“First, the weather changed.”
It was not 40 days of rain, but the suffocating heat—brought on by humankind’s profligate ways, selfishness, and greed. In response, scientists attempted to cool the skies, but instead froze the earth. Now, the only hope is an ark of the Industrial Age, a train that serves as a steam-punk world containing all remaining life on the planet: insects, fish, cattle, trees, grasses, and humans, all circling the globe while desperately waiting for the thaw.
Snowpiercer—the name of this train and the TNT series that is now in its first season—is 1,001 cars long. It is the brainchild of the prescient Mr. Wilford, an enigmatic billionaire. The train is divided into strict classes: billionaires in First; artists, skilled workers, and intellectuals in Second; brakemen, security guards, and janitors—those given passage in exchange for their labor—in Third. At the back live “the Tail-ies,” an uninvited group of refugees who stormed Snowpiercer at the last moment and live off the scraps occasionally sent down train.
Based on a 2013 film by Parasite director Bong Joon-Ho (which was itself based on a French graphic novel), Snowpiercer stars Daveed Diggs as Andre Layton, a Tail-ie who served as a police detective in “the before.” In the first episode, Layton is brought up train to solve a murder. Melanie Cavill (Jennifer Connelly), the head of the euphemistically named Hospitality Division, meets with him to explain that Mr. Wilford is very interested in solving the crime quickly. The survival of humanity depends on “balance”—the carefully constructed world of the train in which everyone has a place, and all things must remain in stasis.
In an early twist (one of many) we learn that this stasis is built on a lie. (Spoilers ahead.) “Mr. Wilford” is not who or what we think he is. As Cavill settles into the cockpit, looking out the front of the engine, a colleague remarks to her, “The engine is yours, Mr. Wilford.” Cavill, the voice of the train, is actually running the show. For her, Mr. Wilford is an important fiction. As the symbol of authority for all the decisions she makes, Mr. Wilford is the moral justification for Cavill’s power. Her carefully executed plan requires complete compliance by all involved. The idea of Mr. Wilford is central to her work. The whole conceit of the train is “order” and “balance.” The refined, genteel manners of First are balanced by the hellish world of the tail, much like the way District 1 was balanced by Katniss Everdeen’s District 13 in The Hunger Games or the elegant Victorian courts were balanced by the Satanic mills of a Dickensian nightmare. In between, literally, are the increasingly desperate classes of Second and Third, where survival depends on fulfilling one’s role, whether as a teacher or a septic cleaner.
On this train, the survival of humanity depends on “balance.”
Unsurprisingly, many of the Tail-ies are thinking about revolution; discontent is brewing in Third as well. Yet, while fear of these movements is real for Cavill and her crew, revolution is a fragile plan that repeatedly falls apart. What becomes clear in these first six episodes is that “Mr. Wilford” is very much the god figure as imagined in Marxist ideology, where everything is ordered by class. As the “opiate of the masses,” the cult of Mr. Wilford operates with a combination of fear, respect, and mystery, all in order to keep everyone safely in their place.
In “Trouble Comes Sideways,” the sixth episode, the rebellious plans of the Tail-ies and Third class come close to realization. Yet just as they begin to rally the people, a mechanical failure threatens to destroy the entire train. The hydraulics of a car go off line, literally throwing off the balance of the train as it approaches a bridge over a vast gorge. All classes brace for what seems the true and final end. A Hospitality worker takes the intercom and declares, “We are the last of earth’s survivors. We are going to make it. I just know it. We just will. Mr. Wilford has gotten us out of worse scrapes before. So keep the faith. And you just remember that his engine always provides. So find someone. And hold them close. And please. Try to stay warm.” Even the doubters weep with joy as The Eternal Engine, the work of good Mr. Wilford, seems to come through yet again, saving them all. The disembodied voice of the High Priest(ess) calms their fears with an appeal to a god who exists for no other reason than to justify and maintain an oppressive—if functional—status quo. Keep the train moving. Live another day. Stay warm.
The image we get here is that of God as crutch, a comfort in times of trouble, the reason for morality and the status quo. This is not exactly the God Christians know, yet haven’t we, at times, bought into this mythos?
More than a decade ago, sociologist Christian Smith argued that the real religion of most Christian teens in the United States was not Christianity but “moral, therapeutic deism.” God is our salve, moral guide, occasional resource in times of need. Since then, we have seen how large segments of the church rally to a public call for “law and order,” even while cries of “justice,” “reform,” and “mercy” rise up in the streets. In the face of our fear of the Other, the immigrant, the protestor, do we seek justice, clamoring for God’s intervention, his Holy disruption, or do we long for stability, safety, and a return to the status quo?
Snowpiercer pushes Christians to ask some hard questions. Are we worshipping the Triune God revealed in Jesus Christ, a God who is as likely to upset our social order as to bless it? Or do we prop up a benefactor, ruler, and capricious overlord in our fear of change, love of social stability, and the implicit conviction that this life is all there is?