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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Snowpiercer's stripped-down, Melanie-centric episode is a knockout

Illustration for article titled Snowpiercer's stripped-down, Melanie-centric episode is a knockout
Image: Snowpiercer
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“Many Miles From Snowpiercer” checks in with Melanie Cavill, who we last saw departing the train for a risky month-long mission at an abandoned climate data center, becoming mostly just a literal blip in Snowpiercer’s narrative for a few episodes. She makes it to her destination but not without significant hardship, quickly losing her sled of rations in an avalanche, which effectively kicks her mission up a notch in terms of stakes and suspense right at the top of the episode. This results in a very stripped-down episode of Snowpiercer that honestly amounts to a whole lot of Jennifer Connelly Moving Objects With Great Effort. But despite being low on action and only really focusing on one plot, the episode is far from boring. It’s an effective execution of sci-fi horror that relies not on jump scares but rather existential dread. Plus cannibalism.

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The cannibalism never comes fully to fruition, but the fact that it could provides significant tension. While it’s never fully a question of whether she’ll survive her mission, the question of how exactly she’ll survive is a thrilling one, particularly because Snowpiercer sets such a dismal scene upon her arrival. The previous scientists appeared to have killed themselves at the end of the world, and Melanie gradually unpacks that it’s even darker than that: They sacrificed one of their own. The episode is all about impossible choices, Melanie reflecting back on the one she made when she stole Snowpiercer and left behind her only daughter. Season one struggled significantly when it came to developing and contextualizing Melanie’s interiority, making the character often seem like a plot device rather than a complex, compelling person. Season two is making up for that in strides, and this episode succeeds in needling into Melanie’s conscience.

Despite the stripped-down structure, “Many Miles From Snowpiercer” is ambitious. It commands patience from viewers and rewards it with suspense and sci-fi thrills that feel earned and organic rather than just injecting action for the sake of action. It’s a welcome slow-down for the show, which often gets lost when it races through too many subplots. It’s focused, and it’s energetic even as it stays so confined to one location and one character. Melanie starts unfolding the story in narration, as is typical for the openings of Snowpiercer episodes. But then the script trades in that framing device for another: Quickly impacted by her extreme hunger and isolation, Melanie begins having imagined conversations with Wilford, Layton, and Alex, all of whom play a major role in her ongoing guilt and morality crisis.

In addition to these hallucinations—which all effectively let the character work through some of her biggest internal conflicts—Melanie also flashes back to the time leading up to the freeze. These flashbacks follow the sudden transformation of Snowpiercer from flashy experiment to humanity’s ark as well as the rapid deterioration of Wilford and Melanie’s relationship. In the first flashback, Wilford’s ego is certainly on full display, but he really does appear as a mentor to Melanie. That quickly changes when the freeze settles in. Wilford wants more jackboots, and Melanie wants more geneticists. She sees Wilford’s imagination and genius for what it really is: an extension of his narcissism and hedonism. “Nothing is more important than order,” he tells her. He has no imagination at all. He wants the new world to replicate the systems of the old world. It has nothing to do with saving the human race and everything to do with maintaining his power.

And Melanie doesn’t quite see just how selfish he is until it’s too late. She attempts to make a play for her extra geneticists at the eleventh hour, Snowpiercer’s departure imminent. She and Ben have already hatched a plan to abandon Wilford if they need to, but Melanie drags her feet, both because she’s still waiting for her family to board but also because it seems she thinks she can get Wilford to comply. He doesn’t. He orders that her geneticists be shot where they stand, and he does it without hesitation or guilt. It’s that moment that leads Melanie to make the impossible choice to depart without Wilford, which means departing without her eight-year-old daughter, who we know very well will hold it against her. The flashbacks throughout the episode give so much weight to Melanie’s choice but also don’t overly valorize her actions. Melanie grappled with her own personal sacrifice of leaving Alex behind, but she seemingly ignored the plight of the unticketed folks who were just fighting for a chance to survive and who ultimately became the Tailies. Melanie works best when her motives and morality are messy.

While the flashbacks do work, the scenes of Melanie in the station are even more captivating. They’re steeped in fear: The straightforward sci-fi premise of a character being isolated in one space with no food and a slippery grasp on reality is a classic setup for a reason. Connelly is fantastic here. But it’s also just fascinating to see Melanie work through her baggage with, well, herself. When Layton remarks that Melanie is experiencing a small taste of what it was like in the Tail, that’s Melanie’s own conscience reminding her of some of her most cruel acts. Admittedly, I was left wanting a little more from that moment though. Sometimes the show skips a little too briskly through Melanie’s complicity in the atrocities on board Snowpiercer.

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When Alex says she understands why Melanie left, that isn’t genuine catharsis. Alex isn’t here. Rather, it’s a coping mechanism Melanie has created to grapple with her own guilt. Wilford tormenting Melanie in these hallucinations reflects just how deeply Wilford has sunk into her psyche, just how poisoning his worldview is. Humans destroyed the earth with selfish choices, and Wilford is the living embodiment of that. Even though he isn’t really here, he still poses a threat to Melanie and her mission. She can’t fix the planet when someone like Wilford is still calling shots.

The deep-dive into Melanie’s guilty conscience injects depth and character-based stakes to the narrative. Yes, the episode is technically uneventful, but it’s thematically and emotionally potent. There’s a push and pull between selfishness, survival, and the collective good throughout the episode. Melanie is fighting to get the data they need to potentially save the earth, but she’s also wrapped up in her own interpersonal conflict when it comes to Alex. At the end of the world, no choices are really neutral. “Many Miles From Snowpiercer” unearths the mental cost of Melanie’s past and present decisions, complicating the character and fueling the story. The result is an exciting—if bleak—chapter for Snowpiercer.

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Stray observations

  • This is the best cliffhanger ending this show has done in a while.
  • It obviously wouldn’t work to do a bunch of episodes like this, but I do think it’s important for Snowpiercer to pump the brakes from time to time.
  • The episode really plays to Connelly’s strengths.
  • It’s “fun” (the scenes are so dire, so fun is a weird word to use but!) to see Layton in those pre-departure flashbacks.
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