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Snowpiercer’s two-part finale can't shake the character problems it’s picked up along the way

Illustration for article titled iSnowpiercer’/is two-part finale cant shake the character problems it’s picked up along the way
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In the first half of its two-part season finale, Snowpiercer barrels toward an inevitable team-up: Layton and Melanie. Here, the show benefits from its intentional obscuring of Melanie’s motivations over the course of the series. She gets to become the anti-hero that the show has positioned her as. For all of the season’s attempts to complicate its revolution, things fall pretty neatly into place in “The Train Demanded Blood.” It’s First—led by Nolan, Ruth, and the Folgers—against everyone else. Melanie gets to fight on the right side. Supposedly, it was never about power for her. Sure, seems convenient.

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Narrative convenience is the name of the game in this two-parter, and most of the time, it’s not distracting. After all, action stories are always jam-packed with last-second saves and bouts of luck. I take no issue with Strongboy’s perfect timing or with the tease of Melanie’s execution only for Javi to bust her out of there. Those are genuinely thrilling action moments, which these episodes actually brim with. But all those issues with character development over the course of the series come back to bite Snowpiercer in the Tail in this rapid-paced conclusion.

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The attempts at emotional depth in the writing often misfire. Layton tells Zarah that he doesn’t forgive her, and that moment hits hard, but then Zarah tells him she did it to protect their unborn baby. And that’s the moment that comes right before Layton deciding to oblige to the surrender that Pike is sent as a messenger to propose. We do previously see Layton grappling with the full extent of revolution, struggling with the violence. And Pike keeps insisting that Layton will cave rather than sustain continued losses. But hasn’t Layton all along preached that there will be major sacrifices? Since when is he hesitant about the cost of an uprising?

On the Zarah front, things become even more overwrought in part two when Josie’s betrayal seems to be diminished by the fact that she’s pregnant. Zarah asks about the Josie of it all, and Layton responds: “We’re never going to be the family we dreamed of, but we’ll find a way.” It’s perfectly vague. Snowpiercer lets ambivalence stand in the place of complexity a lot of the time.

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While Layton is busy contemplating surrender, Melanie is scraping herself along the ducts to make her way to him. Make no mistake: Jennifer Connelly is a very compelling action hero. And a Melanie/Layton team-up doesn’t exactly come out of nowhere. It feels like the whole season has been building to it. But Snowpiercer likes to flatten its characters motives for the sake of advancing the plot, hinting at moral ambiguity without fully engaging with it. Layton, of course, doesn’t let Melanie off the hook right away. And yet, there still isn’t much by way of interrogation of Melanie. She shuts down Layton, Audrey, and Till’s hesitations about letting her help them: “I’m mean, I’m ruthless, I’m a monster, yeah sure all of it, and now what?” Again, it’s vague. It’s an attempt to acknowledge her wrongdoings but also sort of barrel past them. Snowpiercer the train might not be able to ever slow down for risk of engine failure, but that doesn’t mean Snowpiercer always has to race through its characters’ choices.

With Melanie fighting on the right side of revolution, that makes Nolan, Ruth, and the Folgers the true face of fascism. Ruth’s desire for order is literally her only defining quality, just like the Folgers’ taste for power and wealth is theirs. Nolan’s sole defining quality is his bloodthirsty violence. So yes, all these characters have clear motives for where they fall, but again, it’s neat and tidy. They are solely defined by these motives, so it’s hard to really be invested in any of their choices or the stakes for each of them. And the forced Nolan/Ruth romance continues to be silly.

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“The Train Demanded Blood” does culminate in a very emotionally intense choice for Layton, who realizes that to carry out Melanie’s plan to sever part of the train means he’ll have to sacrifice a bunch of his friends who are locked up in one of the cars that’s going to be cut off. He frantically searches for keys to free them before realizing there isn’t time. Snowpiercer is often deft at constructing these kinds of high-stakes action moments that force characters to make hard, indelible choices. It’s one of the best executed moments in part one. But Melanie’s insinuated comparison of the choice Layton made to her own choices doesn’t land the way the writers might hope. Yes, Layton had to make a technically cruel choice in order to save lives. That doesn’t really compare to Melanie carrying out a fascist regime for nearly seven years, freezing people’s arms off at any sign of unrest. Snowpiercer always wants to have it both ways with Melanie.

While the first part is action-packed, the second part of the finale—“994 Cars Long”—takes some breathing space to deal with the psychological and logistical aftermath of war. Some of the quieter emotional moments work quite well. We finally get a glimpse into the psyche of Melanie, who takes a trip to the grief room with Audrey in order to process the fact that she chose work over her own daughter. It would have been nice for some of these emotional stakes to unravel earlier in the season instead of just merely being alluded to, but it’s still a pretty effective sequence, especially given the big reveal that her daughter is still alive at the end of the finale. Layton and Miles processing Josie’s death together makes for another affecting character-driven moment.

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But Layton’s positioning in “994 Cars Long” is still a little all over the place. Melanie indeed hands over control of the train to him, and sure, it takes time to build new systems, but Layton defaults to old conventions of order despite giving a speech at the top of the episode that he wants change not order. He’s still locking people up for petty crimes. People are still in the Tail with no light or heat. Here, Snowpiercer suggests that Layton might not have a comprehensive plan for democratically leading the train, which is a little hard to believe since this has been his goal for the entirety of his time onboard Snowpiercer.

Things kick into high-gear again halfway through “994 Cars Long” when the possibility of survivors arises. With the war over, the series indeed needs to find a way to propel the narrative forward with as much urgency as revolution provided. That propulsion comes by way of another train, a backup train, one that Mr. Wilford might very well be on. Bennett is the first to become aware of it, and Melanie becomes furious at him for making the unilateral decision to let the train tether itself to the Snowpiercer...even though making unilateral decisions on the basis of preserving humanity is something Melanie does all the time. Does Melanie intentionally lack self-awareness or is this yet another instance of the characterization of Melanie not making total sense? Melanie really does see herself as some sort of anti-hero who has to live with her terrible choices and yet who never really engages with them. It’s difficult to write morally complicated characters, and Snowpiercer often simplifies things for the sake of the story.

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Together, “The Train Demanded Blood” and “994 Cars Long” do work well, delivering action but also a few more introspective moments that get at the human cost and impact of war. It’s certainly thrilling, and Daveed Diggs and Jennifer Connelly are tremendous action stars. But all those weak spots in characterization and character development that have plagued the season are plainly on display in the two-part finale, sucking away some of the stakes. Snowpiercer requires significant suspension of belief when it comes to the nitty-gritty of the world it has created, but the failure to ground its story in coherent emotions—especially when it comes to someone who ends up being as significant as Melanie—drags it down even more than some of its far-fetched logistics. Snowpiercer’s greatest strengths have been in its action sequences, but aesthetics without emotion make the series seem mechanical and empty. The final minutes of the finale are more tedious than they are propulsive.


Stray observations

  • While I’m not totally sold on Ruth as a character, I would like to listen to Alison Wright saying “biscotti” on a loop.
  • LJ and Osweiller become buddies, and while I’m entertained by the fact that LJ doesn’t know how to peel an egg, this pairing of unlikable characters feels very random. LJ always feels very random.
  • Bennett and Miles turning into a dynamic engineering duo on the other hand is a nice development.
  • Pike, Terrence, and Annie decide that post-war is the time for bacchanal, taking over the Folgers’ car. I’m not entirely sure what the point of these scenes is.
  • Till and Jinju’s breakup is another one of the few grounded emotional moments in the second episode.
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