We always knew this was coming, that Melanie and the first-class hoarders wouldn’t simply sit down at the bargaining table with the Tail and announce a full menu of benefits and opportunities now available to their downtrain brethren. Crème brûlée for dessert every night! Down comforters on Hästens mattresses with Frette sheets! Appointments to sweat out the toxins in that long fought-over sauna! Ha. It’s a lovely fantasy that the superrich might ever yield their stuff, let alone their power. But usually, shit has to get bloody for the oppressors to finally give up — or, you know, get dead. (See: all of human history.)
With that said, “These Are His Revolutions” is bloodier than I’d imagined it, mostly because Snowpiercer cobbles together a montage of some notorious violent film references and packages them up into a nice little pastiche. There’s the Game of Thrones-like scorpion assembled in the subtrain to keep Nolan’s forces from moving forward. The Braveheart-blue facepaint Layton and his comrades don to duke it out with the jackboots in the Night Car. The head in a box à la Brad Pitt’s unfortunate delivery at the end of Se7en. Then there’s the array of other movie and TV battle stalwarts, like the slowed-down combat scene, or the slaughter of a young innocent as his commander looks on in horror.
Other moments feel like echoes of what we’ve seen on TV lately, but there’s no delight in noticing the familiarity. When the phalanx of jackboot shields tightened up, it could have been a scene shot last month on a protestor’s iPhone as she marched against police brutality and was met with … even more police brutality. As the tear gas rained down in the Night Car, all I could see was the scene 1.5 miles from my house, at Lafayette Square in front of the White House, where the American military used weapons banned in war to move some protestors out of the way for a photo op. Beneath the camp, Snowpiercer is undoubtedly one of the most overtly political shows in recent years, though I doubt during its creation that the showrunners knew how neatly it would align with the history of the summer of 2020.
The episode is heavily plotted — sometimes overly so — with feints and distractions galore, all attempts by the Tail to meet the jackboots in the middle of the train and avoid a lengthy ten-mile battle to get to the engine. (It would take all those folks at least an hour and a half just to walk from the last car to the midway point.) And still, the Tailies and their new third-class compatriots only get halfway up-train before losses grow too heavy, and everyone calls it a night. There is surely more to come next episode.
The engine is under assault from virtually every passenger onboard, just as Layton hoped. He passed his inside info to LJ, banking on the fact that she’d gleefully spread the news; she’s grown into quite the little anarchist (with a newly goth aesthetic). First-class, who paid for their seats on the Ice Hell Express, thank you very much, are furious that they may have had one pulled over on them, that the godly Mr. Wilford they’ve been worshipping from afar and trusting with their diamond-crusted lives might not have been quietly toiling away in the engine room for six straight years. And they want access to that engine, to run the train and therefore run the train.
So it’s off to the hospitality suite with Melanie, the same place she chained up Josie and left her body for the compost heap. Fitting, it seems, except Melanie’s story about Mr. Wilford offers another facet to her character, which is already a flashing Rubik’s cube of different colors and patterns. By her account, which is offered to Ruth in one of the series’ most affecting and well-acted scenes so far, Wilford had to go. He was an empty suit, a ball of money with no integrity or genius inside it. She built the train. (We know this to be true by her under-carriage heroics a few episodes back, and no that’s not a sex joke!) She’s kept the order for six long years. She’s sacrificed every smidgen of her emotional life — including her daughter and parents — to keep humanity going. Ruth, who has long lionized Wilford as her rescuer and hero, and who laments in her voiceover at the beginning that “one day I know I’ll see Mr. Wilford again,” can’t handle the identity crisis this knowledge provokes. If there’s no Mr. Wilford, she must wonder, does that mean she’s been serving in vain all the time? Is survival possible? Melanie’s scheduled execution the next day is a sign of how quickly the tables turn in an autocracy. One day you’re putting people on the chopping black, and the next it’s your head awaiting the icy ax.
Melanie’s speech about Wilford’s destructive tendencies, her insistence that he would have run the train into the ground, and her disgust that “he sold tickets,” offer a snippet of a Melanie who is far more sympathetic to Layton’s cause than we might have previously imagined. Her ideology is order and balance. She couldn’t see a way towards that if the Tail was freed from their sunless prison. But we’re meant to see her as far more complicated than a simple villain. While Layton has, unfortunately, shed some complexity as the season has progressed and morphed into a two-dimensional rebel, Melanie has grown new edges.
But Layton is now up against Nolan, a paragon of brute force and nothing else. When all you have is an ax, everything looks like it ought to be chopped down. The plan to fight their way through the train is relatively simple, though a ton of flashes and diverted characters (including Miss Audrey in her Babylon Berlin cosplay attire) attend to different tasks. Till brings Layton through the train to the Tail. Lights and Walter blow communications. (Why did two people need to cut some wires?) John and crew head to the subtrain. Audrey leads the last Aussie (whose real name is Murray!) to Dr. Klimpt to wake up the three Tailies put in drawers at the last insurrections.
While the effort is there in the big battle scene, it doesn’t quite deliver. Cutting it in half creates lag, and the dimensions of it all just don’t work out. Are they fighting for total annihilation? To make it to the next door? Until one of their leaders falls? Layton is a schemer and a smooth-talker, a revolutionary leader, but not a battle commander.
For all its promise that the revolution will involve plenty of blood, Snowpiercer should abandon the ferocious murderousness of its film predecessor. This particular version of an apocalyptic socialist agenda is best served by the kinds of twists and allegiance switches that come at the very end of “These Are His Revolutions,” when the three Tailies all emerge from the drawers. One, Strong Boy, is suddenly spouting Mandarin, which would already be strange, but is doubly so when we’re reminded that before the Drawers he didn’t speak at all. Another, Pike, has taken Layton’s place as a devourer of gourmet first-class cuisine. But unlike his old pal, Pike seems ready to flip on his friends for just a little more chocolate mousse.