Five years, two showrunners, two networks, and two pilots later, the TV adaptation of Snowpiercer is finally due to arrive on TNT. Graeme Manson, who took over as showrunner after Josh Friedman parted ways with the project, has based the first season of the show on both Bong Joon Ho’s brilliant and strange 2013 film of the same name, as well as the graphic novels that inspired the film, beginning with Le Transperceneige. Along with the Orphan Black co-creator’s vision for class revolt at high velocities, season one teems with ideas, evoking everything from Murder On The Orient Express to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis to Danny Boyle’s Sunshine (that other Chris Evans movie about an Earth that’s freezing over), and more than a touch of Charles Dickens’ critique of utilitarianism.
All the flourishes and familiar influences—the opening sequence even recalls The Animatrix—are in service of just a handful of themes, ruminations on oppression, classism, allyship, and the fear of change—or rather, of losing power. The series may barrel through characters, plot, and conceits, but it does so without losing sight of its headier concepts. Daveed Diggs leads Snowpiercer as André Layton, who was a homicide detective in Chicago before a seemingly manmade catastrophe (also alluded to in Le Transperceneige) sent the temperatures plummeting, thereby decimating the global population. Roughly seven years before the show takes place, the remnants of humanity, a cross-section of the affluent and middle and working classes, gathered in Chicago to board Snowpiercer, the once-shining, now “rattling” ark.
The first series of brutal acts comes just moments into the James Hawes-helmed premiere, the story for which was co-written by Friedman and Manson (and likely the last trace of the work of Friedman and Scott Derrickson, the latter of whom directed the original pilot). Guards for Wilford Industries, the corporation behind the engine meant to save (some of) humanity, attack “unticketed” passengers like Layton and Zarah (Sheila Vand), whose lives are also imperiled but who lack the generational wealth or desirable skills to join the one-percenters, who are already comfortably situated aboard the train. People are beaten and flung from the train not out of desperation, but to recreate society in its former, inequitable image. The goal, we are told time and again, isn’t to preserve life but order.
For fans of the Snowpiercer film or Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette’s graphic novel, this will be familiar territory, along with the conflict between the tail section of the train—where Layton foments revolution with Josie (Katie McGuinness) and Pike (Steven Ogg)—and the indifferent millionaires and billionaires that make up first class. The uneasy alliance Layton forms with Melanie Cavill (a deceptively icy Jennifer Connelly), head of Wilford Industries’ hospitality department, is also similar to previous partnerships within this particular fictional world. But the character details diverge enough to create a new dynamic, one potentially more fraught than those depicted on the page and big screen.
Snowpiercer’s execution is by no means flawless; the mix of genres, which includes a straightforward procedural and slow-burn thriller, doesn’t come together evenly, which makes for a bumpy ride for much of the season. There are times when the on-camera action could use some of that jostling, as the capacious sets fail to recreate the discomfort and claustrophobia from the film or the novels, which means the desperation must all too often be shouted out in conversation rather than felt. Directors like James Hawes, Helen Shaver, and Watchmen’s Frederick E.O. Toye maintain a steady pace, but visually, there’s nothing as inspired or giddily unnerving as the sight of a train car full of masked guards taking turns dipping their hatchets into a gutted fish. The limits of the show’s production budget become more obvious as the story approaches full-blown upheaval, but a great cast, including Mickey Sumner, Iddo Goldberg, and Annalise Basso, keep things on track.
Like its characters, Snowpiercer refuses to stay in a preset lane. The action really gets underway when Melanie asks Layton to investigate a recent murder to maintain the illusion of order, among other things. What he asks for in return changes the longer he stays “up train”—not because Layton is seduced by the excesses of families like the Folgers, or even the demimonde of the Nightcar, but because what he sees puts the lie to management’s definition of a “closed ecosystem.” Diggs, who’s raised his voice against inequity via his work in Hamilton and Blindspotting, is well-cast as someone used to navigating different notions of law and order, of fairness and tragedy. Layton remains unsure of his leadership skills, but not his mission. And as the season unfolds, he becomes more of an inspiration—and a threat.
Despite their similar positioning as protagonists and revolutionaries, Layton is far from a direct analog for Evans’ Curtis or the graphic novel’s Proloff. Snowpiercer’s story of class warfare is necessarily complicated by Layton’s Blackness, though the series rarely ever addresses this head-on. The show goes to lengths to make terms like “train detective” and “your spark” (likely a substitute for “soul”) happen; they even trade “years” for “revolutions” as a way to mark the passage of time and nail a double entendre. But when it comes to race, Snowpiercer is often at a loss for words. It’s not the first show to suggest that racism would dissipate as the population dwindled (see: The Walking Dead) while readily calling out classism, as if the two are not inextricably linked. But this aversion is inconsistent—at one point, one passenger notes that another hated his “white” dad, whose whiteness is seemingly confirmed by his record collection. There’s a lot being said in that scene, and just as much left unspoken.
It’s strangely euphemistic, especially given the pointed commentary being made elsewhere. Embedded within its dystopian setting and impending class war is one of the slyest takedowns of corporate feminism and the mealymouthed insistence on civility (it’s not a coincidence that “hospitality” is the most prominent department in Wilford Industries) when people’s lives are at stake. As Melanie, Connelly is the avatar for middle- to upper-class white women who protest too much about the system they benefit from and help to uphold. Connelly is as good as she’s ever been, hiding a shimmering brittleness beneath the unflappable exterior of someone who believes they’re “just following orders,” orders she pretends are divorced of their resulting actions. But Snowpiercer is full of people who aren’t white men who nonetheless prop up an unequal system; in its most thrilling move, the series contemplates the ways in which we are all cogs in the machine, while looking to all of these same parties to dismantle it. (Writers and producers like Chinaka Hodge and Hiram Martinez are key to developing these arcs, a reminder that people of color help make stories of marginalized people more potent and specific.) As bleak as a series tinged with cannibalism, mutilation, and eugenics might be, it readily offers a light at the end of the tunnel.
Though many of its 1,001 cars are cast in a familiar mold, Snowpiercer still manages to find new ways to interrogate power structures, as well as build up steam—or rather, power the eternal engine—for a second season of quietly compelling stories. Its style might not match its ambition, but after an arduous trek, Snowpiercer mostly proves to be worth the wait.
Reviews by Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya will run weekly.