Caution! Spoilers ahead.
It falls to Roche to deliver the cold open monologue this week, and it’s probably the first time I’ve felt like listening. It’s a perfect precursor to what we’re about to see play out, the words of a pragmatic man who understands exactly what Wilford had in mind for his flock when he devised Snowpiercer.
He describes the bitter truth of their current situation when he states “We’re lighting red lanterns for Wilford because we’re afraid of each other.” It feels like an especially prescient line. “What is it about recent history that’s so freaking hard to remember?” he asks. Yeah.
“Let’s janitor this bitch.”
LJ is a sociopath. But hey, she’s dishing clever one-liners and honing her hardboiled egg craft, so can she be all that bad? Oz is game but I don’t want to think too hard about where this couple is heading.
Anyway, it’s Roche who’s bearing the brunt of a divided train. But he has problems enough to deal with at home. Anne is not feeling Layton’s Great Society energy and that puts her at odds with her husband, even as he’s just barely managing to hold the middle. It’s a worrisome situation, for sure, seeing them at opposite sides of this gulf.
Meanwhile, on Big Alice, Wilford is getting handsy with Josie. And for what feels like the first time, we’re seeing the man’s skills of manipulation showcased in a way that doesn’t involve outright cruelty. Wilford has charm to spare, even for the woman he surely knows is Layton’s spy. There’s an ulterior motive at play here but we’ll have to wait a little longer to see exactly what.
We’re seeing allegiances solidified throughout both trains this episode. On the surface, Audrey’s defection seems complete, preening openly and seemingly content at Wilford’s side. The brief interaction with Josie plants the seed further, the idea that it’s time for these two battle-scarred leaders to cash in and enjoy a little downtime. But without any convincing context to explain her change of heart, I feel pretty certain this is Audrey pivoting to playing the long game after failing at her original mission.
But the weight of responsibility upon the characters is the connective tissue of The Eternal Engineer. The pressure is relentless and when Roche insists his Brakemen will do their duty, you get the sense he’s trying to convince himself. Audrey’s path (apparently) is different, ready to check out and enjoy early retirement. Boki spells it out in plain language. “The train always needs me,” he tells Layton and Till. But he’s not done bleeding for Snowpiercer.
“He’s a good guy. And I’d forgotten what a good guy was.”
As central as Layton is to all these machinations, Roche feels like our avatar in this episode. And he’s no fool. He knows they’re balancing on a razor’s edge. Wilford or Layton? It’s a toss-up at this point but it’s made clear where Roche lands on the question.
Still, it has to be rough hearing your wife make the case for Wilford’s pleasant, orderly society. But Roche seems to be seeing things more clearly than Anne. Like Ruth’s earlier journey toward enlightenment, he recognizes a system designed with portals used for freezing off human limbs isn’t one worth sustaining. Instead, he’s sticking with Layton and the promise of a world that’s decent enough for his daughter to grow up in.
But Roche doesn’t know just how successful Icy Bob’s mission to cripple Snowpiercer has been. They’ve got a God Module problem and, of course, the solution can only be found on Big Alice and with Wilford himself.
The plan to keep Wilford’s arrival under wraps is doomed to failure. We feel the inevitability even as Layton and his band of loyalists are coming up with the idea. But thanks to some brilliant direction throughout by Rebecca Rodriguez, the telegraphed sequence plays out with palpable tension and some genuine heart-pounding effect.
Once again, it’s Roche that delivers an exclamation point with his subtle head tilt at Wilford’s not-so-subtle threat. It’s a masterfully understated gesture and oh boy, Mike O’Malley is just excellent in this episode. Suddenly, as with Alison Wright’s Ruth, I realize I’ve been underappreciating the clever quality of this actor’s work.
“There’s only one conductor of the orchestra.”
The unexpected hack to bypass his God Module throws a wrench in Wilford’s plan, but it’s only temporary. It figures, immediately after I wrote how I haven’t seen enough to buy Wilford as anything more than a manipulative, privileged sociopath, we get this episode. Finally, the man’s brilliance as an engineer, as the literal creator of the Eternal Engine tech, is on full display.
Wilford comes up with the solution on the fly and the look on Layton’s face speaks volumes. Not only has this little drama in the engine’s server room obliterated Layton’s plan to keep Wilford’s presence onboard a secret, but it’s also completely toppled Snowpiercer’s fragile political hierarchy.
“You’re not even an engineer,” Wilford says. “How can you expect to lead this train when you don’t understand how it works?” That’s a gut punch. But Layton’s helpless at this point and we can only watch as the scope of his failure washes over him.
A few more moments spent cycling through the anguished, shell-shocked faces of Layton’s people is salt in the wound. A hand on Layton’s shoulder from Ben is meant to be steadying, but it’s devastating.
The Eternal Engineer Delivers
Perhaps for the first time, Snowpiercer effectively navigates an hour’s worth of steadily building tension that is entirely thrilling to watch. Seeing Layton and the others fail so catastrophically was compelling as hell, but it was all those little moments from Roche that set up the success of The Eternal Engineer.
The destination may have been telegraphed, but watching the journey unfold was still a joy. An there’s some real hope here that these final two episodes can position the drama for something worth following in season three. Just as important, I finally feel like we can be invested in the fate of these characters.