Paul Asay

TV Series Review

Global warming? If only.

Back in 2014, worried scientists tried to reverse rising temperatures … and boy were they successful. The earth experienced a different sort of climate change, with temperatures plummeting to obscenely cold and, frankly, unlivable levels. The globe is now a gigantic ball of ice, and everything that once called it home is more thoroughly frozen than that forgotten TV dinner in your icebox.

Well, except for those riding the Snowpiercer.

Nearly seven years after it left the station, the train has never stopped moving. It can’t. The train is all that’s left of humanity—of, in fact, life itself. The creation of a reclusive tycoon named Mr. Wilford, the Snowpiercer is a rail-bound ark and on-the-move social experiment—1,001 cars filled with society’s former elite (who take up most of the space) and the downtrodden (who live in the train’s slum-like tail).

Everything on the Snowpiercer is kept in rigorous balance by the persnickety “Mr. Wilford” to ensure the survival and future of the human race. But the divisions Wilford sees as fair are hardly equitable. As Melanie Cavill, the train’s gracious-if-chilly “voice,” tells tail-inhabitant Andre Layton, “We need strawberries more than he needs you.”

But change, like the train itself, is a-coming. And the Snowpiercer’s strawberry fields might not be forever.

Polar Distress

Back in warmer days, Andre Layton had been a cop, a homicide detective, in fact. And when a passenger is found dead and mutilated, Andre’s stock skyrockets. Mr. Wilford, Melanie says, wants to find the killer. And he’s willing to improve Andre’s life immensely if he’ll only track the culprit down.

But Andre wants more. He’s a Tailer through and through, and he knows how mightily his friends on the back of the train are suffering. They’re given barely enough food to survive, and rations are cut regularly. They’ve apparently been sterilized, too: No baby’s been born in the Tail for five years.

He doesn’t want just a better life for himself, but for all the Tailers. And if Melanie won’t give it to them, he and his friends will take it.

For years, the Tailers have plotted rebellion. All of their previous coups have gone down to ignominious and bloody failure, but the situation on the train’s back end is too dire to deny any longer. Now, the rebellion is in the train’s recirculated, scrubbed air. And no one—no matter how much money they have or power they wield, whether they be first-class passenger or Tailer or even Melanie herself—is safe.

Off the Rails

TNT’s Snowpiercer has a long lineage. It was first conceived by Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette for the graphic novel “Le Transperceneige” in the early 1980s. (More graphic novels followed.) In 2013, South Korean director Bon Joon-ho (who, you might recall, directed a little Oscar-winning movie called Parasite) took that first book and made a movie out of it.

The TV version is characterized as a “reboot of the film’s continuity,” and may serve as a prequel of sorts. While the 2013 movie takes place in 2031, TNT’s timeline starts a decade earlier: in 2021, fewer than seven years after the Earth descended into its current deep freeze.  

It’s an odd sort of story, though—part murder mystery, part Hunger Games-like dystopian sociological statement, part apocalyptic horror show. The plot (at least at first) is set up like a whodunit, a post-apocalyptic version of Murder on the Orient Express, if you will. But the tension between the Snowpiercer’s haves and have-nots are what really power this train. The show, like its forerunners, has plenty it wants to say about social inequality. And that dual track leaves the story feeling a little unfocused.

That narrative inconsistency may be a product of some behind-the-scenes drama. In fact, the story behind the show might make a pretty good drama itself, filled with squabbles between its makers and its network and the departure of both its showrunner (Josh Friedman) and director (Scott Derrickson). And thus far, critics’ reception of the show has been, in this age of prestige TV, relatively chilly.

If secular opinion seems mixed, Plugged In’s conclusion is more definitive.

Sure, the premise is fascinating. Parts of the story are compelling. And TNT certainly didn’t scrimp on creating a believable world, both inside and out of the train.

But Snowpiercer is rated TV-MA for basically every reason you can imagine. Violence can be extreme, with blood flying everywhere and sometimes whole limbs getting chopped or even ripped off. Cannibalism becomes a prominent plot point. Viewers might be exposed to nudity, too, and relationships—including those of the same-sex variety—can abound. Sometimes, the plot manages to combine both violence and nudity together: The murder victim’s own privates were, um, removed—which viewers can confirm for themselves in the very first episode.

Seamy sexuality (including polyamorous relationships) seems fairly common. You’d not think that drug use would be a problem, given the very contained environs … but guess what? It is. And language? Well, in the cloudy, gloomy, snow-covered world of Snowpiercer, it’s about the only thing that’s blue.

In the end, Snowpiercer left me cold.

Episode Reviews

July 12, 2020: “The Train Demanded Blood”

In the first season’s penultimate episode, the revolution nearly ends before it begins. Melanie, who’s revealed as “Mr. Wilford” after lo these many years, is imprisoned and about to be executed. Nolan Grey is set to gas both the rebels and the innocent in the back part of the train. And the rebel leader Layton is given a choice: Give yourself up for execution, and the back end of the train will be saved; or keep fighting, and everyone will die. Layton’s inclined to keep fighting until he learns that a woman named Zarah is carrying his child.

The aftermath of the rebellion’s first push (which we hear killed at least 37 people) is pretty evident. Lots of the survivors are left bloodied, and some of the captured are being executed by the “lung of ice.” We see one suffer such a fate: A mask is strapped to the condemned man’s face and air from the outside is pumped in—freezing his lungs (and part of his face) in the process. A fracas takes place between several combatants, leaving many severely bloodied. (One nearly unconscious man seems to have had his nose broken.) Layton is beaten by vengeful security men. A man threatens (by way of hyperbole) to cut a boy “into little pieces and put you in the composting toilet.” Someone cuts open their hand or wrist—painfully and bloodily—to extract a device of some kind.

A man says he’ll pray for one of the condemned. Someone vomits. A couple kisses passionately as they plot their own train takeover. Characters say the s-word twice, the British profanity “bloody” twice, as well as using the word “h—” and the f-word stand-in “freaking.” God’s name is misused twice (once with the word “d–n”), and Jesus’ name is abused once.

[Spoiler Warning] Seven cars at the center of the train are decoupled from the rest and sent down another track, dooming all of those aboard to an icy death.

May 17, 2020: “First, the Weather Changed”

The Tail’s plans to take over several cars in Snowpiercer are derailed when one of the community’s leaders, Andre Layton, is called forward. He’s given a grilled cheese sandwich and some tomato soup—treasures he thought were long-distant memories—and learns that Mr. Wilford, the train’s mysterious creator, wants him to find out who murdered one of the passengers. But the revolt, while postponed momentarily, won’t be stopped. Other leaders, assuming that Andre has turned his back on them, argue for an attack.

The suicide of a Tailer becomes the catalyst. An elderly resident of the Tail hangs himself with an electrical cord on his birthday. Tailers attack the security team after it enters to remove the body. The frenetic, close-quarter battle leaves several people dead (one of whom had an arm literally ripped off by a strong Tailer, and whose hand was used to open another car door) and a host of others injured and bleeding. Andre is also viciously beaten when he seems reluctant to take the case.

In flashback, we see how Tailers came to board the train originally (despite not having tickets). They invaded the end of the train in, again, another bloody, vicious battle. People are clubbed and kicked repeatedly. Elsewhere, Andre inspects the corpse of a murder victim: the man’s nude (we see portions of the corpse briefly), and there’s a black spot/hole where his genitals should be.

Andre questions suspects in a section of the train essentially taken over by, in the words of the brakebman escorting Andre, “young people, living and screwing in groups. Bunch of freaks, if you ask me.” One was apparently a former lover of Andre’s, and she kisses her female lover goodbye (and simply says goodbye to her male lover) before being questioned. Back in the Tail, Andre’s current lover is propositioned/threatened by another male resident. The insinuation is that without Andre there to protect her, she needs to find a new lover/protector to keep her and her children safe.

A woman swims naked in what would seem to be an aquarium car. (We see her rear clearly, and most of the rest of her body as well.) Andre is given a shower, where we briefly see a part of his buttocks. A same-sex couple chats with officials in a posh dining car. There’s some banter about a “conjugal” visit. A doctor, who supervises a car wherein convicted criminals are kept in drawers asleep, creepily grooms a female inhabitant before hastily putting her away. (He admits to “taking special care” of a suspected female murderer.) A guest complains that “Europeans” are using the sauna naked and singing boisterous songs.

People utter Christian prayers—and one holds what appears to be a Rosary—before what they assume will be a big battle. Characters drink wine, beer and other alcoholic beverages. We hear at least five uses of the s-word, along with “h—,” “a–” and “d–n.” God’s and Jesus’ names are both abused a couple of times.

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Paul Asay

Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.

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