I’d like to know Melanie Cavill’s backstory, stat.
Here’s all the info we have on her: She’s top-tier-educated — Yale Engineering and MIT. Judging by the photos taped up inside her closet, we think she once had a daughter. She worked closely with the real Mr. Wilford. And now, after watching “Trouble Comes Sideways,” we know that she designed Snowpiercer (though it’s hard to believe she did so all by herself). Melanie is no mere elevated hostess. Just as she was about to dangle her spacesuited body beneath the speeding train, she explained why she wasn’t sending a different engineer (perhaps one with longer arms) to do the job. “I designed her,” she says, like a grizzled old seaman about to head into a seawater-filled hull, “I’ll fix her.”
Of course, Snowpiercer is dripping out dribs and drabs about the smooth-voiced head of hospitality on purpose. Her past is a purposely locked vault; open it too much and the whole story of Snowpiercer’s creation comes steaming out. But this episode asks us to consider where Melanie falls in a very particular post-apocalyptic version of the trolley problem. Instead of potential victims tied up on the tracks ahead, they’re inside the trolley itself, and Melanie gets to decide who is tossed off so that others might live.
Snowpiercer’s class system should look pretty familiar. It’s just … the way the world currently works, but condensed, and clickety-clacking down some tracks. First-class sits on the piles of money they’ve already earned (or inherited, or stolen, what fun to guess!), clad in silk blouses, and isolated from any disturbances. Second-class has some fluidity to it, but it sits uneasily between two extremes, hoping to blend in more with its uptrain acquaintances than the unlucky downtrain bastards; its jobs are safe and driven by passion, like Jinju swimming like a mermaid to select fresh mollusks in a wonderland aquarium. Third-class is the blue-collar masses who keep the system running but benefit very little from it; they’re the janitors and paper-makers and food servers. They’re shuttled all around the train, wherever they’re needed, and their lives are monitored like they’re cattle in a breeding barn — you only have a baby if you win the lottery. Then, of course, there’s the Tail, the 400 people locked so far down on the foodchain that their only glimpse of the world around them is projected through a tiny hole on the ceiling. The sight of mountains, of freedom, is so unlikely that one child checks behind the sheet that holds the moving images, unsure where it came from.
But on Snowpiercer upheaval is (supposed to be) the great leveler, and “Trouble Comes Sideways” has two near-disasters to choose from.
The first is the potential third-class work stoppage, scheduled for 6 p.m. that evening. Labor is the only capital that third class really possesses. Without them, toilets will back up and fancy tummies will go hungry. So after Mr. Wilford fluttered in like a particularly ill-conceived deus ex machina at LJ Fowler’s trial, they want to make a point to their overlords: without us, this train becomes a rolling nightmare.
Jinju, a woman blessed with the time and headspace to meditate, can’t see the point in such chaos, “They’d suffer along with the rest of us, they’re putting the gun to their own head.” But Melanie, who is walking a teeter totter between the two ends of the train, sees brute force as her only tool. Better, she thinks, to keep the Thirdies in their place with some baton beatings and some bombastic threats than to allow one peaceful protest. So she tells third-class that if they should proceed with their strike, Mr. Wilford will select 10 passengers at random and swap them with Tailies. As we know, it’s an all-too-common tactic: apply as much top-down, violent pressure as possible. It also, of course, usually implodes in the oppressors’ faces.
The other disaster is Snowpiercer’s electrical short, which quickly turns into a potential extinction-level event for every passenger on board. The mechanics are a little hazy (purposely, I think, since to drift too far into the exact engine issues plaguing the train would both bore the pants off viewers and require TV writers to develop the engineering bona fides to design a continuous revolution machine, or because I was literature major). It’s distilled down to this: Some ectoplasm goo leaks from a box and drips onto wiring. That’s bad! It then shorts out an engine, or something, and when the engineers and strongman Breachman Boscovic attempt to replace it the train swings wildly and an important plug-a-whozit falls out of its plug hole. Only Melanie, apparently, can fix it. And she’s on borrowed time. In order to make its way out of an approaching valley, Snowpiercer needs to maintain a top speed. It also needs to slow down so that Melanie has a chance of repairing it. You can see the paradox here.
Melanie is held up in the subtrain by Layton, still woozy from the effects of imprisonment in the drawers. (How long was he in there? A day? A week? Unclear.) Along with Josie and Dr. Pelton, he thinks he’s pieced together the roots of a nefarious plan. Snowpiercer, the doctor has revealed, has 11 more cars full of drawers, a “little North Korea tucked away in second class.” Why? “Mass incarceration, human experiments, extrajudicial imprisonment” — or a grab bag of all three, nobody really knows. What’s more, Pelton has nabbed some of the train’s personnel files and has noted that her own file, along with Layton and Josie’s, are all marked with a very suspicious “X.” They assume that deems them enemies of the state.
Threatened with a scalpel, Melanie declares that this isn’t true, that “the drawers aren’t a prison, they’re a lifeboat.” Snowpiercer, she explains, is barely hanging on; she’s chosen 400 people, “for diversity, for health, for skills,” and wants to place them in the drawers to ride out the freeze and keep humanity going in case that eternal engine cannot provide. But she’s careened up and down the moral spectrum for the past six episodes. What’s to say this is the truth? That Mr. Wilford is either hiding in a closet or never boarded a train? That Layton’s suspension in a fugue state wasn’t retributive and preservative at once? The central question of where power lies — and what motivates it — remains opaque.
The near-derailment does offer all of Snowpiercer’s passengers a moment of terrified unity. Till and Oz momentarily hold hands. Ruth, of all people, offers a teary, Churchill-esque speech: “This is Snowpiercer, dammit … We are going to make it, I just know it.” And third-class bellows out their love for the engineers in the aftermath, momentarily seeming to forget that they’re at war — an unlikely, and perhaps even insulting, take on the demands of the oppressed.
But there are bubbles of hope that nod up to the surface. Zarah is pregnant. Miles, though he may be co-opted by Wilford Industries and their sign-of-the-cross-like militancy, is the math genius that Layton always suspected. And Layton, well, he gets laid. Again. This post-apocalypse isn’t going so badly for everyone.