We still don’t know exactly what’s happened to Mr. Wilford. (I am, however, patting myself vigorously on the back for refusing this whole time to believe that he was dead.) To lay it all out, the people of Snowpiercer were told for over six years that he had locked himself up in the engine, working all day and night to keep the train moving and humanity alive. Only Melanie and the engineers were, they said, privy to his whereabouts, occasionally calling him with passengers’ queries and problems and passing along the mighty Mr. Wilford’s instructions. But as Layton figured out in the course of the Sean Wise murder investigation, Mr. Wilford wasn’t hiding himself away, he was gone, and Melanie (with the cooperation of Bennett and Javier) had been ruling in his stead for six years. She admitted to Ruth that she’d left him by the side of the train — where the cold was sure to kill him — six years ago, because he’d nearly destroyed Snowpiercer with his ineptitude and ego. But how did he survive? And make his way to a second train?
Now, suddenly, there’s a chance that he’s been steering a supply train around the globe — a vengeful maniac bent on destruction, or a savior come bearing gifts of bovine cultures, a genetics lab, and new engine parts? Either way, Layton warns those standing in the Tail as it’s blowtorched open, “Wilford was only ever a man. Do not build him up in your minds into something he isn’t.” Under her breath, Ruth adds, “A great man.”
The ideology of Snowpiercer was of blind devotion to one man: the wondrous Wilford, who built the Engine Eternal and inspired schoolchildren to sing songs of devotion as they crossed themselves with the Sign of the W. Even if he was a subpar leader and a grubbing opportunist, Mr. Wilford did one thing right. He created a set of alluring rituals for a group of desperate, confused humans — the last people alive on Earth — and gave them an idol to put their faith in as they aimlessly circled the globe. Branding, it turns out, will get you everywhere.
Snowpiercer has spent its first season dismantling the cult of Wilford. Most of his successes, we learn, are actually Melanie’s. She built the train. She maintained order. She saved humanity, dammit. Now, just as she’s stepped back from leadership and ceded to the demands of the revolution, he’s back. As Ruth chirps delightedly out the window, it has to be Mr. Wilford steering that second train, for who else but that great man could effectively rise from the dead, commandeer another locomotive, and catch up with Snowpiercer just as it sailed through Chicago and began a whole new revolution?
This puts both Layton and Melanie in precarious positions. As the de facto leader of the train “until a constitution can be drafted for an elected government,” Layton has just — as in, like, 24 hours earlier — violently overthrown the yoke of oppression and the system that Wilford himself organized and endorsed. Looters have been moving through the train — commandeering lettuce carts and taking over first-class quarters for rather sparsely attended get-togethers — and the various aggrieved parties are engaged in a ferocious conflict over whether they are destroying the carefully tended balance of Snowpiercer’s systems, or simply taking what’s due to them after seven years of inhumane treatment. Layton doesn’t exactly have the chops to handle it; Wilford could easily swoop in now and remind passengers that on his watch unsightly messes were kept tucked away in the Tail. That’s how a heavily biased meritocracy works, anyway. The rich neighborhoods are swept clean and tended by loving gardeners, while the less fortunate are left with the muck.
For Melanie, Wilford’s arrival (again, if it’s really him) could mean a battle royale with her former employer and foe. After all, she did toss him into the snow and speed off, leaving him to die in the negative 100-degree cold. (In a good bit of self-referentiality, Melanie ends this season in that same exact place.)
But the nexus of Melanie’s emotional evolution really has nothing to do with him, and everything to do with the daughter she thinks she left for dead in the Chicago cold. Until now Melanie had resisted the Night Car’s pseudo-hypnotic-cum-theraputic sensory overload experience on purpose, unwilling or unable to access the flood of guilt she felt over devoting herself to the train and not to ensuring her daughter Alexandra’s safety on it. In a series that sometimes doesn’t know if it’s being intentionally campy or not, Jennifer Connelly’s performance has been steadily tremendous and artful, and “994 Cars Long” adds even further heft.
We’ve been fed details about Melanie’s daughter piecemeal until now, when she finally allows Miss Audrey to reach into her memory and wiggle loose the deepest images down there. Unsurprisingly, they are of Alexandra, still so young in her mind, the child who she thinks she abandoned, who was meant to arrive at Snowpiercer with Melanie’s parents but never made it.
From there the episode speeds up (ahem), with Javier’s discovery that the music he’s hearing through radio isn’t coming from a HAM, but some point “out there” in Chicago, and then the sight of Big Alice (the supply train) barreling through the snow on the track next to them. Snowpiercer tends to jam an outlandish amount of action into small bits of time, but in this case it works. With Melanie’s hope to outrun the train foiled, she tries to take it upon herself to cut the uplink feed between the two trains and take away Big Alice’s ability to control Snowpiercer. Sure, the physics of it appear impossible — how could she stand, let alone walk into the wind on a train speeding that fast? — but the idea works. In what must be the polar opposite of one of those James Bond train-top fight scenes, Melanie has to venture out into a world so unforgiving that it’s essentially a space walk on Earth, and shut down the last connection between her and Wilford. She’s prevented by one thing nobody expected, because it so imminently leads to death: a complete stop of both trains just underneath the dead, looming towers of Chicago.
Meanwhile, one of the show’s best exchanges takes place inside, as Ruth’s ideology comes crashing into Layton’s. He’s headed to greet Wilford with a war party, and she practically has a lei in her hand and a cocktail with a tiny umbrella for him. Ruth’s indignation (played off so superbly by Alison Wright) is a wonder to behold. She’s a woman who follows protocol, dammit, and she will not be dissuaded from it by any emergency, no matter the size, scope, or potential for human annihilation. “Teal,” she practically screeches, “is the color of diplomacy!” Rather than continue the fight with a gun-wielding concierge, Layton relents, throwing her off her game, and asks her to greet Big Alice’s emissary with him. “I’m a dignitary,” she insists. “Yeah I feel that,” Layton offers.
But who is this emissary? Not the man behind the curtain himself, but someone Melanie Cavill might be far more interested in seeing during the 13 minutes in which Snowpiercer must agree to a peace treaty. It’s Alexandra (Rowan Blanchard) and she has one important question: “Where is my mother?”
Well, she’s out in the snow.