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The depiction of crime and class in Snowpiercer

Contributed by
Jul 6, 2020

Lady Justice's blindfold represents the impartiality of the legal system, but factors like class and race often steer the trial and verdict. Adapted from the 1982 French graphic novel Le Transperceneige (and the 2013 film by Bong Joon Ho), the TNT television Snowpiercer series explores class through different lenses with crime and punishment at the heart of the first season narrative. The value of human life, the notion of criminal justice, and how a case is investigated provide an introduction into the post-apocalyptic world on Snowpiercer. On the 1,001-carriages vehicle, a passengers' worth is measured by the ticket bought when the world was turning to ice.

Third Class is made up of people whose passage is predicated on their employment as low skillset workers who keep the train running but don't even get bodily autonomy — a Baby Lottery decides who is allowed to have children in Third. Those who didn't purchase a place or have a job, but managed to fight their way on board as a means to survive don't even get a classification. Instead, they are referred to as "Tailies" and are seen as less than, only gaining a semblance of personhood when it suits those in power. A disturbing crime without an obvious suspect requires someone with an investigative background, which is how former homicide detective Andre Layton (Daveed Diggs) gets brought on (or rather coerced into) the case.

Spoilers for Snowpiercer ahead

Credit: TNT

The world of Snowpiercer is ripe for long-form storytelling, even if the TV plot currently lacks the laser focus and nuance of Joon Ho's examination of socioeconomic disparity. Using a murder mystery as a catalyst instantly draws the viewer in, utilizing Layton as the entry point to the different sections of the train, beginning with the dehumanizing Tail. We get to see the gaudy gold decor of the First Class dining car — money doesn't buy taste — before Layton, but he treats the so-called Snowpiercer elite with the disdain they deserve by the time he gets to snack on breakfast treats in Episode 4. The victim is from Third, but the suspect is from the upper echelon.

Law and order aboard this vehicle mirror the structural issues of the judicial system before Snowpiercer. If you have status then you are virtually untouchable, whereas someone accused in Third Class lacks autonomy. The last murder to be prosecuted was swift with the so-called guilty party getting sentenced to suspension in the Drawers without hope of appeal — condemned without due process. Nikki Genêt (Madeleine Arthur) is an easy person to blame because she lacks privilege — her worth is wrapped up in her role in the Night Car but there are plenty of women to take her place. When it becomes clear she did nothing wrong, she is woken from a suspended state, but the damage has been done; she is a shell of who she once was. Mentally damaging and inhumane punishment, the Drawers are Snowpiercer's version of solitary confinement. Instead of getting to recuperate, Nikki is thrust back into this nightmare landscape caught between her waking and drugged state before she is murdered by the actual guilty party.

Credit: TNT

Layton reluctantly helps with the investigation, taking beatings before he figures out how to make this scenario work to the advantage of his fellow "Tailies." Referring to the train as a "fortress to class," when Daveed Diggs recently spoke to SYFY WIRE, he explained that Layton "is using this opportunity to try to figure out a way to make things better for his people in the tail and dismantle this class system."

Security on the Snowpiercer comes in the form of personal bodyguards for the ultra-rich, the Jackboot soldiers, and the Brakeman. The latter resemble police officers and employees include ex-cops mixed with those who lack experience in this field. Qualifications are not required to wear this snazzy uniform, which is why they have to seek outside help from a pariah to get ahead of this disturbing case. The new victim is a male Third Class passengers — expendable in the eyes of those who lounge in First — and has been dismembered. This could be to hide the evidence; however, it doesn't account for the castration inflicted while he was still alive. Layton points to how this sadistic act tells a larger story going beyond a petty grievance.

Melanie Cavill (Jennifer Connelly) walks the train corridors with authority, attempting to keep the order that is being touted as the only means for survival. In a deviation from the movie, Melanie is also the omnipresent Mr. Wilford aka the reason why the 3000 people on board are alive. The man behind the curtain is the woman the residents interact with daily. She claims to have inherited an imperfect system in the recent episode "The Universe is Indifferent" as the power struggle continues within. Third Class are not completely without rights and can petition Mr. Wilford. This is how they gain a representative at the tribunal table when teenager LJ Folger (Annalise Basso) is accused of committing the heinous crime. After all, Third is where the victim came from and justice cannot be served without their participation.

Credit: TNT

The daughter of vocal First Class passengers, LJ peeks out from behind her sunglasses with an air of adolescent boredom. Sweet talking her father to get whatever she wants, LJ has never lacked for attention. Clumsy in her manipulation techniques, she attempts a form of seduction when Layton suspects she is the mastermind behind the killings. Her bodyguard (and boyfriend) was her tool to wield; her psychopathic tendencies reveal themselves when she sells him out in the blink of an eye and smiles through her crocodile tears at Layton when she finds out he has been killed trying to evade capture.

Rather than a recent development, LJ's disturbing temperament is emphasized when her mother tells the not so charming childhood story of the time LJ poked her dad's eyeball out with a fork. A sophisticated fake is now in its place, a fake that LJ likes to put in her mouth — this show is not subtle. "I can't say no to her. It's these times. Morality is a moving target," is Robert Folger's (Vincent Gale) excuse for his daughter's terrible behavior but there is no doubt they would act the same way if she committed these crimes in the pre-freeze world. A rich white girl using her wholesome image to get away with murder is far from a new concept (see the killer at the heart of Sharp Objects), and existence on Snowpiercer is a microcosm of the real-world. Her parents give her advice about how to cry properly before the tribunal to gain the most sympathy and she dresses the sweet, innocent part. It seems like it will be a slam-dunk until Third Class insists on adjusting the parameters so they are included in the judicial process.

Credit: TNT

The world in which rich criminals only serve three months for a horrifying crime is no different in the apocalypse. LJ is found guilty but her sentence is commuted due to her young age. Melanie is trying to curry favor with each section of the train from those who hold the material power to the Third Class section (who combined with the Tailies are 70 percent of the population). This particular game, like everything on Snowpiercer, is rigged from the start because LJ knows too much. Knowledge can be just as damaging to the carefully balanced ecosystem as a wealth.

Releasing her into the custody of her parents (despite the guilty verdict) causes a huge rift. She isn't even being confined to her family's fancy living quarters. Third Class workers organize a strike that would have a far-reaching impact — it doesn't go ahead due to a near-catastrophic engine issue — and rumblings echo through the train. Brakeman Till (Mickey Sumner) has found she willing to go against the unfair system after Layton is put in the Drawers and she aids his escape. Layton is willing to use LJ to dismantle the very machine that protected her in the first place.

Using a crime as a catalyst for the first season could easily turn this narrative into "Law & Order: Post-Apocalypse." Nevertheless, while Snowpiercer has stumbled in its focus as it tells a broad story with many moving pieces, it is more than just another crime procedural through the exploration of who benefits. A world split so disproportionally between the haves and have nots will never include a judicial system that isn't influenced by status. Lady Justice's blindfold has strategically placed holes in it, but it doesn't have to be this way. The murder was a sign that all is not well in the state of Snowpiercer and the tribunal result reveals old methods of law and order protect the privileged further fueling the uprising that is underway. Cracks are beginning to form. Perhaps a thaw is coming their way.

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