The most unsettling thing about watching a show about a post-apocalyptic future during a pandemic is that even the most random details hit a little too close to home. At one point during TNT’s new series, Snowpiercer, head of hospitality Melanie (a perfectly cast Jennifer Connelly) asks one of the train’s conductors, “Do you remember fresh air? Do you remember going for walks?” to which he responds, after a thoughtful pause, “Rain. I miss the sound of rain.”
We are now coming up on two full months of quarantine here in the States, and though we are not exactly survivors aboard a 1,001-car high speed train careening around a frozen planet, it’s hard for dialogue like this not to resonate. Or for scenes depicting horrendous displays of classism to not gnaw at our collective conscience as we watch our ugly realities play out on a TV screen.
“Do you remember hugs? Do you remember leaving the house without a mask and gloves at the ready? Do you remember what it was like before?”
What happens when there is less to learn from the allegory than from reality itself? When simile becomes metaphor? It’s not that the society we live in is like the fictional world of Snowpiercer; it’s that the society we live in is Snowpiercer.
The premise for the series is that in the not-too-distant future, climate change has taken a turn for the worse, and scientists attempting to counteract the damage humanity has enacted upon our planet accidentally freeze the world instead. A supposedly forward-thinking “visionary” named Mr. Wilford predicts the coming disaster, and builds a train 1,001 cars long that will house all of Earth’s last remaining citizens, circling the globe without an end in sight. As is the case with society itself, the train is divided into various classes—first, second, third, and the tail—each defined by varying degrees of privilege and poverty. The story is based on the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige, originally published in 1982; Oscar winner Bong Joon-Ho adapted it into a star-studded, big-screen action flick in 2013 (see: Chris Evans, Octavia Spencer, Tilda Swinton, and Song Kang-Ho).
Bong is, in fact, one of the executive producers for the TNT series, but outside of lending his genius to the aesthetics and laying down the tracks—pardon the pun—for TNT’s significantly less dynamic series, his influence is more ancillary than critical. In place of Bong’s Hollywood action hero Evans, the TV series enlists Hamilton star Daveed Diggs as Andre Layton, the reigning leader of the mistreated “tailies” section of the train. Instead of a more straightforward rebellion pushing Evans’ Curtis from the tail to the front of the train, the series takes advantage of its multi-chapter format to present a complex web of lies, false identities, and complicity.
The trouble with having all these different storylines woven together, however, is that there is literally so much going on at any given moment that each plot point ends up diluting the efficacy of the others. Kind of like real life, it’s hard to know what to focus on. There are of course big questions about corruption within governing bodies, the importance of access as a form of power, and the institutional inequities that keep citizens in their place (or in this case, their train car). There’s the love triangle between Layton and two women, a drug distribution chain that spans the entire train, and innumerable nods to the inherent privilege of porcelain white women. Oh, and a murderer on the loose. It’s a lot to tackle within 10 episodes, and while the ambition is laudable, what’s perhaps truer is that the focus of the series gets lost in its attempt to capture the overwhelming nature of our world today and reflect it back to us.
It’s important to note here that when Bong’s film was released in 2013, the world was a much different place. This was years before the 2016 election that would seemingly crack the country in half; it was midway through the rollout of The Hunger Games on the big screen; and Edward Snowden was simultaneously hailed as a hero and criticized as a traitor for spilling government secrets. Snowpiercer, the movie, felt prophetic, like a warning of what could happen if humans continued to allow capitalistic impulses guide our decisions.
But Snowpiercer, the TV series, isn’t prophetic. It’s a mirror. The reality we live in now is closer to the barely contained chaos of the train: our government is run by a madman who demands total compliance regardless of the harm his policies inflict on vulnerable populations; white women (and men) are still being given passes at the cost of black and brown bodies; and the stratification of class has never been clearer. While the unemployment rate has risen to a dangerous 14.7 percent over the last few months, the ultra wealthy are still snapping up new homes and sheltering safely in cavernous residences they glibly liken to prison. So given the dumpster fire that 2020 has been thus far, then, Snowpiercer unfortunately feels more like a depressing reality check than a far-fetched sci-fi fantasy.
There’s also this: the tailies in the back of the train are ostensibly the heroes of this story, the last class of people who have not yet been infected by the capitalistic greed that has so clearly turned those at the front of the train into unfeeling lackeys who carry out Mr. Wilford’s bidding. They’re instilled with a spirit of rebellion and of upending the order that keeps them down. And they’re willing to risk a lot of lives if it means the liberation of the last class and a more just way of being.
In real life, this same narrative of oppression is being used to justify state re-openings today: it appears that those with money are so out of touch with the reality of unemployment that they’re willing to sacrifice the poor in a fight against an invisible enemy. Never mind that a hasty re-opening of the country could result in millions of deaths. American movies are often predicated on the plight of the underdog, and now that the line between fantasy and reality has blurred, undermining the elite’s credence has become a noble cause to rally behind.
So perhaps the biggest questions that Snowpiercer successfully poses aren’t even ones it intended to, but which are totally context-specific to our weird reality: Where do we actually fall in the horizontal hierarchy of a Snowpiercer train? How much do we value order over freedom? Community wellness over personal security? And would we like the truth that our answers reveal?
Snowpiercer premieres Sunday, May 17th on TNT.
Joyce Chen is a writer/editor/creator from LA who spent a decade in NYC before relocating back to the West Coast in fall 2017. She has covered entertainment and human interest stories for Rolling Stone, Refinery29, Paste magazine, the New York Daily News, and People, and her creative writing credits include LitHub, Narratively, and Barrelhouse, among others. She is one of the cofounders of The Seventh Wave, a bicoastal arts and literary nonprofit, and holds an MFA from The New School and a BA in journalism and psychology from USC.
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