There’s always been something deeply creepy about Thomas The Tank Engine and his steam-junkie cohorts; it’s not just the eyes—although the eyes are bad—but the smiles, which seem to derive some dark, too-intense joy from their lives of servitude and endless competition with each other. The New Yorker’s Jia Tolentino recently ripped into the steamy underbelly lurking underneath Shining Time Station, exposing Thomas and his friend’s darkest moments, and pointing to the bizarre authoritarian vision the show is based within.
Tolentino’s exhibit A is “The Sad Story Of Henry,” a short from the show’s very first season. Afraid of getting rained on, Henry—a bright green engine—defies his corporate masters and refuses to work, preferring to stay in a tunnel where he’s safe and dry. The “Fat Controller” does everything in his power to try to get Henry to budge, including bringing in Thomas, that traitor to the masses, to try to shove Henry out, but to no avail. So what does the top hat-wearing fatcat do? He has Henry’s tracks taken up, and entombs him in the tunnel, forcing him to spend the rest of his life watching other engines go by, too starved of fuel to even whistle back. You know, for kids!
(The U.S. version of the short makes things a little less bleak for American audiences, but the U.K. version, narrated with strange glee by Ringo Starr, is fully on board with Henry’s “Cask Of Amontillado” end.)
Tolentino points to the original author of the Thomas books, Reverend Wilbert Awdry, as the source of much of the weird darkness lurking in this world. “It is clear from his work that Awdry disliked change, venerated order, and craved the administration of punishment,” she writes, citing other times that characters in the stories received some sort of grisly death sentence, like an engine having its wheels removed and converted into a generator, or a bullying coal truck punished by literally being ripped apart..
But don’t worry, folks: Henry was eventually okay. A later segment sees him, shorn of all that pesky free will, emerge from the tunnel and get back to work, stepping in after one of his friends is induced to work himself so hard he sustains a debilitating injury. Happy endings all around!