Almost two years on from the show’s debut, Snowpiercer reaches the end of its third season. The story picks up directly from the end of the second season, with the survivors of the world’s big freeze split between the titular train, and Big Alice, the secondary vehicle housing Snowpiercer’s creator Mr Wilford (Sean Bean).
Melanie (Jennifer Connelly), who spent most of season 1 running the train in Wilford’s absence, is missing, presumed dead, after seeking out signs of a thaw. Season 3 continues the battle for supremacy between Wilford and Andre Layton (Daveed Diggs), as the remnants of the human race debate the safety of attempting a life off the trains, in Africa, where there is data returning suggesting habitability, but that evidence is far from clear in its accuracy. Familiar elements of cross and double-cross appear, and relationships are made and unmade as an unremarkable story unfolds.
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The first season of this property had two major flaws that prevented a promising premise reaching anywhere near its potential. The first was the pacing. The story unfolded at a glacial pace, and worse, would feature a dull entry many times right after an interesting instalment that had suggested events were ramping up. With a weekly release of each episode, it became a chore to revisit such a slow show. Season 2 had the same issue but was a little stronger as the story featured more conflict, a greater feeling of life-or-death peril, and the presence of Bean to give the show real menace. The second flaw both seasons had was in the character work. Diggs, Connelly, and Bean aside, it remained difficult to remember character names, and strong performances were undermined by an overwhelming sense of ‘so what?’.
Season 3 starts with a strong pair of episodes, ending with the promise of the two trains finally going to full-scale conflict. Ruth Wardell (Alison Wright – still a great performance, but, yes, we still have to look up the character name to avoid getting her confused with Mickey Sumner’s Bess Till) appears to be about to lose her arm as punishment for disloyalty, and finally, there is a feeling of full-scale anarchy. Within minutes of the next instalment beginning, however, the battle is over, and Wilford is imprisoned on the main train, with the consequence that his influence on the show is severely curtailed, and once again the show’s skill in teasing the raising of stakes is entirely frustrated.
While performances remain strong, CG continues to evoke the very best of the art form in TV – if it was 2003. Storytelling is ponderous, with most information given in hushed whispers, between characters we struggle to distinguish, speaking in front of cameras still pushed in too close to them, giving, once again, the feeling that this is a 4:3 presentation that has been lazily cropped to widescreen.
There is no fundamental difference in quality between this run and first two seasons. What makes it far harder to digest this time, however, is that we have now had 30 episodes of Snowpiercer, without any real feeling that we are making progress. Yes, there are cosmetic differences, such that the titular train is something like 12 carriages shorter than in season 1, children have been born, and some relationships have reconfigured. It is also fair to say that the world in which they live has moved on slightly, with signs of life external to the train. It is all against a backdrop, however, of the key elements of drama being missing.
Any time the stakes look like being raised, these developments are frustrated by sometimes several hours of little attempt to capitalise on this. Cosmetically, relationships change, but Layton, Wardell, Till, Wilford and even Melanie are largely unchanged as characters since we first met them. There is never any sense of characters learning and developing. This leaves Snowpiercer feeling, as a show, as though it is some kind of almost stasis, where each year we will get a new run, and some of the details will change, but the show won’t really move on.
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Now, the show does end with some passengers disembarking the train. This may suggest season 4 will alter the format somewhat. The fact this is followed with a coda of a completely unexplained and context-free explosion seen from Snowpiercer does leave us with the feeling that the show knows it has yet to catch fire and is coming up with a dramatic final shot as a cynical means of hanging on to its presumably bored audience. This is enough now: three whole seasons of a show that remains nothing more than ‘promising’, never gains enough momentum to make us feel the next episode is either essential or welcome, and the talents of a very gifted cast being entirely wasted. It’s fair to say we’re out.
Snowpiercer is now streaming on Netflix.