The world ends in Station Eleven in a way that feels a little too intensely realistic. A mutated influenza virus suddenly spreads across the world. Asymptomatic carriers bring the disease to healthy people, and once it takes hold, the death toll is catastrophic. Within days, most of the population of the world is dead, infrastructure begins to crumble, and isolated pockets of people are left trapped, desperately figuring out how to go on.
Then the show leaps forward 20 years to focus on a band of post-apocalyptic survivors who travel around Lake Michigan, performing Shakespeare. To me, it's one of the most realistic depictions of what the end of the world might really look like that I've ever seen in such media.
It's also a depiction from which similar stories taking place at the end of the world would do well to take a page. Watching Station Eleven, I immediately thought of the forthcoming adaptation of The Last of Us, another post-apocalyptic tragedy in which small groups of survivors desperately cling to life after modern society has crumbled. And while Station Eleven and The Last of Us have some differing underlying themes and goals--at least from what we can glean from the video games on which The Last of Us is based--the latter could still gain a lot by borrowing some ideas from the former.
In fact, the best parts of The Last of Us are those that hew closely to the best parts of Station Eleven. They're not the violent, action-heavy set-pieces that tend to define the games, but the human moments in which characters decide why survival is worth all this hardship in the first place.
Station Eleven, which is available to stream on HBO Max, stands out from most post-apocalyptic media because the world it imagines seems to have a dearth of people who want to kill each other. That doesn't mean there's no violence in Station Eleven--there's quite a bit, in fact. But, as mentioned, this is also a story about a roving Shakespeare company. The Traveling Symphony takes to the road each year, dropping by small settlements in Michigan and Illinois to perform. Though they are wary of strangers and refuse to leave "the wheel," their route of travel through the area that keeps them in familiar territory and stops them at trustworthy settlements, they're still not a group of battle-hardened killers, they're a traveling theater troupe. A group of actors and musicians make and keep performance appointments every year, existing merely and specifically to bring art and entertainment to other humans.
Though Station Eleven imagines the collapse of modern society, this bit feels extremely true and realistic. The story makes it a point that people in its world don't merely subsist in isolated places, hiding from murderous brigands and eeking out a living. They go on, as people do; they take chances and travel and focus all their efforts on human pursuits that go beyond combat training. It points back to the whole history of civilization, the majority of which was much more similar to these post-apocalyptic worlds than to the vast interconnected cities we know now. Yes, sometimes dangerous people look to hurt others and take from them. But most of the time, people just want to live. They create towns and communities, they farm and hunt together, they tell stories and sing songs.
Contrast that with much of what takes place in The Last of Us games, or in similar properties like The Walking Dead. Both of which are more hostile worlds than in Station Eleven, granted, thanks to the fact that each includes some brand of zombie. At the same time, however, both stories put a huge amount of emphasis on protagonists encountering other survivors and almost always finding them hostile. In The Last of Us, Joel and Ellie carve a bloody path through what seems to be a hundreds-strong society of bandits whose whole deal is setting traps for people, killing them, stealing their stuff, and eating them.
The thing about this kind of vision of the end of the world is that it seems to revel in assuming that all that's holding back most people from going completely feral, from killing one another without hesitation over anything from the scarcity of food to an injury to pride, is the thin thread of societal rule. If there were no laws, these stories assume, we'd all become monsters. Station Eleven includes some for whom that might be true, but by and large, people choose to go the other way. They'd rather not hurt one another, and instead work together and help one another. In fact, the show starts with protagonist Kirsten attacking a man she sees as dangerous, known as "the Prophet," and that act of wanton violence kicks off a string of horrific unforeseen consequences. Randomly murdering anyone who might be a threat, it turns out, is perhaps bad.
The best parts of The Last of Us aren't those when Joel and Ellie murder bandit after bandit as they sneak through destroyed cities, racking up so high a body count that you start to hear ambient dialogue between enemies who are all starting to wonder why they're out here, searching for these death incarnations that have wiped out tens of their friends. They're the character moments when Ellie remembers playing an arcade game, when Joel grabs a guitar and sings a mournful song, and when the pair of them visit a museum together. The human moments are what make The Last of Us games resonate with their players.
To be clear, this isn't an argument against The Last of Us including violence. The lengths to which people will go to ensure not only their own survival, but the survival of those people they love, is intrinsic to the games' stories, and I don't think that changes with a TV adaptation. But the requirements of a video game--namely, gameplay--lend themselves to including a lot of violence and a lot of hostile characters, and a TV adaptation doesn't have those same needs. As a different take on the world and story, a show can imagine a broader and more varied post-apocalypse than the game might have room for.
In short, not everyone in The Last of Us TV show has to be a monster. It can instead depict a world where humans are human; where dangerous people exist, and just as many decide they don't need to be dangerous. The history of humanity is one of people making the choice to build civilization--it's not something that happened to us, and therefore not something that hangs by a thread, ready to collapse as soon as something removes "the rules." If The Last of Us wants to resonate with its adaptation, its creators would do well to keep that in mind.