'Snowpiercer' Boss on Finale Cliffhangers and the "Horrible Decisions of Power"

Showrunner Graeme Manson discusses the genesis of the game-changing twists and how the show might eventually return to filming.
Courtesy of Justina Mintz/TNT

[This story contains spoilers for the first-season finale of TNT's Snowpiercer.]

The tendency of TV shows to hint at big changes in a season finale, then return to the status quo at the start of the next season, shouldn't be an issue with Snowpiercer.

After leading a successful revolution — though not without having to make a heart-wrenching choice — in the first half of Sunday's two-hour finale on TNT, tailie leader Andre Layton (Daveed Diggs) spends much of the final episode addressing the fallout from the uprising, including some former tail and third-class passengers aboard the train taking a little too much advantage of the new order.

Until, that is, the revelation of a second train — which everyone assumes is piloted by the previously presumed dead Mr. Wilford — rocks the world of Snowpiercer. Adding a further twist to the end of the season, after the second train couples up to Snowpiercer, a young woman (Rowan Blanchard) boards the tail and asks for Melanie (Jennifer Connelly), just before revealing she is the engineer's daughter, also thought to be dead.

"We all felt that this season cliffhanger would be one of those cliffhangers that really demands to be picked up in the same moment in the second season, rather than to have some sort of break or realignment," showrunner Graeme Manson told The Hollywood Reporter. "So that sort of plan always was to drive the train as fast as we could off a cliff knowing we were going to have to pick it up on the way back down."

Manson spoke with THR about the origins of the two big finale twists, how the new politics of the train will play in season two, and how the show will (eventually) resume shooting its heavily populated scenes amid potential new guidelines for filming during a pandemic.

Let's start at the very end. What was the genesis of that final scene with Melanie's daughter?

I think the writers landing on that twist was a product of work that we did with Jennifer earlier in the season. In our drive to have Melanie deepen for our audience, and as we really just worked on her character and on her backstory — finding with Jennifer the things we saw her admit in the night car, discovering the deepest thing that could go back to that deep trauma that every single one of these characters is carrying since the end of the world, which is the real trauma of losing everyone they know and the most valuable person that she lost, and there is this guilt for her daughter.

And once we found that backstory in the middle of the season, as we were planning the end, it became apparent in a flash in the writers room that it would be a beautiful twist for Jennifer and completely rearrange the stakes for her at the end of this ride. So not only is she facing her nemesis, she is confronted with everything that she thought she lost with her daughter.

In line with that, is the existence of the second train, and presumably Wilford himself, something you had in mind all along, or did that come later in the process of working on the first season?

That was an earlier idea, something we decided we wanted to work toward. It felt like a great door opening on the series, something unexpected. And to set ourselves up at the top of season two with two trains was unexpected. It gave us the opportunity to meet the reason for all of these machinations — Melanie's nemesis, great Mr. Wilford, assuming he is on that train. It's fun to pull back that curtain, be it Oz or Willy Wonka or whatever kind of psychopath might be behind that door.

I would figure you don't hire Sean Bean just to do a couple of voiceover clips and leave it at that, right?

I did not … who? (Laughs.) Yeah.

When Layton is forced to release the car with the prisoners and some of his friends in it along with the first-class passengers and the jackboot army, did you want to foreground the trauma that they've all been through and continue to go through?

I think it was that. It was a real moment for Layton to not only be faced with the horrible decisions of power but in that moment to understand so much better what Melanie had to go through — and to have to ask himself, like she constantly had to, is it worth it, what's worth it, what will you do to survive? That weight of being a person who has to sacrifice a few for the many was just a dramatic moment that we really enjoyed and we really enjoyed pushing for.

At the end of the season, seemingly, the tail passengers and third class are going to become more equal participants in the life of the train, or at least that’s the hope. Can you talk about how that will play out in season two?

I think it's a new mantle of responsibility for Layton, and we're interested in the difficulties of — I mean certainly now, maintaining a democracy, let alone creating one, you know what I mean? Yeah, [it's] a huge, huge burden to bear to try to bring the sides together. The real, real challenge for Layton is to reconcile the revolutionary with what he may have to be as a politician.

And then there is an equal struggle for Melanie, which is her desire to step down, to be an engineer, to go back to the science of survival without the politics. And then who is on the horizon, but it could be the great Mr. Wolford to throw all of that into disarray. So already this nascent democracy is under threat.

You had finished most or all of filming on season two, before production had to shut down in March, correct?

Yeah. We came very close to completing, but I think we left about eight or nine days on the table, which is too bad. So we are strategizing on how to pick that up. But I think we are very fortunate, considering many productions, with where we were when we broke. We're deeply involved in editing season two now. We have almost a complete season to play with and options of how to pick things up.

What have you been thinking about in terms of when you are able to resume shooting, how you're going to go forward? This show, it's well established now, takes place in very crowded and confined spaces, and that might not be conducive to filming under new safety guidelines.

We are talking about it constantly. Things are beginning to pick up some in Vancouver [but] the realities and the practicalities are complex. We're looking at it constantly. And again, we are at the point in the schedule where I can start with writers and we can start working remotely. So we can start that working. And our production schedule will probably push us into the new year anyway so, like a lot of people, we are trying to buy a lot of time, trying to keep our finger on the pulse of work-safe guidelines as much as possible.

And yes, our show, we have a lot of people in those sets. On the other hand, we are not a location dependent show, so we have some advantages in what we control. So we will see how we come back. I fully expect to be writing differently as required.

Does the fact that you do have most of this season or the second season finished give you maybe some extra time? Presumably TNT is not going to air it until next year some time, and then any third season would be another eight to 12 months removed from that.

A little bit of time, yes. But it is the time that we would normally be spending editing and doing all of the visual effects in the season. That of course is subject to some of the same things, and we fell behind, but we have a remote work flow system that our post producers put in place that's working. So it's really a one step at a time thing. I just hope we can get our crew back to work and I hope that California can get back to work as well.

Lastly, assuming again that Wilford is on the second train — as everyone in the show assumes — what other dynamics might that bring to season two?

For instance, a character like Ruth [Alison Wright], we're relishing how we challenge her assumptions and her ideation of the great Mr. Wilford. And obviously he is — the W is a potent, potent symbol, otherwise Melanie wouldn't have wielded it. So a new train interrupts the best laid plans, and it seemed like a really good place to leave and lead into a second season.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.