Welcome to Snowpiercer Explained, the next in a long line of explainer columns about our favorite shows. With TNT dropping a new show into the Snowpiercer universe, we’re riding along to help you keep up with the mythology and filmmaking of this post-apocalyptic freight train.
TNT’s Snowpiercer is off to a solid start. A reboot of Bong Joon-ho’s 2013 film of the same name (based on the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige), the sci-fi series is set in a turbulent post-apocalyptic future when class divisions and inequality reign supreme. Humanity’s survivors spend their days on a train that’s been designed to navigate the new ice age, and their assigned carriages are based on their social status. The metaphor isn’t subtle here.
Furthermore, the train’s most privileged passengers are the same people who caused the apocalypse in the first place. The basic premise and thematic elements are similar to the film in many ways, but “First, the Weather Changed” establishes that the show has some fresh ideas on its mind, too.
The first episode follows Layton Well (Daveed Diggs), a former homicide detective who now finds himself living in squalor at the tail-end of the train. Along with the other “Tailies,” Layton is planning a revolution that will see him storm the train and hopefully bring an end to the unfair class system that’s in place. However, before the detective can do any of that, he must find out more about the train’s structure.
Luckily for Layton, there’s a serial killer on the loose in the carriages, and no one is safe from harm. Layton’s previous history as a detective makes him useful to Mr. Wilford — the mysterious wealthy visionary who created the train for the rich to survive — and he’s called into action to solve the case.
Layton reluctantly accepts the job as, not only does the mission allow him to make some demands that will ease the torment of the Tailies, but it also gives him the freedom to roam the corridors and gain a better knowledge of the system that’s oppressing them. He wants to bring the fury, but he’s going to be smart about it.
Snowpiercer’s procedural, murder-mystery, and war elements are certainly exciting, but the detective and the killer aren’t the most interesting characters coming out of “First, the Weather Changed.” That honor goes to Melanie Cavill (Jennifer Connelly), a conductor and announcer who wears “many hats.” For most of the episode, she’s presented as a messenger, acting as a conduit for Mr. Wilford. At the end of the episode, the viewer learns that she is Mr. Wilford. Go figure.
The twist doesn’t come as a huge surprise, but it’s earned. It’s clear from the outset that Melanie is focused on maintaining the stability of the society they’ve built on the train, and you get the impression that she cares more about the killer being caught than the man she allegedly works for. He’s mentioned, sure, but Melanie is evidently the leader of this whole operation, even though she puts on a believable mask in front of those who aren’t privy to her secret.
Of course, the big question is: why is Melanie posing as a conductor when she’s the most powerful person in the world? There are a couple of explanations for this. First of all, being a conductor allows her to keep an eye on things without having to rely on others for information. She’s the type of person who needs to be in control at all times due to the magnitude of her creation, and the dangers within its carriages. Posing as a messenger makes her seem neutral and harmless when interacting with the train’s divided denizens.
Meanwhile, acting on behalf of a mysterious higher-up enables Melanie to gauge who’s a potential threat to the entire operation. While the stewards live in relative comfort, they don’t exactly come from a place of privilege either. If there’s unrest bubbling among the non-elites that could cause chaos, she’s more likely to spot it by pretending to be sympathetic to people’s concerns.
The other reason why Melanie can’t reveal the truth is because she’s a woman. Snowpiercer is a show that’s concerned about the world’s inequality, and that includes systemic misogyny. By pretending that a man built the train and saved the day, the most elite and influential passengers are less likely to question the train’s rules.
Another theory is that Mr. Wilford is a pseudonym for various people. Perhaps Melanie inherited this moniker from a male predecessor. But the end of the episode shows her wearing a Massachusetts Institute of Technology shirt, suggesting that she really is the genius engineer who built the train that preserves the human species. I hope that’s the case. That said, to give away a huge twist this early means that viewers can expect more unexpected developments down the line.