Mr. Wilford takes the upper hand in the overcrowded “Keep Hope Alive”, a solid outing marred by a wavering focus.
This recap of Snowpiercer season 2, episode 5, “Keep Hope Alive”, contains spoilers.
The way Snowpiercer usually works is by loudly announcing a particular theme – last week, for example, was trauma, particularly psychosexual trauma and how it relates specifically to Audrey and Mr. Wilford’s relationship – and then focusing on a couple of subplots that explore or at least reiterate those core ideas. “Keep Hope Alive” seems very much like it’s going to work in the same way. In the opening voiceover, Josie, now aboard Big Alice as a science experiment of the Headwoods, voices her on-going devotion to the cause and begins passing messages back to Layton through the trading system at the border. We’re to assume, then, that the episode is going to be about that, about unswerving loyalty and determined martyrdom, but there’s so much other stuff going on that it ends up being about one thing after another.
Josie’s angle here is compelling, too. She is intended to function as a spy, narratively, and she accomplishes that. But there is so much more to her predicament. She’s being surgically repaired using highly advanced technology the likes of which Snowpiercer can barely comprehend, and she’s having to swerve off anesthetic and push through the pain to remain awake enough to pass on what she overhears the Headwoods discussing. She is shacked up with Icy Bob, Wilford’s terrifying cold-resistant weapon, who here shows a touching, almost heart-breaking humanity in coaching Josie through her pain. There is so much going on here, so much potential on a character and worldbuilding level, that it is a real shame when all Josie really gets to do is pass notes back to the more important characters on Snowpiercer.
Snowpiercer season 2, episode 5, like the previous episodes, doesn’t seem to know what to do with Big Alice, so it keeps reiterating the idea that its passengers are totally under the sway of Mr. Wilford. This has always been a theme, even way back in Season 1, but the difference is that Snowpiercer’s passengers, as discussed previously, were under the sway of the idea of Wilford, his name, and benevolent reputation. Their devotion was to the ideals of hope and safety he represented, whereas those aboard Big Alice, ruled directly by the man himself, are controlled by fear. The book club during which members discuss Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca and fret about not having read the text like students before an exam is especially telling, but its tension is lessened by the fact that we don’t know or care about any of those involved other than Alex, who helpfully announces, “He killed his first wife and the house burns down,” to the others.
Why is Mr. Wilford running a book club? One assumes it is another facet of his narcissism; he wants his “students” to parrot his own beliefs about the novel back at him. That makes sense to me, but it would be nice to hear Wilford’s own perspective on it or even that of someone else aboard Big Alice. And why Rebecca? Is it just because it is a towering, enduring work of English literature, as he says, or because it’s about the intense, devotional love of a woman who discovers her absurdly wealthy husband is a murderer? Does Wilford see himself as Maxim de Winter, and Audrey – whose albums he has been playing on a loop since he met with her last week – as the unnamed narrator who cares only about his affection and attention? If that is the case, is Big Alice his Manderley, or is Snowpiercer?
The episode’s title, “Keep Hope Alive”, is most obviously evoked by the news that Melanie has not answered the weather balloon ping, forcing Layton and Ruth to lie to Snowpiercer’s passengers. It is an ironic call back to Melanie’s similar decision to pose as Mr. Wilford throughout the first season, but it is lessened by the fact that we never see what Melanie is up to and have no real idea if the cost of the lie is worth the morale of the train. Perhaps knowing that Melanie is alive and close to her objective and that Layton and Ruth have somewhat eroded their moral compasses by prematurely lying when all they had to do was wait for Melanie to answer the ping, would have been a clearer dramatic choice. It would have given their decision a note of tragedy, the sense that these little decisions to lie when the truth would do are simply born of circumstance, not malice. That would help to reframe a lot of the first season’s events, too. Throughout most of that, Melanie was kind of a villain, a self-serving manipulator, and her efforts in its latter episodes and in the early installments of Season 2 have been a form of redemption for that. More clearly mirroring her actions with those of the idealistic Layton, depicting that both began with the same intention but succumbed to the pressure of the same forces, would have been smarter and more interesting.
Snowpiercer season 2, episode 5 forces Layton to make another choice that hastens his moral decline (more on that soon), so I can see the logic behind him making a rash decision that goes against his principles. But Ruth is another matter. In Season 1 she was mostly a two-dimensional villain, an avatar of Snowpiercer’s Hospitality as envisioned by Wilford, not as reimagined by Melanie. But this season has thus far endeavored to make her more complex, to weigh her loyalty to Snowpiercer itself against her devotion to Mr. Wilford. Towards the end of the episode, when Audrey hollowly elects to remain on Big Alice after yet another weird afternoon spent with Mr. Wilford, Ruth refuses Wilford’s offer of joining them. You get the sense the first-season version of the character would have snapped that opportunity up, so there’s progress there. But it also seems like Ruth’s burgeoning relationship with Zara is intended to mean something, and I’m not sure what. There is a moment in “Keep Hope Alive” during which Zara’s morning sickness causes her to throw up in a bin, and then she effortlessly delivers a weather report to the entire train. What is the point of this? Is it trying to show Ruth that her function in Hospitality, which she takes so much pride in, can be quite easily fulfilled by a pregnant woman with no prior experience? If so, why? Isn’t she already disillusioned at this point?
Till remains similarly inscrutable and stands out as the biggest casualty of the changes to the status quo. Having her become an embittered gumshoe was an obvious attempt to give her something to do, but her investigations have long-since given way to interactions with Pastor Logan that are so obviously written that they border on silly. She, like everyone else, is struggling with the new dynamics caused by Wilford’s return and Snowpiercer being tethered to Big Alice, but she lacks a clear goal or sense of progression. Sparring with Logan is a handy metaphor, but remember, sparring is merely preparation for a real fight, and Till has nobody to fight but herself at this point.
At least Layton’s decline is clearer. It might have begun with his lying to the train’s passengers, but it culminates in Snowpiercer season 2, episode 5 with his ordering of Pike to kill Terence at Zara’s urging. It’s clearly a big moment for him but doesn’t necessarily feel like one since it’s sandwiched between other plot beats, including the climactic beginnings of Mr. Wilford’s takeover plan, which it turns out isn’t to use the Breechmen, but to have them all killed. How “Keep Hope Alive” tries to get around this is by having Pike, of all people, reflect Layton’s moral and emotional struggle by agonizing over the act, which doesn’t really fit his character. It would have been better for Layton to do the deed himself, or for us to see him depict the emotional conflict while Pike does his bidding rather emotionlessly. Trying to conflate the two makes the whole thing weird, as does the uniquely gratuitous method of execution. Virtually all of Snowpiercer’s problems are present in this scene – it’s full of good ideas and intriguing dilemmas, but it can never quite figure out the best angle to approach them from.