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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Mother-daughter drama smolders while other conflicts sputter on Snowpiercer

Illustration for article titled Mother-daughter drama smolders while other conflicts sputter on Snowpiercer
Image: Snowpiercer

One of the strangest missteps—and changes from Snowpiercer the film—in Snowpiercer’s first season was the decision to cram in a procedural crime drama among the rest of the story, crowding out some of the show’s more interesting narratives concerning class, revolution, and power dynamics at the end of the world. Ironically, the murder mystery about a blade-happy serial killer on-board was probably intended to inject some excitement into the story, but it ended up being stodgy and frivolous. Not every show needs to shovel in a cop drama. It fortunately fades to the background fairly early on in the first season, but here we are again, two episodes into season two, reimagining the crime procedural once more in a way that feels, well, unimaginative.


Layton swiftly deputizes Till as train detective after she informs him that a Tailie was assaulted the night before. After briefly refusing the promotion, Till relents and is promptly on the case. The Tailie turns out to be Lights, and someone hacked some of her fingers off in what appears as retaliation against the Tail for the war. By episode’s end, we see that the attack might be even more insidious: Wilford might have allies onboard the Snowpiercer. And if that’s true, peace between Big Alice and Snowpiercer is merely an illusion. Wilford’s carefully structured society paradoxically depends on chaos to keep everything in its place. But in any case, the sudden deputizing of Till is both a convenient plot development but also a silly one, underscoring the bizarre shift in Layton’s worldview where he’s suddenly okay with a decidedly undemocratic approach to leadership, decision-making, and law enforcement. When Wilford calls him a king, he denies it, says that Snowpiercer belongs to the people. Meanwhile, he’s still enacting martial law and using Tailies as defense labor. Snowpiercer likes to shift its characters’ worldviews and behaviors to suit the story instead of letting the story be guided by the characters’ worldviews and behaviors.

By far the most compelling parts of “Smolder To Life” concern Wilford, Alex, and Melanie. Wilford is shaping up to be an even more terrifying villain than much of the lore surrounding him suggests. It has always been clear that he represents capitalism at its absolute worst, but now that Wilford is flesh and not merely a symbol, the true extent of his terror and power disturbs. His propaganda and control over the narrative has made it so that people regard him as the god-like being he genuinely thinks himself to be.

Layton and Roche interrogate Kevin—the head of hospitality on Big Alice who was taken as a prisoner of war last episode—about the scene on the other train, saying that he need not fear Wilford. But Kevin doesn’t fear him; he admires him. Wilford has created an aura around himself that is perhaps even more threatening than fear. His people are willing to die for him. Kevin refuses to answer any questions but then readily does so when presented with chicken wings, providing Snowpiercer with some very useful information. Big Alice is starving. In the most disturbing scene of the episode, Wilford invites Kevin to take a bath, climbs in with him, and then encourages him to slit his own wrists. Alex, while not present, is somewhat complicit. She knows that Wilford will brutally punish Kevin. She’s the one who asks Kevin if he was offered food on Snowpiercer, speeding along the process of Wilford trying to extract information from Kevin.

Alex might not exactly worship Wilford the way some of the other crew members do, but she does trust him. She thinks of him as her family more than she does Melanie, and that’s consistently clear. Alex agrees to Wilford’s plan to execute Layton and only backs down in the end because he orders it so. Alex might be as significant a weapon in Wilford’s arsenal as Icy Bob, the man who has been physically augmented to withstand freezing temperatures. She’s loyal to him and fiercely angry at her mother, who makes a last-second plea to her during the prisoner exchange. But it would be disingenuous to have Alex so easily swayed in this moment, and thankfully, Snowpiercer leans all the way into Alex’s rage. She chooses Wilford every time. But as rich as the Melanie and Alex dynamic is on a character-level, Snowpiercer still doesn’t always leave enough time for its characters to really sit with their feelings. The fast-paced nature of the show means that some of the biggest emotional parts are crowded out or cut short. When Layton asks Melanie if her daughter is okay, she replies: “She’s cruel; she’s confused; she hates me.” It’s an honest and somewhat gutting response. But then the emotional stakes are undercut with what’s meant to be a humorous response from Layton: “So, she’s a teenager.” Sure, a teenager who seems pretty chill with mass murder but yes let’s chalk it up to teen angst, shall we?

Still, the addition of Alex to the story really does ramp up some of the character drama on the show in welcome ways. Melanie and the engineers make a new discovery that the Earth might warm enough to sustain human life in their lifetimes, prompting celebration for Big Alice and Snowpiercer’s societies. But it means working together. And it also means Melanie has to be left behind for a month at a research facility in order to get it up and running again. As Wilford points out: Melanie’s plans usually involve leaving someone else behind. This time, it’s her. It’s not a shocking reveal, but it is one that carries real weight on the character-level. Snowpiercer needs more reveals that fit that description.


Zara’s subplot (and entire existence?), however, is significantly less effective, especially considering that Zara is one of Snowpiercer’s many characters who feels so loosely sketched and yet who is often responsible for big plot moments. Her motives are hazy, subject to frequent changes in order to best serve the plot at hand. Here, she learns that Josie somehow survived her exposure to the cold. Look, implausible reveals that a character previously thought dead is actually alive is absolutely a staple of this genre, but this is a choice that’s hard not to trip on. Josie’s death as a plot device last season was already a weakspot. Now, she’s brought back mostly as a function of Zara’s arc. Zara thinks about killing Josie, then changes her mind, then visits Audrey who I have to imagine is sick of being a therapist to everyone on board, and ultimately decides to let Josie live but not without threatening her to not fuck up her new life. Layton and Zara playing house in their fancy new car feels exactly like that—playing house. Their relationship seems to ignore all the choices either character has previously made. Zara is wildly selfish and yet it’s unclear what story Snowpiercer is trying to tell with her.

The promise of life outside the trains sparks momentum for Snowpiercer. Melanie, Layton, and Wilford all want the same thing in a broad sense: the continuation of humanity. But they have vastly different methods and visions for how to run things, which yields a lot of dramatic tension. “Smolder To Life” is rife with conflict, and much of it does indeed burn brightly. But it’s still overstuffing the narrative and, in some instances, plowing through action in a way that makes character motive an afterthought. I’ll take consistency over cheap thrills. And at least Wilford and Alex, so far, seem pretty consistently drawn.


Stray observations

  • Okay so clearly Josie’s skin is going to be reconstructed by those weird scientists from Big Alice ASAP, right?
  • Now that Josie is alive, does that mean we’re going to go back to a love triangle situation, because YAWN! Look, I’m happy to see Josie and would love to see her character developed more intentionally and dimensionally than she was before her “death” but also this development is a little eye-roll-inducing for me at the moment.
  • Layton says that if they’re having a girl they can name it after Zara’s mother and if they’re having a boy they can name it after Trotsky. Okay, Layton.
  • Ruth’s loyalty to Wilford is mostly played for laughs these days, even though that loyalty is extremely dangerous and potentially violent!
  • Unfortunately I do eat chicken wings exactly the way Kevin does.