HBO Max released “The Cult of the Conductor” on Aug. 13, the third book — a term used in place of “season” — of “Infinity Train.” Sitting pretty at 100 percent on Rotten Tomatoes since its debut, the show is often compared to Cartoon Network’s “Over the Garden Wall” for its dark themes and soul-shaking messages.
With only 10 12-minute episodes in each book, “Infinity Train” has to chug along quickly, but tight writing and layered dialogue make the most of that time. Owen Dennis, the show’s creator, accomplishes this by crafting authentic characters, and they’re the ones who create the attention-snatching intrigue.
Before going further, it should be said that the train itself is an enigma that characters and audience alike seek to solve. One of its many functionalities is to generate train cars with fantastical environments and creatures within them, many of them being “bigger on the inside.” Another is to give each human passenger a glowing number that lowers as they come to terms with themselves and their lives.
But the Apex, a very “Lord of the Flies”-esque group aboard the train, has perverted this idea, instead regarding their numbers as a measure of worth and prowess. They gladly ravage the carts so their numbers rise, creeping past their hands and up their arms like distinguishing tattoo-sleeves.
The book opens with a deceptively playful montage of the Apex demolishing a train car inhabited by sentient theater-production equipment, mutilating their forms as they desperately try to continue their musical number. What distinguishes “Infinity Train” is how reasonable this egregious slaughtering seems. The Apex is ripe with misconceptions and propaganda about how the “nulls,” a slur for sentient beings made by the train, are simply objects, worthless and unworthy of sympathy, since they have no train-given numbers.
As a result, problems arise when Grace Monroe (Kirby Howell-Baptiste) and Simon Laurent (Kyle McCarley), the 18-year-old founders and leaders of the Apex, are separated from the rest of their group and encounter a six-year-old girl and a stoic but motherly gorilla, Hazel (Isabella Abiera) and Tuba (Diane Delano), respectively.
Tuba is clearly a denizen of the train (a “null,” in Apex terms), and her maternal bond with Hazel clashes with Apex values. Grace and Simon plan to eventually extricate Hazel by deadly force, but decide to let Tuba be for the time being.
It takes little effort on Grace and Simon’s part to entice Hazel to follow them, wooing her with words of the brave Apex and the family of children there for her to join. It’s almost painful to watch this propaganda spread, knowing how wrong it all is, but there lies another of the show’s strengths: dramatic irony — the audience having knowledge the characters don’t — since the audience knows the characters’ entire understanding of the train is backwards.
Throughout their weeks of travel, bonds grow, stretch and strain. As Grace becomes closer to Hazel, almost adopting her as a little sister, Simon seems to despise this change as it takes her out of sync with him and defies the values they had established over many years of friendship. This heartwarming friendship, marked by comfortable silences, oddly-specific jokes and honest confrontations, is usurped by shifting glances and held tongues. Secrets are hidden, secrets are discovered, and the consequences play themselves out in dramatic displays of terse discourse and tense action from several characters, including Hazel.
Once again, the realism of this bizarre setting is striking, and the naturalistic fluidity of the characters’ interactions drive home the ponderous themes woven throughout the work.
The use of the slur “null” and the connotations it brings with it is a timely commentary on the rampant discrimination present throughout the real world, and it does so in a way to encompass all kinds of discrimination while still offering redemption, through Grace’s development, to those who may have often discriminated in the past. The show also leans heavily upon themes of loss, hatred and manipulation, and upon deeply flawed characters. The weight of these themes actually causes Dennis some concern regarding the show’s renewal:
“It’s pretty hard to sell the idea of, ‘Yeah, so we wanna make a story about these teens who lead a cult and don’t view anyone around them as living so they just kill and maim and destroy everything all time so that we can look at another angle of what the previous season talked about — and also we’re gonna grind someone in a gear,” Dennis said in a recent interview with Gizmodo. “That’s cool, right?’”
For the many older fans who indulge in the show, there’s resounding agreement.
“Infinity Train” Book Three is now available on HBO Max.