Snowpiercer, the TV Series, is finally here, kids! After following a long and winding
track road through two networks, two pilots shoots, two showrunners and two pilot directors over the course of several years, the futuristic scifi story based on a train perpetually circling the globe during a perpetual man made ice age has made it to our screens with a season 2 renewal already in the bag. And the show hardly even feels like fiction anymore.
Snowpiercer in based on the graphic novel series of the same name, by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand, Olivier Bocquet and Jean-Marc Rochette, which was turned into a 2013 film by Bong Joon-ho, starring Chris Evans. Bong Joon-ho is an executive producer on the TV series.
It’s important to note that the graphic novels and the film tell two very different stories, with totally different characters. Aside from the long train and perpetual ice age, the look and feel of the two differ completely. The TV pilot draws on aspects of both, but it tells a third story, as it should, since it’s working in a very different medium from either of the previous two versions.
TV adaptations work best when they pretend the film’s ending never happened, then go their own way. See, for example: M*A*S*H, which not only left the books and film behind, it left the history of the Korean War behind as well. Or Agents of SHIELD, which has meandered around the canon of approximately 2 dozen MCU films. Or The Handmaid’s Tale and Stargate SG-1, each of which went both forward and sideways from their book/films’ endings, challenging previous canon as they built on it.
My point is, a TV series is never going to make book or film fans totally happy and it generally works out for the best when the creators decide not to make that their main goal. Snowpiercer is its own story, with its own cast of characters, but still potentially in the same universe as its predecessors. This gives everyone room to breathe.
I loved the pilot, including the cast, the look and the story and am excited for the rest of the season. I was a big fan of Orphan Black, showrunner Graeme Manson’s previous long running scifi show and can’t wait to see what he’ll do here. The original Snowpiercer novels are sexist toward women (when they bother to include women at all- humanity was doomed to quickly become extinct in that reality), but Orphan Black was all about female empowerment, diversity and the fight for human rights. Manson’s influence is evident already in Snowpiercer’s pilot.
The pilot opens with an animated introduction that’s a nod to the graphic novels, explaining how Snowpiercer came to be:
Andre Layton (Daveed Diggs) narrates: “First, the weather changed. The deniers knew why, but they still doomed us with their lies. War made the Earth even hotter. Her ice melted, and all her species crashed. So the men of science tried to cool the Earth, to reverse the damage they had sown. But instead, they froze her to the core. Only the visionary Mr Wilford foresaw the future and he prepared the great ark train. In the final days of The Freeze, the rich, many of them responsible, retreated to Snowpiercer, 1,001 cars long. So we the people, the survivors left behind, we invaded their train.”
The first thing Snowpiercer does is crush a flower growing in the tracks. The chemical compound that was meant to cool the Earth is carried into the sky by missiles that might as well be the bombs of war. As Snowpiercer prepares to leave, masses of people break through fences to climb aboard the only means of survival left on Earth.
As they reach the train reality sets in and the animation turns into live action. Soldiers stop the crowd from boarding using any means necessary, including gunfire at close range. Blood spatters in the snow. There are too many people for the soldiers to stop. They continue to fight with the refugees who make it on board the train.
The scene is ruthless as the train departs, with soldiers throwing refugees off the train, families separated by the closing doors, and soldiers continuing to murder people even after the train is moving. A young boy named Miles is left orphaned when his mother is thrown off the train. Andre and his wife make it on the train together. Andre is at the front of the fight as the stowaways are closed and locked in the last car at the tail end of Snowpiercer by Commander Grey (Timothy V Murphy).
Andre: “This is Snowpiercer. Around and around the Earth we circle. We can never stop. These are our revolutions. 1,001 cars long.”
The animated cold open:
In the very clean, white front of the train, a perfectly coiffed and crisply uniformed Melanie Cavill (Jennifer Connelly) rushes to the radio booth with a travel mug of tea. When she arrives, she makes the train-wide morning announcements, since she is the Voice of the Train.
Melaine: “Attention all passengers- Wilfred Industries wishes you good morning. The temperature outside is -119.6° C. As we enter the Yukon Territory of former Canada, we remind you, for your personal safety, be prepared to brace. We are 6 years, 9 months and 26 days from departure. At the tone, the exact time will be 0800 hours.”
Once Melanie’s announcement ends, the brakemen, who act as the train’s security force, bring a cart loaded with gelatinous, brown protein bars into the tail. They make the Tailies kneel before entering, but the encounter still turns violent. The tail usually gets 2 carts of protein bars, but their ration has been reduced. Andre times various aspects of the encounter, such as how long the gates are open.
After the brakemen leave, the Last Australian (Aaron Glenane) tells Mama Grandé (Reneé Victor) to distribute the food fairly. The Tailies are organized and take a tax from each bar- 5% for Strong Boy, the hulking key to their planned rebellion, and 5% for the rats they’re raising under the bunks.
A woman named Josie provides medical care to a man, Big John (Jonathan Walker), with a persistent cough. Andre and Miles check on the rats before Miles gets their protein bar rations. A rat named Gina had 4 pups, a smaller litter than usual, but they still have a surplus of 42.
I’m assuming the Tailies are raising the rats for extra food and find bugs to feed them in addition to the protein bars. Otherwise the energy trade off doesn’t make sense.
Or maybe they’re raising the rats to be a vector for bringing a plague to the front of the train. There was a plague in the books, we’ve seen a man coughing, and rats were thought to spread the bubonic plague. It would be a timely story- prescient, really, based on when season 1 was made. But plagues are always a possibility when people are crowded together and already in poor health.
Andre asks about Miles’ math lessons with Old Ivan. Miles is learning trigonometry in hopes of being picked for an apprenticeship program in the front of the train.
Anyone who’s seen the film is wondering right about now what the “apprenticeship” program is really about.
Andre is called to a meeting of rebels who plan to break out of the tail and take over as many cars as possible. The brakemen are leaving both sets of gates into the tail open for up to 1 minute, 10 seconds each time they make a delivery. Strong Boy has been working out and has giant muscles, ready to fight and hold the gates open.
If they can take a few cars they can access an electrical box which should help them keep moving forward, but Andre cautions that they’re being overconfident. He doesn’t think they know enough about the train’s infrastructure yet. Old Ivan is the only Tailie who’s even been forward of the Night Car and that was years ago.
Most of the group are anxious to move forward. They’re starving, oppressed and even being denied the opportunity to have children. They worry that food rations to the tail will be cut off completely.
Andre reminds them that they’re developing a network of informants further up the train that will increase their chances of success. When they rebelled in Year 3 with no help from outside the tail, 62 died and 13 arms were taken. He thinks they should wait until they’ve formed more alliances.
Pike (Steven Ogg) questions Andre’s courage, which almost leads to a physical fight. But it’s put to a vote and Andre accepts that he’s outvoted. They plan to attack the next day. As everyone prepares, Old Ivan gives Andre a weapon and tells him, “Resistance is never futile, but Wilford’s train is a fortress to class. Maybe it is perpetual.”
Star Trek shout out.
Melanie greets the regulars in the first class dining room and swiftly deals with any minor issues. The Folgers are having a problem with the sauna. Actually, they’re having a problem with the Swedish royal family, who insist on singing while naked in the sauna, impeding Mrs Folger’s (Lilah O’Malley) ability to relax. Melanie and her partner in the Hospitality Department, Ruth Wardell (Alison Wright), promise to schedule the Swedes at another time, when the Folgers won’t be in the sauna.
The Folger’s teen daughter, LJ (Annalise Basso), asks to go to the 3rd class section of the train to get noodles, but another passenger warns her off with rumors of violence. Ruth assures them that it’s nothing to worry about, just “track talk”. Melanie says the brakemen responded to something minor.
But once Melanie and Ruth are on their own, they’re annoyed that the passenger, York (Yee Jee Tso), brought it up. Melanie sends Ruth down to the end of the train to sort out the incident. Ruth balks, until Melanie points out that it’s a chance to wear her fur coat.
The Tailies count up the brakemen and officials who are on their way into their section and prepare to fight. They agree to wait for a signal.
Ruth stands on a box and speaks through a microphone. She has a removal request for Andre Layton. Andre tells the rebels to hold back, then he steps forward. He’s dragged from the tail car as he struggles. No one tells him why he’s being removed.
He’s given an impersonal medical exam, a shower and fresh clothes. Then his hands are cuffed and brakemen named Bess Till (Mickey Sumner) and John “Oz” Osweiller (Sam Otto) take him forward several cars using a high speed tunnel and tram system which runs in the lower sections of the cars.
When he’s brought up out of the tunnel, Andre sees daylight for the first time in years and is momentarily blinded by it. Outside the window he sees a snow covered plain, a bay with a bridge and a frozen city. The train was in the Yukon Territory the day before, so this is the west coast of North America- Vancouver or Seattle.
They’re in a dining hall and sit Andre down in a booth with a grilled cheese sandwich and a bowl of tomato soup in front of him- the warmest and most comforting of comfort foods. Andre just glows at it for a second before digging in. The others look uncomfortable when faced with how dehumanized Andre has been for almost 7 years, and how much they are still dehumanizing him.
The man sitting on the other side of the booth, Lead Brakeman Roche (Mike O’Malley) says that they heard that Andre used to be a homicide detective. There’s been a murder and they want him to solve it. Most of the brakemen were Wilford security guards before The Freeze. Bess Till was a cop for the Detroit PD. Osweiller was a soccer player.
Miles tells Josie that he’s packed up Andre’s worldly possessions so no one will steal them. They fit in a small box and include his police badge and a metal spoon. The train goes over some rough track. Josie and Miles agree they’re headed into the Cascade Mountains, outside of Seattle. Miles says he needs to get the apprenticeship so he can find Andre, but Josie doesn’t want to lose him, too. Miles is worried and wants to go find Andre because people don’t come back once they’re taken.
The brakemen take Andre to see the body of the murder victim, which is still under a floor panel, where it was found by a tunnelman doing maintenance. It’s a young man named Sean Oren Wise, a 3rd Class passenger who worked in agriculture, and whose arms, legs and genitals were amputated as part of the crime. Andre asks if there’s a forensics lab. Bess tells him they have access to scientists who can run tests.
Andre tries to refuse the job, but Oz and Bess take him to a holding room to rough him up. Roche and Melanie interrupt them and stop the beating. Roche sends them back to their posts guarding the entrance to the tail.
Roche introduces Melanie as being from Hospitality. She apologizes to him on behalf of Wilfred Industries. He recognizes her as the Voice of the Train. She tells him, “I wear several hats. My department’s responsible for smooth relations.”
Then she gets down to business, explaining that Mr Wilford wants the crime solved quickly and doors will open for Andre wherever the investigation leads. Roche adds that 2 years ago there was another victim who was also male and had his genitals removed. Someone was convicted of the murder and is serving time.
Andre tells them he’ll take the job in exchange for rations and 3rd Class immigration for the tail. Roche explodes, yelling that First Class paid their way onto the train and everyone else has jobs, except the stowaways in the tail, who crawled onto the train like rats. Melanie has Roche uncuff Andre, then explains that since he’s the only homicide detective on the train, Mr Wilford is asking him to contribute.
She’s smiling, but there’s an implicit threat in there.
Next we meet Dr Henry Klimpt, caretaker of the “Drawers” which serve as the train prison and research scientist on the side. We’re introduced to him as he grooms one of the inmate/patients with a special set of brushes and toiletries. When he stands up to answer the door to the lab/prison, the camera makes sure we notice the way he adjusts his pants, suggesting he might also be a sexual fetishist at the expense of his patients. He certainly treats the women like dolls he’s obsessed with.
Melanie and Roche bring Andre to “meet” Nikki Genet (Madeleine Arthur), the woman who was convicted of the previous murder. She’s been drugged into a coma and kept in one of the large metal Drawers for the last 2 years as punishment. Dr Klimpt has always felt she looked innocent and takes special care of her, which isn’t creepy at all. She will be the longest “Sleeper” they’ve ever woken up.
Dr Klimpt reminds Melanie that Sleepers take a while to come out of their medically induced comas and he needs the Notary present, presumably for the required paperwork. She tells him to make it happen. She tells Andre that she’ll make him Train Detective and move him to 3rd Class if he clears Nikki and solves the case. Roche says that Nikki is the only witness to the first murder.
Andre refuses to agree to anything yet. Melanie leaves him with Roche. Next up is a visit to the current suspects.
Roche takes Andre to the Chains, a section of the train where younger passengers live in polyamorous groups. The car(s) have been resectioned using chopped up shipping containers, so it’s more like a dorm or commune than a house or normal train space. It feels urban, artsy and rebellious. Roche, and apparently his wife, hate it.
Sean Wise’s chainmates reported him missing a day before he was found. All 3 partners are waiting for Andre to interview them, but one is his wife, Zarah (Sheila Vand). She boarded the train with him but was pulled forward to work in the Night Car 5 years ago. They haven’t communicated since. Andre sends the other 2 partners out. He realizes Melanie and Roche learned he’s a detective from Zarah.
Andre is angry that she forced him to abandon the people he cares about in the Tail, people who depend on him. Zarah says she needed his help, since there’s no due process on the train, just punishment. Andre is still angry with her for leaving him, but she thinks he should understand that she needed to get out and be grateful that now he has a chance to get out, too.
She’s still angry with him for bringing her on Snowpiercer instead of letting her die with dignity during The Freeze with her family, like she wanted to. She doesn’t think he has any right to judge her for what she does to survive, since he forced her to live when she wanted to die, then made her live in the hellscape of the Tail. She claims she’s with her chain because love is hard to find in their world, so she had to grab on to it when she found it. But then she accuses him of jumping into bed with Josie as soon as she left, which isn’t true. He stayed physically faithful to Zarah.
Back in the Tail, Pike, who’s with Strong Boy, tells Josie that they think Andre knew he was going to be taken up front so he stopped the attack. Pike says that either way, Andre’s gone and now he’s in charge. He also notices that Josie is without a man to protect her. He hints at this in that threatening way of guys who’ll either be the protector or the rapist. Hopefully either Miles or Andre left her a knife.
Next Melanie joins Roche and Andre in an Ag-Sec car, where Sean worked. Andre is stunned by the tiers of plant growth, full size trees, light and humidity in the car. A teacher bring a class of children through, telling them about plants growing naturally from the warm Earth. She says they need to understand, so that someday they can replant the Earth. The metaphor to the children also repopulating the Earth is clear.
Andre is angry that Melanie is dangling everything he could want in front of him, from his favorite meal (grilled cheese and tomato soup) and his wife to the promise of future food from this Ag Sec car. He assumes she’s trying to trick him into working for her and that she’s desperate for his help. He’s figured out that the murder is more complicated than they’re telling him.
But they can also see that their tactics are having an effect on him. Roche notes that Andre is all eyes, taking in every detail he can. Andre tells them that Zarah didn’t kill Sean. Melanie says, “Everything on Mr Wilford’s train is connected.” Roche continues, “A murder could upset the entire ecosystem.”
Melanie thinks the complexity might make the case interesting for Andre. Then he could move to 3rd Class and reunite with Zarah if he wants to. Andre repeats that they need him, so they need to meet his demands- 3rd Class calories, space and reproductive rights for the Tail.
Roche sputters that Andre just added the part about reproductive rights, which is true, but this is a negotiation. That’s how it works. Shouldn’t have flaunted the kids in front of him.
Melanie makes a speech about the detailed balance she and Mr Wilford must maintain between all of the different organisms on the Train. Too much or too little of anything and the whole system collapses. Andre is a small piece of that and not terribly necessary.
The Tail celebrates Old Ivan’s birthday. He’s the oldest person in the Tail. He asks for one hour of privacy to listen to his music alone. Everyone clears out of his space to give him some peace. They all enjoy the music in their own way, symbolizing how much Old Ivan still brings to the community, though it’s intangible. After a while, the music stops- Old Ivan has hung himself using the music player’s electrical cord.
Chef Jinju (Susan Park) harvests a fresh sea urchin from the train aquarium for Mr Wilford’s dinner, then shares an end of the day drink with Melanie. She and Melanie must be close, because Melanie notices that Jinju is glowing due to a new lover.
Melanie tells Jinju that they’re taking Nikki out of the Drawers and asks how bad off Nikki will be. Jinju is upset at the thought. Melanie asks her to help Klimpt and monitor Nikki. It’s not clear whether Nikki was friend or foe or just found out something she shouldn’t have. Jinju asks what she should do if people start asking the wrong questions. Melanie says she’ll handle it. She tells Jinju that once the murder is solved, the “other work” can continue. They agree that it’s essential that Andre take the case.
Melanie says he will, and they drink to it.
Melanie has a will, and nerves, of steel. I think when she decides something’s going to go a certain way, that’s the way it goes. Failure is not an option.
Melanie and Ruth sign off for the night. Melanie announces that for the next 24 hours they’ll be crossing particularly rough track and should be prepared to brace.
The Tailies have prepared Old Ivan’s body to be taken by the brakemen, but it’s really an excuse to begin their rebellion. When the Brakemen Till and Oz open the gates, the Tailies draw them in further, then attack. They fight hard and Strong Boy is able to get through multiple gates, but the train guards just keep coming. It’s a bloody, vicious fight and in the end, the Tailies are just too outnumbered.
They are defeated when a little girl uses a severed hand to trigger the biolock to the next car. When the doors open, a platoon of guards is waiting behind them. Accessing the next car should be a victorious moment for the rebels, but they have been outmaneuvered. It leaves them emotionally and physically devastated.
Roche brings Andre back to his cell for the night before going home to his own wife. Andre explains to Roche that he needs to get back to the Tail, because everyone he cares about in the world is back there.
Melanie makes her way to the very front of the train, where things get very spare and white. She’s stopped by an alarm, notifying her of the revolt in the Tail. The Tailies have taken Till as a hostage. Commander Grey, who we met briefly in the opening, still hates Tailies and wants to treat Andre as the Train Hostage. Instead Melanie agrees to let Andre act as hostage negotiator with the Tailies.
As Grey walks him back to the Tail, he and Andre both admit the remember each other from previous hostile encounters. Grey gives Andre 3 minutes with his friends, then promises to kill them all if Andre hasn’t worked something out.
Andre calls out to the Tailies. True to form, Pike responds that Andre is a coward. There are only a few Tailies left alive. Andre explains that he was pulled forward to solve a murder. They tell him that Old Ivan is dead. Andre tells Pike they’re still brothers and he still believes in One Tail. He thinks he can get them out alive.
Strong Boy is holding Till at gunpoint. Andre knocks her out so she doesn’t hear his plan, then explains that they should surrender themselves to the Drawers because that will get them much farther up train. They’ll be there waiting when the next rebellion starts, giving the Tailies a tactical advantage. Plus, they won’t lose arms. He explains that he’s already gone forward 130 cars and is working on schedules and security details. He can get the information they need to pull off a successful rebellion, then get them out of the Drawers.
Andre convinces the train authorities to take the deal in exchange for him taking the murder case. Melanie adds that Ruth will also take one Tailie arm in the morning, to drive the point home.
Melanie returns to the front of the train and Mr Wilford’s boxed dinner. She enters her apartment and collapses into a chair for a moment, then changes into sweats from the engineering school MIT. Once she’s done winding down, she takes the boxed dinner to the engine, where Ben (Iddo Goldberg) is sitting in the engineer’s seat, looking out at the track. Melanie says, “You’re in my chair.” He apologizes, calling her boss and giving up the seat to her.
Melanie begins to eat Mr Wilford’s dinner, exclaiming appreciatively over Jinju’s food. Ben asks why Jinju never makes smoked salmon avocado rolls anymore. Melanie tells him there’s no more wood to burn to smoke the salmon.
As Ben is leaving, he tells Melanie, “You have the train, Mr Wilford.” She agrees, “I have the train.”
We got a pretty decent introduction to the train itself in this episode and a sense of how some of the people live but there’s still much more to see. Melanie’s apartment was surprisingly cramped. Both her apartment and the engine were as cluttered as the tail. She gets a minute or two alone at the end of the day, but it’s as hard won as Old Ivan’s minute. Then she goes back to perpetually monitoring the train. Old Ivan gave up his life because he knew it was best for the train. There are dedicated servants at each end.
There’s perpetual churn in the center of the train, where most of the real lives are lived. The Chains were 3rd Class passengers who combined their spaces and lives to make them more interesting, flexible and usable. They adapted to the new world, which offends Roche, who clings to his old life and traditions.
That conflict can be seen throughout the train, even in the Tail, where Andre and Pike had different approaches. Pike’s traditionally masculine, straightforward approach to the rebellion, using brute physical strength and a frontal assault, got almost nowhere. It will take the more creative approach that Andre has been advocating for the rebels to succeed, using strategy, alliances, guerilla warfare and spycraft.
Melanie has 4 different chessboards on her refrigerator, suggesting she’s also a master of strategy. She juggled the entire train like a expert all day, then sat down to watch the tracks for unforeseen dangers all evening. She and Andre are both very determined and committed to their work and people. Will they end up as allies or enemies? Can Melanie adapt the structure of the train’s hierarchy to reflect the ongoing reality of 3000 people cooped up together for many years or will she continue to allow the 1st class passengers to take their permanent vacations while others starve?
A sauna sounds like something that could be converted into an Ag Sec car to help feed the masses.
Snowpiercer, Gaia Theory and a Balanced Ecosystem
It’s a nice touch for Andre to call the Earth “her” in his introduction, hopefully referring to Gaia Theory, the idea that the Earth’s systems all ultimately function together as one overarching, self-correcting, complex system, similar to a living organism. It would make sense for their to be opposing belief systems in the Snowpiercer world- those who believe the Earth will fix itself, given enough time, and those who believe the Earth is too broken to fix itself and might continue to worsen over time.
The second group would have pushed for the technological fix that led to the ice age and will continue to push for technological fixes, because they believe that the Earth is inanimate and needs to be directed by science and engineers. The first group would want humanity to stop doing whatever caused the original climate change, then they would try to protect the Earth from any other damage while it repaired itself through natural processes.
It’s obvious that the train is run by people who believe in technological fixes for everything and don’t worry about the long term consequences of their actions, such as pollution and political unrest due to inequality. They see the train as an ecosystem, but it’s not as balanced as they try to tell Andre it is.
He knows better than anyone, except maybe the livestock, how out of balance the system is. That’s why “Mr Wilford” originally allowed the Tailies onto the train. He knew they’d need the extra chattel eventually, and human stock is both resilient and flexible. They can be food, slaves, detectives, entertainment- the possibilities are endless.
They are called Tailies, not refugees or slaves or even terrorists, because it puts them in a special class, unique to the train. Circumstances on Snowpiercer are so unusual, so outside of normal life, that they need to set aside the rules of civilized society in order to survive. Stowaways would normally be thrown off, but they are allowed to stay. Criminals would normally have a trial, then go to jail, but those resources are unavailable, so they take an arm or put criminals in a drawer for years.
All sorts of other rules are broken on the train, such as relationship rules and food rules. Families are broken up and reassembled. Tailies are so isolated from the rest of the train population and so stigmatized that they lose their humanity in the eyes of others.
The title sequence includes blueprints and schematics for the journey that show the train makes 2.7 trips around the world per year. The route is shown, very quickly, so I’ll probably never get a screencap- if anyone has one, point me to it. The track follows the outline of each continent, crossing from the Americas to Europe by way of Iceland and Greenland and then from Asia back to Alaska.
Livestock on board include cattle, goats, pigs and chickens, so don’t pay too much attention when the staff start lecturing the Tailies about how the system is set up for efficiency and there’s no way they can accommodate the Tailies’ needs without making the legitimate passengers suffer. Feeding animals to humans is inefficient, even moreso in a situation with such limited space and resources. Even when you also use the animals’ byproducts.
The train is a class system, with staff and passengers separated into 1st, 2nd and 3rd class. 2nd and 3rd class earn their keep through work. 1st class paid their way on and now live in perpetual, soon to be inherited, luxury. There’s very little difference between their lack of work and the Tailies soon to be inherited inability to work, except for the level of resources made available to them.
The inequality could easily be lessened by dividing resources more evenly. The class system can remain in place and the 1st class can retain their status. They just have to make do with a little less.
Images courtesy of TNT.