Until now, Snowpiercer has been a rolling iron hotbed of seething class hostility, packed full of a late 18th-century revolutionary angst. It’s threatened to spill over — literally and figuratively — but instead of following its theatrical predecessor by allowing the slow, bloody march toward change to take over its plot, the show spinoff has hit the brakes time and again, like a giant vicious battle over human dignity isn’t something we’re all pretty damn into right now!
But finally, in “The Universe Is Indifferent,” seven episodes in (and seemingly at least two months in Snowpiercer-time), shit explodes. The Tailies don’t come storming through the doors (and now, if Josie truly is dead and her body is, and I’m gagging a little here, “composted,” that bracelet chip may be long gone), and the episode is, funnily enough, full of graphic horror without an ounce of blood. But it makes full use of the idea that Tailie bodies are disposable, infectable, destructible — that the cost of tossing off the yoke of oppression is usually a lot of revolutionary flesh. And, perhaps most importantly, Snowpiercer finally drops some consequences. Until now, the mighty arm of Wilford had rather flaccidly flexed its powers, which left the whole game feeling rather low stakes.
Also, Ruth wears a snakeskin dress to her lunch date!
Despite his starring role, Layton’s storyline keeps getting channeled off in less interesting directions, so although we see him finally priming for an uprising by sitting down with third-class leaders and trying to leverage their support, it’s about as intriguing as a PTA meeting. (I was briefly excited, however, that he is delivered from the doctor’s quarters in a rolling laundry basket, just as Little Orphan Annie is smuggled out of the orphanage in the world-class titular film.) Miss Audrey wants to keep things peaceful, and naively thinks a work stoppage will suddenly convince first class to send down surf and turf and invite people in to borrow their Van Goghs. Terence knows that sending in his crew of cutthroat janitors isn’t worth the risk — he’ll most likely sit on the sidelines and wait for a victor to emerge before throwing his lot in with anyone. “There will be blood,” Layton promises with an Upton Sinclair overtone, but the influential piece of info for the third-class leaders is that he has also learned that he’s “pulled back the curtain,” and Mr. Wilford isn’t behind it. (I remain skeptical that the show would blow its load on this idea so early.)
Whatever Layton and Josie’s plan may be, Miles is a critical piece of it, and just like Zarah’s unborn baby is later existentially dangled over the tracks, he’s no doubt a bit of youthful bait. Of course, it’s convenient that Miles happens to be a mathematical genius, something akin to Rick Moranis’s little girl in Parenthood, pointing out which array of dots is akin to the square root of 8,649. (It’s 93, btw.) This way, Melanie has an excuse to move him into the heart of Snowpiercer as an apprentice engineer, a place where he’s isolated entirely from Layton and Josie’s influence and subject to more than a little indoctrination. If Josie and Layton want to come and get him, they’ll need to travel all ten miles up to the front of the train, and most likely expose themselves in the process. But up front he can also wreak havoc for the Tail parents and, perhaps literally, open doors.
Like it’s Christmas morning in Little Women, Miles receives a delicate, envy-inspiring orange from his teacher as a parting gift. An orange injected with something puke-inducing to get him into the sick bay (is that just a Star Trek term?) and into contact with Josie, who whispers her plan to him in a voice too low for us to hear. The scene is smartly conceived, if slightly alarming, and teaches us that Snowpiercer’s passengers have about the same level of germ anxiety as any reasonable American does right now. “What do we do when a child is ill?” the teacher calls out in a sing-sing voice. Their “put on a mask” is our “stop, drop, and roll.”
The triumvirate of Melanie, Josie, and Zarah — along with the fomented rebellion in first-class and poor Ruth’s fake date — offers the most thrills of the second half of this wonderfully nuts episode. Admittedly, the choice Melanie implicitly offers Zarah isn’t a great one: turn over Layton or we’ll forcibly kill your fetus. And Zarah, for all her love for Layton, has always been a weak link, ready to move to third-class and forsake the Tail as soon as the opportunity arose. But the bait-and-switch — we think Zarah is being marched back to the Tail as a demotion, and then she points out Josie to the jackboots — is expertly done, and the comparison between her immediate caving and Josie’s later heroics is stark.
And holy shit, Josie’s heroics. Josie’s character has quietly chugged along — Layton’s sidekick with the charming accent who held down the fort in the Tail in his absence. But her refusal to work with Melanie in any way is absolutely William Wallace-esque. “I know there’s no Wilford,” she says as she sits with her hands chained to the table, “and I know you put Layton in a drawer because he figured that out so I know you won’t let me go, no matter what you’re about to promise.” Unlike Terence, who flinched earlier when Melanie threatened his arm, or Zarah, who caves immediately when threatened, Josie holds the line, even when her actual flesh is shriveling and flaking off under the stinging cold of Melanie’s spraytube and then shattering to pieces under her hammer. And then, in a move so unexpected I screamed “What the fuck?” out loud and roused my husband from sleep, Josie cold blasts the rest of her own hand AND SNAPS IT OFF TO FREE HERSELF AND FIGHT MELANIE.
I couldn’t catch my breath. I made a whole evening of this moment. And ultimately, even though Melanie slips out of the room and leaves Josie to die in the escaping cold air, Josie won the moment. Melanie’s puke — in a nice symmetrical nod to Miles’ earlier sickness — signifies that she finally had to do the dirty work herself. She’s entirely isolated from her staff. By brushing off Ruth, who came running to inform Melanie of the first-class insurgency she’d been tapped to lead, Wilford’s, ahem, right-hand woman is trapped between two fed-up forces who each hold her accountable for the collapse of the social order.
So is Josie dead? Never buy an offscreen death without a body. But sincerely, I hope she is. The consequences of her state-sanctioned murder prove Snowpiercer isn’t afraid to strip off its main characters’ plot armor. And grief gives Layton, dressed like the grim reaper and sowing discord with his revelations to LJ Fowler, something worth dying for.