[Warning for Spoilers for Season One of Snowpiercer.]
Snowpiercer is a great show.
I loved the concept – the last remnants of humanity clinging to existence on a massive train during a deadly ice age – even if it is bonkers. The visuals are arresting and (to my untrained eye) the special effects are good.
I loved the social commentary on class, which has looked more and more pointed as we’ve lurched through the coronavirus pandemic. After all, why should the First Class passengers dictate what happens on the rest of the train? Especially as none of them have any useful skills post-apocalypse. Unlike the ‘Tailees’ and Third and Second Class passengers, who actually keep the train running . Once again, the people and labour most crucial to society are the least valued. The myth building and religiosity surrounding the “Engine Eternal” and the Messiah-like Mr. Wilford was also fascinating. I loved every episode’s intro, narrated by a different character each time and always with the liturgical refrain: “…on Snowpiercer, 1001 cars long.”
The execution was excellent, with great actors and brilliant performances all round, though shout out to Jennifer Connelly and Daveed Diggs. I liked the LGBT and PoC representation and I especially loved the series’ villain. If you can call her a villain.
And that’s the ‘problem’ with Melanie Cavill.
Or rather, the problem with how we’re supposed to perceive Melanie.
To me, it was pretty clear that she’s an anti-villain, at worst, maybe even an anti-hero. When we meet her, she’s presented as the polar opposite and antagonist of Andre Layton, our protagonist (though I’d argue he’s one of our protagonists). Layton is the most obviously heroic character in Snowpiercer, a ragged revolutionary who’s pretty much adopted a lost child and is the champion of the ‘Tailees’, the train’s underclass. He was a detective pre-apocalypse and has a firm moral code and palpable discomfort with the cut-throat tactics of his fellow revolutionaries. He’s striving for justice and fair distribution of resources among all of Snowpiercer’s passengers. Given the squalid conditions in which the Tailees (and even Third Class) live, compared to the excess of First, his zeal doesn’t seem unwarranted.
Melanie, on the other hand, is the well-groomed, morally ambiguous enabler of the luxury and privilege First Class enjoy. She’s Head of Hospitality and “The Voice of the Train”, overseeing all its injustices. At first glance, she does look like a villain, pandering to the elite at one moment, and presiding over the brutal trial and punishment of a tailee woman the next. We later learn that she’s the antithesis of Layton in other ways, having abandoned her own child to the apocalypse. She participates in maintaining the deeply unjust status quo, or “order”, as she likes to call it, and issues orders that directly harm Layton and his allies, people with whom we’ve come to sympathize. She doesn’t even have the excuse of “just following orders”, since it soon becomes clear she’s the real (and only) power behind the throne.
Some people don’t hesitate to proclaim her a straight-up villain, evil, a bad person. In black and white terms, she may be all those things.
They may also suggest that I’m biased in her favor because she’s a woman.
(This despite the fact plenty of male villains are allowed to be multifaceted and likeable, despite their villainy. Lots of people love Hans Gruber from Die Hard, for example.)
And yes, there is something thrilling about watching Melanie. She’s a powerful woman calling the shots who’s beautiful but rarely sexualized. She’s ruthless and calculating and so incredibly poised and composed, even under pressure. Of course, it helps that Jennifer Connelly is gorgeous and charismatic, demanding our attention in every scene she’s in. There’s a degree of female wish fulfillment too, as Melanie segues seamlessly between wearing her impeccable Hospitality uniform and heels in one scene, and heavy-duty engineering gear, protective clothing and massive boots as she suits up to save the train in the next. She looks like she’s wearing an astronaut or hazmat suit, and she still looks flawless. Here is a woman who really does it all, combining traditional standards of beauty and femininity with kickass engineering skills and a high-risk, high-stress job.
Because, as it turns out, she helped design Snowpiercer and was and still is one of its chief engineers. The other (male) engineers rely on her. Her life and purpose revolve around the train. She has knowledge and expertise that are vital to it and its passengers survival. Some might argue that her technical skills aren’t that crucial, since there are other engineers that could be trained (and isn’t it interesting that we’re so quick to dismiss a woman with mechanical know-how). I’d argue that in a life or death fight for survival, in which a single mistake or malfunction could doom the entire species, keeping the most senior engineer around should be a priority, even if she is a villain.
And again, it’s debatable whether Melanie is a true villain. The road to hell may be lined with good intentions, and you couldn’t exactly call her a hero, but motivation matters. Melanie asserts multiple times that, at a very basic level, her only goal is to keep the train running and, by extension, the human race alive. Naturally her own survival is also at stake, and a cynical interpretation of her character might look no further than that. But it’s an assertion to which she returns too often and too earnestly to be dismissed entirely. She literally risks her life more than once to keep the train physically running. Even the revelation that she has selected people to be kept in the “drawers” (suspended animation) is revealed to be a last ditch attempt to save the human race. These people, she says, were chosen to preserve ethnic diversity and knowledge while conserving resources on the train. If Snowpiercer fails, these sleepers may survive it and the ice age and repopulate the earth.
This doesn’t change the fact that Melanie does bad things. If her goal is the train’s survival at any cost, that includes the brutality meted out to the Tailees in the name of “order”. This is what pits her against Layton in the first place. It’s also one of the best justifications for labelling her a villain. She may not be First Class reaping the benefits of the unjust system, but she actively perpetuates it. You could even call Melanie a class traitor, since her ostensibly humble position serving the passengers (and her actually humble living quarters) imply that she has more in common with the Second or even Third Class passengers.
Of course, Melanie justifies her actions by pointing to law and order. Peace must be maintained through violence and intimidation. This is objectively and morally wrong, but it’s also true that life on Snowpiercer exists in a delicate balance. Apart from the train’s physical operation, resources are limited and require careful management. Wastage or mismanagement could end in disaster. If you’ve watched the show, you’ll know that when Melanie’s “order” does break down, this immediately becomes a problem. Layton may dream of an egalitarian utopia, and it may happen in season two, but you can understand why a pragmatic leader may not want to risk upsetting that balance, especially with the survival of humanity at stake.
Then again, one could argue about why this system exists in the first place. According to Melanie, she designed the physical train, but the social and class structures were put in place by Mr. Wilford. If we take her at her word, Mr. Wilford’s vision for the train would have been even more unjust than Snowpiercer’s reality. For him, she says, Snowpiercer was a kind of party at the end of the world, a luxury voyage for the one percent rather than a serious survival strategy. He would have squandered their resources and monopolized them for himself and the wealthy elite. What place did Second and Third have in this vision, I wonder? How much of it is even true? I’ll be interested to see how this is unpicked in season two. But it fits with Melanie’s established motivations, survival above all else. In any event, it adds another layer of moral complexity, presenting us with a theoretically decent person working within a corrupt preexisting system. Or perhaps that’s just an excuse. We’ll see.
It’s also worth noting that, despite resource shortages, Melanie doesn’t ever take the seemingly logical step (advocated by First Class) of unhitching the tail carriage and leaving the Tailees to die. They are ill treated and living in an unjust society, but at least they are still alive. Again, this fits with Melanie’s avowed priority: preserving human life (and a viable gene pool). I was definitely rooting for her during the Folgers’ attempted coup. First Class passengers: the true antagonists of the show. Melanie may be an “evil”, but she’s a lesser evil. We get moments that are clearly meant to engender sympathy for her, unlike those devious, entitled Firsties (though even they earn a little pity; they really love their sociopathic daughter).
These moments include Melanie’s occasional heroism for the train, tragic backstory, moments of vulnerability and her big Pet The Dog moment, allowing members of Third Class to participate in the otherwise biased trial in Episode Five. This decision costs her later, but it shows that she’s at least somewhat sympathetic towards the cause of building a more just society, if only to maintain peace.
Given her screen time, which rivals Layton’s, I’d say there’s a case for describing her as a secondary protagonist. We are on her side against First Class, we want her to keep the train running safely. She’s certainly preferable to the Folgers, who wouldn’t think twice about leaving the Tailees for dead, or to whatever gang that might attempt to monopolize the train’s resources in season two. The system over which Melanie presides at the start of the series is flawed, but at least there is a system. She (and Layton) are also preferable to Mr. Wilford, based on what we’ve heard about him. Better the devil you know, after all.
The legend of Mr. Wilford adds an interesting layer to the whole puzzle. Some people may object to Melanie’s seizing the train preseries. I’ll grant you that leaving Mr. Wilford for dead wasn’t great, even if he was an awful person. (The casting of Sean Bean is an excellently meta joke, by the way.) Her argument, that the fate of humanity was at stake might justify it, if it’s true, though that remains to be seen. I wonder, though, whether the real problem certain people have with Melanie, the reason some people would call her a villain is the Great Mr. Wilford Deception.
It’s not so much that Melanie is a woman in a position of power, and that would be true even if she really was the Right Hand of Mr. Wilford. The issue is that she is a woman who exercises power through the shadow of a man. Mr. Wilford is a fiction she has maintained for seven years, the mouthpiece for her edicts and decisions. Her establishing character moment hints at this right from the start, with her upside down “W” pin badge. I see what you did there, show!
Effectively, she is Mr. Wilford. What villainy! How devious! For some people, this in itself is a clear indicator of evil. This paranoia about women seizing power from men (or through men) is historically well-documented. Manipulative, scheming women ruling through weak or clueless husbands or sons have haunted the male imagination for millennia. Just look at Livia Drusilla, wife of the Emperor Augustus, or Queen Isabella of France, otherwise known as the She-Wolf, who supposedly murdered her husband, Edward II, and set herself up as regent in his place.
Never mind that the power vacuum left by Mr. Wilford could have led to a potentially disastrous power struggle. Never mind that over those seven years Melanie had proven herself a capable and decisive leader. Never mind that, through the ages, hyper qualified women have had to struggle to be taken seriously as leaders, or overlooked altogether in favour of far less competent male peers. Given this history, it’s not surprising that women have had to use their wits (and other assets) to gain any kind of influence, and be branded as underhanded in the process. And again, post-apocalypse you’d think the most qualified person available should be making the life and death decisions, whether or not they have a penis or are, essentially, a stewardess.
That’s another layer of classism here. The Folgers and other First Class passengers are so outraged that a person in the service industry could have power over them. For them, it’s not so much that Mr. Wilford Is A Lie, but an assumption that, all evidence to the contrary, Melanie can’t possibly lead and what gives her the right to tell them what to do, anyway? Despite the fact she had been running the train for seven years already without them noticing, and knows and understands all the delicate balancing acts that kept it going. (Naturally, the second they try to seize control things start to fall apart.) It reminds me of the scorn certain people have heaped on Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez just because (gasp!) she used to work in a bar.
It’s also true that, in general, audiences have far less tolerance or sympathy for villainous or flawed fictional characters when they’re female. Think of the many male characters that are obnoxious or deceptive or ambitious, but are still widely loved and layered characters. Think of Sherlock, House of Cards, The Night Manager, House and Star Wars. Now try and think of female antagonists or antiheroes with the same kind of mass appeal.
Historically, female villains and anti-heroes have fallen into narrow categories, like the evil queens in Disney movies and fairy tales, femme fatales in Noir, or romantic rivals in rom coms. Their villainy often stems from obsession with or jealousy over a man, or preoccupation with ‘gendered’ pressures, like female beauty and ageing. It’s also notable that female characters who prioritize their careers or financial security over romance and family, or who use their own resources (including sex appeal) to get ahead are often branded as “ice queens”, “gold diggers” or femmes fatales. Even though all those behaviors are perfectly acceptable in men.
To be fair, times are changing. The Take have made an interesting video outlining the rise of what they call the anti-hero 2.0, which has opened the door to more complex female characters, like Rebecca Bunch from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend or Wendy Byrde from Ozark. This shift, they argue, is due to more creators (especially women) being more focused on making their female characters “interesting” rather than “likeable”. Though, again, I’d like to point out that there’s a double standard there around “likeability”. No one agonized over making Sherlock or House “likeable”. They’re hyper-competent geniuses in their fields, and that is supposed to be enough to fascinate us, the audience, and put us on their side. Strange how this doesn’t automatically apply to Melanie.
If nothing else, Melanie Cavill is one of the more interesting female antiheroes we’ve seen in a while. She’s too ruthless to really be a good person, but she’s also driven and dedicated to a noble goal, whatever you think of her methods. She shows strength of character, diplomacy, resilience and vulnerability.
I don’t think she’s a villain.
But maybe I’ve just been seduced by the spectacle of a talented woman masterfully Getting Things Done and looking great while she does it. Frankly, I’m happy to be wrong about Melanie if only we get to see more nuanced, flawed women in future, both onboard Snowpiercer and literally anywhere else.