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—now 994 cars filled with society’s former elite and the downtrodden.

But while the world itself has chilled, humanity hasn’t changed. Stuff thousands of men and women in one train, no matter how long, and there’s bound to be trouble.

Polar Distress

Season One was dominated by a struggle between the train’s haves and have-nots. The “tailers” (the poor who lived for years in the train’s slum-like tail) won the first war, but just in time for a second. Wilford—who’d actually been tossed from the train years before by the indomitable Melanie Cavill and left to die—is back, having retrofitted an old supply train that has now anchored itself to the Snowpiercer. Wilford wants his train back in the worst way, and he’s willing to kill everyone not named Wilford to get it.

Oh, and it’s clear that he and Melanie have, shall we say, a history. He’s not just holding the train by the tail: He’s got Melanie’s teen daughter, Alex, in tow, too, teaching her how to be as ruthless as he is. And it’s possible—nay, likely—that Alex has some Wilford blood in her, too.

Back in warmer days, Andre Layton had been a cop, a homicide detective, in fact. These days, though, people just call him “sir.” As leader of the Snowpiercer now, it’s his job to keep the train running, everyone aboard fed and, of course, deal with the new fight on his hands. And while he led the first Snowpiercer war to hand power to the common man—and he still hopes to form a democracy—the train’s not in a position to hand power to the masses just yet. Desperate times call for desperate measures, as they say, and few times are more desperate than these.

But even as he talks about giving power to the people (eventually) he and his pregnant ex-girlfriend are finding out how Snowpiercer’s moneyed elite once lived. They say that power corrupts: Could luxury corrupt even more?

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 family drama, 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 multiple factions 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 was initially, in this age of prestige TV, relatively chilly. (Season Two has been treated to warmer reviews.)

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.

Episode Reviews

Jan. 25, 2021: “The Time of Two Engines”

Mr. Wilford has hooked his retrofitted supply train, Big Alice, to the tail of Snowpiercer in an effort to regain control. See, if either train stops for long, it’ll quickly freeze in place, with everyone inside freezing, too. Big Alice can act as an anchor: If Wilford doesn’t get his way, he’ll stop Snowpiercer, kill the passengers, take a few spins around the track and re-hook Big Alice to the 994-car train in due time. But Melanie (who wrested control of Snowpiercer from Wilford in the first place) and Layton (who leads Snowpiercer’s population) have ideas of their own.

Snowpiercer residents attack part of Big Alice (which has 40 cars itself). People are stabbed and hacked and shot with crossbow bolts, sometimes accompanied by little sprays of blood. Melanie, working on part of the stopped train from the outside, suffers frostbite when her protective suit rips. (The injury looks pretty gross, and doctors fiddle with the dead, sticky skin with tweezers.) People suffer from sudden cold (we see one man’s arm freeze and wither). A man dies in battle and falls on top of another combatant: We see the dead man’s blood drizzle over her.

A couple of guys jostle Zarah, Layton’s pregnant girlfriend. (And it’s subtly implied that the child’s patrimony is in question.) Ruth, Snowpiercer’s head of hospitality, whisks Layton and Zarah off to a plush luxury apartment on the train, noting that the previous owners committed suicide shortly before. We hear that Melanie’s parents died in the cold. As mentioned, Wilford plans to kill everyone aboard the Snowpiercer in order to get his train back.

Melanie suffers a disinfecting shower. (We see her from the shoulders up.) Train inhabitants trade fruit for a bag of marijuana: A man smokes a blunt—his first, he tells us, in seven years. (There’s also talk of negotiating for other drugs, too.) We learn that the Snowpiercer’s supply of morphine is all gone, but that the train manufactures its own aspirin.

Characters say the s-word seven times. We also hear “a–,” “h—” and the British profanity “bloody,” as well as seven misuses of God’s name. Someone makes an obscene gesture.

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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