Spoilers for Community and Station Eleven below
When Donald Glover left Community, I cried. Never mind that I was watching the show in 2017, two years after its finale and three years after Troy sails away with LeVar Burton in “Geothermal Escapism,” it still left a huge impact. That departure and Abed’s (Danny Pudi) melancholy face as his best friend sets off, took me back to my own experiences of having to watch friends leave or move on to another city. No matter how much we say we’ll keep in touch, there’s a strange finality settling over us—the complete and total understanding that something’s changing, but we’re not quite sure what it means yet.
Community’s cast departures—Chevy Chase first, followed by Glover, and then Yvette Nicole Brown, not to mention Jonathan Banks’ one-season run, unintentionally created a wonderful overarching theme of loss, and how we move on from it. Seasons 5 and 6 of Community may stretch the believability of the characters’ continued attendance at Greendale Community College, but it never loses sight of just how incredible—and finite—our time can be with the people we choose to spend it with.
Even when one of us moves on to the next big thing, it doesn’t diminish what came before. Troy and Abed’s friendship may have allowed Community to slip easily into genre flair when it wanted to, but even with one of them gone, the magic of the show is still there—it’s just different.
A similar concept appears in Station Eleven, the limited series on HBO Max that stars Himesh Patel, Mackenzie Davis, Matilda Lawler, and Danielle Deadwyler. The show is based on a 2014 book of the same name by Emily St. John Mandel. The show’s release at the end of 2021 was a bit fortuitous—a show about life during, post, and post-post a global pandemic premiering during an actual pandemic? God’s surely laughing.
However, over ten episodes, a wonderful rumination on art, human connection, and the ties that bind us all together on the wheel of time unfolds. Partick Somerville, when pitching the show, described it as “a post-apocalyptic show about joy.” That joy appears in big and small ways throughout Station Eleven, such as a Traveling Symphony dedicating their post-apocalyptic life to Shakespeare, or the miracle of 15 mothers giving birth on the winter solstice.
But the heart of the show is the early bond between Kirsten, age 8 (Matilda Lawler), Jeevan (Himesh Patel), and his brother Frank (Nabhaan Rizwan). In the first episode, Jeevan and Kirsten come together after they both witness the death of Arthur Leander (Gael García Bernal) during a production of King Lear.
Right after his death, Jeevan and Kirsten are thrust into the mad beginnings of the apocalypse, as the sickness spreading throughout the world closes in on them. When Kirsten is unable to contact her parents, she goes with Jeevan to barricade themselves in Frank’s apartment. Eighty days later, Jeevan and Kirsten emerge into a whole new barren world.
Jumping 20 years into the future, an older Kirsten, played by Mackenzie Davis, is now an actor in the Traveling Symphony, a group that never strays from their pre-determined wheel, always hitting the same outposts around the Great Lakes region. As we get to know this version of Kirsten and the love she has for her current family, the memories of the joy and tragedy of those first 80 days, as well as the next year with Jeevan, haunt her.
But in these folksy days of their caravan lifestyle, there’s a sense of hope emanating from Kirsten as well—after all, being a part of the Symphony means she’s part of something that people look forward to. Their path along the wheel means they’ll always return.
In “Geothermal Escapism,” which turns eight this week, Abed turns Troy’s final day at Greendale Community College into a giant Floor is Lava game. After the cold open, the episode goes full-tilt into a Mad Max homage, another post-apocalypse story that features characters wandering the aftermath of tragedy in search of something better. The campus is now a wasteland; furniture is traveling currency, gods and legends have been born unto this world, and the floor, once a safe, familiar grounding presence, is now riddled with fiery implications.
It starts as a way to honor the crazy exploits and adventures Abed, Troy, and the rest of the Study Group got into. However, it quickly becomes clear that for Abed, the floor really is lava, and the game is a way to both prolong Troy’s stay in Greendale and a way for Abed to say goodbye.
This way of using play to confront difficult realities is another thing Community and Station Eleven have in common. In “Goodbye My Damaged Home,” the seventh episode in Station Eleven, the events of the first 80 days in Frank’s apartment are revealed. As their food supply dwindles, the three of them must make a decision—stay, or break the seal on the apartment door, and see what lies beyond? Jeevan wants to go, but Frank wants to cling to the remnants of life before, including not abandoning his high-rise apartment. It’s his home, and no one can take that from him, not even the apocalypse.
Tuned into the brothers’ growing frustrations with each other, Kirsten asks them to act in her play, an adaptation of the “Station Eleven” graphic novel that Arthur had given her. The brothers agree, but there’s a sense they both know this is one of the last times they’ll be with each other.
Kirsten, in a stroke of deep understanding and empathy, directs them in a scene in which Frank’s character Lonagan is killed while Jeevan’s character Dr. Eleven must stand by and watch. With Lonagan’s last breath, he says goodbye to his friend, but it’s here that Jeevan hesitates, reality breaking through the veneer of the scene. The tragedy that follows only exacerbates how crucial this “Station Eleven” scene is—through the gift of storytelling, Kirsten gave Jeevan and Frank the words they were unable to say.
For Abed, the reality that Troy is leaving Greendale is too much to bear. Troy and Abed’s friendship is special because they brought out the best in each other—Troy accepted Abed the way he was, and Abed showed Troy how to have fun, something a former high school football jock thought he was too cool for. The lava game isn’t a game for Abed because it’s the manifestation of the uncertainty of what comes next.
For most of the episode, play is used as a distraction to hide from difficult feelings. But play is also the solution; to properly move forward, Britta (Gillian Jacobs) uses Abed’s love of science fiction and role-play to “clone” him into a version of Abed that can handle Troy leaving. Troy is also “cloned” because leaving everything you know and facing the wide-open world is scary, but also something a clone version of him can handle. The cloning bit gifted to them by Britta also allows the two friends the ability to say goodbye to each other.
Station Eleven and Community could not be more different yet they each have a fundamental understanding that no matter how short a time we exist with each other, it matters. Jeevan, Kirsten, and Frank were only together for 80 days; Jeevan and Kirsten only a year after that. But 20 years later, Kirsten still thinks about them. She’s still searching for Jeevan.
College, that pivotal time ephemeral. School only lasts four years (six years, for the Study Group), yet it can be the defining moment of our adulthood. When it’s over, it hardly seems like it happened at all.
Troy never returns to Greendale. His fate is unknown (or he was kidnapped by pirates). By Community’s end, the Study Group makes peace with the different paths people take—Abed and Annie (Allison Brie) are headed off to different states to pursue their dreams, while Jeff (Joel McHale) and Britta stay in Greendale wrestling with what they want to do with their lives. As Jeff poignantly puts it: “I love that I got to be with you guys.”
The Traveling Symphony is where Kirsten found her purpose at the end of the world, but without those first moments with Jeevan and Frank, she would never have made it there. When Kirsten and Jeevan reunite in Station Eleven’s finale episode, it stretches the boundaries of what’s possible in the world even after it ends.
The final shot of Station Eleven shows Kirsten and Jeevan taking separate roads but they’re also headed in the same direction. Who knows if Troy and Abed kept in touch, but the promise of #sixseasonsandamovie keeps that hope alive. Between both these shows, one thing remains clear: no matter where we are or where we end up, we’ll keep circling the wheel until we run into each other again—even if we don’t, there’s comfort in knowing there’s always a possibility. As Britta says in Community’s finale, “this is the show,” but that also is the show, and that, and that, and that.