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Snowpiercer returns with chilly new thrills but still carries season one's baggage

Illustration for article titled Snowpiercer returns with chilly new thrills but still carries season one's baggage
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Snowpiercer’s second season starts right where the first ends—with the arrival of Big Alice. The modest 40-car prototype for the eternal engine that holds Mr. Wilford, the despot previously thought to be running the Snowpiercer and then presumed dead but apparently alive and well and in need of supplies, labor, and resources that the Snowpiercer carries. The heroes of season one just finished fighting and winning a war for democracy before the abrupt arrival of a new enemy, an enemy that requires all of the train to work together, first class and hospitality joining the Tail and all between, in order to reclaim the Snowpiercer, which Wilford threatens to either take control of or destroy. It’s a fun enough action/sci-fi premise to force characters who previously fought against each other to fight on the same side, but it doesn’t really work without a heavy dose of character development and emotional stakes. And those are the exact areas where season one consistently struggled. Season two picking up where season one ends means that the new season is also picking up some of the show’s old baggage.

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It is without a doubt an exciting hour of television. The stakes are high right away: Big Alice latched onto Snowpiercer and subsequently turned off the power. Temperatures are dropping, and the people of Snowpiercer know very little about this new threat, but the problem has to be fixed quickly before they all freeze to death. First, there’s the Supermarket Sweep-esque challenge of collecting all the items on a list of demands from Wilford: scotch, beer, carrots, fresh eggs, all things presumably unavailable on Big Alice which has way less infrastructure than Snowpiercer. The list of food and beverage demands is, of course, only the beginning. “He’s going to take everything we just fought for,” Audrey muses, and she’s probably right. The violent capitalist system that Snowpiercer previously ran on was completely designed by Wilford, who considers himself a kind of god. To him, Snowpiercer represents free labor. Snowpiercer is his grand authoritarian dream.

Layton, Ruth, Pike, Till, Roche, and lots of familiar faces from the Tail suddenly have one unified purpose: defend Snowpiercer. The Tail becomes the border zone, a place to hold steady between Big Alice and Snowpiercer. Again, it’s an oft-used and exciting turn of events in sci-fi to force old enemies together, and the nature of Big Alice’s arrival necessitates that things move very, very quickly. But racing through story and letting character development fall to the wayside is exactly the problem that dragged down Snowpiercer in its first season. Even though Layton does keep Ruth in the dark about an offensive operation against Big Alice, he’s still mostly working with Ruth, who also gifts him and Zarah a fancy new suite because Zarah is pregnant (more on that in a bit). Ruth who, just last season, was seen rather gleefully ordering the removal of a woman’s arm for insurrection. Ruth whose appetite for order and hero-worshipping of Mr. Wilford has led her to enforcing a violent and oppressive class system as part of hospitality. Ruth who often feels like a Hunger Games villain. Now either we are supposed to forget about that or Ruth herself has forgotten. Sure, people change as their circumstances change, but without much development of Ruth’s interiority, it’s difficult to latch onto significant shifts in characterization and motive.

The new Big Alice situation means Layton has to throw out the pending democratic experiment he just led a war for. Layton extends martial law in the wake of a new war, and it’s more than a little tough to swallow the complete departure from everything he believes in, especially since the character seems to make the decision with little hesitation. At least some of the other characters rightfully express contempt for his sudden decidedly comformative behaviors. And Snowpiercer is no doubt a show that often contemplates the tough decisions people make for the supposedly right reasons, but sometimes Snowpiercer just sort of skims over these complicated and contradictory choices instead of actively engaging with the emotional and narrative fallout.

Layton’s repeated defense of Zarah in her decision to sell out Josie—ultimately leading to Josie’s death—is an example of a truly wild character choice that has little by way of repercussions or interrogation. Layton throwing away the things he believes in for the sake of his unborn child with Zarah just doesn’t track on a character-level. But it’s also a very boring plot development that only serves to keep Zarah in the picture and add a romantic storyline where it isn’t needed. I do think Snowpiercer needs to explore specific and intimate relationship dynamics and interpersonal character conflict amid all its war and high-concept plotting, but this drama with Layton and Zarah feels more stuffed-in and silly rather than acting as a zoomed-in look at the personal ramifications of life on Snowpiercer.

As far as interpersonal drama goes, there’s more success in the dynamic between Melanie and her teen daughter Alex. For the first action-packed stretch of the episode, Melanie and Alex don’t see each other. Melanie still doesn’t know she’s alive. Alex arrives with the list of physical demands on Snowpiercer, all business, evoking a little bit of her mother’s tendency toward calm directness. Melanie, thrown off the train last episode, scrambles to plant a device that will save Snowpiercer all while battling impending frostbite and death due to a tear in her suit. As I’ve written many times before, Jennifer Connelly is a very compelling action star in these high-impact scenes.

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But Connelly has to do a lot more than roll around in the ice and maneuver devices under a train this episode. After Melanie successfully restores engineering control for Snowpiercer and gets the train moving, she’s forced to board Big Alice, where she doesn’t exactly receive a warm welcome. As a reminder, Melanie staged a coup against Wilford because she thought humanity wouldn’t survive under his rule. She left the passengers—including the workers—of Big Alice to die. So people like her even less on Big Alice than they did on Snowpiercer. And that includes her daughter.

Melanie barely has time to react to the fact that Alex is alive. Alex quite literally barges in on Melanie and Wilford—who, in an excellent casting choice, is played by Sean Bean. In a similar style, we finally come face-to-face with Wilford and have little time to react. Previously, he has been mostly a symbol. But now we see him in the flesh, and he’s an effective sci-fi villain in the sense that while he’s just one man he does seem to contain immense power, bolstered by his own delusions that he runs the world. It only takes one order—“send in Bob”—from him to put an abrupt end to Snowpiercer’s offensive attack on Big Alice. (Bob, also known as Icy Bob apparently, is their much bigger, much scarier version of Strongboy. He seems impervious to frozen temperatures, making him a very powerful weapon for Big Alice.)

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But perhaps one of the scariest qualities of Wilford that we see right away is the strength of his manipulation skills. Melanie thinks Wilford has nothing on her, no leverage. But of course he does. He has Alex. In the mere seconds Melanie learns her daughter is alive, she also has to process the fact that she’s Wilford’s new protege, a role once held by Melanie herself. Melanie spirals through a slew of overwhelming emotions in a short amount of time, and Connelly conveys it wonderfully. Wilford soliloquies on how he pulled Melanie out of nothing, made her something, only to be betrayed by her. He’s up to the same old tricks with Alex, forming a deep bond with her.

There’s no time for Melanie to explain to Alex why she made the choices she made. In Alex’s eyes, Melanie abandoned her. Alex is ruthless and a little glib, Rowan Blanchard’s performance lending a strange but not unwelcome sense of humor to some of these fraught mother-daughter interactions. “I’m distinctly underwhelmed,” Alex directs at Wilford upon seeing her mother for the first time post-freeze. “Don’t get immediately weird,” she says later when approaching Melanie in a holding cell to ask her some clarifying questions. She sounds almost like just a shitty mean teen. But she’s much more dangerous than that.

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The emotional climax of the episode comes when Wilford orders Alex to disconnect from Snowpiercer, leaving everyone aboard to die. Melanie attempts to persuade her daughter. “You don’t want that on your conscience,” she says, and it’s a hint that we might finally get some more development of Melanie this season especially when it comes to her reconciling with some of her worst choices. Snowpiercer has been inconsistent in its characterization of Melanie, often too eager to make her an anti-hero instead of really digging into her motives and the consequences for her actions. But this Melanie/Alex dynamic is a step in the right direction, because it’s a complicated relationship that has huge implications on an interpersonal level but also for the overall narrative.

Alex doesn’t listen to her mother. Of course she doesn’t. She’s under Wilford’s control now. She opts to sever the connection, choosing destruction over grace. And is that not the same choice Melanie made multiple times during her reign as fake Wilford? In a way, history is repeating itself. Or more specifically: Wilford’s philosophies have infected Alex the same way they once infected Melanie. Alex opts to kill thousands of people because she’s given an order to do so. It’s an ugly choice even if she’s ultimately unsuccessful. Melanie outsmarts Wilford and makes it so that Snowpiercer and Big Alice are permanently fused together. Both Alex and Melanie’s choices will no doubt have ripple effects of consequences. Hopefully Snowpiercer will find the time to sit with those effects on a character-level instead of just barreling through the story.

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Stray observations

  • Welcome back to Snowpiercer recaps. I honestly have a lot of hopes for this new season, because there’s so much potential in this story. I just want to see a lot more character development done this time around.
  • I almost never understand any of the technical jargon about the train’s mechanics and physics that the engineers spout off. Not that that really matters. I obviously understand it’s very urgent, but sometimes I have to laugh at the fact that they could be saying complete nonsense and I’ll just be nodding like “yes sounds right.”
  • The show continues to use its Tailies as devices in the arcs of non-Tailies, bizarrely mimicking the ruling class’ exploitation of the lower class on this train! A Tailie warns Till that if she doesn’t embrace extinction she won’t survive an insurrection, and then moments later he dies on top of her.
  • Melanie connects a snow sample from outside because she’s convinced temperatures have lowered enough so that it can snow again. Could there be a future for life offboard?
  • LJ finally sees the Tail, the site of her weird . LJ still doesn’t really work as a character for me.
  • Sean Bean is great so far. Interested to see more from his Wilford.
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