All of life has been reduced to the inhabitants of a 1001 car long train that continually circles the earth where the outside temperature is -119° C. In TNT’s new drama series Snowpiercer, that train becomes a microcosm for society. The series is based on the 2013 Bong Joon Ho film (Bong is one of the Executive Producers) and a series of graphic novels starting with La Transperceneige by Jacques Lob, Jean-Marc Rochette, and Benjamin Lagrand. The stories of all these manifestations differ. What they all have in common is this train traveling through a post-apocalyptic frozen world. I’ve had a chance to watch the first five episodes of the first season. The series has already been renewed for a second season.
The TV series takes place seven years after the world was frozen by scientists seeking to end global warming. But it went terribly wrong. The prescient Mr. Wilfort designed and built this train to save some of the people—mostly the rich and those needed to take care of them.
As the series opens, seven years after the train set off, some of those in charge come to the Tail of the train, where the dregs of this society are housed, to find Andre Layton (Daveed Diggs), who is one of the leaders planning a revolt. He is also a former police detective. There has been a gruesome murder on the train. Although the regular order keepers (The Brakemen) on board don’t really trust anyone from the tail, they need his expertise. It is through the investigation of the murder that we discover this rolling world. And what we discover is a world that is full of the same injustices and inequalities of our own society.
There is a very rigid class structure on the train, which corresponds with the closeness to the front of the train. The engine is the realm of Mr. Wilfort, who is something of a benign god who is the supreme authority. With a touch of almost religious reverence, authority is sometimes said to come from “the eternal Engine”. People are told at one point that “the Engine will provide”. The engine’s decrees are mediated through Melanie Cavill (Jennifer Connelly), a sort of high priestess of the “faith” of Wilfort. She is the day to day hands on ruler of the train. (Although, [minor spoiler] by the end of the first episode we discover that Mr. Wilfort is a convenient fiction.)
Just behind the engine is the First Class area, where the people who had money to invest in the train live in the luxury, entitlement, and privilege they are used to. Think of them as the 1%. Next comes Second Class, the middle-class, white collar section of the train. This is life akin to the suburbs—comfortable but not luxurious. Third Class is the blue collar section of the train. Here is where all the workers who keep things going are housed. It’s a harder life here. They survive, but live in cramped quarters.
At the very rear is The Tail. These are people who forced their way on to the train without tickets. The rest of the train considers them freeloaders. They live in utter squalor. They have no windows, no privacy, and no rights. They are fed some gelatinous protein bars. And they want something better. As Layton moves uptrain, it seems almost a Dantesque ascension from hell to paradise (with a few glimpses of purgatory).
Because the story is told in all parts of the train, the series becomes a multilayered narrative with an large ensemble cast. In addition to the two main actors, Connelly and Diggs, look for Alison Wright as Ruth, a stick-up-her-butt assistant to Melanie; Mickey Sumner as Bess Till, a young brakeman who slowly warms to Layton and begins to sees him as a mentor; and Annalise Basso as LJ Folger, a First Class teenager who, well, spoilers should be avoided, but keep an eye on her.
The murder mystery is solved after a few episodes, but it lays the groundwork for the story of class struggle that is bound to erupt. Certainly the Tailies are being pushed to the point of insurrection. Layton had hoped to see enough of the train that he would be able to pass word back to the tail to aid in that insurrection. When the investigation is finished, however, he knows too much to be allowed to return to the Tail.
For those running the train, order is of the highest importance. This is not a democracy. It is more like a theocracy (but remember we know that the seemingly divine Wilfort is not what everyone thinks). In the film, this desire for order took on an almost Calvinistic sense of predestination. It is less so in the TV series. Still everyone has their assigned role and place in this society. But everyone wants more. The Tailies want access to the rest of the train. Those in Third Class want a voice. Even those in First Class are dissatisfied and are looking for their own advancement.
The injustice inherent in these class distinctions is especially evident in the episodes I’ve screened. Justice is shown to be subjective. The train has been set up as a trickle-down society. Each level has not only less comfort, but less influence. But even the one percenters don’t have control. They are also looking to get more, even though it seems they have all they could want. I expect, as I continue on in the series, to see this class struggle take on more and more importance. This inequality was also evident in the film, but was more centered on the Tail. In the series, this dissatisfaction is spread throughout the train. The revolution that seems to be coming will not have a single source, but will likely come from many sides.
You may have noted various somewhat religious references throughout this review. While this is not an overtly religious series, there are definite spiritual undertones. However, much of what sounds religious is in fact a façade to provide authority to those uptrain to maintain the social order as they see fit. That is not unlike the way some in our society confuse social structure with religion. But just because semi-religious authority is improperly used, doesn’t mean that the spiritual nature of the series is only about the misuse of religion. There are spots, even early on, that we see the spiritual side of come of the characters. This becomes most evident when we discover The Night Car—ostensibly a brothel, but in reality it provides something much deeper. This is at base a humanistic spirituality. It is in the way people relate to one another that brings out their spiritual natures. And it is those natures that will be essential to the unfolding story.
Snowpiercer airs on TNT beginning on May 17th, 2020.
Photos courtesy of Warner Media.