Show Review – Snowpiercer (Season 1 & 2)

Right, so… Snowpiercer. I have a sort of love-hate relationship with this show. On the one hand, it has an interesting premise, solid set design, and a great sense of atmosphere. On the other hand… it misses a lot of its potential, the character writing is not-so-great, and the plot has directional problems. I’ve been wanting to bring it up again for a while, and with the second season now concluded and a third confirmed, I figure that now’s a good a time as any. Now, I’d like to do a proper review of Snowpiercer, the 2020 version.

This isn’t the first time I’ve talked about this show, and it probably won’t be the last. About eight months ago, I brought it up as an example in an article regarding the suspension of disbelief. If you’re interested, I’ll leave a link to it at the end. Either way, it’s not required reading material. Anyways, Snowpiercer, aka Le Transperceneige, was first published as a French graphic novel in 1982. There have been 2 adaptations of the source material thus far: a movie version in 2013, and the modern episodic version.

Season 1 Poster

Whichever version it is, the core premise remains the same: In our efforts to reverse climate change, we accidentally went too far the other way, turning the Earth into an uninhabitable snowball. Now, the last human survivors are packed onboard Snowpiercer, a train 1001 cars long.

Season 2 Poster

Snowpiercer, aka the “Eternal Engine,” was built with a perpetual motion engine. As such, it never needs to stop for fuel or maintenance. It generates its own power and heat, grows its own produce, and is decked out with all the amenities you could possibly ask for. The train’s original purpose was to serve as a cruise attraction for the rich and powerful, a mechanical marvel designed by the illustrious Wilford Industries, with tracks that circumnavigate the entire globe. Now, it’s the last bastion of modern civilization, retro-fitted to be able to withstand the deadly cold.

And so humanity’s still alive… for now…. but everything has its limits. Seven years of non-stop operation will put a heavy toll on any machine, even one as powerful and self-sufficient as the Eternal Engine… and if Snowpiercer dies, everything dies with it.

Of course, we as humans also have breaking points. If the you-know-what’s taught us anything over the past year, it’s that we don’t tend to do well under the pressure of mandatory confinement.

Hmmmm… Wilford Industries owns WordPress confirmed? But hey, that’s just a theor-

To avoid confusion, from this point on, I’m only going to be referring to the 2020 version. One area that Snowpiercer does really well in is setting up the stakes. You can just feel how volatile the atmosphere is, and how everything could come crashing down in an instant. Hope for the future is almost non-existent at the front of the train, and the only thing keeping the back-end passengers going at this point is sheer survival instinct. It is this which drives the central conflict of the first season, the Tail’s revolution.

Looking at this show from a different angle, Snowpiercer represents a microcosm of human society… or at least what’s left of it. See, the train’s divided between 1st Class (guests of honor), 2nd Class (skilled laborers), 3rd Class (unskilled laborers), and the Tail (last-minute stowaways). The further down-train you go, the worse the living conditions become. Even in our last hours, we still find ways to divide ourselves. However, the Tail has a dream: one train, one people. If they can take down the man up front, they can establish a more fair system of governance, free from the tyranny of Mr. Wilford and his old-world order.

That brings us to the inciting incident. Down-train, a man by the name of Andre Layton is helping to plan their revolution. The problem is, they have no intel, no inside man…

Unbeknownst to them, a serial killer is loose up-train. The Brakemen (main security force) have no leads… but they do learn of a former homicide investigator living among the Tailies… a man by the name of Andre Layton.

Thus, he’s dragged up-train to help in the investigation, by the orders of ‘Voice of the Train’ Melanie Cavill. The lines between classes start to blur, the cracks of society deepen, and Layton uncovers a deeper conspiracy… what’s up with Mr. Wilford? To avoid spoiling the mystery element of the show, I’m just gonna leave it at that.

I love the set designs. You wouldn’t think you could get much variety from a train in a frozen wasteland, but you’d be surprised. There’s the Engine Room, of course, which is neat and tidy. The Night Car, a multi-purpose location, is bustling with color and activity. The Tail end is cramped and bare-bones, as it was never meant to be inhabited. Wilford’s living quarters are appropriately regal, as is befitting a man of his status. The train even has an aquarium car/sushi bar near the front, because his tastes are just that extravagant. The show makes effective use of its 1001 cars to create a diverse interior ecosystem. The outside world is pretty cool as well, with everything buried under deep snow and ice.

In some areas, Snowpiercer is really good… but the series also suffers from a lot of problems. I can overlook the logistical issues, so long as the suspension of disbelief remains intact. I can look past certain character absences in the second season. Benefit of the doubt, maybe travel restrictions got in the way, I won’t fault the producers for that. I’ll even forgive a few unnecessarily ‘romantic’ scenes, as much as I despise those. They’re at least skippable, and it’s a gritty show by nature, so it gets a bit more slack for that.

If that were all it was, I’d give this show a generous Rank III… but Snowpiercer has a far more serious problem weighing it down: focus, or the lack thereof. It’s trying to do too much at the same time. There are too many characters competing for screen time, too many sub-plots happening simultaneously, too many individual conflicts and group themes squeezed into the same time slot.

The show is riveting, when it does manage to focus. Trouble Comes Sideways and Many Miles From Snowpiercer, the show’s 6th and 16th episodes, both shine in my mind despite them being polar opposites in every way. I could probably write an entire article just comparing them and why they both work so well… but that’s a prompt for another day. Long article short: the former has a key uniting theme, while the latter cuts away all unnecessary elements. I will say that Season 1’s story was overall more cohesive, while Season 2’s character dynamics were more interesting… but if Snowpiercer wants a promotion to Rank III, it needs to resolve its internal conflicts of focus.

And on that note, I’m going to start wrapping this up. One final thing: Daveed Diggs is good as Andre Layton, Jennifer Connelly plays a great Melanie Cavill, and I couldn’t have imagined a better casting choice for Mr. Wilford than Sean Bean.

This show is never going to be a masterpiece… but it frustrates me, because I know that it has the potential to be better. I really hope that the third season will be able to sort itself out (oof, that comment didn’t age well…), because the concept deserves better than a Stage III rating.

In Need of Repair