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Finding Joy Through Art at the End of the World in ‘Station Eleven’

There’s a scene in Emily St. John Mandel’s 2014 pandemic novel “Station Eleven” when people stranded inside a Midwestern airport realize that no one is coming to save them, because nearly everyone else is dead.

One character, clinging to hope that the crisis will pass, says, “I can’t wait till things get back to normal,” a sentiment that feels depressingly familiar two years into the pandemic.

One might imagine that a story about a devastating viral outbreak would be a hard sell right now. Instead, to Mandel’s surprise, readers — and more recently, viewers — seem to be finding solace in her post-apocalyptic world, where traumatized survivors take comfort from art, music and friendships with strangers.

“There’s something inherently hopeful in that message, just that life goes on,” Mandel said in an interview on Wednesday.

Station Eleven” sales jumped in 2020 and 2021 and have now surpassed 1 million copies. Last month, HBO Max began airing a 10-episode limited series based on the novel, which was adapted by Patrick Somerville and concludes on Thursday. Some viewers have found the show to be oddly life-affirming, despite its premise that billions died from a respiratory illness with a 99 percent fatality rate. James Poniewozik, the chief television critic for the Times, called it “the most uplifting show about life after the end of the world that you are likely to see.”

Like the novel, the TV series follows a Shakespearean troupe that travels the Great Lakes region performing for survivors, offering hope that art will endure in a world without electricity, plumbing, antibiotics or iPhones. It opens just before the virus sweeps across North America, at a performance where an actor playing King Lear (Gael García Bernal) collapses onstage and dies while a man from the audience, Jeevan Chaudhary, tries to revive him. In the series, Jeevan (Himesh Patel) ends up caring for Kirsten, a young actress in the play (Matilda Lawler), and they quarantine together with his brother Frank (Nabhaan Rizwan) when society abruptly shuts down.

The story jumps back and forth between the prepandemic era, the present day, the beginning of the end of the world, and 20 years after the crisis. Kirsten (played in her adult years by Mackenzie Davis) has joined the theater company, a touring caravan putting on productions of “Hamlet” and other Shakespeare plays. On the road, she meets a prophet she shares a strange connection with — an obsession with an obscure graphic novel about a spaceman named Dr. Eleven.

Ahead of the series finale, Mandel spoke to the Times about why the story is resonating with Covid-weary audiences, her unease with being treated as a pandemic prophet and why she feels hope for a post-apocalyptic world. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

It must have been weird to publish a pandemic novel set in the near future and then see a pandemic arrive. What was it like watching this unfold?

I really predicted nothing. When you research the history of pandemics, as I did for “Station Eleven,” what becomes really clear is that there will always be another pandemic. We didn’t see this one coming because it’s been about 100 years since the last one in this part of the world, but it was always going to happen.

You were also in the odd position of being held up as a cultural expert on the meaning of pandemics. What was that like?

It was incredibly disorienting and surreal. At the same time, that was everybody’s life in March 2020 when this thing hit. I don’t know if it was actually that much stranger for me. What did feel really kind of odd and uncomfortable was all of a sudden I started getting all of these invitations to write op-eds about the pandemic. It felt a little bit gross, like I was using the pandemic as a marketing opportunity. That was something that I pushed back on.

One of the themes in “Station Eleven” is the idea that art can give life meaning in times of catastrophe. Has that been true for you and do you see evidence of it being true on a broader cultural scale?

Yes, absolutely. That’s been really heartening. When I look back to the spring of 2020, when we didn’t really know that much about the virus, I just remember being scared to go anywhere or do anything. Books were a kind of transport in that period for me, just being able to escape from the confines of my apartment, basically, by reading. It really meant a lot to me, and I think that is something that the show captures really beautifully. There’s a traveling symphony, but then also there’s that incredible moment in episode seven where the Frank character breaks into a rap song.

How did you feel about some of the changes the show made?

The show deepened the story in a lot of really interesting ways. There are some things they did that I really love, that I felt took ideas that I suggested in the book and carried them further, like the importance of “Hamlet” in the story. In my book, it was important that they perform Shakespeare, but in the series, Shakespeare is integrated into the plot in this really deep way that I feel like I only scratched the surface of in the book.

I love what the series did with the Jeevan character, where in the book I could never really figure out how to integrate him with the other characters without it seeming a little bit too forced, really coincidental. I love that they just have Kirsten go back to Frank’s place with him. That completely solved that problem. It’s just such a wonderful emotional architecture for the story.

What they really did beautifully was capture the joy in the book. It is a post-apocalyptic world, but something that I thought about a lot when I was writing the book was how beautiful that world would be. I was just imagining trees and grass, and flowers overtaking our structures. I thought of the beauty of that world, but also the joy. This is a group of people who travel together because they love playing music together and doing Shakespeare, and there is real joy in that.

Another significant change is the character of Tyler, the prophet, who has a totally different fate in the book. What did you make of how they developed that character?

There’s something depressingly familiar about the prophet that I wrote, because that’s the only kind of prophet I’d really encountered, in news stories and reading. I based my prophet off David Koresh and the Branch Davidians in Texas. There’s something really kind of original and interesting about the version of the prophet in the series. He’s a much more sympathetic character.

How involved were you with this show?

I texted sometimes with Patrick Somerville. He cleared a lot of the major changes with me, which I really appreciated. I was not particularly involved once the show started shooting. I never visited the set because of Covid. So, I was kind of distant from the entire thing, which it’s unfortunate. I wish I could have gone there.

The show was just beginning production when the pandemic hit. Was there ever a concern that viewers would balk at the premise?

My assumption, and I’ve seen this play out on social media, was that some people would embrace it and some people are just too traumatized. I would say for anybody who’s on the fence about the show, that the first episode is the hardest to watch, or it was for me, anyway. That experience of dread as the pandemic washes over your entire society, that’s something that we’re just way too familiar with. It is also a brilliant episode. If you can get past your discomfort for that, I think it’s a more joyful show than people who are hesitant about it might imagine it to be.

A lot of people are finding the show to be cathartic. Why do you think people are comforted by the novel and the show?

There’s something in the idea that you can lose an entire world, but all of the society that you take for granted every day can disappear in the course of a pandemic. But there is life afterward, and there’s joy afterward, and a lot of things that are worth living for in the aftermath.

In the novel and show, history is bifurcated into Before and After, and it’s interesting to think about what cultural shifts will endure from the pandemic.

What’s weird is how quickly your boundaries fall. I had this wonderful experience last month. I got to meet all these “Station Eleven” actors and producers at a lunch, and then there was a screening later. It was my first time socializing indoors without masks in two years. I was like, OK, I’m going to do this. I’ve been PCR tested. I’m double-vaxxed, et cetera. It’s fine. I was like, but I’m not going to shake hands or hug anybody. I hugged everybody.

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On ‘S.N.L.,’ Biden Urges Covid-Weary Nation to Stop Seeing ‘Spider-Man’

Spider-Man just finished saving the very fabric of reality, but to hear President Biden tell it — at least on “Saturday Night Live” — the wall-crawler is the one to blame for the continuing pandemic.

To kick off the first new “S.N.L.” of 2022, James Austin Johnson returned in his recurring role as Biden for a news conference in which he told the nation that “there’s one simple thing you can do to make this whole virus go away: Stop seeing ‘Spider-Man.’”

Addressing the White House press corps in the show’s opening sketch, Johnson said: “This virus has disrupted our lives. It’s canceled holidays, weddings, quinceañeras, gender-reveal parties, wildfires that started as gender-reveal parties.”

He went on to say: “Now, think about it. When did ‘Spider-Man’ come out? Dec. 17. When did every single person get Omicron? The week after Dec. 17.”

The last time “S.N.L.” attempted a live episode, on Dec. 18, it was significantly disrupted by the pandemic. Hours before airtime, NBC announced that because of Covid concerns, the show would not use a live audience; the broadcast was missing most of the cast members, had no musical guest and consisted mostly of pretaped segments and sketches from past episodes.

“S.N.L.” was not spared the intrusion of the coronavirus this week. On Wednesday, the rapper Roddy Ricch, who was originally announced as the musical guest, said on his Instagram account that he would be unable to perform because of “recent COVID exposure on my team and to keep everyone safe.” Instead, the pop band Bleachers took his place.

In the Biden sketch, Johnson explained that he was not asking people to avoid the movies altogether. “I said, stop seeing ‘Spider-Man,’” he declared in reference to “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” which has shattered Covid-era box-office records.

“See anything else,” he continued. “I saw the first half-hour of ‘House of Gucci.’ That’s more than enough movie for anyone.”

Questioned about the lack of available Covid testing, Johnson’s Biden answered, “You want to know if you have Covid? Look at your hand. Is it holding a ticket that says you recently went to see ‘Spider-Man’? If so, you have Covid.”

As Johnson started to expound on the existence of the multiverse, he was visited by a shirtless, white-haired Pete Davidson, who explained that he was Joe Biden “from the real universe,” and that this incarnation of reality had been created “as a joke, starting in 2016 when the Chicago Cubs won the World Series.”

When Johnson asked him if he was the president in this real world, Davidson answered: “Of course not. Did you really think you would lose four times and then finally win when you were 78?”

When you’ve got an “S.N.L.” episode hosted by Ariana DeBose, a star of Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story” remake and a newly-minted Golden Globe winner, you know you’re going to have a couple of sketches that pay affectionate tribute to musical theater.

The first of the night was DeBose’s opening monologue, during which she was joined by Kate McKinnon, who professed that “West Side Story” was her favorite musical.

“Did you like the movie?” DeBose asked her. “I didn’t see it,” McKinnon replied. “I don’t leave the house because of Covid and also because I don’t leave the house.” They gamely sang a medley of several “West Side Story” numbers together, including “Tonight” and “I Feel Pretty,” though McKinnon sat out the mambo dance break: “They know I dance,” she said.

Later in the night, the two re-teamed for a “Sound of Music” parody in which McKinnon delivered a deft Julie Andrews impression. DeBose played another wayward woman from Maria’s convent who tries to teach a group of children to sing, with an updated version of “Do-Re-Mi” that’s unexpectedly heavy on references to Queen Latifah. Eat your heart out, Rodgers and Hammerstein.

Earlier this week, when NBC’s Peacock streaming service dropped the trailer for “Bel-Air,” a gritty, dramatic retelling of “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” some viewers wondered if it was an “S.N.L.” sketch.

It wasn’t, but that didn’t stop “S.N.L.” from going forward with this satirical preview for an unnecessarily harsh reboot of another 90s-era sitcom, “Family Matters.” In this incarnation, Carl Winslow (Kenan Thompson) is a sadistic Chicago cop and the lovably nerdy Steve Urkel (Chris Redd) now has an abusive, drunken mom and a violent temper. You’ll never hear the catchphrase “Did I do that?” in quite the same way again.

Over at the Weekend Update desk, the anchors Colin Jost and Michael Che continued to riff on President Biden’s stalled agenda.

Jost began:

Just like everybody else, President Biden’s New Year’s resolutions fell apart in the third week of January. The Supreme Court struck down his vaccine mandate. The voting rights bill got blocked. And his approval rating is so low, it’s gone into power-save mode. But I will point out, there was another president who had a disastrous start to his first term, yet he became an inspiration to generations of Republicans, even to this day. [The screen shows a picture of Ronald Reagan.] I’m talking of course about Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy. [The picture changes to one of Davis.]

“And there are still statues of him in 10 different states,” Jost continued:

Which, come to think of it, probably explains why the voting rights stuff isn’t working out. The bottom line is, I think Biden just needs more time. He might be more of an acquired taste. Unfortunately, most Americans recently lost their sense of taste.

Che picked up on the Biden thread:

President Biden gave a speech in Atlanta where he called on the Senate to pass two voting rights bills, saying, “I am tired of being quiet.” And to prove it, he took a 20-minute standing nap.

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What Will Marianne Williamson Do Next?

To her, Washington is still essentially business as usual. “D.C. has a lot of good political car mechanics,” she said. “That’s not the problem. The problem is that the car is on the wrong road. The car is heading towards a cliff.”

The week before, the Washington Post reporter Dave Weigel had tweeted a photo of Ms. Williamson and Andrew Yang, onstage at an event for Mr. Yang’s new book. Mr. Weigel quoted Ms. Williamson saying, “We don’t want to be Jill Steins, but in any other country, any other advanced democracy, they have multiple political parties.” The tweet predictably triggered speculation about what, exactly, Ms. Williamson intends to do next.

She may not want to be Jill Stein — the Green Party candidate whose presidential run is often cited as a reason Mr. Trump won — but she also doesn’t want to dismiss Jill Stein. After all, Ms. Williamson said, “we need a viable other. I support any third-party effort that makes a thoughtful, articulate critique of the fundamental flaws in contemporary capitalism and its effects on people and the planet” When she ran for Congress in California, in 2014, it was as an independent.

Ms. Williamson sees the two-party system of today as blighted and controlled by corporate interests. “Republican policies represent a nosedive for our democracy,” she said. “And Democratic policies represent a managed decline.” And yet she also believes that this is the year it will change. “The status quo is unsustainable,” she said. “There is too much human despair out there.”

She is not willing to say whether she’ll run again, and dodged the question over the course of our many conversations. About two weeks ago, when Politico published an article suggesting that President Biden would face a primary challenge from a progressive candidate, “such as former Sanders campaign co-chair Nina Turner, 2020 presidential candidate Marianne Williamson or millionaire and $18-an-hour minimum wage advocate Joe Sanberg,” Ms. Williamson declined to comment.

James Carville, the longtime Democratic strategist, is skeptical. “She ran before and she didn’t get a lot of votes,” he said. “She’s kind of an interesting person to say the least, but I don’t think politics is her calling. She always struck me as a new age Bernie Bro.”

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Is Interning for an Influencer Worth It?

Jon Rettinger, 41, who runs several technology-focused YouTube channels, said he hoped to provide his interns with useful guidance. It’s “a real job that’s not all Lamborghinis and boxing matches,” he said, noting that many creators are subjected to online bullying. “I would have wanted someone to tell me, because I was really unprepared,” he said.

Former interns said that they valued such mentorship. Sara Naqui, who started out taking photos on a volunteer basis for Ms. Chandler at Effie’s Paper, now has a contract with the company and her own YouTube channel. “She supported me in a way that I’d never had an adult support my creative endeavors,” Ms. Naqui, 24, said of Ms. Chandler.

Vela Scarves, a fashion-forward hijab brand, and its co-founder and creative director, Marwa Atik, have made a point of inviting followers to volunteer at photo shoots and apply for internships. “You’re reaching out to a funneled pool of people who support you, believe in you, see themselves in the product,” Ms. Atik, 31, said. “It’s a much stronger connection when we bring on our girls.”

Khadija Sillah, 23, a former Vela Scarves intern, said that “Marwa extended herself as a mentor to me and helped me connect with brands and brainstorm content ideas, even when I lacked motivation.” She was recently hired as a full-time social media associate with the brand.

Ms. Chandler said her interns built the social presence for Effie’s Paper — on Pinterest, Instagram and eventually TikTok — from the ground up. “A decade ago, I was a lawyer transitioning to entrepreneurship,” she said. “I didn’t have time to think about social media.”

Later, Ms. Chandler solicited the help of a former intern, Chloe Helander, who’d started her own social media consultancy. Ms. Helander suggested that Ms. Chandler should be the star of the Effie’s Paper social accounts; after all, many companies today treat their executives as the faces of their brands.

Ms. Chandler was skeptical at first. “I think I’m too brown and too old,” she said.

Now, Ms. Chandler said, “she is the reason my face is all over everything.”

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