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Class Warfare in Close Quarters – on TV – with 'Snowpiercer'
May 17, 2020  | By David Hinckley

The title character of the new TNT drama, Snowpiercer, is a train that has been circling the Earth for almost seven years.

That’s about how long it feels this series, which premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. ET, has been in production.

What has ultimately emerged from a seemingly endless round of reworkings is a show set almost entirely on a train that rarely looks like it’s set on a train.

We know there are railroad cars, 1001 of them to be specific, and we sometimes see them silently gliding across a frozen world. But the action just feels like it takes place in rooms – okay, rooms designed like railroad cars – with almost no sense that it’s all in constant motion.

For a while, Snowpiercer feels like a multi-layered version of Murder on the Orient Express, since the opening drama starts with an unsolved killing.

Snowpiercer is considerably bigger than the Orient Express, however, and so is its story. 
The train’s mission, no pressure here, is to save humanity, because its passengers are, literally, the last people on Earth.

Seems the human race has screwed up the planet so badly with its lack of attention to the environment that the sun has been blocked, and Earth has become a frozen ball, more than a hundred degrees below zero. Snowpiercer can traverse the globe because everything is frozen solid.

As doom approached, however, a mysterious Mr. Wilfred built Snowpiercer, a self-contained world that grows its own food and produces its own fuel.

That’s the sci-fi part of Snowpiercer, which began life as a graphic novel. The train can never stop. It just circles the globe endlessly and has now been doing it for almost seven years.

That doesn’t make life rosy for the whole handful of survivors. Snowpiercer is divided into socio-economic classes, with the first class passengers enjoying fresh strawberries on linen while the huddled masses in the Tail End are thrown an ever-shrinking ration of what seems to be the rough equivalent of dog food. The women in those huddled masses are sterilized so they cannot create the next generation.

The train is divided into multiple sections, separated by impenetrable doors. The people in the Tail End don’t even know what’s on the rest of the train, though a few dare to dream they or their older children might one day earn a promotion a few cars forward.

It’s not quite Hunger Games on wheels, but it’s got the same philosophy on class division.

Andre Layton (Daveed Diggs) lives in the Tail End. He was a homicide detective back when there was an Earth, but that hasn’t won him any special treatment until the aforementioned murder occurs somewhere in the front of the train, and it is discovered he’s the only former cop still alive who has any homicide investigative experience.

He’s invited to help by Melanie Cavill (Jennifer Connelly), Snowpiercer’s director of hospitality. She promises him a promotion in return. He counters by asking for more food and reproductive rights for everyone in the Tail End.

This puts them at an impasse until something happens in the Tail End that changes the leverage situation and puts Layton on the case.

If Snowpiercer starts with a murder mystery, it soon expands into a series of human dramas, many of them shaped by class differences and the means by which Mr. Wilfred maintains control and power.

Snowpiercer comes billed as sci-fi, and it has some of those elements: a ruined future world, advanced medical technology, the rather remarkable feat of creating whole ecosystems inside railroad cars.

But as often happens with quality sci-fi, almost all the human dramas could be happening in real life. The dynamics feel 100% familiar, and that’s why Snowpiercer works. It requires no investment in sci-fi, just an appreciation for how those with power and privilege control those with neither – and why the powerful argue this is imperative, not oppressive.

It’s not a unique message or a perfect one. But it’s not a bad ride.

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