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Snowpiercer's fight night further builds its immersive, violent world

Illustration for article titled iSnowpiercer/is fight night further builds its immersive, violent world
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Three episodes in, and I think Snowpiercer has found its footing. This is the first episode to really marry all the parts of the show’s machine. I’m still not totally sold on the crime procedural aspect, but in “Access Is Power” it at least doesn’t distract from the overarching narrative. In fact, the murder mystery works in tandem with the world building happening in this episode, helping unearth the drug trade aboard the Snowpiercer.

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The most enthralling part of this show so far is absolutely the world building. The more we learn about the train, its factions, its underbelly, the more immersive it becomes. It’s still lacking in the character development department, which I’ll get to, but “Access Is Power” is the first episode of the series to really hit all the thematic and narrative targets Snowpiercer has lined up for itself organically. The episode’s title gets to the crux of the story here, which hinges on access, power, information, and exchange. The train’s power structures are heightened versions of the outside world’s. It’s like modern, capitalist society has been shoved into a pressure cooker. Passengers trade drugs, possessions, and information up-train and back down-train again.

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The episode opens with narration (presumably it’s going to switch who does it every episode) from Dr. Klimpt, who says the train separates people from their possessions and loved ones. The Snowpiercer further stratifies a society already significantly stratified by class. Like capitalism, the train assigns value to humans based on what they have and what they can provide. With little regard for morality. First class is, after all, so completely devoid of empathy and kindness that they have to be distracted from the small inconveniences they’re experiencing on-board as a result of the resource and engineering issues. Meanwhile, the Tail’s rations keep decreasing.

First’s distraction comes in the form of Fight Night, an even more heightened rendering of the class structures aboard the Snowpiercer. Two second class passengers pummel each other at a shot to move up to second. First watches from balconies, reveling in the riot that eventually breaks out. For them, it’s entertainment. It’s all entertainment. While they fool around in a casino, people are literally starving and dying. “Access Is Power” is heavy-handed with these juxtapositions, but it works. Fight Night provides a convenient setting for Layton to learn more about the Kronole trade, and it also provides another opportunity for the writers to really dig into this world, thrusting first, second, and third class together in one car. It’s an instance where the show actually integrates its style with its substance.

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Klimpt’s voiceover and the sequence he narrates introduces the Kronole trade, which gets fleshed out more over the course of the episode. In exchange for medical supplies, Klimpt has been skimming off some of the drugs he uses to put the drawered passengers under, which is then turned into the highly addictive drug Kronole, which has been present in the Tail for a couple revolutions but is now making its way up-train. The janitors seem to control a large portion of the trade. Layton eventually gets a meeting with the man at the top: a janitor named Terence, who is a bit of a caricature of a Prestige Television Drug Kingpin. The drug trade narrative effectively unites the show’s crime side with the more compelling parts of the story—the parts that dig into the class warfare and brewing revolution.

After his failed attempt to communicate with the Tail at the end of last episode, Layton is punished. Melanie and the lead brakeman are keeping a much closer eye on him. It’s unclear at the moment if Layton really does care about Zarah or if he’s maybe playing her, and I don’t think that’s an intentional blur so much as weak writing. If we’re supposed to be fully buying this romance, I’m just not feeling it. But I’m similarly not completely convinced that this is some sort of play. Layton’s false profession of love for Josie that he does in order to slip her something when they kiss, however, has real stakes to it. Layton’s having to get creative with how he maneuvers up-train, still trying to help the Tail. “Access Is Power” features several instances of characters slyly slipping each other information and things, effectively establishing a world of covert glances and messages. Zarah whispers to Layton about the janitors, not trusting the lead brakeman. Miles, whose life is strikingly different now that he’s in the apprentice program and gets to go to school up-train, quietly assures Layton that he’s keeping his eyes open. All these whispered, covert moments further the world building of the show, reiterating just how valuable information is and just how high-stakes everything is.

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There are hints at depth when it comes to the lead brakeman, who opens up to Layton a bit in the episode. We also get more of Till, who is in a relationship with Jinju. Again, Snowpiercer is just sort of scratching the surface when it comes to these more intimate character moments, still leaving a lot to be desired by way of character development. But as Snowpiercer further finds its footing when it comes to plot, the world keeps opening up more, which helps the people in it feel like more than just devices.

This is the first episode in which Snowpiercer seamlessly integrates multiple genres instead of whiplashing between them. There’s less tonal and narrative dissonance here than the first two episodes. The drug crime conceit is better executed, and the overarching dystopian sci-fi feel and look are tight here, too. Then there’s also a horror sequence at the end of the episode when a man comes for Nikki, the newly awakened passenger who was sentenced to the drawers after being wrongly convicted of murder. The horror stylings are effective, too. The direction of this episode just has a tightness to it that the previous episodes don’t harness as coherently.

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Stray observations

  • Daveed Diggs’ delivery of Layton’s reaction to Melanie saying that the train is not an authoritarian state is very good and very Diggs.
  • Melanie splices together speeches to make them sound like Mr. Wilford, and even though we don’t have total confirmation, he absolutely doesn’t exist anymore, right? Seems like there have been more than enough hints that the only thing keeping Wilford alive is Melanie. And the sustained strength of the society he handcrafted. He doesn’t even need to be present for the social order to maintain itself.
  • Why does that rich girl keep glancing suspiciously at her security guard? It seems possible she knows something about the murders.
  • The alternating narration would work a little better if it felt more personal versus everyone just sort of making sweeping statements about the Way Things Are. There are a few devices the show employs that I just don’t think have much weight to them. The show verges on all style, no story. But again, this episode succeeds more on a story level. The aesthetics work in tandem with the narrative here.
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