Snowpiercer’s Justice System Is Off the Rails Bad

Alison Wright and Jennifer Connelly as Ruth Wardell and Melanie Cavill. (Image: TNT)
Alison Wright and Jennifer Connelly as Ruth Wardell and Melanie Cavill. (Image: TNT)

Much as the hospitality staff of Snowpiercer’s titular train are loathe to admit it, things have been far from all right among the passengers. Those living in the upper-class cars have spent years convincing themselves that their wealth makes them objectively better than those who had to fight their way onto the back of the locomotive.

Yet, all the money in the world couldn’t make it possible for the rich to ignore the reality that one of their peers has been skulking around murdering people in the most gruesome of ways. Andre Layton (Daveed Diggs) is Snowpiercer’s sole homicide detective, which has afforded him the opportunity to “escape” from the train’s Tail — provided that he assist the hapless Wilford employees with their investigation. But as the series has chugged along, it’s become all too clear that Layton’s promised freedom was just bait that Melanie Cavill (Jennifer Connelly) and the rest have been dangling in front of him. Much as he’s done to help the train’s police figure out what’s going on, they’ve frequently brutalised him personally and made direct threats to his friends and chosen family still living in squalor in the Tail.

What’s kept Layton going is his understanding that, left to their own devices, the rich will always end up eating themselves, and while he may make it seem as if he has aspirations of leaving the Tail behind and permanently joining the upper class, his plans for the future are much more revolutionary.

In “Prepare to Brace,” Layton demonstrated just how generally basic Snowpiercer’s concept of detective work has been up until this point. That could either be interpreted as a critique of the show’s incompetent villains, or be chalked up to the fact that the show’s writers don’t understand how audiences have spent years watching more complicated procedurals. After Layton is partnered up with Bess Till (Mickey Sumner), one of Snowpiercer’s cops, and doing a thorough examination of the dismembered corpse at the centre of the show’s mystery, it isn’t long before the two come to the conclusion that the train’s butchers — the people who control all of the meat supply — may be the culprits, as they’re some of the few people aboard with the kinds of knives capable of mutilating a body.

Journeying into the butcher’s territory and learning that there’s an entire car full of the last living cows on the planet is a revelation to Layton because at that point in the frozen future, beef’s become all but mythical to those without the means of accessing it. A love of food has been one of Layton’s defining characteristics, and it speaks to how he spent years in the Tail scrounging for the meager, unappetizing rations provided by Wilford. Amazed as he is by the cows, and plentiful vegetation he catches glimpses of as he moves through the train, he has a moment of pause when he and Till stop by a noodle vendor that she’s eager to eat at, while he isn’t, as he’s got no money to pay for a meal.

Even though Till and her other colleagues couldn’t even get to the point where it dawned on them to suspect the butchers, she immediately runs with the idea in the way that ineffective cops tend to. To be fair, she’s not wholly wrong, because as the two of them are looking around the butchers’ workplace, they do end up finding the corpse’s missing limbs hidden away. Till’s then horrified when Layton accurately points out that the noodles she’s been enjoying from the food stall were definitely mixed with human flesh.

It would have been easy to assume that the case was solved then and there, but Layton understands that Snowpiercer’s murder problem isn’t necessarily limited to a single person or a single crime, which is precisely the sort of thing that Wilford’s people wouldn’t want to accept were it not for their fear that he might be correct.

The deeper Layton gets into Snowpiercer, the more Melanie’s authoritarian control over the train’s day to day operations becomes clear. At a moment they realise the train is on the verge of triggering a massive avalanche with the potential to fully derail it, she refuses to heed her fellow engineers’ advice. Though the avalanche didn’t destroy the train outright, it necessitated the triggering of rolling blackouts that significantly impact the Tail, while everyone else was left only mildly inconvenienced.

Even more monstrous, though, is the way that Melanie and her ilk actively work to keep Snowpiercer’s passengers from being fully able to appreciate how every aspect of their lives is being meticulously manipulated through various kinds of force — from deception to outright violence. In a very simplistic way, Snowpiercer presents control (represented by the Wilford employees) as its ultimate villain, and freedom (the train’s underclass) as its hero, but the show seldom spends enough time with those ideas for them to become of narrative substance.

In “Access to Power,” once Layton learns that the dead man was both working as an informant and involved in Snowpiercer’s illicit drug trade, Melanie’s response is to set up a sort of fight night between passengers in which the winner will be granted a life in second class. In her mind, what everyone else (read: the poor people) on the train wants is to live like her, but the truth is that what everyone needs is the ability to live their lives as fully as is possible on a massive train endlessly hurtling its way across the planet.

The series establishes that there are just over 1,000 individual cars meant for various purposes and some 3,000 passengers. Even if you factored out the agricultural and livestock cars, there would still be plenty of room for everyone to live relatively balanced lives if resources were judiciously and fairly distributed. But that sounds too much like right, and Melanie’s more than comfortable living at the top of a caste system in which people she deems as enemies are either killed outright or disappeared — put into medically-induced comas, and kept in morgue-like drawers indefinitely.

As more and more bodies pile up in “Without Their Maker,” Snowpiercer finally gets around to tackling something about its story that has come across as incredibly tone-deaf from the very first episode. When all signs began pointing to Erik (Matt Murray), the bodyguard of the elite Folger family, being the killer, Layton’s biggest concern is whether the Folgers will throw their weight around to ensure he wasn’t brought to justice. It’s a concern that Melanie also shares, but because she’s a figure of authority, she can guarantee Layton has the necessary means to move forward and expose Erik for what he is.

But the truth of the matter is that while Erik might have physically committed the murders, Layton’s able to deduce that he did so at the behest of LJ Folger (Annalise Basso), the Folger’s only daughter, whom Erik was known to have an inappropriately close relationship with. There are levels to what makes the dynamic between LJ, who is white, and Erik, who is Black, deeply unhealthy, chief among them that she’s a teenager and he’s a grown man. Beyond that, though, LJ is clearly made out (on more than one occasion) to be the specific sort of sociopath who would delight in manipulating someone who worked for her to commit heinous crimes.

In the moment when Melanie urges Layton to go after Erik for his and LJ’s crimes, what’s happening is a twisted example of a white woman wielding her authority over a Black man to kill another Black man, while a white girl who can and will kill again goes unpunished. Snowpiercer doesn’t make anything like an effort to engage with the subtext of these optics, choosing instead to just plow into a by-the-numbers story of somewhat mistaken identity. In doing that, it continues to illustrate that for all of the hype and steam the series has tried to generate, it simply doesn’t have the range.

Snowpiercer airs on Netflix in Australia.