As I’m sure you’ve already heard by now, one of the most beloved streaming services, HBO Max, is getting the worst end of a massive corporate merger. Dozens of titles have been dropped entirely from streaming. Many of these never had physical releases, either, meaning that there is no longer any way to (legally) watch many of these titles.
This was always a threat of the move to streaming-only titles versus physical ownership. Servers and databanks cost money, and offering thousands of titles on-demand isn’t exactly the most cost-effective on adless platforms. You see, in many people’s eyes, the only things that matters are cost and profit. This is the only way that people get to be billionaires and heads of corporate monstrosities: They simply do not care about the people beneath them.
When it comes to mass media, no one seems to feel this pain more than animation workers. Show lead and creator of Summer Camp Island (one of the shows removed from HBO Max with this wave), Julia Pott, expressed her pain on Twitter. She says that the show’s final twenty episodes had been fully ready for deployment for some time, yet their show was axed. Similarly, certain projects like Steven Universe or Nimona have been sent into what fans often call “production hell.” This means a show or movie’s upcoming releases are unpredictable, random, and uncertain. Gravity Falls creator Alex Hirsch has certainly not been shy about sharing his experiences with Disney’s censorship of his show. Though these issues certainly aren’t isolated to the industry, there are a million of these examples in just animation alone.
One very recent show that’s been through the full gauntlet, though, is Infinity Train. Season 1 premiered as a self-contained miniseries in 2019 to great acclaim. Cartoon Network then announced that—surprise!—Infinity Train is an anthology series and would pick back up with a focus on a minor character from Season 1. Season 2 released in January 2020, but then the show’s future became uncertain.
Despite its popularity and critical acclaim, news broke that Infinity Train would no longer be airing on Cartoon Network. Several long months of pandemic later, HBO Max announced Season 3 as an HBO Max Original. High on the success, the crew, along with show creator Owen Dennis, announced that they’d planned for eight seasons of Infinity Train and that they were looking forward to exploring the world so much more. However, HBO laid off most of the crew, and the show had not yet been renewed for a fifth season. Promotional materials for Season 4 hit, declaring it “The Final Season.”
Season 4 was good but clearly not intended to give any sort of finality. Many fans were disappointed but still hopeful that there would eventually be more to come. Maybe some other corporate overlord would swoop in to save the day, or someone would find a way to crowdfund the millions needed to produce one season of animation. But we all know how the story goes. Warner Bros Discovery throws salt into the wound, cutting off the easiest way for people to watch the show (again, legally). To make matters worse, according to Owen Dennis, the creators had zero warning of this decision!
But out of all of the animation that have been shafted recently, why am I writing about this show specifically?
Well, if I’m being honest, I don’t think any other all-ages show hits quite as hard quite as fast. The first season explores trauma like parental divorce or loss of a loved one while also finding meaningful things to say about competence, confidence, companionship, and avoidance. And with each anthology season being ten episodes and a tight 11 minutes each, they have to establish characters quickly to get them on their arcs as believably as possible. I think they’ve nailed it every single time.
Seasons 2, 3, and 4 go on to explore things like gender identity, selfhood, bullying, personal growth, redemption, humanity, acceptance, self-love, and so much more. One season goes out of its way to portray violent reactionary radicalism in a way that is shocking and horrifying while still remaining appropriate for all ages.
But for what the show is actually about, I don’t want to give away too much because I think the show works best as a mystery. A good part of Season 1 explores the question, “What is even happening right now?” On top of that, I personally enjoyed the surprise of seeing which characters they chose to follow from season to season.
In brief, a train can pull people from our dimension, looking to run away from their lives. It seems to go on forever (get it?) with cars that are unique, self-contained ecosystems with a complex method of how to safely travel through each car. The people have an ominous set of numbers on their hands that change at seemingly random times. Outside the train is a vast, endless wasteland filled with horrible, horrible creatures. People cope with the oddities of being on the train and of the other inhabitants of it, and in doing so, change their perspective about the world.
That’s vague, so I’ll go a little more in-depth with some spoilers below. Thank you for coming this far. As of writing, the show can be bought on iTunes, YouTube, Vudu, Google, and Amazon Prime, and those are the only places to (I can’t stress this enough) legally watch it.
The numbers represent the characters’ processing of their trauma or unresolved feelings. Once it hits zero, they can leave. Characters often don’t know what the number is referring to or what effects it, and they simply have to just…try. Like in life, they don’t know what will help them, so they simply need to move forward, experiencing what the train has in store for them with trial and error.
Everyone heals differently, sometimes, healing takes a long, long time, and sometimes people refuse to acknowledge that they are hurt. The show recognizes all of these and shows in no uncertain terms the baggage that comes with each.
All the while, Infinity Train knows that not only passengers have personhood. Each strange little creature made to populate each train car can similarly travel, react, and develop as their own character alongside their compatriots. After all, personhood is much more than our conception of humanity as it is.
Furthermore, our definitions of who deserves redemption and happiness, what they need to do to reach them, and even who gets to have a chance at them, these things are all subjective and personal. Infinity Train shows that when we direct those judgments to restrict others or ourselves, it only becomes more difficult for everyone involved to be happy and fulfilled. The show further exemplifies these themes by including several characters who dig in their heels and refuse to change. Things do not bode well for such characters.
Infinity Train shows how varied our responses to trauma can be while, somehow, still remaining tight in scope. Each season could be watched and understood on its own, but woven together, it’s built a tapestry of complex emotion that is both deeply meaningful and unique, entertaining, and engaging. And I hope more people get to experience that.