There’s been a decade-long battle raging on Harry Potter sites about how many kids could possibly attend Hogwarts. J.K. Rowling says the number is about a thousand, but close attention to the stories she wrote yields an entirely different result. The more likely result, when you factor in how many tween witches and wizards we actually meet or see in the castle’s classrooms, is less than 300. You’re probably wondering why nitpicking about Harry and his crew matters in the slightest, but the query has always struck me as quietly important. Can we trust a fantasy creator who builds a world and doesn’t work out all the minutiae? If the details are hazy and ill-formed the entire universe starts growing shakier (see: the disastrous decision to make transoceanic travel happen lickety-split in Game of Thrones).
We learn at the very end of this second Snowpiercer episode that there are about 3,000 people onboard the train, Tailies included. And, like Layton sketching out the train’s compartments on a strip of ripped shirt, we also start to compile a trove of other info about how it all works, info that needs to prove sound if this world is going to hold up. Third class seems to be the most populated (and honestly, the most fun — they have ramen). Pseudo-opioids are circulating through the train via covert blowjobs. The destruction of just one train car, in this case the slaughterhouse, can set off systematic fireworks that threaten to shut down food production entirely. If the train slows too precipitously, it stops putting out heat, which slows it down further, which ends up in a mass extinction event of what are probably the last remaining humans on Earth. Yeah.
But my big questions emerge from the way the Tailies are integrated into the train’s systems and production cycles. In the seven years Snowpiercer has been circling the globe (how did they lay the tracks, by the way?), the train’s hospitality crew and jackboots have developed procedures for using Tailies to their advantage, like deploying them as sanitation workers and recruiting their brightest kids as apprentices to learn vital trades like engineering or botany, while keeping them prisoners in a continual-motion gulag. The balancing act that Melanie is always going on about relies on keeping the cows alive, sure, but it also means that the Tailies must stay confined.
“You Tailies don’t have to do anything. Just sit around and don’t rebel,” Ruth tells them in her Aunt Norris voice. And in a way … she’s right. They’re allowed to suffer the same old indignities day in and day out as long as they meekly accept their fate as the scum of the train.
This episode is replete with cruelties the Wilford Co. sees fit to impose. First there is the method of amputation they’ve invented, where they coat a bare arm in water and then shove it through a specially designed hole in the train (World-building query: Was this hole already there? Or did they specially design it while the train was in motion?) to freeze the limb to oblivion. It’s a horrifying scene — Ruth’s complete callousness and willingness to conduct such torture on a small child are indicative of the dehumanization she’s grown accustomed to. “A good clean arm,” she tells Melanie later, “it shattered nicely.” This wasn’t Ruth’s first amputation. (Melanie doesn’t look quite as pleased, but then again, we see a glimpse of the photos in her locker, a baby pressed up against Melanie’s face — is she a mother?)
Then there are the three Tailie rebels headed into The Drawers, a sort of suspended animation designed to keep criminals in a state of limbo indefinitely. (This is essentially pirate law: “As stowaways you have no right to trial.”) It’s the ultimate prison sentence — it takes away not only one’s physical freedoms but also the ability to control one’s mind. And it’s also, we learn, not entirely scientifically sound. Nikki Genêt, the young woman who was accused and convicted of the train’s first murder, is coming out of her sleep, and her body systems are thrown out of whack and her arm has a gnarly looking injection site infection like something out of Requiem for a Dream.
Meanwhile two larger storylines play out and intersect across this episode. In the first, Snowpiercer heads into a rocky stretch of track and a series of avalanches. The option to slow down and hope to avoid triggering more snowfall gets tossed out — perpetual motion keeps the train heated and electrified, and first class guests content in their saunas.
In the second, Layton continues his investigation into Sean Wise’s murder and dismemberment. (“Are you ready to detect, detective?” Bess asks him in a line so cheesy that I can only hope it slipped in by accident.) He heads to third class to interview the engineer who found Sean’s body and then to the Night Car, a Babylon Berlin-esque club where the lonely and broken come to heal — or booze. Miss Audrey, the car’s doll-faced star, is the one who found Nikki with the first body. She claims Nikki was obviously high, too far gone to have committed the crime, most likely doped up on kronole, the train’s version of fentanyl — the same drug we see Breachman Ossweiler (the former midfielder with the Cockney-esque accent) pass to the Tailie whose mother’s arm was put through the ice hole in exchange for a wet one.
In a nice little twist of fate for him, Layton gets not only a glass of whiskey (give Daveed Diggs the Emmy for his work imbibing) but a little romp with his former fiancee Zarah (or perhaps wife, it’s still unclear) before she offers him a helpful tip. Sean, she says, must have been some kind of snitch for the powers that be. He was offered perks like their win in the baby lottery — reproduction is cut off in the Tail and highly controlled in the rest of the train it seems. “That usually means you have a friend uptrain.”
The autopsy offers up more clues: whoever cut off Sean Wise’s arms and legs used a different tool on them — something like a hacksaw — from what they used to relieve him of his genitals. Choke marks mean this person enjoyed watching him suffer.
Although Layton and Bess eventually find the missing limbs in a vent inside the freezer (why don’t movie villains ever screw those things back into place properly?), it appears that the butchering team had nothing to do with it, and even if they did, well, they turn into a pile of popsicles after a massive avalanche sends their tools flying, including a cattle prod that makes contact with the glass and shatters it entirely. (A world-building/physics question here: How is it that a massive avalanche potentially moving hundreds of miles an hour down a mountain doesn’t shatter the train’s glass, but this one poke from a metal instrument does?)
At stake, as always, is the precious balance that Melanie harps on. With the train’s entire herd of cows dead, they now lack the beef they consumed, the manure they used as fertilizer, the methane they converted into other organic chemicals and maybe used for heat or light. (I Googled methane, folks.) The other balance at risk, she knows, is Layton’s continued allegiance to the Tail. It’s unclear if Melanie knows about the train diagram he drew on a strip of T-shirt and dropped for the sanitation crew to pick up on their way back to the Tail. But what they both know is that Sean was a snitch, and that Wilford Co. is so determined to find his killer because they need to know what little tidbits he may have revealed under duress. It’s crucial to wisely distribute information, just like supplies.
But at the end the question that keeps me hangin’ on until next week is about that cannibal story Layton relayed. Does the Tail hold its own dark secrets? Or is this just tough-guy strategy? After this week’s ice amputation, I don’t know if I can also handle a flashback scene from Alive: Snowpiercer Edition.