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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Snowpiercer struggles to connect the dots in a sprawling episode

Illustration for article titled Snowpiercer struggles to connect the dots in a sprawling episode
Image: Snowpiercer

Following last week’s Audrey-centric episode that was effective on a character level, “Keep Hope Alive” is a similarly quiet and slow episode of Snowpiercer. A downshift in speed usually works in the show’s favor, allowing some of the character arcs to breathe and not relying too heavily on twists to sell the thrills. But “Keep Hope Alive,” while having some strong character-driven moments and clipping along at a reasonable pace, struggles to grasp a focal point, its subplots spread out so much that the episode amounts to a lot of plot maneuvering without a thematic hook to really bring it all together.


Snowpiercer traditionally spells out its episodic themes in its opening voiceover. This one is delivered by Josie, who is newly a medical experiment in Big Alice, the Headwoods taking her on as their latest cryo-project. Josie muses on how she has to continuing fighting the good fight, that her unlikely survival means nothing if she can’t further the cause she intended to die for. Layton and Pike’s border trade operation makes it so that Josie can relay messages back to Snowpiercer, and she gets her first one through in the cold open. She warns that Wilford is planning something with Icy Bob, who also pops up in the episode to coach her through the pain she’s experiencing at the hands of the Headwoods. Icy Bob is resigned to his fate as a human weapon. His tenderness toward Josie is heartbreaking. Wilford continues to be a terrifying villain in his all-encompassing control over his passengers—from Icy Bob to the crew members who show up for his book club meeting, tensely discussing Rebecca.

But the episode bends beyond Josie and, in fact, doesn’t even use her as much other than the spy purpose she serves. The character continues to be a flattened plot device even in her second life. Another theme for the episode emerges when the engineers report that Melanie hasn’t answered the latest weather balloon ping. Melanie has become a symbol of hope for Snowpiercer, the train’s children making a tapestry in her honor. Layton and Ruth opt to lie to the passengers to keep that hope alive, replicating the choice Melanie once made to keep Wilford alive. The ends justify the means in their view. Hope powers Snowpiercer. But they sacrifice the truth by making this choice, and there’s a sense that we’re watching these characters’ moral compasses deteriorate.

But because of how sprawling the narrative is in this episode, some of these significant character moments lose their weight. Because there’s also the matter of Josie fighting to survive in the face of the Headwoods’ violent experiments. And there’s also the matter of Audrey being once again summoned by Wilford’s will. She maintains her agency by telling the others on Snowpiercer that she wants to go through with it for the sake of the mission, agreeing to try to bug Wilford’s train car in what seems like way too convenient of an engineering loophole. But “Keep Hope Alive” diminishes a lot of the work done with Audrey last episode. She once again feels like more of a plot device, and it makes her choice at the end of the episode feel hollow.

There’s also the matter of Zara eagerly transitioning to hospitality, which she has a knack for but which hardly develops the character beyond her pencil-drawn sketch. Zara seamlessly delivering a full-train weather report after her morning sickness isn’t ultimately the impactful moment that it’s played for. The show continues to bend over backwards to rewrite Ruth as a complex character worthy of rooting for rather than the cartoonish villain she is in the first season. Ruth and Zara’s scenes together hint at new depth for both characters but fall short of cinching it all together.

In another pocket of the show, we have Bess Till, whose descent into surly detective has been one of the least interesting parts of season two. There has been some compelling stuff in there, particularly when it comes to her relationship with Pastor Logan, which zooms in on the real human effect of ongoing trauma and loss. But coupled with Till’s investigation into the crimes against the Tail, it’s just not working. It’s unclear what the show is trying to say through Till, and when she spars with Logan in this episode, it’s a stark example of when telling instead of showing really does fall short. Logan’s literally shouting out what we’re meant to take away from Till’s interiority.


Wedged into all of this is also Layton’s choice to get Pike to kill Terence, which does seem like the emotional climax of the episode and yet registers at a low intensity because of the plot overcrowding and lack of thematic focus. It’s a gruesome death but far from an affecting one, Snowpiercer indulging in gratuitous violence for shock value and little else. Removing Terence is abrupt and ultimately unimportant beyond a plot level. Pike’s emotional struggle is a little out of nowhere. If anything, the most meaningful part here is the total transformation of Layton into a more nefarious character, something that has been building since the start of the season. He’s willing to do more than just lie to the train. But we don’t get to sit with these implications for very long, because again, “Keep Hope Alive” struggles most when it comes to focus and cohesion. The storytelling happening isn’t necessarily weak, but it’s held back from its full potential because there’s too much unconnected fodder thrown in.

Stray observations

  • The visuals of this episode are very strong. Audrey’s red dress is instantly indelible.
  • Audrey’s albums are top-notch.
  • What’s up with this tension between Alex and Amelia? Are they more than friends?
  • It would be easier to care about what’s going on with Melanie if we actually saw any of what is happening with Melanie.