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Snowpiercer 1.02 Review – ‘Prepare to Brace’

May 24, 2020 | Posted by Jeremy Thomas
Snowpiercer - 'Prepare to Brace'
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Snowpiercer 1.02 Review – ‘Prepare to Brace’  

[Warning: spoilers abound for those who have not seen Sunday’s episode of Snowpiercer.]

The series premiere of TNT’s Snowpiercer carried all the faults of your typical genre pilot episode, mostly in the form of some clunky exposition out of a need to lay out the show’s concept to viewers. It also showed a lot of potential thanks not only to its strong source material, but also a talented cast and a promising mystery. Granted, a murder mystery is far from the most unique storyline for episodic television, even if that mystery threatens to expose some intense social themes and dynamics. But it was a reason for fans to potentially come back to see what’s next for Layton, Melanie, and the rest of humanity’s remaining survivors.

With the foibles of pilot structure out of the way, showrunner Graeme Manson and his writing team are freed to focus his writing staff on the story (and mystery) itself. And that’s what the Donald Joh-scripted “Prepare to Brace” does. As Layton begins his investigation into the matter, he finds himself predictably stymied at several turns, even as the people who stymie him hints that he should look past the façade if he wants to get to the truth of the situation.

Snowpiercer Layton Melanie

That one of the biggest pains in Layton’s ass regarding the investigation in Tills also suggests that there’s more than meets the eye is an intriguing way for Joh to detail some of the cracks in the train’s organizational structure. It almost feels unfair to call the Snowpiercer a dystopian society; it’s dealing with the worst possible situation, and some might point out that it’s merely doing the best it can. But even a cursory glance points out that all is clearly not well on the train. We knew that almost literally right from the first shot, and if the sight of train security shooting people trying desperately to survive wasn’t a clue then the Tailies’ situation made it clear.

And if that wasn’t enough last week, this week we get it shoved right in our face. A lot. On the regular. Whether it’s Ruth doling out Wilford’s punishment by taking off a Tailie woman’s arm (and that only after threatening to do so to a child) or the privileged complaining about things and throwing political weight around like it should matter, it’s made repeatedly and constantly clear that things are devolving on the train in year seven of the Snowpiercer’s run. In fact, it’s actually more than a little overemphasized –but we’ll get to that shortly.

The point for now is that in the midst of all this, there’s plenty of motivation for people to show their true characters. In some cases, it’s signs of relative decency like Tills warning Layton about how the past murder investigation went; in others, it’s a chance to morally fold like Ms. Folger who tries to throw her weight around in car one to affect the investigation. That latter scene is telling, because on the surface you would wonder why the rich care what happens involving a murder back in the lower castes. Joh’s script wants us to suspect that the Folgers are involved – and they may well be – but by the same token it could just be a political move. That level of uncertainty clouds the investigation, adding some oomph to the neo-noir elements of this story.

Snowpiercer Melanie

There’s a lot going in in terms of the murder mystery in this episode, and that’s important because it is one of the big narrative hooks to keep people watching. Cannibalism and conspiracies abound, and that’s all quite exciting. But it’s also not the only thing that this episode has to do. Sophomore episodes often narrow things down after the pilot takes an expansive approach, and there’s a bit of this in “Prepare to Brace.” It’s arguably not enough though, as we still have a lot of other things to touch on.

Chief among those is the state of the train itself. It would seem that as was suggested last week, Melanie is actually Mr. Wilford all on her own and she makes all the decisions about the train, even as everyone just looks at her as the hospitality person who has “Wilford’s” ear. Melania has a lot to deal with; in addition to Tailie revolts and murders, dealing with the elements is still obviously a concern like it is in the source material. That takes a focus this week with avalanches along a particularly treacherous spot of the track, which causes further complications to Layton’s investigation when the cattle car is decimated via an accident.

And then there’s that whole rebellion thing, which still has ramifications after the revolt that closed out last week’s pilot. The poor woman loses her arm for taking credit for the revolt to save her daughter, and the instigators are put into the drawers. All of this is shown in painstaking form, switching back and forth in sequences between the rich or the investigation and what’s going in with the people in the Tail.

Snowpiercer Henry Klimpt

And here’s the problem with that: as put on the page and brought to the screen, it’s heavy-handed and not all that interesting yet. Now, the key word there is “yet.” It’s frustrating to have to cut to another scene of Melanie and Bennett the engineer talking about speed percentages, or go through three or four scenes of the doctors discussing Nikki Genêt, the woman wrongly imprisoned for the first murder, when one or two would do. But there’s also potential here of a build, and a road to where all of this will pay off. It doesn’t make the constant jumping back and forth better this week, but the fruits could be worth the hassle.

Clearly, the most interesting thing going on here is Layton. Daveed Diggs is a big part of that, as he has ample material to build an enjoyable, believable performance here. As the guy right in the middle of all this, Layton has a lot of stakes going on. He’s obviously doing a lot to try and gather intelligence for the Tailies’ nest revolt, but he also gets backstory through his interactions with Zarah, which reveal his backstory. He starts to inspire some loyalty from Tills by the end of the episode, and he’s regularly proving his value by making astute observations. The actions he takes to get his information back to the Tailies will test some of that value and loyalty, but the more he gets enmeshed, the more we’re likely to get enmeshed with him.

As I watch this show, I find myself enjoying it and being frustrated in somewhat similar measures. The performances are great, and the mystery is intriguing – especially now that we’re talking about (in Layton’s words) “killers and cannibals, and God knows what” potentially being involved. Manson and his team are doing a nice job of laying out the mystery for the time it’s being given. What we’ve seen of the train itself is fascinating as well – kudos to director Sam Miller for injecting some real style and visual flair to places like the Night Car and scenes like the flashbacks. But at the same time, the show so wants us to see its class war themes that it doesn’t trust us to notice them ourselves, practically screaming them out in neon lights. If Snowpiercer can lean a bit more into the former and a bit less into the latter, it might just have something great; as it is, it’s just good.

Snowpiercer Bojan Boscovic

Some Final Thoughts:

• Predictably, any scene featuring the first-class residents ranks among the least interesting ones. Clearly there’s a point to them, likely centered on the younger Folger, but I hope we get to it soon because I have extreme issues with trying to care about them.

• Young Miles is on his way further up the train thanks to an apprenticeship, and that’s sure to factor as a plot complication for Layton soon.

• “We ration the people, not the crops.” Well, that’s an absolutely terrifying statement, Melanie – especially in light of cannibalism accusations being thrown around (I know that’s not what she meant, but still).

• Speaking of cannibalism, that story from Layton about taking out the cannibal kill cult in the Tail in the beginning was surely something.

• Just remember folks: if you’re on a train upon which mankind’s survival is at stake, the beef noodles are people.

7.0
The final score: review Good
The 411
The second episode of Snowpiercer is not quite as burdened by exposition, which makes it a welcome change from the pilot. The acting remains solid and the mystery is nicely deepening, though the episode's reliance on heavy-handedness means this is more of a small upgrade from the first episode rather than a leap in quality.
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Snowpiercer, Jeremy Thomas