil threat = KILL IT!”
Sometimes that way is right; sometimes it’s not. There are at least two other ways of managing encounters with potential threats that don’t involve violence. Rather than killing the threat, you can convert it, and make a man out of the monster (think of Beauty and the Beast, or the Black Widow taming the Hulk). Treat “the other” as if he were your friend, and he just may become so.
Another path is to realize that the problem lies not in the stranger or threat per se, but in your own perspective, as in Dr. Seuss’s tale What Was I Scared Of? (those ghostly pale green pants with nobody inside them might be weird, but they’re not dangerous). One of Station Eleven’s perennial proverbs — “To the monsters, we are the monsters” — can leave you with the disquieting conviction that you might be someone else’s worst nightmare. Perhaps monstrosity isn’t a function of identity (as if some people were simply evil), but is rather a function of perception and relationship. A “monster” is something you don’t have a category for yet; it’s how strangers appear to each other before mutual trust is established.1
While it’s doubtful that you can be a hero without a sword tucked away just in case (metaphorically speaking, of course), you can be a hero without the sword fight. By gaining the capacity to see potential goodness in someone, or by providing a purifying space for a potential threat to repent and reform, the heroic paradigm changes into “strange = potential friend = communion.” This requires costly and risky hospitality. Station Eleven shows us how it works, in Kirsten’s mutually transformative relationship with David (a.k.a. Tyler), and in Lara’s agapic relationship to her unborn child.
Kirsten’s Penchant for Knives
In the first year of the pandemic, eight-year-old Kirsten Raymonde (Matilda Lawler) is saved and sheltered by brothers Jeevan and Frank Chaudhary (Himesh Patel and Nabhaan Rizwan). The day before they leave to look for more food and find a new home, an armed stranger slips in and attacks Frank with a knife, as Kirsten hides herself in terror. Jeevan barely manages to kill the intruder, but there’s nothing he can do for Frank, who dies from his wounds. When Jeevan and Kirsten leave the next day, she steps over the corpse of the intruder to reach for the knife that killed Frank. She takes it with her.
As Kirsten and Jeevan scavenge and hunt to survive, she becomes adept at trapping rabbits and shooting deer. She’s such a good shot that she can even bring down wolves. She manages her grief, boredom, and fear in two ways: by immersing herself in the one book she has with her (the comic Station Eleven), and by hurling that knife repeatedly into the wall of their cabin, aiming at invisible enemies. The repeated thud, thud, thud makes Jeevan twitchy.
A year later, when Kirsten and Jeevan are separated and she’s entirely on her own, she still has the knife. It’s hinted (but never shown outright) that she ends up killing multiple people over the years, both as a child and as an adult. When she encounters monsters, whether they’re wolves or violent “Bandana Meth Guys,” she becomes a monster, masterfully wielding and throwing the blade that once killed Frank — the man whose company was her comfort, and whose home was her salvation.
Kirsten puts her trauma to work, and survives for a year entirely on her own before meeting Sarah (Lori Petty), the Conductor of a Shakespearean acting troupe called the Traveling Symphony. Faced with this straggly, thirsty, bloody, knife-wielding mess of a child (sunk so deep into her beloved Station Eleven world that she can’t distinguish fantasy from reality), Sarah makes the first risky move and drops her gun. She introduces herself, and hands the dangerous stray a bottle of water and a box of Cheez-Its. When Kirsten realizes she’s safe, she begins to talk, and they form a bond. Kirsten is adopted into the Traveling Symphony, and over the years becomes their lead actor.
When we see adult Kirsten (Mackenzie Davis) twenty years post-pan, she still has a penchant for knives, and adds to her collection seasonally. Strapped to her body at all times, ready to be drawn at a moment’s notice, is Frank’s knife. Thus far, she has only one strategy for dealing with threats. If all you have is a knife, then everything looks like a target.
When Stabbing Your Enemies Doesn’t Work
When a stranger calling himself David (Daniel Zovatto) shows up at the Traveling Symphony’s camp seeking to join them, Kirsten sees right through his phony sob story and fake injury. But when he quotes to her from Station Eleven, “To the monsters, we are the monsters,” she stops dead in her tracks. As far as Kirsten knew, she had the only copy ever made of that comic — a gift from her mentor Arthur Leander (Gael Garcia Bernal), a unique creation that became like a Bible to her. It’s impossible that David should know anything about it, much less recite from it. She is connected to this stranger in a way she doesn’t understand, and it unsettles her.
After watching the Symphony’s performance that evening (in which Kirsten stars as the grieving Hamlet), David speaks directly to her heart: “You’re charged with that Day Zero pain. It’s like you never left.” Refusing to let her guard down, she confronts him over his lies and creepiness, but he maintains that he must be allowed to join the Traveling Symphony, or else. If he is denied, people she loves will begin to disappear. In half a second she’s got Frank’s knife at his throat, and she stabs him in the gut with the new switchblade she acquired that very afternoon, leaving him to bleed out: nobody messes with Kirsten’s family. In the morning she revisits the spot and sees the blood, but the stranger she stabbed is gone.
David doesn’t die. As the story unfolds, Kirsten is forced into circumstances in which she must not only help David heal from the wound she inflicted, but also save him from a bandit attack. At the start, she helps him because she has to, and because their goals temporarily align; but over time, she begins to see herself in him. She even grudgingly helps him break back into his original post-pan “home”— the Museum of Civilization, a highly functional (yet tyrannical and backward-looking) collective who’ve been holed up in an airport for twenty years, curating a collection of artifacts from “Before.”
David’s real name is Tyler, and he is actually the estranged son of Arthur Leander (Kirsten’s mentor). As a child, Tyler was severely mistreated by the people at the airport, and so he faked his death in a fire and ran away, abandoning his mother and his original identity. Twenty years of drifting later, he’s returning to burn the Museum’s collection in an attempt to erase his old traumas, with the aid of orphans and runaway children who have gathered around him as a father figure and call him “The Prophet.” Tyler is so nihilistic towards the past that he’s enlisted children as suicide bombers for his burn-it-all-down cause (which is truly monstrous). “There is no Before,” was Tyler’s childhood mantra, gleaned from Station Eleven’s pages. Arthur had given him a copy too.
The same pandemic trauma; the same father figure; the same graphic novel that provided a script for coping with unimaginable loss; the same tendencies to violence: over and over again, Kirsten is put into the position of recognizing Tyler as being fundamentally the same as herself — a hurting human who needs family, home, and connection, just like she does. In learning how to help Tyler, Kirsten is also helping herself heal. Her attachment to her knife begins to loosen.
After Kirsten and Tyler are accepted into the Museum of Civilization, he covertly sets their collection ablaze, and the Museum’s leader locks him up. Tyler’s mother eventually recognizes him (the son she thought was dead), and is desperate to connect and to make amends for past harms. He refuses to speak to her.
When the Traveling Symphony comes to the airport/Museum to perform Hamlet, Kirsten decides to use the play as a means of reconciliation. She casts Tyler in the role of the grieving and confused Hamlet alongside his real-life mother as Gertrude, giving him the opportunity to dramatically act out his disgust, rage, and pain, and giving his mother the chance to listen. “Why are you helping me?” Tyler asks Kirsten before stepping on stage for the scene in which he would confront his mother. “Stabbing you didn’t work,” Kirsten shrugs.
That very day, Kirsten had unstrapped Frank’s knife from her body and given it to a friend for safekeeping (she felt she no longer needed it). Her friend passed the knife along to Tyler, who then wields it during the play. Kirsten doesn’t intervene to stop him: she lets the drama run its course. Tyler and his mother speak to one another through Shakespeare’s words, and cathartically come to terms with their painful past. Tyler doesn’t kill anyone, but he finally says his piece, and makes peace, on the stage that Kirsten provided for his healing.
After the play, Tyler and his mother embrace, making plans for the future together: he is done trying to destroy the past. He forgives, and he is forgiven. Tyler is humanized and homed, because Kirsten (with gritted teeth at first, but with increasing gentleness) decided that he was no longer the enemy. “Station Eleven is a story about how everybody’s connected; you just need the right frame to be able to see how, sometimes,” says the show’s creator, Patrick Somerville.2 The ability to change your framing of another person can mean the difference between stabbing a stranger and helping someone who is just like you towards wholeness and reconciliation.
“There’s a Person Inside Me. I Don’t Like Strangers.”
Station Eleven is a story about how everybody is connected: both strangers and family. We see this play out in a different way at the birthing center (flash back to Year One post-pan), where Jeevan forms a bond with mother-to-be Lara (Tattiawna Jones). While Lara and Jeevan share their first awkward hug, Jeevan asks her (with an innocence he probably picked up from Kirsten), “What’s it like being pregnant?” “It’s good,” Lara smiles. “Scary. There’s a person inside me. I don’t like strangers.” Her sentiment is reasonable in a post-apocalyptic world where trusting the wrong stranger could cost you your life. But she’s not talking about strangers “out there”: she means the baby in her body.
Pregnancy and parenthood are some of the most radical and involved forms of hospitality to the stranger that a person can experience. When a baby is created in the good old-fashioned way, you never know who you’re going to get (no vetting, no Yelp reviews, no swiping left). And yet, parents welcome each child with acceptance and commitment to their good, loving them before they have conscious awareness, or any capacity to be mutual and return the favor. This form of hospitality isn’t a one- or two-night stay: it lasts (bare minimum) nine months plus eighteen years.
Women’s bodies are intrinsically homes: that’s both “good” and “scary.” To go through puberty as a young woman is to recognize oneself (monthly no less!) as a mammal, as a creature with hospitable and fruitful potential. It is to be forced into the continuous conscious recognition that I have a nature; my very body has a telos of hospitality, and it didn’t ask me how I’d feel about it. To be a woman is to be an embodied self that is fine-tuned to make room for more people. Women don’t have the luxury of pretending they are purely autonomous, separate individuals.
If a woman is not in a consciously welcoming frame of mind when a little stranger shows up at her proverbial “door,” it can be very disturbing. Even if she’s eager to meet this new person, pregnancy and birth are not without risks, as Station Eleven shows us. On the Winter Solstice, all of the women at the birthing center enter into labor, but not all of them make it through to the other side. Young Rose dies in childbirth, though her baby lives. In such conditions of privation (few fathers around, no life-saving medical treatments, no infrastructure), it’s easy to imagine that a pregnant woman might view her “guest” as an intruder, a parasite, or a thief who will steal resources (and maybe even her life). But despite these risks, Station Eleven shows us women who courageously roll out the red carpet for their babies and celebrate the arrival of these vulnerable newcomers.
Rebuilding civilization after collapse requires an attitude of risky hospitality to strangers, whether they show up cold and dirty on your doorstep, or warm and tiny in your womb. In Station Eleven, trust is the currency of the day, and hospitality — the generous donation of unearned trust and kindness — is the greatest and most costly virtue.
This Being Human Is a Guest House
Rather than seeking out a newly-coined word for this occasion, I’m dusting off an old Greek one: φιλοξενία (philoxenia), from “philo” — love, and “xenia” — stranger. Philoxenia, often translated “hospitality” or “welcome,” is eager warmth and friendliness offered to the outsider. It’s the opposite of xenophobia, and it’s sprinkled throughout the New Testament. Saint Paul entreats us not only to “welcome strangers into your home,” but to “bless people who harass you” (Rom. 12:9-14 CEB). Saint Peter enjoins us to “offer hospitality to one another without grumbling” (1 Pet. 4:9 NIV). The author of Hebrews reminds us of a mystery: “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it” (Heb. 13:2 NIV). And then there are the men on the road to Emmaus, who walked and talked with the resurrected Jesus for hours, and even brought him home to share supper, before finally recognizing who their guest was (Luke 24:13-35). The Virgin Mary became known by the early church as Theotokos — the Godbearer — because she hosted God himself in her womb.
To love and welcome the stranger is fundamentally the same act as inviting Jesus to dinner: “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in” (Matt. 25:35 NIV). There’s a genuine risk involved, because the stranger isn’t always an angel. The medieval Persian mystic Rūmī wrote a poem called “The Guest House,” in which he encourages us to fling wide the doors of our hearts, no matter who or what appears before us:
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
Rūmī reminds us that we ought not to limit our hospitality to those things (and those people) that appear harmless and safe, that won’t cost us much. Don’t be stingy, he hints: meet them at the door laughing, and invite them in. It’s only in the warmth of the womb, the hygge of home, the acceptance of family, the circle of friendship, and the cooperation of a troupe, a tribe, or a church, that an enemy has the possibility of becoming something else, something better. The frog stays a frog until he’s kissed. No monster becomes human in solitude: only love can do that work.
To forgive is to give love before it is earned. Agapic love like this is what creates persons: that’s how God makes us, and it’s how parents make their children — by loving them into being.3 This is what I meant when I wrote in my intro to this series that Station Eleven demonstrates the necessity of traditionally feminine virtues. It’s the creation of a sacred space in which monsters are not destroyed, but are made human and whole. It’s the creation of a sacred space in which those “inconvenient guests” (i.e. babies) are welcomed with communal help and celebrated with communal joy. When Station Eleven’s creator, Patrick Sommerville, said, “I want to get to a hug with people crying as the end of every story,” he was showing us that even apocalyptic tales can have a happy ending, not because of a triumphant Armageddon-style battle, but because women and men open their hearts and lives to strangers.
While it’s true that there are moments when genuine threats ought to be greeted with the sharp edge of rejection or defense, we need to have those other heroic virtues on board, strapped tight to our hearts and ready to whip out at a moment’s notice: “Come along inside . . . We’ll see if tea and buns can make the world a better place.”4
Stay tuned for the next article on the final epiphany of Station Eleven.
2. Patrick Sommerville, interview after episode 8, HBO Max.
3. Professor John Vervaeke, Ep. 16 – Awakening from the Meaning Crisis – Christianity and Agape.
4. Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows.