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Snowpiercer finds stronger stakes as it contemplates the real costs of its characters' choices

Illustration for article titled Snowpiercer finds stronger stakes as it contemplates the real costs of its characters' choices
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The arrival of Big Alice has stirred something in each of the passengers on Snowpiercer: fear and uncertainty for some, hope and faith for others. Wilford’s presence means a new threat. It means new power. It means new rules. Since the second season premiere, one character in particular has been completely upended by this seismic shift: Miss Audrey. “A Single Trade” burrows deep into that upending.

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Miss Audrey has always been a bit of a nebulous character, seeming at times like a cipher for the other characters to unload on. But “A Single Trade” suggests that Miss Audrey surrounds herself with performance and spectacle as a necessary survival mechanism. She has long been relegated to the confines and control of others’ fantasies, serving as a high-end escort who had an exclusive arrangement with Wilford in the beforetimes. Alex jokingly refers to Audrey as Wilford’s paramour, leading him to snap at her. Wilford sees Audrey as much more than that and also...much less. He doesn’t see her as a real person with autonomy so much as someone who exists to pleasure him. The episode’s title brilliantly contains the emotional turmoil of Audrey’s situation. It’s just one trade. Frostbite relief for the burned passengers of Snowpiercer in exchange for a party on the Night Car. But presenting it as just a single trade of course obscures the real stakes. Wilford is asking for everything from Audrey. And what’s more is that her allies are asking it of her, too.

Layton does seem a little concerned with Audrey’s safety in this trade...but not enough to call it off or provide her with any tangible support. No one asks Audrey what exactly she has to give to satiate Wilford. But they’d have to be completely ignorant not to see the pain she’s in and anticipates. Lena Hall gives a fierce and splitting performance throughout. Layton asking Audrey to do this for the cause is a sharp example of how society strips sex workers of their humanity and agency. Audrey makes it clear that she’s doing this for herself. She’s alone in this work, and the other characters completely take her for granted. To them, it probably just looks like a single trade. To her, it’s a neverending set of compounding trades. Wilford is a man who believes he’s owed everything he wants. Audrey knows the real emotional and physical cost of accepting his terms. They’re incalculable.

“A Single Trade” is successful in tackling the trauma and grief that sometimes gets swept to the side when Snowpiercer becomes too meticulous about lining up its plot mechanics. As with last episode, there are a lot more zoomed-in character moments, ones that engage with the internal effects of war and class struggle. Audrey’s trauma—largely ignored or not understood by the other characters—provides the emotional backbone for the episode. But there are some other meaningful scenes, too, like Bess Till losing complete control of her emotions because she’s so overwhelmed with grief that she feels like she doesn’t even have an identity anymore. All that is a lot more interesting than Bess Till becoming a detective overnight. Till’s all over the place in this episode, lashing out at the Breachmen when they get in a fight with the Tailies, hooking up with a bartender at the Night Car party, and crying uncontrollably. But her mix of emotions and behaviors makes sense. She hasn’t had a moment’s pause since the war to really process what has been happening around her. Lots of passengers are grappling with who they really are.

The survivor’s guilt that passengers experience is insurmountable. It’s why Audrey’s reframing of the Night Car to be a place of mourning and communal grief rather than individualistic pleasure is so significant. Wilford’s probably right when he says Audrey is the key to the Night Car—just not in the way he means. He sees her as some spectral object of pleasure and indulgence, as something to be won. But Audrey’s power resides in her ability to bring latent emotions to the surface, to make people face their sadness and rage and guilt so that they can better process it. The characterization of Miss Audrey does verge on the old “hooker with a heart of gold” trope, but Lena Hall’s nuanced performance gives specificity to the character. Her isolation from the rest of the group drives home the fact that she isn’t just being used by Wilford. She’s being used by all of them. There are no heroes on Snowpiercer.

Which is why it’s frustrating when the show does try to make a hero out of someone in order to fit a more conventional narrative. Layton has strayed so far from his original goals and philosophies, and while last episode engaged with that head-on, some of that is undone here when Josie urges other Tailies to stand with him. That shift in Josie’s perception of Layton doesn’t really track. Nor does the ongoing attempt to make Ruth a more just and heroic character. Layton and some of the others naturally distrust her, but Ruth—and the writers—are working overtime to undo the character’s past. And now Zara and Ruth are teaming up for some reason, and Zara remains a flat character with ever-shifting motives and viewpoints. She joins hospitality, offering assistance to Ruth but obviously standing to gain something herself.

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Characters making choices for a mix of political and self-serving reasons is naturally the name of the game on Snowpiercer, but sometimes it really feels like the writers are just moving pieces around on the board with little thought for the emotional forces that drive those pieces. “A Single Trade” contains depth and pathos, but it’s still muddled when it comes to certain characters.

An unexpected source of emotion comes from a scene between LJ and Alex. Both characters tend to put up a front, preferring to say something snarky (Alex) or bitchy (LJ) rather than express what they’re really feeling. But the two coax something a little more from each other, LJ likely working Alex for some self-serving purpose but also accidentally letting some of her own vulnerability show. LJ jokes about the death of her parents, but when Alex asks if she misses them, she says that the whole world froze to death so why should this be any different. It’s a shocking but also wholly understandable response to mass death. LJ, who was very young when the freeze hit, has been numbed to loss. Alex has, too. It’s what made her so cold when she first met Melanie. And now, she reveals to LJ that she felt more than she expected. Alex wears it plainly on her face that she’s hoping Melanie makes contact with the engineers’ weather balloon (which she does after some nail-biting buildup). Big Alice merging with Snowpiercer indeed has thrown so many characters into an identity crisis of sorts. And the show is at its best when it really needles into that inner turmoil, giving meaningful stakes to characters’ responses

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The fractured social system of Snowpiercer and the threat of Big Alice means a whole new set of negotiations and trades these characters have to make—both literally and emotionally. Miss Audrey’s voiceover in the opening and her arc that follows reveals that there are always additional costs beneath the surface-level ones. When Snowpiercer unearths the deeper toll of strategic choices, its political game has a sharper edge. “A Single Trade” is largely successful on that front even as it’s still uneven in its overall character development.


Stray observations

  • Miss Audrey’s “Give Me A Reason To Love You” performance is one of the best musical moments on the show to date. Portishead at the end of the world!
  • Layton is still working with Pike to establish a strategic pipeline at the border. Pike does dependably provide some humor whenever he shows up in an episode.
  • I don’t really understand the motives for the Breachmen, who are basically jacked-up firefighters with a fervent loyalty toward Wilford. Sure, they’re here mostly as a conflict device, but it would be more effective if any of them felt like more than just a sketch.
  • I think we’re supposed to find Zara styling Layton endearing, but Layton’s romanticized view of Zara is just so frustrating! Why does he never question her motives? Snowpiercer is always awkwardly injecting romantic tension in a way that feels completely inorganic.
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