Snowpiercer was always a TV series I was bound to check out, but it was by no means one I was certain I’d be sticking with, week after week. I felt that I owed it at least a look, as a big fan of the dazzling 2013 sci-fi thriller by (Oscar winner!) Bong Joon-ho, but the series’ long development and production setbacks didn’t always inspire confidence that this adaptation would be handled smoothly. When Turner couldn’t even decide if the series should debut on TBS (slogan: “we’re comedy”) or TNT (slogan: “we know drama”), that seemed like a particularly worrying indication that even the producers weren’t entirely sure what kind of show this was supposed to be. And really: How often does a well-liked film get a TV adaptation that plumbs the same territory with anywhere near the same effectiveness?
Despite those early misgivings, though, and a season that doesn’t exactly get off to a running start, Snowpiercer has proven to be one of 2020’s most genuinely captivating dramas, wrapping up its first season with an extended, two-hour finale last night that closes several doors while breaching a major new hatch to the outside world. This is a series that found success by more or less throwing the “adaptation” label out the window, concerning itself less with the ground covered by Bong Joon-ho’s film and more with the source material of the original 1982 French graphic novel. Never does it come close to recapturing the nightmarish mechanical aesthetic, palpable grit or wondrous visuals of the South Korean film, but it wisely seems to realize that this was never really an option on its TV budget anyway. Rather, it ultimately uses its 10-hour runtime to do exactly what it should be doing, which is deeply expanding both the mythology and moral quicksand surrounding the operation of this “rattling ark.” That’s where this version of Snowpiercer excels.
Granted, it takes a while for those strengths to become visible, when the series seems for all intents and purposes to be a trainbound police procedural for its first few episodes, with former police detective Andre Layton (Daveed Diggs) being called on to leave the grime and disease of the tail in order to solve a serial murder case in the train’s more pristine sections. This is, of course, just a means to an end—an excuse for Layton’s character to be able to walk the length of the train and meet the many, many supporting players in first, second and third class who will be indispensable to the revolution to come. It’s a four-episode chunk of concerted worldbuilding, with an ultimately unnecessary murder mystery meant to keep the audience’s attention on the narrative until it’s put all its pieces on the board. A bit guileless, perhaps, but it sets the table for what becomes a much more interesting series in the back half of the season.
This is when Snowpiercer blooms; when we’re freed from the “a killer stalks the train” subplot and start diving deeply into the lives of its residents, each with their own unique perspective on the omnipresent dose of horror and oppression that seems to be necessary to keep life going in this precarious closed ecosystem. It’s a world where some “tailies” are celebrated for being chosen to apprentice uptrain in better conditions, escaping their impoverished lots in life, while others are vilified for doing the same thing and “abandoning” their comrades in the process. A world where the workaday brakemen who serve as underpaid crossing guards extort sexual favors from the tail, in exchange for street drugs. A world where members of third class will pummel each other in bare knuckle combat for the enjoyment of the first class bourgeois, in exchange for a chance to advance to second, where a modest studio apartment awaits them. A world where the closest thing to a church seems to be the combination brothel/cabaret bar, in which members of all classes receive emotional catharsis through what seems to be guided hypnosis. The further we descend into this society, the more distinct and alive it becomes.
Another curious thing happens at the same time, though: The more we get to know the residents of Snowpiercer, the more the show seems to shed its initial focus on Layton. He is ostensibly the leader of the rebellion that coalesces in the back half of this just-completed season, but by that point we’ve fleshed out so many other valuable supports, such as brakeman Bess Till (Mickey Sumner), hospitality manager Ruth Wardell (Alison Wright), Night Car manager Miss Audrey (Lena Hall) and agricultural officer Jinju Seong (Susan Park) that he has been absolved from carrying the burden of plot and empathy. In fact, Layton’s role as de facto “protagonist” has even been usurped by season’s end, by none other than the woman initially presented as the show’s primary villain: Melanie Cavill.
I perhaps should have seen that coming, given that Melanie is played by the show’s biggest Hollywood star in the form of Jennifer Connelly. After all, you don’t really cast a performer like that in a TV series to fill the role of a rarely seen arch-fiend, steepling her fingers at the helm as she runs an authoritarian regime via an army of sadistic proxies. Connelly took this part because Melanie is an active presence—a ridiculously active presence, actually—aboard this train and aboard this story, and slowly proves to be the last thing from a one-dimensional villain. In the process, her story vaults past that of Layton’s, eventually becoming the driving force of the narrative even as Melanie also becomes the primary focus of the audience’s empathy. Especially after the events of the finale, she has become the unquestioned central character of Snowpiercer.
It’s not Diggs’ fault, by any means—the character of Melanie Cavill is simply far more complex, with relationships that touch every corner of the train she’s been operating in secret for the past 7 years, since usurping the position of figurehead “Mr. Wilford” on the day of departure. She’s the only person on board who has been made to truly wrestle with the depths of ruthless utilitarianism necessary to maintain the functioning of a stratified society of privileged idiots, even as the interior of the supposedly “eternal” train she designed slowly rots away, pushing the remnants of humanity ever closer to disaster. She’s the only one who is capable of personally bringing the rattling ark back from the brink of mechanical catastrophe; something that seems utterly lost on the would-be usurpers in first class even after her true identity is discovered. On a train full of specialized roles that all seem pretty important, she’s inarguably the most indispensable.
But she’s also a monster; not by choice, but by perceived necessity. Handed an untenable mission—to keep more people alive aboard Snowpiercer than the train was ever intended to handle, because of the chaos of over-boarding—she responds with the development of what first appears to be a jail system known as “the drawers,” which is in actuality an attempt at creating an ark within an ark; a suspended animation system that could one day hold the majority of the train’s population in an effort to reduce resource consumption. In her mind, that more than justifies years of dangerous human medical experimentation, as well as that experimentation’s unintended side effects, such as the creation of the street drug kronole. And that’s not even touching on Melanie’s capacity for additional ruthlessness, as seen in her torture of Josie (Katie McGuinness) for information, or sticking Layton in a drawer after he deduces her identity. She is willing to do whatever it takes to keep the train rolling for one more day.
The beauty of Snowpiercer, though, has been how it has tempered each instance of cruelty that might have permanently hardened the audience’s hearts against Melanie. We see the immediate physical reaction she has to torturing Josie, as she flees to her own quarters to vomit and briefly lower the shield of cold competence she doesn’t dare drop in front of anyone else. The steady drip of details about Melanie’s guilt—related both to the horrors and deaths of the train, and the daughter she left behind in the calamity—assure us that she does feel each and every one of these things just as much as the likes of Layton. She simply doesn’t have the freedom to cloak herself in the self-righteous anger of a resistance fighter with a clear-cut enemy, not when there are decisions to be made about who has to starve so others can eat. She bears the burden of dispensing cruelty in a world that might well collapse entirely without the strength of an iron fist applying constant pressure, and it gets to her in a way it never gets to the Mr. Wilford played by Ed Harris in Bong Joon-ho’s film.
And for those reasons, it certainly seems like Melanie Cavill will continue to be the show’s most important force in the upcoming Snowpiercer Season 2, which reportedly completed most of its production before the ongoing pandemic shut everything down. Especially given the revelations of the finale’s closing moments, from the reemergence of her daughter, to the obvious bad blood between Melanie and a legitimately aggrieved and still alive Mr. Wilford (Sean Bean, apparently!), her story carries a depth of dramatic weight that not even Layton’s impending fatherhood can really match. Karmically, is it safe to say that Melanie Cavill will eventually have to answer for her crimes? American screenwriting logic would seem to say yes, but Connelly and Snowpiercer together have infused Melanie with such complex morality that the justice headed her way will inevitably be tinged with tragedy rather than the vindication offered by vengeance against a petty dictator.
TNT’s Snowpiercer could have been a slavish attempt to turn a high-concept sci-fi feature into a lesser television series, but it rejected the idea that it would be beholden to the framework of a film it never could have replicated. Instead, this series chose a broader, wiser path that takes advantage of the type of steady character building that is only possible in the confines of the small screen. Here’s hoping that it can stay on the rails in season 2, whenever Snowpiercer is able to return.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident genre geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.
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