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Snowpiercer’s two-part finale brims with well-executed horror, action, and drama

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Snowpiercer has grown significantly in its second season. There’s the literal expansion of its world: The arrival of Big Alice brought in new characters, shook up the stakes, gave a corporeal form to the show’s looming Big Bad, Mr. Wilford. But Snowpiercer’s second season also delivers much needed character work for a lot of its central players. The show’s focus sharpened. Wilford is a terrifying villain. The coup that takes shape in the season’s two-part finale is some of the most thrilling work the show has done so far, and it works on both the character and plot fronts. It’s not a seamless execution, and Snowpiercer still occasionally falters when it comes to character motivation. But overall, both parts are invigorating and deliver big payoff throughout.

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Ruth provides the opening voiceover for the finale’s first half, “The Show Must Go On.” I’ve been mixed on season two’s development of Ruth. In the first stretch of the season, it seems like the character’s past has been wiped away and mostly forgotten. There’s an attempt to retroactively justify that in “Our Answer For Everything,” which shows that Ruth really has forgotten all the horrible stuff she did—perhaps because she really thought she was just following orders at the time and didn’t understand her actions as an extension of Wilford’s cruelty but rather as a mere execution of the “order” she has been trained to believe in. Those realizations probably would have been more effective if they’d been seeded throughout the season rather than happening all at once and in a manner that ultimately felt cheap, but in any case, the Ruth of these final two episodes, while perhaps not entirely earned, is the most compelling the character has ever been. “Hope is a powerful thing,” Ruth says. But she’s speaking not just of real hope, the kind that keeps the revolution churning on Snowpiercer, but of the false hope that people place in Wilford as their savior, hope that Wilford depends on but hope that he has corrupted into fear. She notes that the train has technically been running smoothly since he took control. People have been showing up to work. The machine is doing what it’s supposed to do. But it’s a machine that runs on inequity and oppression. It’s Wilford’s grand design: a capitalist nightmare that looks alright on the surface, but it doesn’t take much digging to unearth the ugly truths of this system. And after everything she has seen this season, Ruth is finally ready to accept that.

Much of the episode hinges on clandestine meetings, whispered messages, impulsive decisions, and calculated deception. It’s all very fun to watch, especially because the characters are so often backed into impossible corners throughout. “The Show Must Go On” reveals Wilford’s latest play for the train’s devotion. He’s reopening car 272, which is thrown around mysteriously just a couple times before it’s revealed as a carnival car called Willy’s World. It’s Snowpiercer’s own Disneyland, complete with games, rides, and a very creepy puppet show intended to operate as overt propaganda to get passengers to turn their backs on Melanie.

Wilford is without a doubt an over-the-top villain, but it works. Snowpiercer is often its strongest at its most soap operatic, and “The Show Must Go On” is evidence for that. Willy’s World is absurd. It’s obviously a waste of resources. And at first glance, it does make Wilford and his schemes seem cartoonish. But that’s all part of what makes Wilford such an effective bad guy. Yes, he’s over-the-top, but he’s a believable depiction of a despotic leader. There’s a close link between entertainment, capitalism, oppression, and dictatorship. Willy’s World is the exact kind of tool a manipulative leader might use to lure subjects into a false sense of security. And that sentiment along with the sheer visuals of Willy’s World and the macabre puppet show make for very visceral horror. There are overtly violent moments in the finale, but there’s also a lot of horror that doesn’t rely solely on gore that’s perhaps even more disturbing than the blood and ice.

Wilford is so good at playing the game. We see it throughout the finale. He taps Bess Till to be his “advisor” and notes that a train detective was never needed under his rule because there “was no crime.” There was plenty of crime, of course. It was just sanctioned by the state. Bess’s first piece of advice to Wilford is to spare the lives of the people who carried out his orders to kill the breechmen. He blatantly ignores the advice and violently executes them. It’s another power play in a whole series of manipulation.

As Layton—who spends this episode locked up in the swampy underbelly of Big Alice shoveling waste—puts it, Wilford isn’t unique. He’s a white male dictator with a train set. People like Wilford caused the freeze in the first place. And it’s the fact that Wilford is so familiar and so unoriginal that makes him so terrifying. He has brought all of Snowpiercer’s most pertinent themes screaming to the surface.

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Even when the characters can see through his obvious attempts to manipulate and maintain his own power, there’s little they can do. It’s almost like corrupt leaders don’t even have to be good at lying to get away with it. Ahead of the carnival’s opening, Wilford organizes a special dinner for which ticketed guests are “randomly” selected. It doesn’t take long for anyone to realize that they have most definitely not been randomly selected. Zara, Bess, Alex, LJ and Oz all make the cut. A lot happens at this suspenseful dinner. Alex, riled up by the puppetshow, once again betrays Wilford by outing the fact that he culled half the population aboard Big Alice in the name of preserving resources. It’s not a particularly shocking reveal—nor is the fact that he’s likely planning something similar aboard Snowpiercer, issuing a census and seizing people’s personal medical records. He wants unticketed passengers identified. He wants the class system back in place. No, it’s not shocking at all that he’s willing to kill, medically discriminate, and widely oppress whole groups of people. But it’s unnerving nonetheless, especially because he barely attempts to hide any of these atrocities.

Zara and Bess’s reaction to Audrey going along with Wilford and embracing her role as his queen is one area where Snowpiercer’s character work falters, especially at this dinner. Audrey enters with Wilford, giddy and joyful, giggling and singing and making a show of the whole thing. Zara and Bess are disgusted. The way they see it, Audrey is weak. She has fallen for Wilford’s bullshit. They can barely look at her. Zara reiterates a lot of this in the second episode, disgusted with Audrey, who once was the person they all felt they could open up to. This is why I’ve had mixed feelings about Audrey’s arc this season. It does seem like Snowpiercer is treating the character as weak and as mostly just a plot device. None of these characters stop to consider that Wilford’s ongoing abuse of Audrey has led to this. The characters write her off, and the writing seems equally uninterested in Audrey as a real person anymore. Her role at this dinner is over-the-top in a way that doesn’t click.

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Wilford also asks Ruth and Kevin to join the dinner. Kevin is manic throughout the finale, the extent of Wilford’s psychological torture taking firm hold of him. Wilford attempts a two-fold manipulation of the two heads of hospitality. He teases that there can only be one and then crushes Kevin’s soul by announcing that he wants it to be Ruth. There’s a catch: She has to announce to the train that they won’t be going back to Melanie. This effectively further sutures Kevin to Wilford. Kevin’s fierce loyalty is born of a constant cycle of rejection and affirmation from Wilford. The way the season has shown Wilford’s cruelty operate on an interpersonal level as well as a more large-scale societal level and how those things go hand-in-hand has been very effective. Especially when it comes to Alex, but more on her later. The ultimatum given to Ruth officially tests her loyalties. Even when she was working with Layton, she was always quick to defend Wilford, still deeply indoctrinated. She, after all, still wears one of the defining uniforms of his multi-pronged system. But she finally sheds herself of the hospitality teals, refusing Wilford’s order and getting herself locked up with Layton for it. It’s a dramatic Ruth moment, and it lands.

Some of Wilford’s other manipulations work more in his favor. LJ is eager to prove her loyalty to Wilford. Her friendship with Alex is built on weak foundation, and she easily throws Melanie under the bus and, in “Into The White,” upends Alex’s attempts to distract Wilford from finding out that Ben has successfully diverted the train to go pick up Melanie. Back at the dinner, LJ’s the only one really falling for Wilford’s game. Everyone else is suspicious but simultaneously trapped, unsure how to outmaneuver someone as powerful as Wilford. Again, “The Show Must Go On” is the more soapy of the two episodes, and this much is certain in the way the intense dinner ends with the melodramatic spectacle of Oz playing the piano and singing “Winter Song.” This song is overused on television, but it admittedly feels at-home on Snowpiercer.

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Wilford’s usual shrewdness is what makes it all the more difficult to swallow some of the more convenient plot choices that happen. It seems like a wild misjudgement to lock Ruth up alongside Layton. Ruth knows a lot about the train, and Layton is incredibly resourceful. These are two people that are clearly capable of pulling off an escape together. Which is exactly what they do in “Into The White.” But Wilford’s greatest—and most unbelievable—oversight comes when he assumes that Josie will help him seize back the engine he loses control of in “Into The White”. Sure, Wilford doesn’t really know Josie and perhaps doesn’t understand that she is someone who would sooner give her own life than be his pawn. And sure, he’s perhaps not thinking too clearly since he gives this order mere moments after Alex slashes his neck with a razorblade, temporarily incapacitating him. But it’s also just such a dumb decision for him to make, and he so rarely makes dumb decisions. Josie obviously doesn’t do what he wants. She becomes the key to Layton and Alex’s plan to sever the Snowpiercer engine and form a ten-car pirate train to turn around and get Melanie. And at the finale’s end, she’s finally reunited with her revolutionaries.

Once you get past the narrative convenience of their imprisonment together, it is indeed a thrill to watch Ruth and Layton link up for their jailbreak. It’s a thrill to see Ruth more explicitly commit to fighting on the right side, which requires making morally difficult choices like actual murder. Layton and Ruth fight their way into the engine, and the action sequences throughout the finale are very strong, especially since while both episodes are high-stakes and have a lot of movement to them, there’s an effective balance between the stealthier, quieter moments of deception and the more explosive moments. “Into The White” in particular is an exhilarating installment, hinging on the team’s hostile takeover of the engine.

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Even though we know that they’re going to be unsuccessful in picking up Melanie since we’ve already seen her side of it in “Many Miles From Snowpiercer,” the build-up for the hostile takeover surprises and remains captivating throughout. Ben attempts to fight Sykes for control of the engine, and their subsequent combat is both funny in the sense that he really thought he could just hit her with a bat and be done with it and just really great action. Ben’s an engineer not a fighter, and while he does ultimately succeed in diverting the train and tying up Sykes, it’s a more interesting sequence than if Snowpiercer had just done the thing that a lot of action shows do with characters like Ben in moments like this and made him suddenly capable of fighting despite never having done it before.

But on top of the solid action in the second episode, there are also character moments to bring it all together. Zara and Layton’s romance continues to feel more like filler than layers, but when it comes to Alex’s arc in “Into The White,” it’s clear that Snowpiercer’s growth in season two has led to overall better character development. Alex provides the opening voiceover here, and she remarks that she was only ten when the whole world became the train. Wilford became her only family, and he made sure that she saw him this way. We’ve known for a while now that Wilford has aggressively groomed her into being a faithful follower, and we’ve seen cracks in that foundation throughout. Still, when Alex casually mentions that she has been put in the brig before, it’s alarming. Just like Wilford is such a blatantly cruel leader, he’s a blatantly cruel father figure for Alex. He gives and takes in such extremes. He shrunk Alex’s world and made her feel like she needed him.

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While it’s difficult to reconcile Ruth’s past with her present, it’s much easier to see how the Alex of the premiere is the same Alex we see here. The extent of Wilford’s brainwashing is apparent, but there’s still so much of Melanie in her. She sees the flaws in Wilford’s design. She sees his violence as not necessary to maintain order, only necessary to maintain his version of order. Alex’s gradual unlearning of everything Wilford has taught her has been the backbone of this season. Again, watching Wilford work his games on a more zoomed-in, interpersonal level makes it all the more convincing to see him pull off more widespread propaganda and manipulation.

Even though we knew all along that Snowpiercer would blaze past Melanie, her true fate doesn’t unfold until the second half of “Into The White.” Layton and crew successfully get their pirate train turned around to retrieve her, even if it doesn’t go exactly as planned. But when they arrive, the plan really falls apart. In order to save the data, Melanie sacrificed herself. It’s another instance where the twist isn’t exactly shocking but is instead impactful on a deeper level. Melanie’s devotion to the science is as fierce as Wilford’s commitment to his own rules. And her parting gift is huge: Layton and crew are now armed with the information of warming spots around the globe. There is a promise of life outside Wilford’s train. The finale ends with the hope that Ruth teases in her voiceover—and it’s real hope. Even when the writing veers onto rougher track, these episodes do ultimately pull of what they set out to do. The action and suspense come together with the central themes of uprising, power, and survival to make for a propulsive and satisfying finale.

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Stray observations

  • Snowpiercer’s second season is an overall improvement over its first, which I had not been expecting but am delighted by! Thank you for reading these recaps.
  • Javi’s death is brutal.
  • I hate when sexual promiscuity is used as shorthand for evil, which I write about extensively in my recaps of The Stand, so I was disappointed to see it crop up here, too. What is the point of that sex party in Wilford’s engine? It just feels gratuitous at best.
  • Now that Wilford showed he was willing to let Audrey die, is she going to turn against him again? There’s still so much missing when it comes to her arc, and I don’t think that would solve it.
  • On a similar note, Kevin’s trauma is rendered a little too cartoonish in these episodes for my liking.
  • I can’t decide how I really feel about the Headwoods, who often seem like they’re on a different show entirely. But they definitely creep me out!
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