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‘Station Eleven’ Showrunner Patrick Somerville Breaks Down That Emotional Finale

The EP tells TheWrap about that reunion, a potential Season 2 and much more

Warning: The following article contains spoilers for the “Station Eleven” series finale.

The HBO Max limited series “Station Eleven” came to an end not with a bang, not with a cliffhanger, but with Shakespeare. And showrunner Patrick Somerville is very aware of the risk he took by steering the finale towards an emotional rendition of “Hamlet.”

The tears flowed freely as this story of finding hope and recovering from trauma in a post-pandemic world came to an emotional close, with characters like Kirsten (Mackenzie Davis) and Jeevan (Himesh Patel) finally reuniting, and Tyler (Daniel Zovatto) and his mother Elizabeth (Caitlin FitzGerald) finally reconciling.

In an interview with TheWrap about Episode 10, showrunner Patrick Somerville said when it came to Jeevan and Kirsten’s reunion, he had one particular thought in mind. “I’ve always loved that phrase that C.S. Lewis said, ‘Surprised by joy,’” Somerville explained. “I just love the idea of the end of a post-apocalyptic story being a twist, but instead it’s a surprise by joy twist that felt earned. It didn’t feel like it was bullsh-t.”

Another twist? Having the big Tyler and Elizabeth confrontation happen in the context of Shakespeare, as Elizabeth is cast as Gertrude and Tyler is cast as Hamlet in the Traveling Symphony’s performance of “Hamlet” at the airport. “They’re going to be saying the Shakespeare words, but hopefully if we do this right, you’re going to be feeling the feelings about their stories,” Somerville said about the inception of the story point. “That felt like a very exciting, somewhat dangerous idea to be perfectly honest.” The key, Somerville added, was that Tyler and Elizabeth aren’t trying to play the Shakespeare characters during the scene. They’re being themselves, and being emotionally vulnerable with one another.

The threat of danger looms large in the finale, just as it was ever-present throughout the preceding nine episodes, and while the final episode is full of hope and optimism, Somerville felt the series needed to earn that joy by taking the pain and suffering of the characters seriously in the previous episodes. “Every movie that pretends pain and suffering isn’t there feels cheap,” Somerville said. “Part of the idea of the show always was like, this genre is funky because so many people die. There’s a lot of opportunity to actually earn joy back. But for some reason, a lot of times when people make these stories, they continue leaning into suffering. It’s like how many deaths is enough deaths before you don’t want to show deaths anymore?” The hugs and “big feelings” were counterbalanced by the grounded and brutal storyline involving Miranda and the pilot, whom she tells not to let his passengers off his plane.

Elsewhere in our conversation, Somerville explained why his aversion to depicting sexual violence led, in part, to his rethinking of the Tyler character for the series, the complicated nature of Tyler’s arc (and parallels to the QAnon movement), crafting the Jeevan/Kirsten reunion, the show’s final shot, how the experience contrasted with his experience making “Maniac” and more.

And while Somerville said this feels like the end of the road for this limited series, he left a sliver of a door open for a Season 2: “Year 25 seems like kind of an interesting space, I have to say.”

Check out our full interview – which includes spoilers for the “Station Eleven” series finale – below.

TheWrap: I was curious how soon the finale came into view for you, and how does the final version of what that final episode would be compare to those initial ideas?

Patrick Somerville: Well, I think it depends on what altitude you’re looking at it from because when we initially pitched the show, Hiro [Murai] and I, that was April of 2019. We already knew. We had had a mini room, and I had done some work before Hiro came aboard about a few significant things we wanted to do, one being that all roads lead to the airport for the three big forces of the story, which were the Traveling Symphony, the Museum of Civilization and the Undersea in Tyler’s call. We saw an opportunity just to build to kind of a more climactic intersection of those three ways of looking at the world and all the characters associated with them because in the novel, it’s sort of a series of near misses that sort of gently strings out between Tyler and Kirsten and then Clark and Kirsten. And we just sort of wanted to make that adjustment and make that all come together in a very TV way. It just seemed like an opportunity because we knew we would build the airport too.

So that was a long time ago. All roads, all players converged. But I think it wasn’t until, honestly, somewhere around March, in the middle of our production, that all the final pieces fell into place about how to do what we ended up doing. We were really cross-boarded to shoot the show and we were shooting really out of order. So we shot episodes 8 and 10 two months into our shoot with only 1, 3, 7 and 9 shot. And then we shot the finale.

So everyone in the Traveling Symphony had to work in reverse from there as we got summertime back in Canada — we shot out of order for the seasons, but it was sort of all coalescing together as we were shooting right around February and March that the play was going to happen, that Tyler, Clark and Elizabeth were going to star in it, that Kirsten was going to direct. There were versions of that all through the pandemic year when we were waiting to go back, but this particular permutation where we ended up really kind of came together just in February and March [of 2020].

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HBO Max

That’s my long winded way of saying we knew, but we didn’t know. Or we knew the big story stuff, but the micro story stuff, figuring out, for example, how to do that scene between Elizabeth and Tyler in the little faux dungeon as a little kind of prep session for how this was going to work for the audience. They’re going to be saying the Shakespeare words, but hopefully if we do this right, you’re going to be feeling the feelings about their stories. That felt like a very exciting, somewhat dangerous idea to be perfectly honest.

Because I couldn’t tell if that was going to work. It felt like it should. It did. It seemed to on paper, but it was actually that night shooting the Elizabeth/Tyler scene, the small scene where they just do the Gertrude ‘Hamlet’ scene, I remember standing at the monitors and watching and being like, ‘Oh, this is going to work,’ because our actors are playing Elizabeth and Tyler right now. They’re not even trying to play Gertrude and Hamlet. So I was like, ‘We might have something here.’

It’s wonderful. One of the really nice surprises as well is you said you have everyone kind of coming together at the end. That kind of thing where it’s all connected and they all come together can more often than not turn. Was that top of mind for you of how do we do this in an organic way to tie it all together at the end and have it not feel—

Fake?

Yeah. Artificial or ‘Now we’re really going to make you cry,’ like that kind of thing.

Yeah. Forcing it rather than earning or surprising. Yeah, very much. I think the answer is sort of the same as it is for every other time we were successful in the show, which was stick to our core principals, story-wise, and find it don’t force it. So to me, the way to kind of feel our way into the episode was through Kirsten’s head space, number one. What is happening for Kirsten? Because there are so many characters in the show. There are so many other stories we’ve told. We’ve spent a lot of time with Kirsten now in both of the slices of her life, but I think up until Episode 10, Kirsten hasn’t sort of had the story flow and coalesce around her. I think the case can be made in 6, it does to some extent, but it’s split with the Symphony.

It always felt right for Mackenzie’s arc in particular that we were going to build and build and build her worlds to make the audience understand and hopefully care about the Symphony. But now is when Kirsten’s line was really going to come into focus. So the idea that she declares that she is the director and she sort of has this moment while in conflict with Elizabeth, kind of a tense negotiation with Elizabeth, depending on how you look at it. But that moment when she says “I’m the director” and the sort of crystallizing of her new identity in the Symphony, it really felt like a finding of her sea legs in the world and the payoff to, I would say, her willingness to remember the apartment and trauma and look at it and deal with it throughout the season.

Her reward for that is the strength to say, ‘I know what to do.’ We didn’t have super preconceived notions, I think, when we were trying to figure it out. It’s just like, ‘What’s up with Kirsten?’. Kirsten declares she’s the director. She’s becoming the leader of this group in a way, and that’s the story of [Episode] 10.

And then the other thing that I felt kept us safe from [overdoing it] – because there’s a lot of big feelings, there’s a lot of hugs, there’s a lot of big score — but the other thing that made me feel like we were in good shape was we knew we were holding this other story about Miranda and her phone call with Captain Hugo that was this ultra-grounded, incredibly I think sort of … tough love isn’t really even the word, painfully tough love. “Don’t let them out.” I think throughout the series, there are various characters using the metaphor of a door to understand whether or not it’s safe to talk about feelings. Sometimes the answer is yes. Sometimes the answer is f–king no. Sometimes you’ve got to feel it and don’t let anyone in no matter what. And I think the show tried to remember that stuff and I think like maudlin, like you’re saying, would be like, ‘Open the door, open the door. It’s only good. Always open the door. Show your feelings with me.’ And that’s bullsh-t. That’s not grown-up life.

But sometimes close the f–king door is the right advice. And I think to hear one of your major characters, even though it absolutely kills her to say it to a stranger, but like, ‘You’re dead already and so are they. Don’t let them out.’ It’s pretty brutal. And I think it was a great counterbalance, to me, of the reunion between Jeevan and Kirsten. I feel like the show’s always at its best when it’s both making you cry for positive reasons, but also very clearly pointing at bad things that happened in our world, whether that’s invaders entering homes with knives or women dying in childbirth. I think the show wouldn’t have worked unless we did the tough side of things as well.

Yeah. I mean, life is joy and hope, and life is also pain and suffering. They coexist.

Yeah. Every movie that pretends pain and suffering isn’t there feels cheap. Part of the idea of the show always was like, this genre is funky because so many people die. There’s a lot of opportunity to actually earn joy back. But for some reason, a lot of times when people make these stories, they continue leaning into suffering. It’s like how many deaths is enough deaths before you don’t want to show deaths anymore? I watched ‘Die Hard 2’ last night and I was remembering the public outcry about that plane crashing and the amount of deaths depicted in the film. And I was like, ‘Check out this genre,’ but if we’re talking about total numbers, I don’t know. It’s so big. It’s not controversial, but I guess it’s always weird to me that stories that are using mass death as fuel don’t pivot the other direction to try to kind of, I don’t know, pay that off with more balance or something. It feels a big cheat unless you do both sides of it.

I wanted to ask about the show’s depiction of The Prophet and Tyler, which is one of the biggest departures from the book. In the show there are no heroes and villains, really. There are just people with varying degrees of goodness and badness within. I was curious how you kind of came to that realization that The Prophet would not just be your Big Bad of the show, but a character with his own complexities.

Coming from ‘The Leftovers’ and watching how the idea of a cult was handled by Damon [Lindelof] and Tom [Perrotta] and also sort of how much got mined, and we ultimately end up in a sympathetic place, I think, understanding Patty by the end of that show. I just didn’t want to do anything having to do with cults unless it had something a little bit extra going on just from the start. And I think Tyler in the novel’s a little bit more shallowly hostile and violent and less substantial, and I thought, OK, well, I don’t want to do that just because cults can be boring unless you do something different.’

But also, I really don’t like the depiction of sexual violence in television at all. I mean, I think I have no interest in ever representing sexual violence on television. I think just implicitly baked into that cult was Tyler was married to children, young women. He was a pedophile, and I guess I understand there’s a harsh reality truth to that, but for our story, it felt much more in the spirit of our show that we’re dealing with [the] population of those who survived are all traumatized in the same way. And then they also have their own traumas from before, and they’ve had different experiences based on who they ran into from the time of the event to the end. And for Tyler, it just felt like it was more complicated than that just in the same way that I think our Elizabeth ended up being a little bit more complicated and multi-dimensional in this story than the Elizabeth in the novel.

I think that we just wanted to show, honestly, how close the experience Kirsten had was to his experience minus a couple switches and toggles about who did you run into when. In Kirsten’s case, she had Jeevan. In Tyler’s case, he had Clark, and it wasn’t quite as safe for Tyler, but they both had Arthur.

So it felt like losing Tyler completely to bad guy, cult leader felt like just a loss of the story opportunity for us. The other cool thing I think about Tyler being a Pied Piper-type is the examination of children and what it means to be a child both in the before and the after, and how we all need a parent figure even if we don’t have parents. What happened to children, but what happens to children when stories get told, how good stories can be to keep us together and keep us safe but have danger and perhaps things like QAnon existing in our world influencing us, too, just watching kind of wild narratives spinning around and then the deniability, or the storyteller’s allowed to deny it when one of the listeners of the story goes rogue and goes and harms someone.

I think that was definitely on my mind, is that we’re living in a kind of strange time with wild narratives whipping around completely convincing people of things in the short term. But I think Tyler’s trying to do good. I actually think that he’s come up with a way to protect children. He’s kind of a single parent. He’s a terrible single parent and irresponsible in many ways, but there’s a case to be made that he’s kept all those children alive. And then he loses some to delusional places sometimes, but Year 20 is a wild space. So it just felt like such an opportunity to tell more of a story and to flesh out the world by fating up kind of the dimensions of Tyler’s story.

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Is that where the landmines stuff came from? Because we saw previously there were a bunch of kids coming towards the airport, but there were other kids with more landmines.

Yeah, I think that’s the implication, and I think there’s a couple more moments where you catch glimpses, like the kids at the end, when they’re leaving after Tyler says goodbye to Clark. They all have those bags. And Tyler says some things in Episode 6, and so does Cody, how there’s a swarm coming. It was more about the scale to me than about the bombs. It was more like this pod of kids you’ve seen throughout the season is only one of many, and Tyler’s actually built a much bigger army of children than we know about at the end. To me, that’s the more explosive thing than the mines themselves. It’s just he’s powerful in that he can convince children to follow him.

I think that’s more the danger of the future for him, too, the power he’s going to wield as they grow older because he’s the master storyteller. So he can just sort of make this up. But yeah, I think the other thing about that, too, is that we all knew we weren’t going to do a hostage situation with f—ing kids with bombs and timers counting down. The show’s about art.

I don’t know, you just watched ‘Die Hard 2.’ You really could have gone in that direction with the airport.

I love it. I wrote for ’24’ on the limited series, I love that stuff and you could feel it in Episode 3, I hope, where Miranda’s on her mission, but just like in Episode 3, at some point, you just got to drop the f—ing keys into the water and say, ‘We’re not doing this kind of story. We’re doing a different kind of story. We’re about to put on ‘Hamlet’ now and feel some big feels (laughs).’ So I guess to answer your question, yes, there are threats from Tyler, but I think the real danger of our show, the stakes, is almost always emotional nature and the emergency of not overcoming trauma, honestly. If you’ve been traumatized, it feels like you’re in an emergency, I think, all the time. So you start finding ways to look at it and talk to other people about it and communicate. So I think the emergency of our show is the pre-pans being OK. And none of them are, still, I think in Year 20.

I mean, it’s a massive traumatic experience, and we’re living through it right now in the real world.

Well, there’s the other thing too. I mean, Lord knows what it’s going to look like 20 years from now looking back at now. I keep getting the feeling it’s going to be like cigarettes. Like in ‘Die Hard 2,’ John McLane’s just smoking, walking through the luggage terminal. And now it’s like, holy sh-t. That’s what we thought? I feel like 20 years from now we’re going to look back at this and be like, holy sh-t, we thought we were OK?

It’s in the show too. It’s like, we don’t want to process it. We just want to get back to normal as quickly as possible and not deal with what happened.

It’s not just not [wanting] to process it, I think it’s also a little bit cannot process, that the scale of trauma is so big that it’s going to take five years to be safe enough to talk about it, which is I think deep down the why now of year 20 for Kirsten. Why now are these invasive memories of her time in the apartment coming up? Well, it’s a little bit ‘Hamlet,’ a little bit because The Prophet is around that’s stirring up some old feelings, and a little bit because Alex is coming of age. But mostly it’s because I think this is the first year it’s been safe enough for Kirsten’s subconscious to actually start grappling with some of these things.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you about the Kirsten/Jeevan reunion. It feels like it might not happen throughout that finale. There’s almost like a missed connection vibe that felt very cruel, but I think it made the reunion all the sweeter. But then you don’t milk that reunion for emotion. It’s perfect.

Well, one of the challenges of the show, and this is true and I’m sure the actors would say this too, is it’s very unusual in that the audience is so far ahead of the characters, especially by now in Episode 10. That’s why I love this little run where Kirsten’s like, ‘I’m the director.’ We’re like, ‘What’s she up to? She’s ahead of us for the first time.’ I think that’s very invigorating for Mackenzie in the episode. Watching her play it, I’m sort of like, ‘Where are you going? I’ll follow you now. I don’t know what you’re going to do. You’re up to something.’ That was a new energy for us. But what kind of monster would I be if it hadn’t reunited them? I was like, yes, we’re doing the near miss. Yes, the timing of it is like, ‘Oh, I bet you … Is Jeevan leaving right there at the airport?’ You tell me. Did you think we were doing the close-but-sorry thing?

I think I knew that it wasn’t going to happen, but also I think it gives you the feeling like it’s building up this yearning and this tension of you already know you want to see them together, but to see Jeevan in the foreground and Kirsten walking in the background and them not seeing each other, your heart breaks.

Shakespeare would do that to you.

Yes.

It was hard to tell what people would care about, too. So this was a bit of a guess. They knew that they would care about this, but playing with the nearness of it, I was like, ‘Oh, this feels safe because I know they are going to reunite,’ but I was just watching it the other night, and I was like, man, I kind of forgot about Jeevan amidst that sequence with Miranda, and I don’t know. I’ve always loved that phrase that C.S. Lewis phrased, ‘Surprised by joy,’ which I think he uses in terms of finding Catholicism and the truth of that narrative or how it struck him all at once or watched over him. And I just love the idea of, the end of a post-apocalyptic story being a twist, but instead it’s a surprise by joy twist that felt earned. It didn’t feel like it was bullsh-t. You needed all that time with Kirsten thinking the wrong thing. You needed the near-miss. You needed to forget a little bit, I think, when you go with Miranda to get to that hook.

But my hope is that people came in wanting it, got real worried that it wasn’t coming and then got to cry a lot and be really happy for those two when they found each other. I will say, too, my favorite scene in the entire series is the last scene of the show. Just that scene, Mackenzie and Himesh, the only time they were able to interact with each other in the entire series, but it wasn’t really trying to be the pinnacle of the series. It’s a bit thrown away here and there, but they’re both incredible, and our director Jeremy Podeswa is so on fire, just with the visual right there. It all just kind of landed just right. I just love that scene, and it took the whole show to get to it, but it’s my favorite scene of the show.

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Then the way that they do meet, you’re not expecting it because you’ve got this tension from Kirsten with the girl with the mines, and she takes the book, and you’re like, “What’s happening?” The camera turns, and he’s there, which I think is a really beautiful reveal.

Well, that reminds me, too, the ultimate sleight of hand is Deborah Cox singing ‘Midnight Train to Georgia.’ Even if you’re still worrying about those two, it’s hard to listen to Deborah sing and not be entranced by that just for a second. So, we knew we were holding a secret weapon the entire season with Deborah, and we deployed her.

I know this is HBO Max, but with HBO, even if it’s billed as a limited series, we’ve seen them come back for second seasons. Is this the end of the book in your eyes or is there more story to tell?

I think it’s the end. I mean, it’s kind of like [how] I felt about ‘Maniac,’ too, is a tremendous amount of world building, talent, energy, time, love put into making this extremely expansive universe and also editorial language and the costuming and the collection of humans who came together to make this, not to mention Dan Romer’s score. You spend years making these things, and it seems impossible to just sort of not keep going, but at the same time, I don’t know. It feels kind of right, too. Everything ends. So we sold it as a limited series, and to me, it’s a limited series. That said, Year 25 seems like kind of an interesting space, I have to say.

And you managed to make the story that you wanted to tell even with the COVID interruption.

Yes, but I’d be full of sh-t if I didn’t add that I think I didn’t know what story I wanted to tell until after COVID hit. I mean, on paper I can point to things, narrative-wise, but I think emotionally, it took COVID happening for me to understand how to make “Station Eleven.”

I am a big fan of ‘Maniac,’ I’m curious how the process, comparing and contrasting with that because on that, Cary Fukunaga is directing all the episodes so you have a creative partnership, or potentially two visions for a series. What was the experience for you working with multiple directors on “Station Eleven?”

I mean, Cary and I were co-showrunners. And so it was an extremely different experience because while Jeremy was our producing director, Hiro [Murai] is an executive producer. Every director we have shot multiple episodes. It was just built a little differently. So, I think Lucy Tcherniak, Helen Shaver, Jeremy Podeswa, [are] four incredible talents, and it just felt like we were all doing the same thing together. And I think whenever we had sort of created disagreements about what to do, that was a deeply productive tension that somehow ‘Station Eleven’ in the end was the author of ‘Station Eleven.’ Everyone would just try to kind of articulate what it was supposed to be, and we would all do that, but we were all kind of looking at the same thing, and I think it was a productive tension with Cary in a different kind of way, too. So, it was sort of like we thought the same thing a lot of the times, and the times we didn’t, we worked out a thing that felt right to both of us, but everything comes down to how shows are built and the order in which they’re built. I think the scale of ‘Station Eleven’ was also so gigantic that we needed all the help that we could get.

All episodes of “Station Eleven” are currently streaming on HBO Max.

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