Snowpiercer is rated TV-MA by the Motion Picture Association of America.
“We build our lives around the ones we love. When we lose them, we lose ourselves.” – Ben Knox, on Snowpiercer, 1029 cars long.
It’s impossible to watch more than a few episodes of the third season of TNT’s Snowpiercer, which wrapped up its finale before break, without expecting to hear Mark Hamill’s iconic, prescient voiceover to Star Wars VIII: “This is not going to go the way you think.” Like The Last Jedi, I’m sure Snowpiercer Season 3 will upset some longtime fans, but for me, at least, it plays as a welcome return to form.
Not since the early episodes of Season 1 has Snowpiercer been so thrilling, so well written, or so downright unpredictable, an impressive feat for a season that, after the S2 finale, seemed sure to retread the same old track. I thought I knew how this was going to go, and I was wrong. I’m glad I was.
Season 3 opens almost exactly where Season 2 left off, with Andre Layton’s ten car pirate train and crew of misfit heroes scouring the globe for regions where The Freeze, the long ago disaster that rendered the surface of the Earth so cold it turns human flesh to ice in seconds, is beginning to fade. They do so to honor the legacy of Engineer Melanie Cavill, Layton’s old frenemy who (probably) died to give him and his crew a map to what they hope will be a new home for humanity. As plots go, it’s a fine one, but it’s not where Snowpiercer will stay for long.
Meanwhile, on Big Alice, the ensemble cast members left behind in Layton’s coup have taken the fight against Wilford, the train’s oldest and latest dictator, underground. The longtime rebels of The Tail are back to their old tricks, with Pike and the other Tailies seeming almost glad to be back in the battle against the oppressor that defined them for so many years.
They are, however, led for a change not by Layton, nor any Tailie, but by Ruth. Once Wilford’s most devoted disciple, the former head of Hospitality reveals a surprisingly magnetic performance as a fearless, daring leader of lost causes. And this is where Season 3 really starts to shine, because it chooses to use the loss and turmoil of previous seasons not as an excuse for more action, but to transform the characters who have always been the heart of Snowpiercer in unexpected, sometimes disturbing, ways.
It takes skill in the writers’ room to push two heroes into actively trying to kill each other without making me lose respect, or sympathy, for either of them, and yet this season does it, more than once. In retrospect, it’s also easy to see that the chaos of Season 2, which I didn’t find particularly gripping, may all have been for this, the skillful plan of a writer with assurances that they had a few seasons to lay the foundations of characters complex enough to carry a story for years to come.
For that exact reason, Episode 8, in which the ensemble cast are forced, two by two, into lockdown in quarters to escape a toxic crimson fog, is perhaps the season’s best. It’s a thinly veiled allegory for the pandemic, with barely a few science words thrown about on screen to justify it, but it gives the show’s all star cast an opportunity to show off their considerable talent for character acting.
In lockdown, without all eyes on them, the characters we’ve grown to know over three long seasons of turmoil can take off their masks and be themselves. Not heroes. Not legends. Not the last humans. Just people, laughing and crying, loving and grieving in equal measure.
More importantly, Season 3 is a reminder, or maybe a lesson, that there are no heroes aboard Snowpiercer. There are leaders, even great ones, but nobody, not even the oldest of original characters, makes it to the finale with clean hands. People can change, and rules can be broken, and nothing is going to go the way you think.
And that, ultimately, is what makes Season 3 work. With two successful seasons under its belt and a fourth already greenlit, the show is free to branch out and push audiences to the very edge of what we’ll accept. It’s been years since I’ve seen a series so willing to flip over the table and abandon all pretensions of heroes and villains on a dime, and it makes for a frightening, exhilarating ten episodes. On Snowpiercer, it’s good to be back.