Content warning for brief references to drug use and mental health issues, as well as for major spoilers for a truly strange television series.
Some of my favourite media to consume is the kind that absolutely baffles me. Much more than works of fiction that are simply, solidly good, there’s something I genuinely appreciate about experiencing something that mixes some stuff I like and some stuff I don’t in a confusing mélange. I think what can be much more interesting than simply enjoying something is having mixed feelings about whether I enjoy it or not; it keeps me a lot more engaged than if I was just passively entertained, and often leads down interesting thought processes as I wonder about what was going through the minds of the people who created it. So I really kind of like it when, if someone asks me upon finishing something “Was it good?”, my answer can honestly be I don’t know. Which means I was genuinely overjoyed to stumble across the bizarre TV show Snowpiercer, and I’d like to share some of what I found so strangely compelling about it with anyone who will listen.
Snowpiercer currently has two seasons of ten episodes each, with a third in production (and much like the Eternal Engine that powers the eponymous train, I hope it runs forever). It’s adapted from a French graphic novel called Le Transperceneige, which I haven’t read yet and can’t comment on, as well as Bong Joon-ho’s 2013 film Snowpiercer, with which it shares a general concept—the last vestiges of humanity struggling to survive an ice age on a perpetually moving train that forms a microcosm of the real world injustices and inequalities of capitalism—but differs wildly in the specifics of plot and characters. The movie is actually excellent—and that means it’s less interesting to me. I’m only here to talk about the TV show, which is goddamn insane.
Another thing you have to understand about me to put my specific emotional reaction to this show into context is that I love trains. Not in the way that some people are experts on the details of specific models of trains or anything like that, but I’m a general admirer of their aesthetic, and given the choice, I’ll take the train over any other method of transportation available. I’ve spent several days of my life on long trips on Canada’s VIA Rail and I have had a great time. They’ve got wi-fi and they bring around a snack cart. Who could ask for more? Additionally, one of the primary reasons I decided to watch Snowpiercer was because I needed something to do while self-isolating after possible exposure to COVID-19 (I turned out to be fine, though!), so while the show did its best to establish that this post-apocalyptic train society was a terrible and dystopian place to live, I was watching it with stars in my eyes, fantasizing about how great it would be to be quarantined on a cool train instead of in my stupid stationary house.
And the first season of Snowpiercer is fine, if a bit ridiculous and presumably unintentionally comic at times. It centers around the revolutionary aspirations of a group of people called “Tailies” who are forced to live in squalor in the back section of the train—“unticketed passengers” who forced their way on board when the rich tried to leave them to die in the cold, vaguely analogous to undocumented immigrants and led by a former homicide detective named Andre Layton. Layton (played by Daveed Diggs of Hamilton fame) gets the opportunity to make contacts in the train’s wealthier sections when the authorities demand his help solving a murder case, and by the end of the season, he’s managed a coup d’état with the help of a secret that sows mistrust and chaos among the privileged first-class passengers: the truth that Mr. Wilford, the beloved capitalist paternal figure whose alleged design and maintenance of the train was to credit for everyone’s survival, was never actually on board at all. His former right-hand woman Melanie Cavill (played by Jennifer Connelly, co-star of another one of my wonderfully weird media favourites), who’s been presenting herself as the voice of his authority this whole time, actually abandoned him on the train platform seven years ago and took power herself in all but name. As the season draws to a close, Layton and Cavill have made uneasy peace with each other, and are beginning to rebuild after the violent conflict that put Layton and the people of the Tail in charge. And then you find out that Mr. Wilford is still alive, on a secret train, and he’s back and out for blood. And this is when things get kicked into high gear, and the show transforms from something that’s just not too bad to binge-watch if you’re depressed into something that I expect will remain an enduring favourite of mine.
See, there’s a second reason I started watching Snowpiercer in the first place, and that’s the simple fact that Sean Bean is in it. I fell in love with his performance in the historical fiction series Sharpe recently, and I’ve been on a quest to consume everything else he’s in ever since. In addition to being an undeniably excellent actor, so many of his characters exude a particular brand of charisma that one can hardly help be enchanted by and furthermore okay okay maybe I just think he’s really hot. My point is, I’d watch absolutely anything if you told me Sean Bean was in it. I’d listen to Sean Bean read the phonebook. So my thought process throughout most of the first season of Snowpiercer—when it didn’t consist of only “Wow cool, trains”—was mostly to wonder where Sean Bean was, and who his character was going to be, and why I was watching this damn thing at all if he wasn’t to going to show up soon. And when he finally arrives as Mr. Wilford in the beginning of season two, I could not have been more overjoyed.
Even without the bonus of being portrayed by new favourite actor, Mr. Wilford is a character who feels tailor-made to suit my specific personal tastes in well-dressed melodramatic villains. This dude lives on a secret train. He’s been there for seven years while his former-colleagues-turned-enemies thought he was dead, just kicking back in fancy suits and fancy dressing gowns, taking relaxing baths and generally living what looks to me like an ideal life. Sure, he might not have enough food to feed the overworked crew of his secret train, but who cares, because he has more than enough weed! He’s seriously smoking a joint in like every other scene—just constantly high as hell on his secret train. He has a book club that he forces his downtrodden employees to participate in, and he gets offended if they don’t like the characters he obviously relates to. He’s hilarious and fantastic and I love him, and as if that wasn’t enough, his appearance spurs the entire show to get completely fucking insane.
Not that Snowpiercer was by any means entirely grounded and serious beforehand—season one had plenty of silly little details like frequent straight-faced descriptions of Layton as “The Train Detective” as he goes around solving train murders—but it seemed like it took itself seriously for the most part. And once you’ve suspended your disbelief about the general “Capitalism Express that never stops” concept, the characters and their relationships are relatively realist and believable. They’re just also kind of dumb. It’s just the kind of trash drama that your average watcher might find decently entertaining, but wouldn’t necessarily recommend to others. Season two, on the other hand, seems like the people involved decided to embrace how ridiculous it all was, and turn it up to 11.
Where season one focused on an oppressed group with understandable motivations to revolt on a huge train, season two almost becomes a surreal dark comedy in its depiction of a bizarre petty conflict between post-revolution huge train and Yorkshire’s Answer to Hannibal Lecter on the other, previously secret train. It features such elements as an eight-foot-tall space-marine-looking-motherfucker named Icy Bob, a terrifying puppet show in an eerie carnival on the train, and the song “Because I Got High” literally playing on the soundtrack as the people of Snowpiercer smoke all the weed they traded food with Wilford for. There’s a scene where Sean Bean absolutely euphorically consumes what I believe to be a mango that a woman is feeding him, which in any other circumstances I would take as an obvious sexual metaphor—but up until this point, Snowpiercer hasn’t had much in the way of recognizable metaphors outside of the very broad “the train is capitalism” idea. There’s never been another point where I watched a character doing something and understood that it was symbolic and not meant to be taken as what they were literally physically doing. There were normal sex scenes in season one. Either Snowpiercer suddenly decided to get a lot more avant garde a season and a half in, or it’s just a canon character detail that Mr. Wilford really gets off on eating fruit.
Netflix comes up with a content warning before some of the darkest episodes involving Wilford’s manipulation and abuse of everyone around him (which are also some absolutely chilling and fantastic scenes). If you’ve watched any other edgy shows on there, like 13 Reasons Why, you know what I’m talking about—the one that just vaguely urges you to go to some website or other if you’re suicidal. In the truly transcendent state of mind that concentrated consumption of this show had brought me to, it somehow struck me as utterly hilarious that a major corporation that shames its customers for sharing their passwords with their friends would have the gall to pretend to care about my mental health—do they really think I’ll give them the satisfaction of going to any website they tell me to go to? And how can they possibly imagine that the events of this show, which have foregone any grounding in reality in favour of constant baffling beauty, would ever upset me?
I don’t think Snowpiercer is a good show. I don’t really think any of my friends should watch it—they’re probably more entertained by my recaps than they would be by an actual episode. But I do love it with all of my heart, and I especially love Mr. Wilford. I’m an enthusiastic passenger on his train to the future of weird fucking media, and the Wilford train doesn’t fucking stop.