This article contains spoilers for Infinity Train season 4.
Infinity Train has a short, but complex history. After a somewhat neglected run on Cartoon Network, the show received new life on HBO Max for a third season. Following that, however, it seemed unclear whether the show could nab another renewal. But enough online attention was garnered to achieve that fourth and final year. (HBO Max also seems to have a much more energetic desire for animated content than other similar networks and streaming outlets).
The first three seasons of Infinity Train are raw, honest, and stark. Its first season follows a young girl coming to terms with her parents divorce and the fleeting, ephemeral nature of memory. The second is a curveball, in which a “reflection” of the girl from the first season comes to life and fights for her own freedom–a wild meta-tale about autonomy, identity, and independence. The third season, which focuses on two chaotic, long-term train passengers, is about abuse, manipulation, (male) toxicity, and violence unchecked.
The expectations for this fourth season, which features two Asian-American kids who find themselves trapped on the train’s bizarre universe, were pretty high. But the thriving potential and expectations laid out for this final season never come to bare. Infinity Train’s “Book Four” (which is how the show brands its seasons) fizzles, with a sort of epilogue feel to its proceedings that never quite reaches the dark, raw highs of its predecessors. The fourth season is ostensibly about the importance of clear, honest communication. But the irony is that the show fails to communicate itself clearly.
Infinity Train season 4 follows Ryan and Min-Gi who are stuck in different places in life, post high-school. Once close friends, connected by their love of music, the two saw life in different ways: Ryan is an idealist and an adventurous, “think before he acts” sort, while Min-Gi is more grounded, level-headed, and cautious, to the point of freezing up. This literally happens when Min-Gi runs from Ryan right before a big high school talent show, a moment which buttresses the unspoken rift between them.
Min-Gi stays home, studies, gets accepted into college. Ryan takes to the road, doing various shows anywhere he can, and seems to make some modest success, despite losing several girlfriends along the way. Ryan returns home to see Min-Gi working at his parents’ restaurant, and the two catch up, with low-key tension surging between them. Impudently, Ryan rushes off with the restaurant’s keys, and Min-Gi chases him. The two rush onto a train, then somehow find the doorway into the Infinity Train. This is how our protagonist duo finds themselves onboard the mystical, mysterious caboose.
What makes Infinity Train’s previous seasons work so well was how they start out somewhat basic but quickly leap into unexpected places with depth and nuance. Its highs are immensely high; its lows are dark, sparse, and painful. Its protagonists are self-assured but deeply lost, and in their quest to find themselves, they both open up new layers about themselves, as well as the nature of the very quixotic train itself. This fourth season doesn’t quite do this.
There’s a unique wrinkle in this venture, in that Ryan and Min-Gi are paired with the exact same “number” (the mysterious number that appears on passengers’ hands that “countdown” positive character improvements that leads to their freedom), an occurrence that is clocked by the show as particularly strange. But there’s no real internal, or external, revelation into why the train decided to pair them together like that. (To be fair, I think the train conductor did have a reason, but the bold choice to have this season take place prior to the other three muddles things; in the midst of Ryan and Min-Gi’s journey, Ameila’s takeover of the train happens.) But unlike the protagonists of the previous seasons, Ryan and Min-Gi never venture off to examine the train as a whole. In effect, Ryan and Min-Gi’s journey is surprisingly straight-forward, a kind of winking idea to what essentially any person’s journey on the train would look like.
It’s a bold move to portray a “regular” journey for a final season, but it’s disappointing in that it never takes this (non-train) time to really explore its characters in new ways. The contrasts between Ryan and Min-Gi are pretty boilerplate–the free spirited, snap-decision maker vs. the grounded, level-headed thinker is as common a duo as it comes. But the more concrete revelations of these characters never quite make an impact.
Min-Gi mentions that his parents never paid any attention to him and ignored him and his dreams. There’s hints of a darker sense of parental neglect here, but it never gets laid out. Likewise with Ryan, who speaks often of the pressure his parents put on him to study, work, and go to school. With no other info about the way he and his parents specifically conflicted over this, it feels abstract. The first episode, “The Twin Tapes,” sporadically has the emotional heft of these interpersonal dilemmas, but never really examines them in the characters themselves, not in the way that Infinity Train often allowed its characters to feel.
In effect, these characters are talking around each other but not really communicating; neither seems to react or (try to) understand the others’ perspective. They aren’t introspective about each other, and the frustrations and issues that Ryan and Min-Gi vocalize during their journey feel more like soliloquies than conversations. They talk but they don’t communicate; as a result, their potential characterizations aren’t communicating, and therefore not connecting, to the audience.
This is disappointing because perhaps the one thing that seems to be the gel of this season–Ryan and Min-Gi’s relationship–never elevates itself to the level a final season should. The two fight a lot, and those fights are valid, emotional, honest, clunky, anodyne, awkward, tedious, immature, silly, and fraught–the multi-emotional ways interpersonal spats tend to be. But they’re never revealing.
I don’t think I’m overstepping here to say that there is at least some queer subtext between the two; an early moment in the first episode has Min-Gi blush profusely when Ryan gives him a hug of appreciation. But in that same episode, Ryan’s rotation of failed girlfriends suggest that the queer angle is merely one-sided; fair, but Infinity Train never addresses that either. If Infinity Train was mandated to play down that angle (a common reality due to the pressures and demands of studios and networks), then there’s always the nature of two friends of wildly different personalities clashing before coming to an understanding.
It’s basic, but it can work. As mentioned earlier though, there’s little revealed about the history of these characters at an individual level, so their interpersonal tension never goes anywhere meaningful. The previous three seasons used various sci-fi/magic/fantastical methods to delve deep into the particular pasts and truths of its protagonists, presenting multiple sides to their current problems. Book Four never does that beyond the first episode, and it feels like we’re missing something. Ryan and Min-Gi just cycle through bouts of random verbal fights and endearing truces–right to the very end.
The catty nature of this conflict could work though, if the storytelling here wasn’t so clunky, something that Infinity Train is usually very good at managing. There’s moments where the show struggles to engage in conflicts organically, and is forced to make its characters act dumber than necessary. I don’t know how even the most impulsive characters would decide to “dig underground” to try to sneak into the building (weird train logic not understanding). When Ryan’s number goes down, Min-Gi, who is usually reserved and low-key, spends an uncomfortable amount of time belittling Ryan as the one who needed to learn a lesson, not him.
Season four’s most dramatic moment is centered around a museum that hosts an malevolent force which compels its victims to act and say terrible things, but the force is not particularly well explored. It’s stunningly, beautifully horrifying: a series of hands contorted into a grotesque monster. The hands have numbers on them, too, an horrific implication that comes close to fruition with Min-Gi in its grasp. But the rhythms of the scene are somewhat shoddy; Ryan escapes by accident, and has no idea how to get back to Min-Gi to save him. Ryan’s desire to save him causes his number to go down and his path home opens up; he thinks about leaving, and his number goes back up, closing off the path.
It’s a moment worth exploring, sure, but it never gets its due because Min-Gi eventually escapes the hands monster, but blames Ryan for leaving him. He didn’t, but the season puts so much dramatic emphasis here that it sort of represents the most significant tension of the characters. But it just comes off awkward, especially since that (misunderstood) anger is barely present in the next episode.
But that’s on purpose, I think, to try and get at the deeper, more complex issue of the lack of clear communication between these two. And it’s definitely worthy of a topic. But it never quite wraps its head around that point, and that’s partly because the season never gets into why they don’t talk. The queer subtext is out. They never get too much into their pasts, only hints. The estrangement angle and abandonment issues are under-explored. Their connection is over their shared love of music, but that feels like a singular weak connection, in comparison to the stakes. They’re friends, but Infinity Train fails to explore the full extent of their friendship and the nature of the understated conflicts between them. There’s certainly a lot of emotional drama between them, and it’s played as earnest and honest as possible, but there’s little information about them to heft up that drama. By the end, these characters are still ciphers.
Kez, the floating, talking bell that “guides” Ryan and Min-Gi, feels more well-rounded. Her wonky, circuitous way of talking feels like a quirky character trait at first but is revealed to be a purposeful method of ignoring the problems she causes and not taking accountability of them. The enemies she made chase after her (and by proxy, Ryan and Min-Gi). She’s ridiculed by “other” friends for her unreliability, then is called out by the humans when it’s revealed she was only stringing them along to satisfy Morgan, a talking castle. And that’s happening because a passenger, Jeremy, bonded with Morgan and Kez for five years in the midst of deep, deep grief and self-blame for an accident that killed Jeremy’s wife and sister.
Kez’s style of talking inadvertently spurred Jeremy to accept and move on from the accident, sending him home. But that triggered an assortment of resentment between Kez and Morgan, as well as the ire of the other train denizens on their heels. Kez’s final admission, saying sorry, eases all those tensions, which feels a little simple for past grievances, but at the core there’s depth and history there, even implied, which provides a richness to those characters that Ryan and Min-Gi lack.
That’s the thing: Kez’s dilemma, in that lack of communication, forgiveness, and atonement, is the thematic parallel of the tension between Ryan and Min-Gi. But while Kez’s story has enough implications around the edges to feel interesting, Ryan and Min-Gi, the season’s protagonists, don’t have enough of it to match the powerful moments of seasons one through three.
Season four is certainly fine as is, and has plenty of funny moments, as well as quietly honest ones. But it never quite provides the impactful revelation or scenes that Infinity Train usually provides to transcend Ryan and Min-Gi into something singularly clear and open. Communication and clarity is the key to any relationship, but Book Four mumbles its story straight to the end–not as clear as the bell on Kez’s head.
Infinity Train season 4 is available to be streamed on HBO Max now.