I hope at some point in Snowpiercer someone truly eats the rich. They all keep bellowing the phrase — and then complaining that the train’s orderly system needs to work so that they might eat, as if there isn’t a perfectly good group of entitled assholes just a few cars ahead that they can go all Alive on if need be. (Just needed to get this off my chest, and now I can proceed.)
Speaking of cars, well, letting a few go loose is the name of the game in this penultimate episode. After a season full of threats that the Tail would simply be uncoupled one day and left to glide to an icy halt, a set of middle cars are cut loose instead. How exactly do they do it? Well, the physics are a little unclear, even with Bennett and Melanie’s extremely unsubtle speeches meant to fill in the audience on how exactly they’re planning this feat. What we do know, however, is that Lilah and Robert Folger have been left to cling to one another on a slowing middle car, two more victims of their absolute nutter of a daughter, who now has a body count of four to her name. Maybe they will be eaten by the jackboots? A viewer can only dream.
Just as I’d hoped for last episode, Snowpiercer’s writing team didn’t turn back to more axe-to-hand combat in order to resolve the jackboots vs. Tailies battle. Instead, this jam-packed episode (with a truly astonishing repertoire of bad lines like “All quiet on the rebel front,” “The Tailie horde is at the gate,” and “I saved humanity, Audrey!”) did a few headfakes and then actually committed to launching its protagonists in new and intriguing directions.
The so-called “16 Hour War” boils down to which group can take power of the train now that Melanie’s been removed from her self-appointed position. On the side of money there’s the Folgers, who put $400 million into this machine and think that gives them the right to run it like the boardroom of Deutsche Bank. Then there’s Nolan Grey, an Irish Assad in the making who doesn’t mind gassing a bunch of civilians (sidenote: Aren’t they all civilians?) so long as it puts him on top, with his new little sidepiece Ruth there to put the sheen of professionalism on it. Oh, and to call for public executions.
Layton, whose character has been done a real disservice by the show’s writing, is waffling at the beginning of “The Train Demanded Blood.” He’s offered a choice: continue to wage a revolution against the train’s military power and risk complete decimation, or offer himself up as a sacrifice so the rest of his comrades can live. The right answer is obvious — there is absolutely no guarantee that Nolan will stick to his word and offer mercy to Tailies and third class, and Layton would be a fool to think otherwise. Except Zarah throws a baby-shaped wrench in his plans. The tadpole-size fetus she betrayed Josie for, she tells him, is actually his. One contraception-free rendezvous in the Night Car and now Layton is destined for fatherhood.
The problem with Layton’s character until now — made all the more irritating by the fact that the captivating and talented Daveed Diggs could have taken him anywhere — is that he falls too readily into the honorability trap. If there is a dumb, Ned Stark-ish choice to make between honor and something that will keep a bunch of people alive, he’ll pick the honorable thing, every single time. You’d think after the past decade of prestige TV, writers would find a way to add a little splash of complexity to these big brooding heroes, but nope!
That is, until the last minutes of this episode, when Layton needs to decide if he should decouple that middle section of the train that includes the third class and Tailie prisoners. Finally, he’s forced into a truly difficult decision. There’s no time to unlock every set of handcuffs and move the prisoners to safety without risking that the front and back section won’t be able to meet back up again. It’s the kind of choice, Melanie reminds him patronizingly, that leaders have to make. It’s the kind of choice, she not so subtly hints, that he hates her for making herself. Of course, Melanie is conflating a literal trolley problem in which Layton went the Utilitarian route with her own ghoulish amputation and murder practices, but you get the point! And finally, Layton loses a little of his shine.
Yet again, Snowpiercer is literally and figuratively held together by Melanie, even as she announces that she’ll give up leadership entirely once the rebels win the war. It’s actually a little astounding how much more interesting her storyline is than Layton’s, how much more breadth of character she’s afforded. (Daveed Diggs is halfway to an EGOT, dammit!) She starts this episode locked up with the rest of the rebels, passing her Wilford-embroidered hankie to a Tailie with a bloody head. Next she’s strapped in for execution, about to take a few long swallows of frigid air — death by “lung of ice.” And then, freed by an unlikely Javier, she’s off into the bowels of Snowpiercer’s ductwork, finally slipping off her high heels and Wilford costume mid-crawl, before she launches her body out of a greenhouse panel and then comes up with a plan to save humanity again.
It’s her decision-making that’s most fascinating, though. (Well, besides her French denim chore coat and shimmering inky hair. How does she know how to be so fashionably “working class” in a hurry? Does this new hairstyle foretell a looser new attitude? C’est magnifique, Mel!) Melanie doesn’t simply realize that she’s been a monster and immediately right her moral compass, even if that’s the way she presents herself to Audrey and Till. She makes the opportune choice to align with the group that has the greater claim to power and less desire to see her dead. She plays on the information that only she has about the train, and converts it to her advantage. Her altruism, however far-reaching, is tinged.
And in a final power play, she keeps it from Layton that he’ll need to make that decision to leave the prisoners handcuffed and watch them slide away as the cars uncouple. “You knew I’d have to cut them,” he says, practically in tears. Melanie remains sanguine: “I knew the choice would be yours. It’s what we live with.” Which leaves us to wonder if Layton really has the stomach to take control of Snowpiercer in the finale. Or if Melanie has him right where she wants him.
As for Ruth, whose fate is now uncertain, well, “biscotti biscotti biscotti.”