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Snowpiercer misfires with a major character death

Illustration for article titled iSnowpiercer /imisfires with a major character death
Image: Snowpiercer (TNT)
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Snowpiercer’s Melanie Cavill problem is getting harder to overcome.

But before we get into that mess—which really does drag down this episode—let’s jump into the Melanie problem that exists for the characters on the show. Brewing alongside the revolution that Layton is trying to spark by uniting Third with the Tail, the rich folks uptrain in First are plotting a shakeup of their own, too. As a response to growing power in Third, they feel like Melanie no longer represents their best interests. The Folgers and Nolan proposition Ruth with a leadership shakeup: Would she be willing to step into Melanie’s place if they successfully remove her from her position of power?

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Ruth doesn’t seem sold at first and in fact tries to warn Melanie of this particular uprising, but then one mean outburst from Melanie seems to possibly sway her in the other direction, which is not the most airtight motivation development, but character motivation and stakes are where Snowpiercer struggles the most, so I’m not surprised. There’s also a strange romantic plot shoved in between Ruth and Nolan that apparently isn’t just part of the ruse to get her on their side, and all the attempts to shove romance into this series so far have been a misfire. Yes, the show needs more compelling relationship dynamics and emotional stakes for the drama and conflict to really land, but these wedged-in love stories aren’t cutting it.

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Then there’s the glaring shoehorning of Layton and Josie’s romantic encounter at the end of last episode, which bleeds into this one when they wake up the morning after and get ready for “work” and almost appear to be a normal couple, as Josie remarks. But that work is advancing the revolution. Layton splits off to work with Audrey to get Third on board. Josie uses her new connections with the doctor from last episode as well as the schoolteacher to get a message to Miles and Miles, who is a crucial player in the uprising now that he has access to the engineering hull. Melanie also is no doubt using Miles and Miles to execute part of her own plan, but we don’t yet know the specifics of how anyone is using the kid. Snowpiercer is taking its time doling out a lot of the specifics of how this uprising will work, which does create tension but also frustration. Layton spends most of this episode repeating over and over again that he knows a secret—the secret being that Wilford is not on board, which is information we already have as viewers, so there’s not much excitement happening in these bold declarations.

But back to the issue of Layton/Josie. This seems like a pretty clear instance of the Fridging trope that plagues hero stories. Josie is a barely developed character, and now she’s dead, killed by Melanie who tortures her into giving answers about Layton’s whereabouts. There’s a brief and thrilling tease that Josie might make it out of this alive, but Melanie squashes that by overpowering her at the last second. But Josie’s death feels hollow. It’s the first major character death of the series, and the fact that it comes directly after her romantic night with Layton feels like a manipulative narrative choice rather than one that gives emotional weight to the story. It’s like the writers are trying to get viewers to care about Josie more by positioning her as a love interest for Layton.

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And that gets at one of Snowpiercer’s bigger picture problems: The show is steeped in ideology about unity, community, and anticapitalist equity and yet it’s still being framed like a typical hero story, which doesn’t really allow for that collectiveness. Layton is still positioned as the hero, and the characters alongside him are like devices in his arc. Once again, we spend barely any time at all in the Tail, and that’s part of this problem with the show treating Layton like an individual hero rather than as part of a larger, more communal effort. Snowpiercer uses really rigid power structures in the way it tells a story that’s supposedly about dismantling those power structures, and it makes for a dissonant viewing experience.

Josie’s interaction with Till actually does more to develop Josie as a character than her relationship with Layton does, but it’s too little too late. We get a clear worldview from Josie, whose words are interestingly juxtaposed with the opening voiceover from LJ. LJ posits humans as inherently selfish and self-serving. Josie presents an alternative to Till, who we are gradually seeing become more radicalized by the revolution, which is maybe the most compelling character arc at the moment—not that there’s much competition there. “We have a duty to each other,” Josie says.

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Then there’s Melanie Cavill, whose worldview is apparently that people have a “duty to the train.” In practice, that looks like preserving a system that depends on inequality and violent capitalist divisions between people. And I still don’t think Snowpiercer knows what it’s doing with Melanie. She tortures Josie ruthlessly, but she apparently hates doing it, which we’re shown by way of her throwing up in a toilet right after. She slow-motion walks into the Tail like a supervillain. She doesn’t really seem to regret resorting to torture in the moment—it’s only after that we get this clumsy attempt at texture.

But then she tells Josie she would have created a more just world if she had been in Mr. Wilford’s position. She says she merely inherited her creation, implying that it’s not her fault that she continues to enforce it. She claims to not be making these choices by her own free will but rather that “the train demands it.” And as I’ve written before, this writing surrounding Melanie feels less like intentional moral ambiguity and more like the show trying to have it both ways with her. She’s evil but just conflicted enough to make us invested in her. But that actually makes the character less compelling. Because really, what she’s doing is not morally ambiguous at all. Her reasons for continuing Mr. Wilford’s plans are not noble or even all that complicated. She comes off as delusional in her attempts to contextualize her choices.

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Snowpiercer does a marginally better job at complicating the motives and beliefs of some other characters, like Audrey who is sort of pro-uprising but also not as radical as Layton. She’s hesitant about making actual personal sacrifices, which is of course what’s required of true revolution. Till’s arc is coming into focus, too, and it will be interesting to see how it starts to affect her relationship with Jinju, who appears to know that she’s being lied to.

And Zarah’s betrayal has narrative weight to it as a genuine twist. It looks initially like Zarah may have turned herself in and has been brought back to the Tail as punishment. Instead, she identifies Josie, cementing her traitor status. Here, Snowpiercer reveals that even well meaning people will choose themselves and their own interests over others. Zarah betraying Josie in order to protect herself and her unborn child doesn’t come off as a sympathetic choice at all, but it is one that challenges viewers to really examine the cost of self-preservation. Zarah’s choice directly leads to Jodie’s death. She’s complicit in this fucked up system. Zarah is an example of someone who might not be explicitly corrupt or evil, but she benefits from the system, and so she upholds it. A dictatorship depends on people like her to keep revolutions in check. Snowpiercer occasionally arrives at these complicated, deep truths about systemic oppression, corrupt governments, and social unrest, but it just sort of touches them and zooms away.

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Stray observations

  • This whole show privileges aesthetics over narrative, and that’s why there are so many issues on a character-level. This is most exemplified in the choice to do theme-establishing voiceovers from different characters at the top of each episode. It’s just an aesthetic choice more than anything else, rarely providing much.
  • I think the show also still suffers occasionally from inconsistency in its tones. The montage of Layton silently screaming in the Night Car’s grief rooms while Audrey sings a sultry cover of “Bad Religion” is...an off choice. It’s meant to be emotionally heavy, but it’s just sort of corny. Snowpiercer doesn’t have a very clear voice.
  • Alison Wright is excellent, but if Snowpiercer doesn’t know what it’s doing with Melanie, it really doesn’t know what it’s doing with Ruth.
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