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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

A slower episode of Snowpiercer makes for stronger character development

Illustration for article titled A slower episode of Snowpiercer makes for stronger character development
Image: Snowpiercer

After its first two action-packed and overstuffed episodes, Snowpiercer season two pumps the brakes a little bit, embracing what has always been its most successful story structure. It zeroes in on a very specific conflict that’s just one facet of the larger narrative. In this case, the newly conjoined trains need to pass through a part of track appropriately dubbed Neckbreaker, a dangerous path through the Rockies that will require expert navigational skills from Big Alice’s end. The stakes are cut and dry from a plot perspective, but they’re also effectively bolstered by emotional layers, namely when it comes to Melanie and Alice’s relationship which is quickly shaping up to be the exact kind of interpersonal drama that Snowpiercer needs. And it doesn’t sacrifice the larger story for the sake of that interpersonal drama; instead, it all works together to make for exciting plot and intimate character moments all at once.

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Over the course of the episode, Alex softens. Just a little. She doesn’t undergo some major transformation in her feelings toward Melanie. Instead, Snowpiercer takes its time here, leaning into the complex and occasionally contradictory things Alex feels toward her mother. Of course, time is also a luxury these characters simply do not have. The pressure for Alex and Melanie to reach some point of tenderness before they’re once again separated is palpable. Alex is mad at Melanie for once again choosing to leave her. She knows that Melanie has to leave, that she’s the best shot at gathering the data needed to prove whether the planet is indeed becoming inhabitable again or not. But she’s hurt. She’s angry.

Since she was first introduced on the show, Alex’s rage has been a major motivating factor for her decisions. She’s impulsive and cruel. But her immediate scorn for Melanie in their first moments together makes sense. It’s easy enough for Melanie to talk about the zoomed out reasons for why she left her. But at the end of the day, Alex is her daughter. Even when choices are made for the supposed greater good, those choices can hurt others on a personal and intimate level, and that’s exactly what has happened to Alex. Wilford has always used knowledge as a weapon, and so he knows exactly how to manipulate people. He knows that the best way to keep Alex on his side is to stoke the flames of that anger, to make Alex think that Melanie’s abandonment is indeed personal.

He needs Alex to hate Melanie. Alex’s choice to sever the connection with Snowpiercer in the season premiere—even though it failed—is evil. Alex also still has a cut from when her assassination of Layton was abruptly called off, and Wilford calls this her scar to remind her how far she was willing to go. Wilford has sunk his claws so deeply into her, knowing that if he corrupts her into making inhumane choices it will indeed strip her of her humanity. It’s evident that he has tried this exact method on Melanie and that she’s still untangling her worst impulses.

And in Alex’s case, Wilford’s corruption is lifting little by little as well. Snowpiercer shows Alex softening to Melanie after Melanie asks her a series of questions about her life: what she likes, who pierced her ears, where she sleeps. There’s so much Melanie has missed, and in some ways it’s futile to try to fill in the blanks now mere moments before she’s set to leave on what everyone is calling a suicide mission. But that makes her desperate questions all the more meaningful. She wants as much as she can get of Alex while she still has her. But the most compelling moment in terms of Alex’s softening comes when the young girl watches her mother place her palm on the train’s side and accurately diagnose a misaligned wheel. Alex is fascinated by her mother’s nearly magical intuition when it comes to the train’s engineering, and she attempts to tap into that power, too, hesitantly trying it out herself in a moment that’s cut like a knife by Wilford witnessing it. He praises Melanie’s abilities to Alex but compliments from Wilford are their own kind of poison.

Take, for example, Wilford observing during the trade talk at the border that Layton has become a capable leader in a short amount of time. Layton has just played an effective card: He teases the Big Alice crew with a display of food as he asks for spare train parts for Snowpiercer from Wilford, who can’t say no without losing the love of his starving followers. Wilford believing Layton to be a capable leader is a bad sign for anyone who still thinks of Layton as a revolutionary. Finally, this episode really explicitly pushes back on some of Layton’s recent choices, mostly through Josie, who’s conscious and badly burned. She’s appalled at Layton for allying with Melanie, who is the reason she’s in this hospital bed. Layton tries to apologize for the personal things—the fact that he’s with Zara now—but that’s not what Josie cares about. Her focus is still on the things that Layton used to care the most about: the Tail, democracy, collapsing the violent class system that governs Snowpiercer. Sure, Layton’s correct to trust science, but he has lost so much of who he is and what he has fought for in the aftermath of the war.

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Layton and Melanie are looking more and more alike every day, and while I’m all for these characters being complicated, I do think that their decisions need to be backed up with more substance than just plot convenience. Much of this episode amounts to two-character scenes with a lot of dialogue. But the lack of action is a welcome shift. Josie taking Layton to task is a grounded and believable moment that’s a lot more interesting than any potential love triangle between them and Zara could ever be. I hope that Snowpiercer continues to directly engage with the contradictions in Layton’s behaviors. It makes for more interesting storytelling and ties into larger themes about just how poisonous power and electoral politics can be. But I also hope that Josie won’t merely serve as a megaphone for these ideas. I’m still waiting for her to become a fully fleshed out character.

Snowpiercer isn’t pulling off all of the character-driven scenes it attempts in this episode. The reframing of Ruth makes way less sense than the way traditional politics have corrupted Layton. Melanie cautions Layton against lying to Ruth because she sees Ruth as a loyal ally, and she later even tells Ruth that she’s just. Ruth of season one was a blatant fascist. Justice and order are very different things. A revisionist approach to Ruth just isn’t going to work.

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The standout parts of the episode really do belong to Alex and Melanie, whose powerful but short-lived reconnection provides a much needed emotional anchor for Snowpiercer. There’s never really any doubt that the train will make it up Neckbreaker, but that’s hardly the point. Instead, we’re placed so firmly in Alex’s head. She’s torn. She knows she has to accelerate the train for everyone to survive, but she also knows it means saying goodbye to her mother once again, just moments after she has finally opened herself up to her. Rowan Blanchard gives a tremendous performance. Alex has the same gift for driving the train as her mother, but she feels like more than just a driver in this scene. She feels like a young girl who’s once again being hurt by the adults in her life, feeling the weight of all the pressure that has been heaped on her. Wilford senses a shift in her and attacks it. He needs to hear her state her loyalty. He admonishes her tears. It’s once again disturbingly easy to see the extent of his manipulations and abuse. Alex drives the train, and Wilford drives Alex. He really is the perfect capitalist villain in that he has figured out how to wield his power in order to turn human beings into weapons. We see that quite literally when it comes to Icy Bob, but it’s also how he sees Alex. Under the guise of family, he has stripped most of the folks of Big Alice of their personhood, turning them into cogs in his machine.

Snowpiercer strikes the right balance here between letting Alex be complicated and morally corrupt while contextualizing some of her worst behaviors. She’s neither wholly victim nor wholly villain. It’s a balance that was largely askew in season one as it pertained to Melanie, who was a nebulous antihero who was never really taken to task for the horrors she helped facilitate. Season two has a stronger grasp on what it means to be corrupted by institutions and power, and it makes the character development so much meatier. “A Great Odyssey” still loses some of its focus by trying to cobble together too many subplots that aren’t doing enough, but it’s also one in which its characters’ emotions and choices really resonate on a level deeper than plot in the central story.

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Stray observations

  • I honestly keep forgetting about Melanie’s romantic relationship with Ben! It just kind of feels like an awkwardly thrown in romance. Sometimes it feels like Snowpiercer just throws romance in for no real reason.
  • So Layton encourages Pike to keep running his weed operation at the border, seeing some opportunity here. “You can come out now Pike” is the funniest part of the episode.
  • I feel bad for Icy Bob!!!!!
  • Brooding detective Till is not bringing much to the table so far. Her scenes lag.
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