Developer: Josh Friedman and Graeme Manson
Cast: Jennifer Connelly, Daveed Diggs, Mickey Sumner, Alison Wright, Iddo Goldberg, Susan Park, Katie McGuinness, Sam Otto, Sheila Vand
Producer: Jiwon Park, Alissa Bachner, Mackenzie Donaldson, Holly Redford
Streaming Platform: Netflix
There was something both hopeful and fatalistic about Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer, a post-apocalyptic dystopian film where the last surviving humans are on a train running around the grey frozen world, cabins mapping to classes. While the class-war inevitably frayed and imploded, the last shot of the film, that of a polar bear’s surviving gaze gave hope that human life will survive its own carnage. Netflix adapted the idea, which itself was birthed from the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige, into a 10 part series, radically rethinking the message. Here, the sense of hope must come from the class-war. In Joon-ho’s film, the Earth was slowly warming, the felt snow became lighter and retreated from the objects it was coating. Here, there is no such hope. The world is as frozen as it was as it will remain. Any hope must be mined from within the cabins. Therefore, the class-war that will ensue must then become a moment of not just recognizing injustice, but also solving it.
The police and the military serve the state. If the state is violent, so will these institutions be, and so they are.
The broad set-up is the same. Due to human activities, the Earth first balloons in heat, and the scientists, in their attempt to reverse this, end up propelling the ice-age. Wilford Industries has built a train, stocked up, self-sufficient, that will go around the world till it is warmer for human habitation. In attempting to ration out compartments they leave out the poor who then rush in, breaking barricades, unticketed, and are thus condemned to the last car of the 10001-car train, the tailies. (The conceit is clever: when the word revolution is used, you have to wonder for a second if they mean the revolution of the train around the Earth, or the revolution of the lower class against the gold-crusted.)
Jennifer Connelly plays Melanie Cavill, the MIT engineer who is the only one who has the ear of the mysterious Mr.Wilford who no one has seen since departure. She has to be one of the most complex characters written, for she makes you feel both anger towards her and sympathy for her, often in the same breath. She desires both order and humanity, but understands one must come at the cost of the other, and is willing to pay that price. Her eyes that arch towards the sharp corneas, her forehead vein, her glazed eyes that don’t leak…it’s all so arresting. Everytime Connelly is on screen, you cannot take your eyes off her. She freezes the hands of an accused (for insurrection) and smashes the frost-bitten arm with a hammer- the punishment on the train meted out towards people who threaten the order (class distinctions)- with ruthless ease, only to shove her head into the toilet bowl puking her guts out. Her cruelty is her coping mechanism, not her default mode.
The fine shades of grey however seem to be the most interesting. The idealism, on the other hand, feels too staged, and the convictions too performative. Perhaps this wasn’t the intent of the show.
There is an urgency for a class-based intervention here. On the train, there are of course the first-class passengers, entitled and elite, (there’s a brilliant subplot involving one of the first-class children- as a child she forked out her father’s eye, but even then, with gelly dripping down his cheeks, he did not chastise her.) protected by the Brakemen (police) and the Jackboots (military). The police and the military serve the state. If the state is violent, so will these institutions be, and so they are.
Leyton’s black-ness adds a wonderful texture of class and race based inequality here. It makes the impending war much more urgent.
In comes Andre Leyton (Daveed Diggs), a member from the tail-class with dreadlocks and idealism. He was a homicide detective when the Earth was hospitable, and is now called upon to investigate a murder in the Third Class compartment. He uses this to get more information about the train, so when the final revolution happens, it won’t splinter and sputter out like before. Chris Evans played this character in Joon-ho’s version. Leyton’s black-ness adds a wonderful texture of class and race based inequality here. It makes the impending war much more urgent.
The show is plotted with appreciable twists, nothing to produce gasps, but to keep you wondering. (the long fade-outs after tense moments is a fine touch) The shades of grey however seem to be the most interesting. The idealism, on the other hand, feels too staged, and the convictions too performative. Perhaps this wasn’t the intent of the show. There is a beautiful moment when Layton has to choose between winning the war and forsaking the lives of two dozen comrades. The first person he sees after he makes that choice is Melanie, who will articulate, “We are all haunted by our choices.” Idealism doesn’t care for choices, but Layton has to reconcile, if he has to lead.
For the 10 hour investment of time, there is quite little emotional depth. The prologue for each episode, given by a new character is inert. All the emotional tracks feel trite, Layton’s love is always articulated, but never felt. Ditto for the brotherhood and comrade-ship. When the goings get meditative, the interest too slackens (as opposed to Joon-ho’s film which served as a rather elaborate meditation on class-war, which for me didn’t work). This is a series propped up by its capacity to entice, not endure in the imagination. You think, once all the blood is shed (of which there is a lot) and order is restored, what is the power that will exert itself? Oftentimes revolts come out of an immediacy, an anger that must be expressed, and not necessarily redressed. Redressal happens in the aftermath, if it happens at all. It is often here that idealism breaks, for new structures will inevitably require new hierarchies. Or perhaps Soviet Era radical and forced homogenization. So what is it for Layton- Lenin or Libya? Or perhaps, there is a third alternative. For that, we look to the second season.