Infinity Train and Manifestations of Trauma and Abuse

Infinity Train’s third season explores the depth through which trauma can fester into toxic, masculine behaviors and egregious abuse.

Infinity Train Book Three Abuse and Trauma
Photo: HBO Max

In the third season of Infinity Train (subtitled Book 3), one single aspect among many sticks out: the shots of characters placing their hands on each other’s shoulders. In the crazy, random events that occur on this grandiose, mysterious train, characters reach out to each other, eager for connection, longing for trust, pining for affection. 

Then when certain revelations disrupt understood and accepted relationships, the  meaning and of these gestures shift. Suddenly, reaching out for others is dangerous, portrayed as movements of panic, fear, control, and manipulation. They become violations of personal space. These denials devolve into warnings, then threats, then all-out violence. Such events exemplify the theme and power of Infinity Train season 3. The show depicts the ways trauma and abuse manifest themselves, even in those we love, and the harrowing ways people have to elude the brunt of it.

Infinity Train’s overall development has been shocking, ingenious, and powerfully clever. It began as a broadly vague but character-specific fairytale of a young girl who had to face the truth of her past, and her relationship with her parents’ divorce, in which the train’s purpose could be distilled down into creating distinct worlds within each train car that provide assistance to help its troubled passengers become their best selves. The second season tore apart the premise and saw a mirrored doppelganger of the first season’s protagonists break free of their original train-car world, only to be confronted with the raw truth that the denizens of each car world serve no purpose but to advocate for the progress of the passengers.

 The third season pushes this notion even further by taking a closer look at Apex, a group of passengers who have in effect tossed aside the story, who thrive in the train with little concern for the denizens of the train worlds–the “nulls.” They aren’t looking to get better; or, more accurately, they believe the act of getting better consists of increasing their number (humans who arrive on the train are assigned a number that glows on their hands; as they perform acts of generosity, bravery, compassion, or overall acts of goodness, that number goes down. Once it reaches zero, they can go back home). To them, improving one’s moral or ethical perspectives towards a self-actualized sense of peace isn’t how one gets better. To the Apex, becoming a raw, primal, carefree agent of chaos is true Enlightenment. (The Apex also have a complicated belief system where the conductor of the train, a small robot named One-One, is “fake,” and the “real” conductor, a human that took over the train way back in season one, is the One True conductor.)

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Grace and Simon, the leaders of the Apex, take their wards on occasional missions to other train cars where they loot, pillage, and destroy the world within them with glee. It’s brutal to watch, even if the denizens–the nulls”–are just anthropomorphic objects. On one particular mission, the train “shifts” (relocating the entire car, basically), leaving Grace and Simon to traverse the cars to get back to the Apex HQ. Along the way they meet a young girl named Hazel and her large, powerful, protective companion, a gorilla named Tuba, who has literal tubas connected to her. Hazel intrigues the Apex leads, partly because she’s human, and the Apex recruits humans, but partly because the number on her hand doesn’t glow, while the others humans’ numbers do. The course of the season at first is about venturing back to the Apex car while figuring out a way to get Hazel on the Apex side and ditch/dispose of Tuba.

In the course of this mission, however, Grace grows more and more affectionate towards Hazel, opening up to her about her past and establishing an “older sister” dynamic to the girl. Grace’s careful manipulations to pull Hazel away from Tuba and towards her ends up also bridging Hazel and Grace closer. Simon, however, gradually starts to feel pushed away, particularly in an episode where they meet Simon’s former companion, a cat named Samantha, who ran away from him when he was younger and at his most helpless. Grace apologizes to Simon for her neglect, but this moment also plants the seed in which Simon’s broken, vicious downfall begins. In the following episode, Simon begins to step up his direct challenges to Tuba, and while Grace tries her best to maintain some kind of peace, Simon finds a way to “wheel” Tuba–to essentially kill her.

It’s an explicit, horrifying moment, and Simon expresses no remorse. Hazel, completely distraught, rushes out, but when Grace follows, Hazel transforms into a strange, turtle hyrbid. Hazel is not human but a “null,” and the revelation instantly makes Simon a real, vicious threat if he were to find out. Now Grace has to use her skill for manipulation less as a mechanism for weaponizing and control, but as a tool for protection and survival. It’s genuinely nerve-wracking to watch Grace wrack her brain in subsequent episodes to keep Hazel’s truth a secret and to keep Simon off guard. It’s even harder as Hazel struggles to keep her true emotions at bay, bottled up due to the direct fear that Simon will kill her.

The human characters that traverse this train all struggle with some kind of personal failing or struggle, but the Apex’s worldview only exacerbates the issues. Grace, for her part, channelled her loneliness and isolation into crafty acts of desire and attention, and directing that towards Hazel inadvertently starting on the path to healing. But Simon never was afforded any potential outlet for compassion or empathy. We don’t get a backstory about him, but it doesn’t matter. Samantha “leaving” him traumatized him, and seeing her again triggers him in the very direct and honest sense of the word. With no real outlet to cope or learn (Simon doesn’t get a chance to really venture the cars to even somewhat develop; Grace at least seems to explore a bit), his trauma and pains festers, solidifying into three unhealthy, self-rewarding truths: a quasi-love for Grace, a power/status role in the Apex, and a misguided understanding in the purpose of the “true” conductor.

So it’s inevitable that Simon wouldn’t care at all about Hazel’s loss, pain, and/or fear. Simon’s inability to provide support or empathy towards Hazel, not two episodes after Grace shows sympathy towards Simon’s traumatic relapse over losing his past “null” partner, is telling. Simon’s pain is based on what he believed to be his past partner’s betrayal and abandonment, which partly explains why he doesn’t trust nulls, but he also weaponizes his pain and trauma, wielding it the very ways abusers often do: guilt trips, passive-aggressive behaviors, snide and unsympathetic remarks (“I got through it, you should be able to, too” – never mind that no, Simon clearly has not “got through it”.)  

Simon’s more committed belief into the “real conductor” narrative suggests he copes with trauma through this belief structure (and also by pouring a deep amount of meaning and vulnerability into a quasi-romantic pursuit of Grace’s heart). Other people who interfere with either of those two things are automatic threats, and ultimately disposable. It explains why when Simon sees the memory of Grace telling Hazel to keep her secret under wraps, to keep it from Simon, he doesn’t see the raw threat of real violence he has become, but the victim of some kind of audacious conspiracy against him, particularly from the person he loves. 

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Simon discovers the ability to “see” this memory by returning to Samantha and asking for help (Samantha possesses keener insights and access to the machinations of the train than most denizens). An uneasy, fraught alliance between them occurs when Samantha explains her past actions; while not ideal, at least had a reason. Simon asks her “why” Grace is shutting him out, but it’s remarkable how he literally can’t see–or refuses to see–the obvious: he “wheeled” someone, he terrorizes their new ward, his aggressive behavior, once proudly thrown at the nulls and worlds around him, has turned towards the one person he supposedly cares about. He’s become dangerous, but can’t grasp why people would be scared of him. 

It’s the ultimate in abuser mentality. It was always burgeoning in him: a white, male nerd-type (he is introduced painting figurines and writing a fantasy novel), epitomized in his ability to manipulate his own emotions and then callously kill Tuba. Simon’s surging toxic sense of masculine control builds in a slow-moving trainwreck manner: he’s made vulnerable when he sees his original betrayer (so he thinks), he challenges himself with a unnecessary wager (“I bet I can take Tuba”), faking new found affection for her until the point he can finish her off, and when not provided with the praise he thinks he deserves, believes everyone else is wrong to react this way. Amelia’s presence (the human who once took over the train but now finds herself wandering about to try and “fix” things to make amends), destroys his entire belief structure behind the false and true conductors, specifically, the very point of the numbers. “Numbers are power,” Simon says, ruefully. “Numbers are numbers,” Samantha shoots back, calmly. But to Simon, that can’t be. Simon is humiliated, but Grace is scared. That line about men’s biggest fear is being laughed at and women’s biggest fear is being killed? It feels apt.

Watching Simon become more hostile is difficult, but at the very least, Hazel is able to escape, leaving with Amelia to learn about herself. Grace is clearly hurt, but like with Hazel, Simon doesn’t understand why. And so he gets “grabby,” in the kind of possessive, jaw-dropping, cringey way that signals instant trouble. He snatches and pulls at her arm in one deeply dark moment; in the next episode, he shakes her by grabbing at her shoulders. The following episode, he callously tries to grab at her shoulder again for her attention, and this is the point where Grace swats his hand away and unloads on him. The argument is cut short though when Simon attacks her with her own memories, a sort of specific, literal type of gaslighting that nevertheless Grace manages to overcome (“So my memories are real until you don’t like them, then they’re fake?” Grace shoots at Simon at one point during the memory venture). 

Yet here is where my singular criticism of this season occurs. Grace relives both her distant and recent past and the show portrays Grace’s behavior and actions as personal fears of self-honesty instead of inherited techniques and actions to minimize and avoid Simon’s abusive reactions. Grace is far from infallible: her manipulations were self-serving early on, but she also recognized Simon as a threat at some level, so to portray this as a failing, even a little, feels disingenuous. Simon was kicking and punching at Amelia just one episode earlier, and it was a sound waves shield that protected the viewer from what very much would have been brutal. Grace was protecting all the parties involved to the best of her ability and to the best of her understanding of everything that she learned up until this point.

The final episode does address this, somewhat. Grace returns to Apex HQ a new, honest, introspective person (her number has shrunk considerably). But she finds herself at odds with the entire Apex crew, manipulated by Simon against her. They almost “wheel” her, but the Apex crew is mostly children, so they demure. But Simon confronts Grace with the uncontrolled anger he cultivated all this time. He says the words that all abusers say: “You made me do this,” attempting to force Grace to apologize for doing the very things she needed to do to ensure her and Hazel’s survival. Powerfully, Grace does say that while she made mistakes, the choices she made to lie to Simon to protect Hazel were not among them, and she stands by those, even when directly confronted with Simon at his most dangerous. She also refuses to apologize for Simon’s pain and conflicting emotional/violence state. Those two beats should have hit a bit harder though. This narrative beat emphasized what those moments for Grace really meant, not just for her, but as a broader response to the ways in which abusers justify their abuse.

Simon and Grace fight, and their battle is up-close and personal. Grace bests Simon but still saves him from being wheeled, but in the season’s most shocking moment, he pushes Grace off the train anyway. Grace, miraculously (and somewhat randomly, as it’s not common for random train denizens to leave their train worlds) is saved by a few nulls she helped restore to life; Simon, his number so high that it covers his entire face and body, is killed by a monstrous bug-creature that lives outside the wastelands that surround the train.. Grace, a changed woman whose number is now much lower than where it was when we are first introduced to her, tells her young Apex wards to seek out their own unique, special truths, and work to be better people so they themselves can be free.

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Infinity Train’s greatness stems from its ability to open up its characters in the kind of ways that a lot of weighty, rich shows these days can do, like Bojack Horseman and Steven Universe, but it also possesses an inherent flaw that the writers are actually utilizing as a narrative crutch in rich, clever ways. From the question of how its train worlds portray and think of its denizens, to the question of whether the train’s purpose is genuinely beneficial, Infinity Train makes the argument that maybe it’s not. 

One-One, in past seasons, fixates on the humans’ pain, trauma, and problems as algorithms, as numbers that need to be solved. But as the Apex, Simon, and Grace showed, humans are messy, complex beings that can disrupt any premise or belief or narrative to justify their behavior and actions. Simon, prior to his final fight, yells to Grace, “Why would I ever want to change, when I’m always right!?” Trauma, pain, and abuse cannot always be solved with whimsy. One of the last shots of the season has Grace crying over Simon’s body. An Apex member places his hand on her shoulder. Perhaps an honest connection like that is truly what’s needed to be better people.

Infinity Train is available to stream on HBO Max now.