Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Snowpiercer crafts an action-packed episode that's short on character development

Daveed Diggs stars in Snowpiercer
Daveed Diggs stars in Snowpiercer
Photo: Justina Mintz
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How many members of the Tail can you name? It is a part of my job to learn the names of television characters so I can include accurate details in these reviews, and yet, I struggle to recall the names of the few members of the Tail who have been explicitly given names. This is not a failure on my part to care about the characters in the Tail. In fact, I extremely care about the characters in the Tail. Without them, there isn’t much of a story.

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After all, this is supposedly a show about revolution, and the Tail contains the revolutionaries. There may be other characters who are finally onboard with that revolution, but they are late adopters to an ongoing movement. And yet, Snowpiercer prioritizes their stories. The show constantly sends the message that it’s these characters who are more interesting; the ones who are radicalized by circumstance or realization. Till, Miss Audrey, Henry—they all get fully realized arcs. They get specificity and complicated motivations and literal screen-time. Meanwhile, we’ve spent so little time in the Tail that the characters who occupy it have been flattened in a way that mimics the way they’re treated onboard. “These Are His Revolutions” finally begins the rebellion that has been building all season, and the Tail is indeed leading the charge, but these characters are sketches. They’re symbolic of the movement rather than fully dimensional characters who are taking part in the movement. And that matters.

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Other than Layton, the other fully realized character from the Tail was Josie, and “fully realized” is a little generous there. And now she’s dead (or, at least, presumed dead...technically we didn’t see a body, but I have a hard time believing she could have made it out of that situation). Several other members of the Tail become critical in the events of “These Are His Revolutions,” contributing their specific skills to the cause and working alongside members of Third who have become allies. Technically, the events of the episode are exhilarating. Things are finally happening. The pieces are shifting. The train and its inhabitants are alive with the pulsating determination, violence, and reckoning of revolution. And yet, there’s still so much left to be desired in terms of character development and emotional throughlines. Snowpiercer is broad in its approach to upheaval.

The image of so many Tailies being slaughtered in the clash with jackboots in the Night Car is no doubt powerful. It’s stylized in a way that softens some of the gore without minimizing it. Watching Layton’s face throughout—as he realizes the true toll of this fight—is particularly moving. But because so many of these characters have been developed hastily if at all, their deaths are kind of just part of the plot instead of playing a deeper emotional role in the narrative.

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Till and Layton become the real face of the Tail’s side of the revolution. Layton literally returns to the Tail with all the fanfare of a prophet: Cloaked, walking in slow-motion, he re-enters his former home to cheers and awe. He delivers his big speech. Daveed Diggs knocks it out of the park, but the writing is still broad, still slightly off-target. All movements have leaders, but the way Layton is treated by the story elevates him to hero status, and that just feels out of place amid the rallying cries of “one train.” As for Till, I’ve found her character arc to be one of the most compelling, but her role here does play into that idea that the writing is only privileging certain narratives in this revolution. Till’s decision to participate in the revolution is complicated—due to her relationship with Jinju—and therefore treated as more interesting than the motives that exist in the Tail. Because yeah, technically the motives in the Tail are pretty straightforward: They’re starving, dying, treated as expendable. Of course they’re ready to fight. And yet flattening the Tail’s passengers under this single motivating force strips them of their individual identities. And that just seems like lazy writing.

Snowpiercer is essentially paying for its earlier sins: Because attention was diverted from the revolution to the shoehorned-in crime procedural, there simply wasn’t enough character work done early on to make things click into place. “These Are His Revolutions” treats Nolan as a hugely important character now that he’s leading First and the Folgers in mutiny, but since when do we know much or care about Nolan? He has always disliked Melanie, but that’s not motivation for all-out, murderous mutiny! Ruth also gets a lot of big character moments in the episode, and they do occasionally land, which has a lot to do with Alison Wright’s strengths and less to do with the writing. All we really know about Ruth is that she regards Wilford as her savior, and conveniently, all of her actions can be explained away by that.

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Again, excitement does course through the veins of “These Are His Revolutions,” the most active and also bloodiest episode of the series to date. It finally feels like something is happening aboard this train, and that provides plenty of narrative momentum. There are real consequences for actions, too, including for Melanie. Watching her realize that she’s about to be undone as she steps into a freshly awakened First is a visceral moment. But I’m still not entirely convinced by the characterization of Melanie. She insists to Ruth that she killed Wilford because his plan for the train was more self-serving than it was about preserving the human race, but again, the show lets Melanie distinguish herself from the violent capitalism that Wilford built even though we’ve repeatedly seen her reinforce those systems. She claims to have inherited a project, but has she done anything to challenge it? How is she really different from Wilford? Is the show even interested in addressing these questions in a meaningful way?

The final moments of the episode hinge on betrayal, and as with Zarah’s betrayal, the mechanics of the reveal are technically effective even if the characters involved are kind of hazy. All we really know about Pike is that he’s never really liked Layton. He’s hesitant about Layton’s plan in the beginning of the series. While he may be a Tailie, he’s also an opportunist. He’ll give First what they want in exchange for his own freedom. Pulling out a long-sidelined character who has been barely developed for a big twisty moment like this is a little too hack to really hit hard. Nolan is hyperfocused on defeating Layton instead of defeating, you know, the now 400+ other people fighting this fight. But those people haven’t really been afforded names and faces by Snowpiercer, which would rather tell a tidy story about revolution than really, truly lean into the mess.

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Stray observations

  • LJ has never worked as a character for me. She spends most of this episode giddy about upheaval, but she’s just written as weird for the sake of being weird? I’m getting Bellatrix Lestrange vibes, and it just feels so out of place.
  • Like Till, Miss Audrey is treated by the writing as a more complicated character than the members of the Tail even though really all she seems to do is wear cool outfits and sing songs sometimes.
  • Nolan and Ruth are both so horny for order. They deserve each other honestly.
  • Melanie’s motherhood becomes a suddenly important part of her character, and while she does express what seems to be genuine regret about letting Josie die after talking to Miles, it just still feels like really cheap character work!
  • Multiple times in this episode, a character says the phrase “good cop,” which does not sit well. Layton uses the language of abolition in the Tail during his speech but then calls the lead brakeman a good cop? What?
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