This Snowpiercer review contains spoilers.
Snowpiercer Episode 9
As a series, Snowpiercer has done a great job of respecting the power of a ticking clock. A lot of the actions that Layton and company have taken have been timed, measured, and planned out to the most careful of degrees to take advantage of something on the train, from a shift change to doors opening for lunch service, and that necessary clock-watching serves “The Train Demanded Blood” well during its tense, world-changing climax. The characters are acutely aware of the passage of time, of the ticking clock, of their opportunities slowly but surely drifting down the track like an uncoupled train car, and that awareness filters down to the home viewer, who is also hanging on every glance at the watch done by Layton, Melanie, Bennett, or anyone else involved in the grand plot to wrest control of the train from the Folgers.
The bloody conflict of the previous episode has died down into something of a stalemate. The jackboots and Commander Grey are preparing for not just an assault on the rebellious territory, but for a wholesale slaughter. They’re not going to assault prepared defensive positions, they’re going to pump gas into train cars and kill or disable everyone, car by car, and then march in with gas masks on and take care of the rest whether they’re combatant, worker, or just innocent bystander. According to Lilah Folger, who approves of the plan, they can always train new workers. Oh, the naivety of the very rich knows no bounds, even after the end of the world. They might see people bus tables and clean floors, but none of the first class passengers would have the first clue as to how to maintain a saltwater fish environment, raise plants, or do any of the complex maintenance that makes sure the engine eternal stays eternal.
One of the things that Snowpiercer has made abundantly clear throughout the show’s run is that the ecosystem is fragile, and with every revolution, every smashed potted plant or raided freezer, the food supply is put at risk, but, given how much Third works to keep others happy and how little attention the Tail receives, it makes sense that they’re fed up and willing to throw their weight around and put the whole thing at risk in an attempt to get the respect they deserve. It’s fight back or get slaughtered, and given that they’ve chosen to fight back, the very real risk of being wiped out no longer seems to matter as much as the systemic oppression the train’s lifeblood battle against.
In that sense, Snowpiercer could not have picked a better time to hit television. While the quarantine might make viewers uncomfortable watching people similarly trapped in a confined space with no freedom, the politics of the show, the struggle of the working class against the rich, carries surprising dramatic weight, as the workers and the under class have chosen to band together and fight for real change while being clubbed and beaten and arrested by the dozens. Thankfully, in America, the protests haven’t resulted in mass deaths and people getting limbs frozen off, but the bubbling social struggle is there, on screen and on streets. It continues even as the attention of the passive, trapped person at home may wander and the majority of Third and Second class passengers look the other way even as the authorities plan to trample them in an effort to protect the rich and powerful.
Daveed Diggs’s acting does some impressive heavy lifting this week, particularly in the scenes in which Layton has to struggle between giving up his life to try and save everyone else’s, or to continue to fight knowing that those up train are more than willing to kill everyone in a vain attempt to cling to their power. He’s a confident, strong performer who is very skilled at showing Layton’s anger, but also his resoluteness, when called upon to do so. Layton might be just a Tailie detective, but he’s also a natural leader, stepping into the role when he needs to, and it’s not a huge surprise that he’s willing to sacrifice himself for the greater good, and even less of a surprise that he’s willing to put himself in danger to save the train from the machinations of the Folgers and Commander Grey’s jackboots.
When forced to choose between saving the prisoners and saving the train, Layton is clearly in anguish, and Diggs knocks that moment out of the park, swallowing his pride, and taking more psychic damage, in pursuit of the greater good. It’s a brilliant performance, and his supporting cast (Jennifer Connelly, Mike O’Malley, and Steven Ogg in particular) are able to hang with him throughout the episode during their respective crises of conscience (or in Ogg’s case, kind of being a bitter jerk).
Aubrey Nealon’s script is also very careful to lay out the true scope of the conflicts. Grey and Ruth might be itching to seize power, and the Folgers might be trying to fight their way in as natural leaders, but it’s only Melanie that understands that the Folgers in charge means the whole train dies due to their off-putting nature and general belief in their own superiority. Layton gets it, agreeing to the plan, and Melanie’s speech about doing what she had to do wasn’t about power, but survival, are strongly written and delivered well. The bits with Bennett and Miles in the front of the train are also pretty well done, with Bennett eventually jumping on the same team as Miles when it comes down to keeping the train alive versus working with the people trying to break into the engine.
However, it’s less about the words and more about that ticking clock. James Hawes does a great job with the actors, and he also knocks the tense scenes of Melanie, Layton, and the duo in the engine trying to stay on time out of the park as well. It’s stressful to watch Layton struggle with Grey and his goons, to watch Roche try desperately to buy Layton time only to fail, and the audience is right there with Melanie as she waits, sweating, for Layton to come through with his part of the plan. The moment of euphoria when it’s finally done, rather than lingering, flares and snuffs out in an instant.
When it happens, the feeling is less joy at watching the bad guys get vanquished and more unsettling sadness at the thought of whole cars of people slowly freezing to death. Sure, it’s the execrable Folger family and a bunch of skull-cracking thugs, but to slowly freeze to death and know it’s happening is a miserable way to die. That Layton has to choose to sacrifice even more of his friends—tailies trapped in chains in one of the cars near the school—makes that pain sharper, the victory tasting of ashes and lost lives rather than olive oil cake.
Layton, as much as anyone, knows the pain that comes with leadership, and when Melanie hands the train over to him, she’s relieved by passing on the burden to someone who has proven that he can make the hard decisions to keep the engine rolling and the human race intact for another day. Assuming, of course, that no one finds the massive stockpiles of poison gas planted by the jackboots and decides to go scorched, or frozen, earth on the victorious Third and Tail.