Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Illustration for article titled iSnowpiercer /ismashes romance into an otherwise well-structured episode
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Snowpiercer grapples with a lot of the same themes and narratives as Battlestar Galactica. Both shows feature a stratified group of people attempting to rebuild society after the collapse of civilization. On the pacing and character development fronts though, they differ. Snowpiercer sometimes gets too caught up in the premise to really ground it, while Battlestar Galactica succeeds immensely at telling intimate, zoomed-in stories alongside and within its more overarching tale of revolution and war. “Trouble Comes Sideways” is the closest that Snowpiercer comes so far to replicating the episodic structure that makes Battlestar Galactica so successful on that front, making for a tighter chapter of this struggling new series.

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There is a very clear and urgent conflict at the core of “Trouble Comes Sideways”: an engineering malfunction that threatens to derail the train. It has all the ingredients of a well mixed action-thriller conflict: a race against the clock, a Herculean task that can only be completed by one character (Melanie, in this case), a threat that touches every character involved. Divisions between the classes aboard the Snowpiercer don’t ultimately factor into a derailment. If the train goes down, everyone goes down.

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Ruth therefor seizes this opportunity to cry for unity and, ultimately, zealous faith in Wilford, a man who isn’t even on this train—not that anyone knows that other than Melanie, her two coworkers in the engine, and Layton. Ruth’s impassioned speech asserts a oneness that is, of course, a sham. It reminds me of the people who think the current COVID-19 pandemic is some great equalizer when really the crisis has only exacerbated existing inequalities. In the case of the Snowpiercer, yes it’s technically true that if the train derails, everyone will die.

But Ruth’s words are still exactly like Mr. Wilford: a mirage. A trick of authoritarianism. No one on board is actually all in this together, even if it feels like it for a brief, terrifying moment. The threat may put everyone in danger, but the second it’s nullified, it’s not like the classes are going to suddenly unify and work together having realized that they are one people facing the same global crisis. Rather, the threat of derailment brews a false sense of contentment and reinforces Wilford as a benevolent savior rather than the violent capitalist he and everything he has built represent.

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Because yes, the trick of Ruth’s words works. The near-miss puts a swift stop to the impending work stoppage planned in third. With Melanie saving the day, third class has something to rally around, and the temporary release of having survived doom makes them actually chant Wilford’s name. The very man they were just poised to strike against. It’s a disturbing celebration, and Audrey warns Melanie that it won’t be enough to stave off revolution forever. Melanie got lucky.

But all that said, there are still gaps in character development and motivation when it comes to both Ruth and Melanie. It’s not quite clear if we’re really supposed to be taking Ruth’s speech as a heroic moment or a villainous one. The framing somewhat suggests the former, which is troubling. Melanie similarly gets depicted ambiguously, and it’s possible that Snowpiercer is trying to write into that complexity on purpose and suggest that there are no clear heroes or villains in this story, but that’s a weird message to send on a show so clearly about the evils of capitalism. Melanie’s actions are often insidious but then downplayed or softened by hazy attempts to humanize her and contextualize those actions.

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She straight up admits to running a eugenics program—a huge reveal in the episode, and yet it’s a little buried beneath the rest of the plot. The Battlestar Galactica vibes come into play in this episode in the sense that its central, urgent conflict is nestled within the more overarching conflict and both are treated as urgent, high-stakes, and meaningful. More so than most other episodes so far, this installment of Snowpiercer weaves together the threads of an episodic threat and a serialized threat well. But it still doesn’t entirely come together on the character level.

An erratic Layton wakes up post-drawers, and a doctor who Josie has found as an ally fills him in on what she knows about the drawer program: there are a lot of drawers, and there is an ongoing list of passengers who have been marked. She can only speculate about what the demarcations signify, but when Layton confronts Melanie she spells it out: The drawers are an experimental program that hopes to put people in a stasis to buy time in the even of a major train malfunction or resource collapse. People are selected on the basis of diversity and skills. Even aside from the issue of the drugs for the drawers clearly not working and turning people into barely functioning shells, this whole plan is incredibly immoral. Melanie is hand-picking who lives and dies, which is the entire premise of the Snowpiercer in the first place. Melanie isn’t just keeping Wilford alive; she has become him. But that’s still not really how she’s positioned in the story. In fact, she gets to be the hero of “Trouble Comes Sideways,” and Snowpiercer never really engages with these contradictions in the scope of the episode.

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These confusing character-level story choices also come into play in the case of Osweiller, who intends to blackmail Till for the rest of eternity after she knocked him out to save Layton. He threatens Jinju; he uses excessive force with a witness; he is an all-around abusive asshole. But the train’s near-derailment forces Till and Osweiller into a close moment. They hold hands, and Till tries to get through to Osweiller emotionally by asking who he’s thinking of in the face of death. He eventually opens up about his mean-drunk mom, which continues a thread from his opening voiceover, but the stabs at humanizing Osweiller are a misfire. Complex characters are welcome, but Snowpiercer borders on incoherence and inconsistency in its attempts to complicate people.

The Tail gets a little more screen-time this week, but it still ironically feels like the show is largely ignoring the part of the train that is also most ignored by the rest of the folks on the train. Just because the Tail is super confined and limited doesn’t mean that there can’t be active and urgent stories told within it. The character death isn’t treated with the same emotional weight as a lot of the rest of the episode. The only Tailies who get much play are the ones who have managed to make it up-train. Everyone else gets flattened. The scene of the folks in the Tail glimpsing the outdoors with the help of a periscope-like device doesn’t get the attention it deserves in the scope of the episode’s narrative.

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Instead, the Tail’s subplot gets crowded out by other subplots that are maybe attempts at providing more intimate character-driven drama but instead just feel like empty add-ons. Yes, I’m talking about Josie and Layton’s hookup. Romance on this show has felt very forced. It’s almost like there’s an underlying assumption that viewers won’t be interested in these characters if there isn’t some sort of love triangle at play, which is a mistake, especially since this love triangle between Layton/Josie/Zarah has been lifeless from the start.


Stray observations

  • Till opts not to fill Jinju in on her growing doubts about the system that governs the Snowpiercer, so I’m sensing impending trouble in paradise for the lovebirds.
  • What is Melanie doing with Miles! I am worried!
  • I like Javi and hope we learn more about him.
  • It’s the right call to use exterior shots of the frozen-over world sparingly, because they’re fittingly jarring every time.
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