In early March, when it became clear that the wrath of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States was going to be widespread and unforgiving, a disturbing, if unsurprising report came out: Wealthy Americans were apparently contacting their doctors and asking if they could pay for an early vaccine. Cost was no object.
Of course, there was—and is—no vaccine, leaving the rich at no advantage on that front. But it was an early, ignoble exposure of what quickly became apparent when it comes to class and the pandemic. Sure, the virus appeared to be a great equalizer; among the first high-profile cases was Tom Hanks. But as spring went on, economies shut down, quarantines began, and death tallies skyrocketed, the advantages of privilege bloomed.
Those with second homes fled the cities to socially distance with more outdoor space, safety, and sanity. Some took private planes to get there. They had financial safety nets amid a historic economic collapse that has left so many jobless. And as more and more celebrities announced that they had tested positive while most Americans were told they could not be tested at all, many wondered what sort of preferential medical access was being afforded to the rich and famous.
It didn’t take long for The Atlantic to spell it out in a headline: “The Coronavirus Will Be a Catastrophe for the Poor.” Even dystopia caters to those with money.
The resounding chorus from the most anxious these days is that, “This is just like a sci-fi movie.” It’s true. As such, it’s one of seemingly countless times in the last decade when it’s been highly appropriate to lament, “This is just like Snowpiercer.”
In the 2013 film, directed by Oscar-winner Bong Joon-ho (Parasite), a train is built as the only way of surviving a climate-change apocalypse—but only the rich and those who serve them can afford a ticket to board. A population of stowaways infiltrate the train, but are starved and abused as a punishing class system emerges among the last remaining humans on earth.
Given that plot description, and given the state of the world, it couldn’t be a timelier occasion to release a TV adaptation of Snowpiercer, which launches Sunday on TNT.
When we met with Snowpiercer showrunner Graeme Manson (the co-creator of Orphan Black) and series lead Daveed Diggs (the Tony-winner from Hamilton) earlier this year in Los Angeles, there was no pandemic in the backdrop of our conversation. Nor was it there when they filmed the series almost a year and a half ago, or when Bong Joon-ho made the film it’s based on, or in 1982 when the French graphic novel that inspired Joon-ho was first published.
But that’s the thing about a sci-fi thriller that doubles as an allegory about how class informs humanity’s crassest, least empathetic instincts. It’s always going to be timely. The reality that living—as in, the act of not being dead—has a wealth-access point. Only the rich survive. And if they can’t, they’re at least going to live longer and as comfortably as possible.
Sunday’s Snowpiercer premiere starts with a haunting animated sequence narrated by Diggs’ Andre Layton, explaining how we got here, on board this train.
“First, the weather changed,” he says, almost rapping. “The deniers knew why, but they still doomed us with their lies. War made the earth even hotter.”
Scientists tried to reverse the warming and cool the earth, but instead they froze it to the core. An enigmatic transportation magnate named Mr. Wilford saw the writing on the wall and developed an ark of sorts, a train that would circumnavigate the world in perpetuity, protecting those on board from the freeze.
The rich—many of whom were the corporate and political influencers responsible for the world’s impending doom—flocked to the train, which was equipped with the finest luxuries to accommodate them. With no other recourse, the underprivileged left behind stormed the train and attempted to force their way on board. Families were separated in the melee. Mothers were killed or thrown off the train in front of their children. (“This is just like Snowpiercer”: This recalls last year’s ICE raids and immigration war.)
When we catch up to the action, it is six years, nine months, and 26 days into the journey. The stowaways, relegated to Snowpiercer’s last of 1,001 cars, have been starved. The women have been sterilized. A rebellion is brewing. Meanwhile, up the train in the first-class car, a hospitality manager named Melanie (played by Jennifer Connelly) is comforting passengers complaining at brunch about attire etiquette in the spa’s exclusive sauna.
“I think good genre work tends to wear its politics on its sleeve and then further complicates things as the story goes on,” Diggs says, referring to the series’ opening. “I think good speculative fiction allows us to look at our own contemporary choices in a different or more focused way, to shed some sort of light on what we’re going through. When you look at the real genre greats, they’re pieces that say very explicitly what the message is as it relates to today. It’s important that those be the first lines.”
“Putting it up front like that, it’s like a thesis statement,” Manson says. “Climate change underpins the whole narrative. There’s no escaping it, even when you’re not talking about it.”
Snowpiercer’s journey to Sunday’s TNT premiere has been anything but direct.
An original pilot was filmed in 2017, written by Josh Friedman (Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles) and directed by Scott Derrickson (Doctor Strange), and picked up to series in 2018. Soon after, TNT and Friedman parted ways over creative differences. Manson, who was just coming off Orphan Black, was brought in as showrunner. But Derrickson left the project out of loyalty to Friedman, refusing to reshoot the pilot according to Manson’s vision. A new director, James Hawes, was brought and a new pilot was made.
Nearly a year and a half passed before May 2019, when Snowpiercer was finally given an airdate. It would premiere the following spring but on TBS instead of TNT. Several months later, that decision was reversed—it would air on TNT after all—and a second season was put into production, nearly a year before any episode aired at all. And now, here we are.
(“I couldn’t control any of that, so I didn’t let it worry me,” Manson says diplomatically about all the scheduling drama.)
But that the series remains as timely now as it was three years ago when it was first given a pilot order speaks to the potency of this story device—a train in which the advantages of class and wealth intensify as you move up the cars—and its damning indictment of how class warfare is not only inevitable, but may be our actual undoing.
“The ways that, as a society, we decide to maintain a class structure are often not in our best interests, as a society or even individually,” Diggs says.
The Snowpiercer train was developed by Mr. Wilford to save humanity, but a class structure was impressed on it. It was built to maintain the divide that existed before the apocalypse. “It wasn't about survival entirely,” Diggs says. “Because from a Wilford perspective, what's the point of survival without extravagance?”
Everyone on the train, from the stowaways in “The Tail” to the richest in first class are keenly aware of the reality that drove them onto the train in the first place. Humanity had made a series of selfish decisions, knowingly poisoning the globe in the pursuit of more instant gratification. Yet even as they look out the window onto the frozen tundra, they indulge in luxuries, waste rations of scarce resources, and prioritize comfort over the common good. It shows what information we’re willing to compartmentalize if it means getting what we want now.
When that’s the case, especially in catastrophe, “the least fortunate suffer the most,” Manson says. The train is the perfect way to illustrate that. “Those divides are just so much sharper and in high relief in this series.”
“Because it's on a train, everything is like a powder keg,” agrees Diggs. “Everything is so constrained. So we get to see the ramifications of these race, class, and political choices pretty quickly, in ways that take generations to play out in our current world.”
Then, perhaps the biggest takeaway of it all: “And there might not be that many generations left.”