In Snowpiercer’s penultimate episode of the season, the train’s class war ends and power is transferred to a new regime, but not before more intrigue and tragedy occur, turning the tables around and then around again. Layton and the engineers pull off a daring feat to win the day. It’s a tightly constructed episode that’s one of the best of the season.
Melanie gets the opening voiceover:
“I thought I could let him go. Over time, with miles traveled, I thought I could strip Wilford away. Shed his rules one by one, and finally, his mask, until he was just a logo on the wall… I thought I could create a kinder, gentler world, but the train demanded otherwise. The train demanded blood… I fed her. And now they will. Until we reach our final destination, everyone the same in pain and doubt. Holding our losses close, on Snowpiercer, 1,001 cars long.”
As she speaks, Melanie is seated in a prison car, chained to dozens of rebel Tailie and Thirdie prisoners. Mama Grandé’s nephew, Santiago, is chained next to her, his head covered in blood. Santiago recognizes Melanie. She asks for his name, but he resents her willingness to see the prisoners as humans, now that she’s one of them, and refuses to tell her. Undaunted, she gives him a pristine napkin for the blood on is head.
Santiago asks her if the Ocean Bar is real. She tells him it’s beautiful. He breaks a little, lamenting that he’ll never see it. Walter the Papermaker is taken from the car into another car, where he’s officially executed by Lung of Ice. He’s strapped into an executioner’s chair, a gas mask is strapped to his face, and then frozen gas is forced into his lungs until he’s dead.
It’s the opposite of the mask Jinju wears when she dives in the Ocean Bar tanks for shellfish to feed Firsties. The highest echelons get fresh fish, ocean views, windows and hot saunas. The lowest get bug bars, lungs of ice and family separations. And that one precious time, Lights gave them a reflected view of the outside world.
The jackboots are shoring up the front line and consolidating their supplies of gas canisters, their most effective weapon against the rebels. Grey tells the jackboots to be ready for the next push.
Then the “camera” hops outside of the train for a quick bit of sharp animation to take us from the front half to the back half, with a pivot point in the center. This is our first clue that the train’s exterior is about to get more focus.
Layton gets a status report from his advisors. Jakes reports on the jackboots. Till thinks they should attack now, before the jackboots are ready. Audrey says they should wait until they’re more prepared, after reinforcing their own holdings. Dr Pelton informs him that there are 37 confirmed dead and more uptrain. Little Winnie is now truly an orphan. Layton tells her Patterson is with their mother, Suzanne, now, then Pelton takes charge of her.
Zarah tries to get an audience with the king, but he’s having too many feelings right now to deal with her complications and turns away. Zarah and Audrey look at each other intensely- Audrey knows that no matter how Layton currently feels about Zarah, he should to know that she’s pregnant while he’s making his decisions.
Up in the first class dining car, anger, vengeance and excess violence are winning the day, showing that no one in the front of the train who’s attempting to seize power is fit to wield it. Grey has a brutal plan to attack and subdue the rest of the train, car by car. First they’ll seal each section off, then they’ll gas it. After that the jackboots will chop up whoever they find inside, whether it’s civilians or rebels. Grey can’t tell them apart, so better safe than sorry.
He doesn’t care how steep the unnecessary casualties are.
When Javi points out that they need the downtrainers to actually run the train and produce the food, Lilah breezily says they’ll just train more lowlifes to do the work. It’s not clear where she thinks her next batch of slaves will come from after these are all dead, but in Lilah’s world whatever she wants just appears like magic, so I’m sure it will continue to work out when everything but First Class is extinct, including Thirdies and Tailies.
No one even mentions the damage the jackboots and their axes will undoubtedly do to the train’s systems during their enthusiastic “mopping up” of the downtrain passengers, or who will repair it after they’ve murdered the 3rd class repairmen. Javi does worry that the gas could enter the ventilation system and spread trainwide, but the Firsties don’t seem to even understand that they would be threatened in that scenario as well.
Javi is bursting with frustration at their stupidity. Melanie and Bennett aren’t looking so bad anymore.
The conversation moves on to Melanie’s public execution and just how ruthless and humiliating it should be. LJ thinks she should walk the plank, like a pirate. I think she says it to make Javi’s head explode. Ruth wants a public dethroning and an orderly handover of power, one queen to the next.
Lilah Senior insists that they need to crush every bit of evidence that this rebellion ever existed, so that she will be seen as the Supreme Ruler of the Universe and no one will ever doubt her right to rule with Complete and Utter Authority Over All Now and Forever. Robert wants to be Lilah’s King. Grey agrees with the sentiment but plans to make himself Supreme Ruler and Ruth his Queen. Everyone else is over this coup and wants to get back to brunch.
Javi scowls at the room in disapproval.
Up in the engine, Bennett watches the surveillance video that shows Miles giving LJ a quick tour. He has a meltdown over Miles giving LJ access to their secret lair, dragging him over to an out of the way spot and making Miles sit in the corner and stay quiet as punishment.
He also threatens to chop Miles up and put him in the composting toilet if he gets out of line again, but I don’t think he ‘d go through with it. Bennett is the most sane person on Snowpiercer and he knows they need to train more engineers. He’ll slowly wear Miles down and convert him to the cause of keeping the train in good operating condition. Miles is most of the way there already, he just doesn’t know it yet.
Putting Miles in the corner is a ridiculously benign punishment, especially to a Tailie who’s lived with such severe deprivation. Bennett could have made the kid clean out the toilet. Also, now we know that the engine has a composting toilet.
Bennett is currently the only grown up left in the engine and a bit stressed. He opens up a shortwave radio backup unit whose range spans the length of the train and attempts to get it functioning. Miles asks what he’s doing. At first, Bennett puts him off, but then he explains that Melanie’s enemies will be listening for her to attempt communication on the regular hardline radios. If she’s able to communicate, she’ll try to get through to him using the backup comms system. Presumably most people don’t know it exists.
Mama Grandé searches for her grandson, Santiago. Layton tells her that he was alive at the end of the battle. She moves on to keep searching.
Pike reaches Layton next and gives him a huge hug, pretending to be thrilled Layton is still alive. Layton is happy to see Pike and asks about Strong Boy and Z-Wreck, who were also in the drawers. Pike suggests they speak privately, then tells him about the situation in First. When he says that Melanie is scheduled to be executed later today, Layton approves.
Pike goes on to describe the food in 1st Class, until Layton tells him to get to the point. Pike explains that Grey is going scorched earth on the rebels and the downtrain civilians alike, unless Layton surrenders and agrees to trade his life for the survival of everyone downtrain. Once Layton has turned himself in and the rebellion has been visibly crushed, everything will go back to the way it was before the war, except Pike supposedly gets rewarded, Melanie won’t be in charge, and Layton will be executed. Pike tells him he has 1 hour to decide.
The outcome of the power struggle for who would ultimately rule the train, Grey and Ruth or Lilah and Robert, would have to be determined at a later time. Grey seems like the obvious winner, since he’s ruthless and has the jackboots backing him, but I wouldn’t count Lilah and Robert, who have the secret serial killer (LJ) and potentially the food poisoner (Jinju) on their side. Secret assassins have taken down greater men than Grey. Wilford, for example.
Layton takes the deal to Audrey and Till to discuss. They both feel that Grey wouldn’t be true to his word once Layton was dead, so there’s no point in considering it. Till leaves to warn the others that Grey plans to gas them ruthlessly. Audrey tells Layton it’s imperative that he speak to Zarah.
Grey pressures Javi to force his way into the engine, making more threats to gas more people, though it’s unclear who else Grey hasn’t already threatened to gas. Grey has one strategy, blunt force, and when it doesn’t work, he just uses more of it until he’s broken whatever/whoever he’s after, even if it seemingly runs counter to his ultimate objectives. He assumes his opponent will fold before he actually goes scorched earth and even if they don’t, in the long run his image as the ultimate winner and dominator is what’s most important.
What he often achieves is being told what he wants to hear, while the speaker actually plans to do something completely different.
Javi: “I’ll tap in downtrain, override the master controls.”
Strong Boy and Z-Wreck are still dealing with the effects of the suspension drug. Aus is nervous, assuming something went wrong, because the rebels should have sent someone for them hours ago. Klimpt is excited because he’s sure that Strong Boy understands what’s being said to him in English, even while he appears to speak only Mandarin. Strong Boy’s reflexes and strength prove to be as superior as ever and Z-Wreck says he’s ready to fight as well, so they decide to head out on their own.
Ruth pays another visit to Melanie’s cabin and investigates further into how her nemesis pulled off her ruse. She figures out that Melanie edited audio files to make the announcements. When Grey finds her there, she says that Melanie has Wilford’s “manuals, his journals, his tools” and decides that Melanie’s obsessed with Wilford.
Grey is excited by Ruth’s anger and tells her that soon they’ll get rid of Melanie and push the Folgers to the side. Then they can rule the train together. She grabs him and kisses him.
Ruth, Melanie, Wilford, Obsession & Fairness
It doesn’t seem to occur to Ruth that Melanie moved her stuff in on top of Wilford’s or that she was the one who wrote the manuals and/or the journals while pretending to be Wilford in order to keep up the pretense that he was alive. We already know that Ruth is the one who’s obsessed.
But there could be two sides to this story, as well. Maybe Wilford wasn’t quite as useless as Melanie made him out to be. Maybe he wanted to run the train in a way that was so destructive that Melanie couldn’t stand it, as she said, but it was mainly destructive and degrading to everyone but the Firsties, rather than a method that would have failed immediately.
It could be that he would have treated most people as disposable, but not everyone, and that the train would have lasted longer than she said, but it wouldn’t have been sustainable long term. With only a short time to convince the train that dumping Wilford was the right thing to do, that would have been a hard sell for Melanie to get across. Especially if Wilford started out keeping everyone happy, then gradually pulled the rug out from under them, until they realized the truth too late.
Here’s a thought- were the tailies allowed onto the train to obscure the fact that Melanie was dumping Wilford off of the train? The tailies also serve important functions as replacement labor and the example of what could happen if you step too far out of line. But what if their original function was simply to provide cover when Melanie had Wilford thrown out the back door of the subtrain? Once he was out, the train left at full speed, with however many tailies were on the train. Maybe they bought their tickets by helping get rid of Wilford.
Jackboots come for Melanie. Santiago blurts out his name, maybe just so she’ll have seen a friendly face before she dies. Perhaps just in case she survives and can help him eventually. He tells her he’ll pray for her.
The jackboots take her to the Lung of Ice room. One of them tells her it’ll go faster if she takes one big inhale. Then they strap her into the chair and put the mask on her face. The notary reads out her death sentence for treason. The room is nearly empty- this is not the public execution Ruth has been calling for.
The room empties completely, except for one jackboot, and Melanie begins taking deep breaths. We’re reminded again that she’s brave and is willing to do whatever she also asks of others. While she has many flaws, no one works harder than her and she accepts responsibility for her actions. She didn’t beg for her life or complain at all on the way to her execution.
She may also have figured out that it was unlikely she’d die an anonymous death.
The ice cold air never comes. Instead, the jackboot, who turns out to be Javi, gets her out of the chair. This is her escape. While the notary creates a distraction in the prison car, Javi rushes Melanie to a hatch to the subtrain. Jinju is waiting for her at the bottom of the ladder.
They hug and Jinju says she used coercion and gifts to arrange Melanie’s escape. She tries to lead Melanie uptrain, where the plan is for her to retake First Class, but Melanie refuses to go. She thinks she has a better shot downtrain. Melanie tells Jinju to stay safe uptrain, then turns and runs off to make her way alone to the back end of the train. She’s still wearing her blue and white hospitality uniform.
The first chance she gets, she goes back up to the main level of the train, then immediately into the ductwork, where she won’t run into anyone else as she crawls downtrain. This way, she case pass through the barricades undetected.
Somebody should have grabbed her a pair of pants, though. That uniform broadcasts who she is from a mile away and the skirt hinders her movement.
Layton visits Zarah, as requested. She asks what’s going to happen next, but he refuses to tell her, implying that she’ll turn traitor again. She tells him that she’ll have to live with what happened to Josie for the rest of her life. She did what she had to do to protect their unborn child. She puts his hand on her stomach.
He’s overwhelmed by this revelation and realizing that maybe life is complicated and sometimes people make decisions that aren’t easily judged or understood. He leaves, but only makes it as far as the hall outside the door, where he lets the wall hold him up.
Once he’s pulled himself together again, Layton goes to Till and tells her it’s over. He can’t let them kill everyone
now that everyone includes his own child. Then he tells Pike he’ll surrender.
Pike returns to First Class while Melanie scooches her way through the narrow ductwork. When Pike tells them that Layton has given in, Lilah asks how they can be certain this isn’t a trick. Pike assures her that Layton doesn’t have the stomach for bloodshed. Grey adds that the gas is in place, just in case Layton’s people try anything.
Robert notes that the war has lasted less than 16 hours. Ruth says she’ll inform the rest of First and Second Class. Grey leaves to arrange the surrender ceremony. LJ tells her parents that they should be at the surrender to ensure their position in the new government. Lilah and Robert immediately see the truth in that.
Bennett frantically moves from monitor to monitor in the engine, making sure that nothing has been damaged or sabotaged. Miles asks why they always kept it so cold and dark in the tail. Bennett tries to brush him off by saying it’s complicated. Miles responds by saying the Engine Eternal has unlimited output. Bennett says the engine can run forever (duration), but its output decreases over time (intensity). “At any given time, there’s only so much to go around.”
Miles figures out that it’s not complicated at all. The engine’s output is just rationed in an unequal way.
Bennett: “Listen, the fuel might be eternal, but these parts, these things, are not. And someday, the whole lot of us will die for want of a hex nut.”
Bennett didn’t really answer Miles’ question. He explained why output is limited and they can’t push the engine too hard. He didn’t explain why the current output of the engine and other systems can’t be distributed equally throughout the train.
Unless he meant that there’s an invisible engine sitting dormant at the other end of the train that they could be using to light and heat the tail, but they’re saving it for later. Extra parts certainly seem to be what’s on his mind right now. Sometimes he and Javi seem to be on a different train from the others- they’re the only ones who pay attention to the world outside the train and the long term health of the tracks and of the train itself. Melanie approaches those subjects on an as needed basis, but she doesn’t seem to look at them on their own the way Javi and Bennett do.
The backup comms come to life for a moment. Bennett tries to raise someone, but there’s no answer. He tells Miles that it’s just interference.
Interference from what or who??
Aus, Strong Boy and Z-Wreck make their way down to the sub train. Aus has jackboot gear on, but the other two are still in hospital garb. They barely escape the notice of jackboots running to the back of the train.
Melanie exits the ducts amidst the vegetable beds in an ag car. She barely escapes being shot by the rebels. The first thing she does is tell Layton that she can get him control of the train. He’s already threatened to kill her, but she insists that she knows how to defeat Grey. Layton asks why she’d help them and turn against the upper classes.
Melanie: “Because Snowpiercer won’t survive with him and the Fogers in charge. But I can’t do it on my own and we have to act fast. All the jackboots are gathered together. If we disconnect a section of the train we can wipe them out in one go… Bennett will orchestrate from the engine, but we need to release the manual safeties from the manual separation points. There’s a fork in the track ahead. Bennett will adjust speed so we hit it at the precise time, releasing the cars and sending the jackboot army into the freeze.”
Till wonders if this is Melanie’s way of putting herself back in power, but Melanie says Layton will be in charge. Layton questions her sincerity, but she says she never cared about running the train. Audrey questions that.
Melanie insists again that she only wanted to preserve life. She admits, in a perfunctory way, that her way has led to disaster and she doesn’t care if they think of her as a tyrant. Then she insists again that recriminations don’t change anything and they need to look to the future. She’s happy to hand leadership over to Layton. Maybe his method will work where hers didn’t.
Her point is that even as a war criminal, she still has a valuable role to play on Snowpiercer. No one understands the train like her and no one can strategize like her when it comes to the train’s resources and logistics. She wants amnesty along the lines of of Operation Paperclip, the program where Nazi scientists were brought to the US and forgiven so they could help end the war with Japan and then later move on to other Cold War projects.
Layton asks for Audrey and Till’s opinions. Audrey believes Melanie. Till is less charitable, but thinks her plan is their best chance. Layton tells Melanie to explain further.
She takes Layton to one of the emergency backup comms boxes, where she contacts Bennett. He’s surprised she’s in Third. She asks how far they are from the Fremont Junction. Bennett says they’re about 100 kilometers.
Then Melanie shows Layton how the release boxes work at junction points between train cars. She tells him that “J” indicates a junction. Accessing the boxes requires high level clearance. She’ll release the cars from the downtrain side. Someone else will have to go behind enemy lines to release the cars on the uptrain side. Layton can handle that release when he pretends to surrender, but they’ll need help, since he can’t move freely.
Till pays Roche a visit. He is, of course, sitting at his desk, wearing a perfectly clean and pressed uniform and eating his perfectly prepared lunch, as if nothing has changed. He complains about the looting, brawls and vandalism that have characterized the civil war from his vantage point.
Rebellion and change are all in the eye of the beholder.
Till’s uniform is still covered in blood. She tells Roche that Melanie has joined their side and order will be restored once they win the war. He doubts that 3rd Class and Tailie animals can ever learn to behave, but whatever.
Till: “You don’t believe in the cause, fine. Then fight for what’s right. Fight for your family. Fight for your frickin’ lunch meat!”
Roche: “It’s a travesty they call this lunch meat.”
Best line delivery of the season. They hired Mike O’Malley because he could do that line justice. All scifi forced vegetarians feel your pain, dude.
Enjolras Till makes one final plea to her father figure, hoping he’ll see that he’s a downtrainer and there’s only one way out for them.
Ruth prepares to make her first announcement as
Queen of the Train Head of Hospitality. It’s a big moment for her and she wants to do Mr Wilford proud, even if he’s there only in spirit. She tells First and Second that the mutinous curs from Third and the Tail have been brought to heel. Thus order and decorum have been restored on Snowpiercer, as Mr Wilford always meant for it to be.
Meanwhile… mutiny is still somehow occurring in First. Ms Gillies, the teacher, meets with Firstie spy Martin Colvin to discuss tutoring for his children while the school schedule is disrupted by this unfortunate war. We wouldn’t want them to fall behind and have trouble getting into Frozen Harvard someday, after all.
His confidence in the tutoring plan wavers for a moment, but Ms Gillies convinces him that “tutoring” is a much better plan than letting the Folgers take over. He passes her a gun under the table, then she makes a little more cheery small talk before leaving with the weapon in her tote bag.
This is why we all actually carry tote bags and large purses. We’re preparing for the revolution.
Back in Third, Melanie slices open her own hand to remove her access chip. She gives it to Layton and tells him it will give him access to the safety release and every door in the train. He gives her a cold stare and tells her that there will be a reckoning between the two of them if they both live through the war.
She doesn’t bother to tell him how many times people have tried to kill her today alone, officially and unofficially. He’ll be a more confident leader if he thinks he’s the scariest encounter she’s had today, rather than the Lung of Ice.
Melanie has finally changed into regular clothes and I am much relieved. Everyone always focuses on the high heels, but a pencil skirt isn’t suitable adventure wear either. She wouldn’t actually have had the freedom of movement to easily climb ladders in that thing. There’s a reason women wore voluminous skirts when they wore them all the time.
Roche and Till arrive just as Mel and Layton finish their stare down over their future reckoning and he chuckles that the two leaders are thick as thieves and probably about to get everyone killed. When Roche asks about the risk, Melanie says that there is a chance that the cars won’t reconnect if they blow the timing at the junction. “Then the back half of the train will freeze and the front half will starve.”
Roche: “Okay. Thought so. Just wanted to hear someone say it out loud, so we all know how frickin’ stupid this is. Let’s go.”
Roche is definitely the MVP of the episode. He’s the one of last sane people on the train, clinging to the old life, the old morality and the old sensibilities. He stays out of petty disagreements, but he’s also ready to jump in and help save the day when it becomes clear which side is right and which side is wrong, according to his own moral code. This is why I thought he was married to Ruth. Aside from his social class, he’s the old-fashioned hero and father figure she idealized Mr Wilford into.
The dream team go forward to the welded shut barrier between cars that serves as the current border to a no man’s land. After it’s opened, Mel, Roche, Layton go through. When they reach the first safety release, all three synchronize their watches, which I haven’t seen done since the Cold War ended and the digital age took off. It’s a nice throwback in a show that already heavily features speed, analog and digital clocks and the race against time as a motif.
Time is always running out on Snowpiercer. Everyone knows it but the particular people who are about to have their time run out.
Melanie reminds Layton that once she releases the safety on her end, he’ll have 3 minutes to do his part. As Layton and Roche walk away, we watch them from behind, mirroring scenes from early in the season, when Layton was a prisoner who had to trust Roche, Melanie and Till with his life and the lives of the Tail while he did his detective work. Now Melanie is little more than a prisoner who has to trust Layton with her life and the life of the entire train.
Roche has always been trustworthy, but until now, he’s been little more than a figurehead in the power struggles. As Javi is also discovering, principles don’t provide much protection from ruthless violence. At a certain point, you either become a martyr or a fighter.
When Layton and Roche reach the schoolroom, where the surrender is meant to take place, Grey has Layton frisked. Then Lilah tells Layton to sit down and hold up a ceremonial white flag so they can take photographs as historical documentation of the event. She wants to milk the “optics” of the surrender, turning it into a photo op advertising the new Folger regime.
At the 8 minute mark, Bennett reveals a 2 key- 2 person release system that’s used in tandem with the safety releases back in the cars. He’s a little frantic as he and Miles each turn their key at the same moment. Bennett, the conductor who must orchestrate Melanie’s bold plan amidst chaos while working in a near communications blackout, is the other MVP of this episode.
Grey gives Layton a formal Declaration of Surrender to sign, while all of the aspiring dignitaries stand around him for more photos. The plan is for Layton to read this declaration to the crowd, presumably just prior to his execution.
Inside joke alert: Daveed Diggs/Layton won a Tony award for playing Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, in the Broadway show Hamilton. In the 19th century, it was tradition in many towns to have someone of importance read the Declaration of Independence out loud in the town square on the 4th of July.
Roche grows impatient and almost slips up when he blurts out that they need to hurry up. At the last moment, he stops himself from saying that they have someplace else to be. Honest people don’t make the best spies.
Grey wants to get to the good part- the execution- anyway, so he has Layton handcuffed before they move into the next car and subtrain. The Folgers call out that they’re staying behind.
Robert: “When Mr Layton’s announcement goes out, we’ll go back with the troops and accept Third’s surrender.”
Lilah: “It’s important that the citizens see the new power structure in the flesh. No more fakery. No more theater.”
Grey: “As you wish.”
He doesn’t mean “I love you.”
Layton and Roche manage to keep a straight face. This is better than they could have planned. And, oh, the irony of LILAH saying there’s been enough fakery and theater.
Lilah thanks Layton for crawling up out of the slime and bringing the truth about Snowpiercer with him, enabling this change in leadership. Layton unironically says, “You’re welcome.”
The next car is filled with jackboots. Grey encourages them to take out their anger on Layton as he walks the gauntlet. Layton is bloodied, but not too badly beaten, by the end. He asks if Grey is going to take his shot, but Grey is saving his for later.
Roche does something on the ceiling- maybe he locks the door to the schoolroom car? Then he takes a gun out of the car’s security pouch and order’s Grey to uncuff Layton. Grey gives the order, but argues with Roche, starting a fist fight after he’s successfully distracted the other man. Once Layton is free from the cuffs he joins the fight.
Melanie, Bennett and Miles all do their part to decouple the back half of the train. The front half pulls away, with Melanie watching from the new front of the left behind section. The Folgers quickly realize that their section is the real target and try to get to the forward part of the train before they are cut off, but the door is locked. They realize that LJ will be orphaned.
Grey has a jackboot hold Layton still and prepares to execute him immediately. He makes the mistake of listing Layton’s crimes first, which gives Aus, Strong Boy and Z-Wreck, riding in on a golf cart, time to save the day. Layton frantically tells them to grab Roche and run uptrain. He’s running out of time to complete the mission.
Layton bolts to the junction point. When he gets there, he’s confronted with the carload of rebel prisoners from the start of the episode. He’ll have to release the safety in full view of the captives, many of them his close friends. He only has 2 minutes left, not enough time to free them all, but he dashes into the car and searches for keys anyway. When his search proves fruitless, he desperately apologizes to the confused prisoners and goes back to the release.
At the last possible moment, he pulls the release lever. It doesn’t feel like a safety release anymore. The prisoners scream in betrayal as they realize what he’s done. Layton stares at them as the cars separate, then sinks to the floor. The prisoners pray with each other as they face death.
Bennett and Miles race to complete the complicated part of this maneuver. They complete the decoupling, then switch the freestanding cars off onto the other section of track at Fremont Junction. They have to quickly reset the tracks so that the back half of the train will follow the front half onto the main route.
Miles and Bennett work together flawlessly to pull it off. Once they’re on the main track again, the front half has to slow down to just the right speed to recouple with the back half, so that they link, but nothing is damaged. The train jolts as they reconnect, but it works.
That was an amazing, heart-stopping action sequence.
Miles and Bennett hug once it’s all over. Bennett says, “Good job, Engineer.” He started the episode telling Miles that he’s not a soldier, he’s just a tragic child. Now he and Melanie have led Miles into helping kill dozens of people.
But in Bennett’s mind, I don’t think this was the act of a soldier. It was the act of an Engineer, saving the lives of his Train and Chief Engineer from the war that was threatening their survival. That’s the engineers’ code that Mel and Bennett are trying to instill in Miles and Javi as well. The train always has to come first. It’s what the Wilford and Engine Eternal religion was supposed to be about, but it became a meaningless fetish for most of the passengers. Maybe because they sensed the lie behind it all along and the survival of the train becomes meaningless if life aboard her becomes too cruel for most of the passengers.
Melanie and Layton stare at each other as uptrain and downtrain approach each other, each in the opposite half from where they started. It’s a fantastic visual metaphor. Each has lost so much and fought so hard, since the very beginning, to get to where they are- exactly where they are. Layton thinks she’s betrayed him again. Maybe she has. But she’s also introduced him to the realities of leadership. It’s not fun and games. It’s choosing the lesser of two evils in a world where there’s never consensus or enough of anything but pain and hardship to go around.
And she’s given him a gift in his negotiations with the upper classes- knowing that a relative few Thirdies and Tailies were also lost in the decoupling will soften the blow in the reunification process, even if it only becomes known as a rumor. It will let the upper classes know that he can take action against his own people when necessary, too, not just them, and that will help them accept him. It’s a harsh way to make that point, but it’s a harsh world.
Melanie tells Layton that he didn’t have to go through with the decoupling- he could have made the choice to save the prisoners and then searched for another way to win the war. But the decisions won’t get any easier.
“You have the train, Layton.”
And so, the war is officially over. Episode 10 is a denouement to the season 1 storyline and a transition to season 2. We can have nice things like that when renewals happen early.
Where is Lights? Last we saw her, she was with Walter, who is now dead. She’d better be alive! As a scientist who’s expert at adapting materials, she should be instrumental in the rebuilding and restructuring process.
The jackboots’ preference for tear gas as a weapon has turned out to be amazingly prescient writing, given how often we’ve seen tear gas used as a weapon on peaceful protesters in the US in the summer of 2020.
In the first scene after the opening credits, one of the jackboots tells Grey, “All quiet on the rebel front, sir.” This is probably a reference to the acclaimed 1930 anti-war film All Quiet on the Western Front, which realistically shows the harshness of WW1 through the eyes of a group of naive students who join the army and fight together, but are all dead by the end of the film. The Nazi Party protested until the film was banned in Germany. If Grey knew his film references, he might have been less confident for the rest of the episode.
It’s a major flaw in the writing that even Layton, the man who wanted his son to become an engineer, doesn’t understand how irreplaceable they are, especially Melanie. They can hate Melanie the leader and Melanie the person all they want, but Melanie the engineer is currently 1 of only 3 people in that position and javi seems relatively inexperienced. That’s barely enough personnel to cover all 3 shifts, with them each working 7 days a week. No wonder Mel never sleeps. More apprentices are desperately needed.
The passengers really should be more aware that someone has to have kept the train running and organized for the last 7 years. Their lives depend on the train and they come from our world, where we die if our cars fail at the wrong time, in the wrong way.
It shouldn’t be hard for everyone to grasp that Melanie is Wilford and they need her, even if she’s no longer in charge, no matter how much they hate her. If Layton’s going to be seen as someone who’d be a better leader than Lilah, Grey or Ruth, he needs to get up to speed on how the train’s organizational structure works beyond its social and political systems and delegate the jobs he can’t do himself.
The shortwave radio backup system is an interesting choice for comms that only need to cover the length of the train, which is 10 miles. Shortwave radios cover long, continent-wide distances and even travel over the horizon while using relatively little power or infrastructure. They are often used by intelligence agencies, rebel groups and pirate radio operators as well as amateur radio broadcasters who want to communicate with other users from around the world.
A shortwave radio is an obvious choice for a post-apocalypse world, whether it’s meant to keep in touch with other known survivors or to search for survivors. It seems like overkill for the backup comms on a train, but maybe it was meant to serve a dual purpose and Bennett just didn’t mention the second one to Miles.
What Snowpiercer Asks of Mothers
Zarah was placed in an impossible situation by Melanie, forced to choose between her unborn child and her ex-husband’s lover. But the reality is, Melanie killed Josie, not Zarah. Layton would do well to remember that. Even if Zarah hadn’t been pregnant, Melanie would have used other leverage, such as Layton, Miles or Audrey’s lives, to force Zarah’s betrayal. Zarah was a pawn in a no win situation. If she hadn’t given up Josie, multiple people might have died until someone else gave her up.
On the flip side, does Zarah get to be angry at Layton for putting her and the baby in more danger? Maybe Layton should accept that he doesn’t get to make all of the decisions. Ultimately, Josie’s death was between Melanie and Josie. Josie was a warrior. She kept using the blue chip, even though she knew it was dangerous and even though she was a mother herself. Miles has now lost 2 mothers.
Josie and Layton turned their adopted son, Miles, into a child soldier. Maybe we should talk more about that. Bennett just told him he’s not a soldier, but he’s been raised to believe that everyone in the tail has to fight tooth and nail for their survival. Winnie’s participation shows that everyone works and fights as soon as they’re big enough to contribute.
Melanie forced Zarah into making an unbearable choice and Layton finds it unforgivable, but under his leadership every mother, including Suzanne and Josie, has made unbearable choices. Snowpiercer began with a mother making an unbearable choice when Melanie left her daughter behind in order to keep the train safe from Wilford’s recklessness.
It could be that some part of her is punishing the train and herself for that sacrifice. Though Snowpiercer’s survival would be on a knife’s edge either way, survival can happen with many different attitudes. Melanie has set the tone for the train by making herself Wilford’s wraith, fostering resentment and competition, rather than making Snowpiercer a place where life and survival are celebrated.
Did the Train Demand Blood or Did Melanie?
Melanie says she gave Layton a choice about whether to kill the prisoners in the adjacent car, but it wasn’t much of a choice. Grey or the Folgers would have reneged on the surrender deal if Layton hadn’t gone through with the plan after that. The possibility of fighting it out until the bloody, bitter end, with so many losses that the train would no longer be self-sustaining, would have been back on the table.
She made him see that leadership isn’t just doing good things for people, it’s also making difficult choices. But she also got rid of a carload of prisoners who had seen her at her lowest, as a humiliated prisoner brought down to their level, and made Layton kill some of the people he cares about, just as she was having to cut loose people she cares about.
Maybe it was an even trade, in that sense- a carload of the upper classes and jackboots offset by a carload of the lower classes. And Melanie passed on the burden of not being able to shake off the ways of the old leader. Layton has to start his government under her shadow, just like she had to work under Wilford’s shadow.
In the opening voiceover, Melanie says that the train demanded blood, but how much of that was her preferred way of doing things? How much was set into perpetual motion by Wilford, since she’s now forced it onto Layton as well? Or was that an attempt to justify her own methodology and make sure that he won’t outshine her as a leader?
Except for possibly the cool headed Bennett and non-violent Javi, Melanie has also had to make do with staff that Wilford hired, the passengers he recruited, and the system he created, rather than her own staff, passengers who signed on for a trip she designed, or a system of management she created. Maybe a world designed by Melanie from scratch would be different.
Or maybe Melanie needed to make the train suffer for the trade off she made when she had to leave without her daughter in order to make sure she successfully left Wilford behind without anyone outside of the engine finding out.