Warning: Spoilers for the premiere, which ends with a major revelation about Jennifer Connelly’s starring role as Melanie Cavill.
No, Snowpiercer did not just pull off what Lost always wanted to do: Kill off its marquee star -- originally supposed to be Michael Keaton before Matthew Fox took over the role -- at the end of the pilot episode. But showrunner Graeme Manson’s adaptation of Bong Joon-ho’s 2013 cult classic and the 1982 French graphic novel Le Transperceneige did just shake things up at the front of the train in a major way.
On the timely and relevant series, which is set seven years after Earth has become a frozen wasteland, the remaining human population lives aboard a constantly moving, expansive train that circles the globe once a year. As we learn early on, the complex train system, which includes 1,001 cars, was created by Wilford Industries and is run by the mysterious and wealthy Mr. Wilford. (A version of his character was played by Ed Harris in the film.) And life aboard is run by a fiercely guard Order that has divided passengers into a class system based on their original tickets.
Helping to maintain that balance is Jennifer Connelly’s steely and immaculate Melanie Cavill, the head of hospitality and the voice of Mr. Wilford’s rule and all conditions of the train. “Attention all passengers, Wilford Industries wishes you good morning,” she says over the intercom from the front of the train, when she first appears onscreen.
Later in the premiere, she makes her way further back in the train, much to the surprise of former homicide detective Andre Layton (Daveed Diggs), who’s been pulled out of retirement to investigate a murder. When he asks her about this, she says she wears “several hats.”
It’s not until the end of the episode -- after she’s managed to help keep an attack from turning into a full-blown rebellion -- we learn the full meaning of that cryptic response. Having returned back to the front of the train to her sleeping cabin, Melanie changes out of her hospitality uniform into an MIT hoodie before entering the driver’s compartment, to relieve the handsome engineer, Ben Knox (Iddo Goldberg), of his duties. “You have the train, Mr. Wilford,” Ben says before Melanie replies, “I have the train.”
As it turns out, everything Melanie was doing before was a shtick. “Her whole thing that she’s doing as that version of herself is a role that she’s playing; it’s not really her true self,” Connelly says, adding that for Melanie, who cracks a rare smile when taking over for Ben, is giving a performance when in uniform. “She’s not somebody who would normally dress like that and put makeup on and talk like that.”
Not wanting that double-sided nature to come across as too over-the-top, the actress wanted it to come across as more restrained when Melanie’s playing the part as the voice or head of hospitality.
“She’s complicated,” Connelly continues. “Moreover, she’s in a really complicated position and she’s fighting for what she believes in. But along the way, she makes some morally dubious choices.” Ultimately, she adds that Melanie’s main goal is to keep things running smoothly. “There’s a certain system that’s in place.”
Ultimately, she adds, “I thought it presented some intriguing challenges.”
Those challenges include maintaining the status quo whether she agrees with it or not, keep up the belief that Mr. Wilford is still in charge and hide her secret from everyone, including her fastidious right hand in hospitality, Ruth Wardle (Alison Wright), and a growingly suspicious Andre.
While Andre’s murder investigation drives the plot early on, it’s Melanie’s secret that will be into much of the decisions made on the train that drives the rest of the season. And for someone like Ruth, who is a zealous follower of Melanie, Mr. Wilford and the Order, any disruption in that could result in dire consequences.
“Ruth would love to be like Melanie. Ruth wishes that she was as cool and as perfect as her,” Wright says, explaining that her devotion to her boss also comes from a sense of loneliness. “She doesn't really have a confidant other than Melanie; she doesn't have a partner and she didn't get on the train with anybody.”
And so, “she has no idea about the web of lies and deceit; no idea about who Melanie really is as a person. She’s completely in the dark,” the actress continues, adding that if it was brought to light, Ruth’s faith -- and possibly everyone else’s onboard -- would be shattered.