As Snowpiercer season 1 ends, recapping the main events and themes of Netflix's dystopian thriller

Season one of Snowpiercer, the Netflix adaptation of French graphic novel Le Transperceneige (which also served as the inspiration for Bong Joon-ho's 2013 film) came to a nail-biting close on Monday.

Rohini Nair July 15, 2020 12:38:24 IST
As Snowpiercer season 1 ends, recapping the main events and themes of Netflix's dystopian thriller

The following post contains spoilers for Snowpiercer season 1. Looking for a primer on the world of Snowpiercer before you watch the series?  Read this article.

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Season one of Snowpiercer, the Netflix adaptation of French graphic novel Le Transperceneige (which also served as the inspiration for Bong Joon-ho's 2013 film) came to a nail-biting close on Monday.

The premise of the graphic novel, film and the Netflix show is the same: an intervention meant to reverse climate change goes horribly wrong, causing an apocalyptic event known as The Freeze. As the world collapses around them, a lucky few manage to board a train designed by a man known simply as "Mr Wilford". The train, powered by its "Engine Eternal", must remain in perpetual motion to ensure the survival of its passengers, but this is no benevolent Noah's Ark. A ruthless class system is in practice: the first class lives in untold luxury while the "tailies" (the ticketless passengers who forced their way onto the train just as it was about to depart) are confined to cramped, dark quarters at the very end of the train, kept alive on small rations of a gelatinous protein bar.

"Order" is sacrosanct, as is Mr Wilford's name, and the Engine Eternal. Transgressions — especially by tailies revolting for some sort of social justice — are harshly punished: usually by the simple expedient of having the offender's arm stuck outside the train until it freezes in a few minutes and then shattering the icy appendage with a hammer. Sometimes, more than an arm is lost.

While Bong Joon-ho's film followed an uprising led by a tailie leader called Curtis (Chris Evans) and its unexpected end, the Snowpiercer series takes a different route. The tailie revolution is still an important part of the plot, but it ties in with other narrative threads to create a story with many more layers.

The narrative thread season one began with, was a murder mystery on board the Snowpiercer. With a sadistic serial killer at work, Melanie Cavell (Jennifer Connelly) — Snowpiercer's Head of Hospitality and Mr Wilford's second-in-command — seeks the help of Andre Layton (Daveed Diggs) a tailie who was a well-respected homicide detective in the time before The Freeze. Layton's investigation — the victims are mostly from the third class, and the prime suspect is from the first — serves as a device to highlight the class system on Snowpiercer and also how life aboard it functions.

As Snowpiercer season 1 ends recapping the main events and themes of Netflixs dystopian thriller

'These are our revolutions, 1,001 cars long' | Still from Snowpiercer | Netflix

Even as Layton gets busy solving the case (while ferreting away information and resources that could be of use in the next tail insurrection), other threads are being unravelled: a power struggle spearheaded by a few first class passengers and a couple of Melanie's disgruntled colleagues; an uprising in third class; plans for a revolution in the tail. Against these human intrigues is the fact that Snowpiercer itself could be headed for an extinction event — the mechanisms that sustain life on the train are exceedingly delicate; there's also little help for the mechanical wear and tear to the train itself.

Meanwhile, Layton uncovers two, larger mysteries: 1. He realises that there is no Mr Wilford on board the train; Melanie Cavill has been the one running Snowpiercer for the past seven years since their departure. 2. He finds out a little more about the mysterious "drawers" where convicted criminals and sundry condemned passengers are suspended in a deep coma-like sleep.

As all of these story arcs come to a head, Layton and Melanie are forced to form an unlikely alliance to survive. Spoiler alert: they "win" but their victory is short-lived as already, season 2's antagonist has been revealed. The long absent Mr Wilford (Sean Bean), whom Melanie presumed dead, catches up to them on a supply train.

Snowpiercer season 1 has evoked mixed reactions, and while it is (usually) unfavourably compared to the film, I preferred Netflix's take. To me, the characters essayed by Tilda Swinton (Mason; a composite of Melanie and her Hospitality colleague Ruth) and Ed Harris (Mr Wilford) were too caricaturish. The menace Swinton chanelled into her role as Mason was undeniable, but Connelly's Melanie is so much more. She rigorously enforces the class system on the train and will go to great lengths to preserve her secrets (including letting a depraved killer escape punishment, and torturing Layton's partner Josie). However, her decisions are guided by what she feels will optimise everyone's chances of survival — after all, she's in charge of the very last specimens of the human race.

As Snowpiercer season 1 ends recapping the main events and themes of Netflixs dystopian thriller

Still from Snowpiercer | Netflix

Apart from Melanie and Layton, the Snowpiercer series also turns the spotlight on other flawed but interesting characters — Bess Till (Mickey Summer), Miss Audrey (Lena Hall), Layton's ex Zarah (Sheila Vand), to name just a few.

By dint of its much longer runtime, the Netflix series is also able to delve into themes the film couldn't fully explore. There's the machine worship that you see in so many apocalyptic narratives — the survivors speak of the Engine Eternal in reverential tones, and of the train itself as a sacred entity. There's the Big Brother-like figure of Mr Wilford, the closest thing those on board Snowpiercer have to a god, if not the engine itself. The fact that for most of this season, this all-seeing, all-knowing deity is a myth propped up by Melanie makes for an even more interesting twist than if Mr Wilford was real (as in the film). There's an examination of how invested people are in upholding status quos — even when the world around them has shattered — especially if they're the ones benefiting from it.

Overarching it all of course is yet another glimpse of what society might look like after the collapse of civilisation: Not all that different despite some new trappings, Snowpiercer seems to say. It brings to mind a comment by Ruth, Melanie's colleague in hospitality; she disdainfully asks if the revolutionaries led by Layton think their "Utopian twaddle" will run the train now that they've gained control. Already, the chaos is beginning to spiral.

Ruth's remark draws attention to the opposition in which popular ideas about apocalypses find themselves. On the one hand is the philosophy that no real change or progress is possible without the destruction/complete annihilation of the old world order. On the other hand, we see the same old patterns being carried out even after the new order is established. Maybe it's a lack of vision or imagination. Maybe it also explains why narratives about rebuilding society after an apocalypse are overwhelmingly dystopian. Utopia, by its very definition, is a place that does not exist. But dystopia is real, and we're living in it.

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