Infinity Train, Mark Twain and personhood

Carlos Albuquerque
5 min readAug 17, 2020

Infinity Train is easily one of the high lights of 2010’s/2020’s animation, being Cartoon Network’s last bastion of sincere, mature storytelling in an ocean of mostly wacky cartoons and horrible reboots. Tackling issues such as divorce, toxic masculinity and grief, it carries itself with a dignity that even other contemporary mature cartoons like Steven Universe lack, and the fact that it managed to get three seasons is a testament of the staying power of its narrative. But as it shifted from a pilot to a full blown anthology series, it became apparent that there is one particular topic that it wants to explore: that of personhood and the intrinsic value of life.

Infinity Train from its earliest conception owed some inspiration from The Mysterious Stranger segment from The Adventures of Mark Twain. Based in turn on the story of the same name by Samuel Clemens, this segment is one of the most infamous scenes in the movie, where a trio of kids (here upgraded to the protagonists of the Tom Sawyer novels) meet an angel named “Satan”, who creates a world made of clay. Upon being annoyed by the clay figures, he mercilessly kills them, exposing an extremely nihilistic philosophy where not even Solipsism is real and all of reality is “but a thought”. Life, human or otherwise, is of no value to this being.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BpaRouocBes

For those in the know about the book, “Satan” is not really the Devil, being instead his nephew (perhaps an allusion to how “ha-Satan” is simply a term for accusatory angels in traditional Judaism?). But in the context of the movie specifically, this being is actually an allusion to the Abrahamic God, as evidenced by the Adam and Eve narrative intersected into the story as well as Mark Twain’s (or rather, his “twin’s”; spoilers!) rambling about God’s cruelty in the Bible. This reflects Mark Twain’s own extreme maltheism, made particularly violent in the original Mysterious Stranger story:

“A God who could make good children as easily as bad, yet preferred to make bad ones; who could have made every one of them happy, yet never made a single happy one; who made them prize their bitter life, yet stingily cut it short; who gave his angels eternal happiness unearned, yet required his other children to earn it; who gave his angels painless lives, yet cursed his other children with biting miseries and maladies of mind and body; who mouths justice, and invented hell — mouths mercy, and invented hell — mouths Golden Rules and forgiveness multiplied by seventy times seven, and invented hell; who mouths morals to other people, and has none himself; who frowns upon crimes, yet commits them all; who created man without invitation, then tries to shuffle the responsibility for man’s acts upon man, instead of honorably placing it where it belongs, upon himself; and finally, with altogether divine obtuseness, invites his poor abused slave to worship him!”

The specific point about this scene, therefore, is to deconstruct the notion that creation = entitlement. By portraying God as the devil, it becomes clear that whatever life you happen to create is not yours to destroy, that sending a plague or commiting genocide is not justifiable by any stretch of imagination because you’re ending precious lives. As a creation, it is tempting to see this as a father punishing a child; as an equal, it is obvious you’re staring at a sociopath.

Infinity Train’s originally was about Tulip discovering the mysteries of the aforementioned train as well as dealing with her own emotional baggage, but after her story concluded the series as a whole took a dramatic shift in priorities. Book 2 was about Lake’s struggle against the train itself, her own car’s inhumane policy of killing “slivers” as well as the double standards even other denizens gave her because she wasn’t a passenger. This season also introduces the Apex, a group of rogue passengers who fundamentally believe that the train’s denizens (or “nulls” as they call them) are “less than zero” and thus are not real, sapient beings.

Already demonstrating a willingness to abuse and destroy them, this escalates in Book 3 as the Apex leaders Grace and Simon become the de facto protagonists, and here we get a taste of how utterly ruthless they are. They are introduced killing and maiming a theater car, taking bits and pieces of its denizens as their property even as they cry for their lives. Upon meeting Hazel, they hatch a plot to murder her best friend, culminating in Simon’s infamous wheeling of Tuba. All the while, they can’t seem to shut up about how little value they place in the “nulls”‘ lives, who are basically NPC’s to them no matter how many emotions or displays of virtue they demonstrate. At the same time, however, it is clear that they have a twisted belief that they are saving the passengers from the “false conductor”, and their sincere apreciation for each other shows that they’re not devoid of empathy. Rather, they simply don’t see the denizens as examples of living, feeling beings, and that deliberate omission of personhood is what makes them truly horrific villains.

“It is not that I cannot make anything good, but that I will not.”

Angra Mainyu

By itself, this is already a very powerful examination of a frankly pretty dark concept in a child friendly animated series. But what truly sells me is how systemic this prejudice against the denizens is. Besides the Apex, train denizens have to deal with other denizens either flat out ending their lives (the mirror police) or discriminating against them in more subtle ways (i.e. the fair car, the Cat’s usual exploitation of Randall). Most notable, however, is that The Mysterious Stranger’s themes of God’s malice actually translates into the series proper.

Yaldabaoth has never looked cuter.

While One-One is not (intentionally) malicious, his role is surprising Gnostic Demiurge-y. He is essentially the jailer of human souls, trapping people in the train where he creates all manner of worlds, intentionally flawed and dangerous. He is a true God to his creations, but he places little to no value in their lives, seeing the murder of Lake as an acceptable answer to the conundrum caused by Jesse’s erratic number. The only thing setting him apart from “Satan” is that he is not a nihilist, but even then here definitely follows the exact same creed of “we can always make more if we need them”.

In short, it is stunning that a series that started as a mystery adventure evolved into borderline child-friendly cyberpunk.

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