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Posted on the 23 June 2020 by Cathy Leaves @cathyleaves
Snowpiercer We need to save our souls. 
What a time to watch Snowpiercer, the television adaptation of the 2014 Bong Joon Ho film – to watch the creators of Orphan Black (Graeme Manson) and of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (Josh Friedman) come together in a tale about the end of the world. 
It is a timely end of the world as well, in which a technological intervention meant to mediate the effects of the climate catastrophe has an even more disastrous outcome. The world is frozen, and what remains of society – because it is hard to see how there could still be an outside, any other remains of humanity in -100C – is traveling on a world-spanning looped train-track, on board Mr Wilford’s train, propelled around forever on the back of an eternal (a hope, elevated to a religious believe) engine. All of humanity, condensed on a 1001-car-long train. The twist, of course, is that this train is a perfect recreation of the society that created its own demise in the first place. It is stratified by classes, between ticketed passengers, workers, and the tail, refugees of the climate catastrophe who fought for their place, who jumped on, who are now met with the same strict policing and dehumanising policies that have always existed against refugees. It is also divided between the productive classes and the leisure class, and shows in this division the perversity of society as it exists now. First class passengers, who purchased their tickets on the back of their wealth, who financed Mr Wilford’s train, live in sheer, excessive luxury. Of course now, in this new world, their wealth is based on nothing – it is a patina of a lost world, a thing that exists because the precarious balance of the train allows this illusion to continue existing in a world where it should be inconsequential. The rich have brunch, forever. They burn through the train’s reserves of alcohol, they are being catered to by staff, their sole enjoyment in life and distraction from boredom comes from gossip and from the anxiety of losing their station, the presumed threat of all the cars behind them, hungering (some, literally) for a bit of their luxury. 
The hook of the first season is two-fold – the tail is attempting to find a way forward, to forge a successful revolution with the limited resources it is given, to find a way out of the dehumanising conditions that exist. And then one of their own – Layton (Daveed Diggs), a former police officer, is called upon to solve a crime that has shocked the upper classes. This is a hook in the sense that a multi-episode tv series requires a storyline that goes beyond showing the material conditions of a class society in amber – and in a way, the resolution of the crime that comes halfway through the episode isn’t much of a mystery at all. On the way there, those who consider themselves fortunate (the workers of third class, the slightly less fortunate passengers in second) discover that the meat they occasionally enjoy may contain more than they bargained for. First class discovers that a society that no longer has ethics, only strict rules and a religion based on technology, may end up with progeny that horrifies in precisely the same way that Amma in Sharp Objects does, whose solution for boredom is a Nintento Switch and seducing the family’s bodyguard to commit atrocious acts that, in light of what this society constantly does to the tail, appear like they fit right in. If LJ Folger, daughter of the Folgers, one of the foremost family in first class, has observed how her parents feel about the lesser classes for all her life, it seems only natural that she would begin to regard them as her playthings. 
At times, Snowpiercer feels like Brecht, like Epic Theatre – a morality play about a degenerated society, a miniature of a society that already exists in the most literal translation of a class-society that is possible (as trains have always had classes based on wealth). It shows us the literal function of the train, how it manufactures, how it operates, how there are passageways underneath that make it possible for things to run smoothly. It shows us the contrast between the myth of the train, the myth of the creator, Mr Wilford, and the reality of the train’s manager, Melanie (a breathtaking performance by Jennifer Connelly), who knows that the potent myth must be kept alive, even where the existence of Mr Wilford remains unclear (after all, it takes only one twist to turn the W on her jacket around). Melanie must balance the demands of the classes, she must balance both the material reality of a self-contained eco-system that has to recycle everything, and the emotional reality of anxious passengers, holding on so dearly to a departed society in the front and demanding a better one in the back (whereas the middle seems content with the hope of, one day, ascending one step on the ladder). This balance demands cruelty – cruelty in punishing the tail for its revolution, cruelty against Layton, when he realises the reality of Mr Wilford, the fact that his calming voice is nothing but a manufactured religion to keep these people in place. With how limited the set is, the spacial demands of a show set in train cars, and a lethal outside world, it could be performed on a revolving stage, one on which movement is restricted literally and figuratively forwards and backwards, towards First Class or towards the tail. But then, Manson and Friedman want us to feel empathy with those characters struggling towards something, at least, and maybe even empathy with Melanie, who carries the weight of the train on her shoulder, who penetrates all the barriers of the train, who can walk anywhere on it. 
In Orphan Black, Manson asked the question of whom radical technological and biological innovation serves when it is financed by the wealth of the rich – and what happens when that wealth dictates the future of humanity, rather than considerations about equity and fairness, which would mean true progress. The same is true here in Snowpiercer – even though the character of Mr Wilford feels more like a 19th century technocrat than a 21st century Elon Musk, but that might just be because of the inherent 19th century character of an engine made from steel. The wealth of first class has no basis in reality anymore, because the entire context of society has changed – but as always, adapting to change proves impossible. The entirety of the train is constructed to maintain something that is ultimately unmaintainable in these new circumstances, so this is innovation to preserve rather than innovation to advance. 
The sole source of true innovation which acknowledges both the inherent humanity and the changed circumstances of that humanity is the night car, an invention by artist and singer Miss Audrey (Lena Hall). Perceived from the outside as prostitution, or an outlet for emotions and expressions of sexuality that are forbidden outside this one specific car, the Night Car is actually a place to process the trauma of a lost society, lost life, the disorienting radical change that has taken place and is not acknowledged in the polity of the train itself. The Night Car acknowledges the role that art plays in a society that is driven solely by wealth and the production of material goods, and it, along with the noble aspirations of the revolutionaries in the tail, who want to upturn this society for their own survival, the only source of hope in this grim portrayal of humanity. It is also the sole attempt to deal with this new world as it is, not as it was. And I think in light of everything that is happening right now, the radical acceleration of catastrophe and change, it is essential to consider this: Melanie demands that the Night Car and those within it stay out of politics, that they locate themselves outside the class society, that they exist as if they possessed now class interest at all. But Miss Audrey has none of it when LJ Folger is put on trial, and the initial idea is a jury made up of her peers in First, which surely will do nothing to hold her accountable for her crimes – Miss Audrey insists on locating herself on the side of those who have become victims of these crimes, who see no way that the system of justice and the system of policing on this train could ever serve their interest. As always, the question has to be not just how to survive, but in what manner, and for what purpose. If Mr Wilford's train is nothing but a continuation of the society that led to the end of the world, then what point is there in continuing the eternal revolutions? And justice remains out of reach, but the rumblings of change have begun. 
2020-, created by Graeme Manson, Josh Friedman, starring Jennifer Connelly, Daveed Diggs, Alison Wright.

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