'Snowpiercer' Episode 1: How the train setting mirrors the world we live in and is essential to the storyline
With militarized borders between carriages and classes, the setting is absolutely perfect
In one of her most famous novels, featuring the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, Agatha Christie set the story on the 'Orient Express'. It was the train with the longest route on the Continent that seemed to run forever.
Even before Christie penned her famous 1934 tale about a murder on this train, the Orient Express running between Istanbul (Constantinople) and Paris, was both an engineering marvel and a byword for luxury travel at a time when travel was dangerous. Christie's genius lay in bringing together an assorted group of people, separated by class but inextricably linked, in the enclosed world of the train.
Because the route was so long and the journey stretched over days, people entered as strangers but made friends, cliques, and classes while on the train. But despite its segregation into first class, second class and third class, the small space within the train meant that passengers were thrown into close quarters not to mention the service staff who moved between the train carriages. Even though the first-class tried to keep away from the hoi polloi, they were sandwiched among them.
As those of us who have traveled on trains will attest, the community formed inside this transitory space has very few equivalents. Air travel is too short a period to allow relationships and conversations to develop and motor vehicles too small to host a large traveling community.
'Snowpiercer' uses this same literary device to explore class war because where else do you have classes of people so neatly separated by how much money they have? The enclosed "train ark", therefore, becomes a metaphor for the planet we live in with finite resources in which capitalism dictates the "order". Just like Earth is the "ark", which holds the only life in our solar system, running in an endless orbit around the sun, the Snowpiercer train also holds the last remnants of humanity and circles the globe endlessly.
Everything outside the train is a bleak, frozen wasteland trapped in an eternal winter — a deathscape like the void of space.
"Wilfred's order" that governs life on the Snowpiercer train sections off a lion's share of resources to maintain the lifestyle of the rich, while a middle-tier class of "professionals", who serve as the crew serving the rich, keep the systems running and are comfortably off in the Second (doctors, scientists) and Third class sections (maintenance workers, cooks, servers). They might not get sushi but they do get tomato soup and buttered bread.
This "order", however, has the bare minimum provisions for the "Tailies" — the ones who inhabit the tail section of the train and are at the back of every line when it comes to resources. The ones who are only remembered when there is hazardous and back-breaking work to be done like sanitation and garbage collection.
There is also severe policing of this "ghetto" tail end to restrict their movement to only the limited number of carriages at the back along with an overwhelming control over their food supply and reproduction rights with the women being sterilized. It is eerily similar to how the world treats its poor and powerless. However, the bored teen from the first class can go anytime she wants to the third class to "eat noodles" because she needs the "excitement" the third class provides.
This arrangement is very similar to how travel functions in the world today with those with a UK or US visa being able to travel to "exotic" locations for some excitement. Side by side, there also exist severe travel restrictions on citizens from "third-world" countries traveling or migrating to "first-world" countries. Again, the train analogy fits perfectly to show the skewed rules around movement across this planet we call home.
One of the crew admonishes Andre Layton (Daveed Diggs), the homicide detective, who is a Tailie and the proletariat hero of the show. He spits out his ire, telling him that the Tailies deserve their fate because they didn't pay for tickers or get jobs on the Snowpiercer as the crew — they are useless according to the logic of the capitalistic order maintained on the train.
Melanie Cavill (Jennifer Connelly) has Layton plucked out of the Tailie section because he is a homicide detective — the only one on the train — to solve a murder, the second one on the train. After shaking his hand politely, she tells him that "Mr. Wilfred would like you to contribute," making it sound that Layton was being given a chance to be a useful member of society instead of being a burden, leeching off the limited resources.
But when 'Snowpiercer' starts, we are told that "the Freeze" has occurred and the voice-over pointedly remarks that the rich who funded the Snowpiercer for entry tickets are also the ones who were responsible for the destruction of earth as a habitat for all.
Thus the show cleverly uses the Tailies to describe the plight of migrants, escaping violence and hunger. They are called the freeloading "illegals", accused of taking away resources meant for Americans. When they are given an opportunity to pursue the American Dream, they are supposed to be grateful and grab the chance.
This despite the fact the situations of war and poverty in their home countries are a result of capitalistic extraction of resources and manipulation of "free trade" and foreign policies to ensure America's continued prosperity and clout in the global market, backed by its military and defense systems guarding borders.
The train with its borders between carriages and classes is therefore perfect for the tale that 'Snowpiercer' is trying to tell.
'Snowpiercer' premiered on Sunday, May 17 at 9 pm ET/PT on TNT.