In our review of Snowpiercer’s first season, Joyce Chen wrote on the timeliness of a show about a forced quarantine: “The most unsettling thing about watching a show about a post-apocalyptic future during a pandemic is that even the most random details hit a little too close to home.” At that time we were merely two months into the pandemic (officially, anyway), and Snowpiercer’s focus on class warfare aboard a claustrophobic, careening train we could not disembark from was, as she notes, a mirror rather than a prophesy.
Less than a year later, we are still under quarantine (although your mileage may vary on how seriously those around you take it—please wear a mask) but there is some hope on the horizon: there’s a vaccine and we have a new administration who is ready to tackle this appropriately. Snowpiercer Season 2, which was filmed at the same time as Season 1, also has these tinges of hope: the ruling class has been overthrown, the Earth may be thawing. But it doesn’t take long for the new boss to feel the same as the old boss.
In its first season, Snowpiercer had the difficult task of weaving in storylines from the well-known film and creating new avenues in which to tell its story on a weekly basis to sustain itself for seasons to come. One of the most important tweaks was the introduction of Andre Layton (Daveed Diggs), a Tailie who is called up to be the train’s detective when a series of murders had everyone terrified. It was a clever way to give us a reason to see how the Snowpiercer train—1,001 cars long—operates, and gave context to the many characters who populate it. But soon, a more interesting mystery arose: was the eponymous Mr. Wilford actually aboard the train he created? Or had it been secretly taken over by the chief of Hospitality and Voice of the Train, Melanie Cavill (Jennifer Connelly)?
TNT’s version of Snowpiercer was more of a slow burn, naturally, than its narrative predecessors, and it actually thrived in a weekly episodic format where we could explore the train and its toxic power dynamics in a sprawling way. It wasn’t revolutionary television and didn’t quite make our year-end list, but by golly it was a solid weekly watch with a lot of potential for story.
The same is very much true in its second season, and you can feel that story really settling in to some interesting character arcs now that the initial rebellion has taken place. It also takes some quiet risks; for instance, we almost immediately see Layton deferring the democracy the lower classes fought for in favor of martial law. He doesn’t really have a choice—in the Season 1 finale, the train was taken over by a smaller but stronger supply train called “Big Alice,” carrying both Mr. Wilford himself (Sean Bean) and Melanie’s daughter Alex (Rowan Blanchard) who she thought had died seven years earlier. Still, as the de facto leader of the revolution, it stings.
The elegantly brutal, scenery-chewing Wilford wants his train back, and one of the major conflicts in the new season are the skirmishes that break out between the Wilford faithful and those who have come to put Snowpiercer before their own needs and desires. Wilford’s manipulations begin immediately, first with Melanie in relation to her daughter, and later in a rekindling of a romance with the Night Car’s lead madam Miss Audrey (Lena Hall). There are other romances afoot, like Layton’s ex-wife Zarah (Sheila Vand) finding shelter with him again, while Melanie and chief engineer Bennett (Iddo Goldberg) are more open about their relationship. Refreshingly, all of these connections and the choices these characters make feel adult rather than existing to cause drama. There are bigger fish to fry, so to speak.
It’s also refreshing that the series’ women get some of the best arcs. Miss Audrey, in particular, gets a complex exploration of her traumatic past with Wilford that only really begins about halfway through Season 2. Tilly (Mickey Sumner) hesitantly turns to faith to cope with the horrors she has witnessed, while Alex is torn between supporting her absentee mother or staying loyal to her mentor.
The show’s secret weapon, though, is Ruth (Alison Wright), who is also key to the new counsel that has formed around Layton, one connected by necessity rather than trust and that starts lying to the rest of the passengers almost immediately—just like Melanie did for so many years. In fact, early in the season, there is a scene where a hostage from Big Alice is tempted into giving up secrets by being offered real food, an almost exact replica of the scene where Layton is brought up from the Tail in Season 1. Except it’s an inversion: now Layton sits across from the hostile witness, but doesn’t seem to realize the position he’s put himself in.
With the addition of Big Alice, Snowpiercer also opens the door to new technology (including an increased reliance on synthetically produced goods) and new sci-fi elements, such as the existence of a giant man called Icy Bob, engineered to withstand the cold like some kind of Frankenstein’s Frosty the Snowman. (Sometimes the show is just silly). There’s more of a focus on how the two trains work, how they will sustain life, and more details about the engineering than before as well. It works to enrich the world rather than drag it down, though, especially since the trains themselves are currently the only keys to existence (and Melanie’s daughter, fittingly, has become an engineer herself).
Again, the weekly rollout should benefit Snowpiercer ’s story. It’s not really a binge show, as it juggles disparate storylines and switches up key players and themes on a whim. But over time that feels natural; it remains entertaining and unique as its character narratives become deeper and more layered. It’s not the same show it was in the first season, and that’s really a good thing. Even for those of us who enjoyed those first episodes, Snowpiercer Season 2 is a realigned but richer experience. It still feels like a mirror, though in different ways than before. Now, like our real lives, it’s about finding a way forward and adjusting to new normals. We’re not off the train yet, but there’s a hope one day we might be.
Snowpiercer Season 2 premieres Monday, January 25th on TNT.
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV
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