After an average, yet somewhat promising debut season last year, the TNT-produced Snowpiercer returns to Netflix for a second run. Picking up directly from the events of the first season, we are again taken through a story set on the eponymous train, as it circumnavigates the world in a near future ravaged by freezing conditions, after a botched human response to climate change.
At the climax of season one, Snowpiercer, under the shadow command of Melanie Cavil (Jennifer Connelly – nominally the Head of Hospitality, but covering for, and hiding the absence of the train’s creator, Mr Wilford (Sean Bean)), was reunited with Wilford, as they discovered he was still alive, and with Cavill’s daughter Alex (Rowan Blanchard) on Big Alice, a smaller train which joins to Snowpiercer during this sophomore run.
With the ten episodes that comprised that run mirroring the 2013 film’s interest in the battle for equality, there were a number of stand-out performances, but weak character work, and instalments that felt like they were dragging. Only at the very end did we get a feeling that something much more substantial was on the way, as Melanie’s deception became known, and the much discussed Wilford returned to take back what was his.
So, as we move into season two, several plates are spinning: Wilford’s wish to reacquire Snowpiercer; the backstory of how he became separated from the train, and how he came to be in the company of Alice; Andre Layton’s (Daveed Diggs) attempts to remain somewhat in control of the train, now that the creator has returned; the train’s Madam/Courtesan Miss Audrey (Lena Hall) and her historic bond with Wilford – leading to questions of the power dynamic and to whom her loyalties belong.
There are also side-stories involving another murder mystery; the treatment of Layton’s lover, Josie Wellstead (Katie McGuinness), by the Big Alice medical staff as they seek to help her recover from the severe ice burns/frostbite she received in season one. There is the matter of the continued prejudice against those in the tail of the train, and the fragility of the ecosystem on both trains. Finally, there are the attempts of the staff (spearheaded by Melanie) to learn the truth of Earth’s (potentially) recovering climate.
If the first run of episodes was about equality, then this second run doubles-down on the secondary theme of ‘at what price order?’. Bean’s Wilford is a warm, charismatic, yet terrifying, amoral presence that ran Snowpiercer as an authoritarian dictatorship. If Diggs was the star of season one, this is Bean’s show now.
Faced with a choice between a train where freedom reigns, yet crime and disorder are a part of life, and a train ruled with cruel and unusual punishment but with the outward appearance of order, the show sets out to try to show us exactly how fascism can thrive. In support of this we have returning characters such as Bess Till (Mickey Sumner), recruited reluctantly to advise Wilford); Ruth Wardell (Alison Wright), wrestling her own conscience for the strength to oppose her old boss; and Mike O’Malley’s Sam Roche, literally debating with his wife whether the cruelty of the old regime is worth it for the feeling of security.
Once again, Snowpiercer is well-designed, and complemented by extraordinary performances. Bean’s performance is full of crawling menace, yet there is an insecurity to him, and an authenticity that encouraged the wish that he had used his natural accent when playing a Bond villain – this feels real to the same extent that an affected posh accent was distancing in GoldenEye. Like most dictators, there is something compelling alongside the genuine terror engendered. Wardell’s Alison is probably the stand-out, with the fear and internal struggle visible to the lens.
For all of this, all of the flaws of season one are repeated, with a couple of new issues added. Character work is weak: characters taking a minute to debate whether fascism is better is not an arc, it is a momentary reflection of fear, and the why of fascism is not explored in the way it’s likely showrunners believe. Snowpiercer is all plot, and all character work is crammed into dialogue if and when writers notice it isn’t really there. To illustrate this, even after 20 episodes with these characters it was necessary to look up a good majority of their names. These people simply do not stick in the mind.
If the show is plot driven, then certainly it takes its time to demonstrate this. Instalments dragged and were rarely anticipated. Only from episode six, where we get a whole episode with an underused – and largely absent from the rest of the run – Melanie, does the story begin to find both an urgency and a heart as the hallucinating character is forced to confront her guilt and fears. From there, as we move to inevitable confrontation, finally this property begins to find some momentum.
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On a technical level, shot-making in the show is reminiscent of watching an old ‘pan and scan’ VHS, or a remastered, cropped version of an older show originally filmed 4:3, in that the camera is always too close to the protagonists. If this is intended to create a feeling a claustrophobia it fails, rather feeling self-important, and wasting elegant set design. CG has not been improved from the first run, with the 2000s Battlestar Galactica still being the most obvious comparitor, a full 18 years after that version debuted.
In short, the second run is stronger than the first. Sean Bean grabs the show and gives it an urgency and menace that introduces just a touch of horror and suspense into its mixture of genres. The final five episodes develop a pacing unmatched by anything in last year’s story. For all that, this is the second run of episodes; still to be looking up character names and feeling reluctant to watch this week’s episode speaks to a show that is not developing as hoped. If the show is to be plot-driven, it needs to come out of the gate faster at the outset of seasons; if it is to be character-driven, it needs to give us people with whom we can identify, where we readily remember names – rather than letting top-notch acting pick up the slack created by somewhat uninspired writing.