Note: This piece contains spoilers for the entire plot of Infinity Train.
In episode four of Infinity Train, after solving about a dozen puzzles both on- and off-screen, twelve-year-old Tulip Olsen faces her biggest challenge yet: singing a corny song from her childhood.
She likes to sing, so that’s not the problem. But the assignment isn’t to sing just any song: it has to be a song she has an emotional connection to. And for Tulip, who retreats to logic and reason whenever she feels uneasy, admitting that she has happy feelings associated with a song she used to sing with her parents is a blow to her self-image.
In fact, Tulip is sitting on a lot of feelings that she isn’t willing to own up to. Her entire arc is about learning to pay attention to how she feels. If she can acknowledge that a song makes her feel something, Tulip will move one step closer to processing all the other difficult emotions she doesn’t want to think about.
The assignment is humiliating for her, but the important thing to know about Tulip is that she’s incredibly tenacious. She isn’t about to cave in a fight she knows she can win. Certainly, she tries to get out of singing at first, and she protests that it isn’t fair or logical that she should have to go through with it. But she does sing. And as soon as she makes herself vulnerable, she gets the reward she’s looking for.
And so this sweet, funny scene is illustrative of one of Infinity Train‘s greatest strengths: its understanding of the emotional minefield that is a twelve-year-old’s psyche.
I thoroughly enjoyed tagging along for Tulip’s journey on Infinity Train. There’s no doubt in my mind that the series is one of the standout new pieces of television released so far this year. With radiant animation, thoughtful storytelling, and a pitch-perfect character arc, the show takes the familiar coming-of-age narrative about a regular kid stumbling onto a world full of mysteries and makes it feel fresh again. And, better still, it orients itself directly at the kind of young audiences that would be skeptical of a coming-of-age narrative to begin with. The show is unique and has tons of virtues I could discuss at length, but what makes it particularly resonant is its use of symbolism and metaphors to make Tulip’s arc larger than life.
Infinity Train is a story about change, and Tulip is dealing with a lot of it. Her parents are newly divorced, and in the chaos of co-parenting, they’ve been losing track of her needs. She’s feeling vulnerable, moody, and hungry for any time she can spend away from home. So when a scheduling error between her parents prevents her from getting to the game design camp she was really looking forward to, Tulip snaps. She packs a bag and climbs out the window, hoping to get there on her own.
Of course, she doesn’t make it to camp. She does find a train with a rollsign that indicates that it’s bound for the very town she’s trying to reach. But once onboard, she discovers that this is not an ordinary train. It’s immeasurably large, and its cars are entire worlds unto themselves. Sometimes a car contains the sprawling lawn of a university campus populated by eccentric socialist turtles; other times it’s just a room the size of a regular train car, packed from floor to ceiling and wall to wall with cross-eyed ducks.
Tulip in the cross-eyed duck car, Infinity Train episode 3: “The Corgi Car”
And there’s another piece to the puzzle. Ever since Tulip boarded the train, there’s a glowing green number on her hand, and it seems to be counting down.
The world of the train is the perfect representation of Tulip’s inner conflict. Her arc begins when she’s in a confusing emotional place. Lots of things are changing around her, but she doesn’t have the flexibility to accommodate them. So the symbolism of a train that doesn’t go anywhere is apt. The point of any train journey is to reach a destination. But even as the scenery may change in her own life, Tulip isn’t getting anywhere real. In fact, she can’t get anywhere. All she can see are the changes in scenery inside the train. There’s no destination in sight and no safe exit.
Confined to the train’s logic and geography, Tulip does the only thing she can. She moves to car to car. Within the train cars, she lands in situations that are fantastical and complex, and they’re also metaphorically appropriate for the changes she’s experiencing in her home life. And just like in her home life, her first instinct is to process these changes in various unhealthy ways.
For instance, in the car that asks her to sing, Tulip’s first instinct is to shut down any personal vulnerability and stick with what she knows best. This particular train car’s environment is made up of beautiful crystals of all sizes, and though her companions stop to admire the scenery, Tulip is busy thinking about logic trees and the challenges that might lie ahead. There is an exit door located high above her reach, and Tulip learns that the car will create a ladder leading to the door, but first, she’ll have to sing. At first, that seems like an easy task, but after trying a few popular songs, Tulip still isn’t able to get the ladder to appear. In her frustration, she abandons the assignment and tries to create her own ladder, telling her companion, “Sorry, buddy. Sometimes you just gotta go logical.” It’s telling that Tulip would rather try to twist and bend solid rock than remain vulnerable and continue to fail––just like how, in her real life, Tulip chooses to try to project an air of impossible emotional detachment rather than properly experience how her parents’ divorce really makes her feel.
Tulip on her handmade ladder, Infinity Train episode 4: “The Crystal Car”
Every episode in the first half of the series proceeds similarly, with Tulip attempting to handle change in an unhealthy or impossible way. She tries running away from her problems; she tries isolating herself; she tries rushing through at top speed; and she tries lying to herself. But of course, her chosen methodology fails every time. And each time her coping mechanism doesn’t work, Tulip learns a lesson, and she adjusts. She makes progress. She processes the changes around her and lets the train change her. She buckles down and sings the song.
This is the mindset she was missing in her own life. Whether it’s by nature or as a response to the way her parents have been letting her down, Tulip is inflexible. Back home, she had her mother and father sign a contract promising they would take her to camp, which suggests that she was unwilling to live with the uncertainty that the plan might fall through (as it eventually did). She has a tendency to melt down or lash out when things aren’t as easy as she wants them to be. Curiously, when we see her working on one of her hobbies, like electronics repair or programming, she adapts quickly to new challenges, and she knows where to go for help. But when it comes to the ambiguity of the outside world, Tulip experiences more anxiety, and she’s more resistant when it comes to adjusting to change.
Also on the train, every time she learns something, her progress is reflected back to her in a way that her logical mind can easily understand. As she learns more and more lessons, the glowing green number on her hand starts counting down. Tulip isn’t naturally very good at measuring qualitative progress, but once her emotional work is quantified, she has an easier time understanding that she’s headed in the right direction. In this way, the train gives her what she needs to process and appreciate the value of the hard work she’s doing on herself.
By the mid-way point of the series, Tulip has made a lot of progress. So in the episodes that follow that point, she starts to confront the failed coping mechanisms of the people around her instead. These characters mirror some of the same unhealthy behaviors Tulip modeled herself, but they’re further gone than she was, and their actions are causing harm to more than just themselves. So in these episodes, we see what Tulip’s future might have looked like if she hadn’t course-corrected. Through one character, we get a glimpse of the dangerous ramifications of unchecked self-blame; later on, we see another character rebel against her identity to the point of hurting herself. In this part of the series, Tulip uses the wisdom she’s gathered to help her friends along the same path she has just started down.
These episodes allow Tulip to take in the gravity of the way she was living. By repressing her emotions and lashing out when they became too powerful to contain, Tulip risked causing harm not only to herself, but to her relationships and the people in her life. Since she’s only twelve, some degree of emotional immaturity is expected–what twelve-year-old girl isn’t confused and angry? So her emotional outbursts are both understandable and forgivable. But there are applications of these behaviors that are much more serious, and for Tulip, learning to cope better means understanding why it’s so important to change her behavior now.
Through the emotional work that Tulip does on herself and her friends, she manages to whittle her number down to zero. The train rewards her with an exit door that will take her home to Wisconsin. But before she can leave, there’s just one more lesson that Tulip needs to learn, and it’s a big one. Up until this point in the series, Tulip has examined her unhealthy tendencies in a piecemeal way. She’s learned each individual lesson–to accept and process her emotions, to be honest with herself, to stop blaming herself for situations outside her control, and many more––but she hasn’t yet connected that all of these unhealthy behaviors she previously exhibited are symptoms of a larger inflexibility when it comes to change. And without learning that lesson, she won’t be able to take everything she’s learned and apply it to the less-structured, less-predictable, messier and more emotionally intense world outside the train. Before she can leave, Tulip has to choose to stay a little bit longer and confront an antagonist a lot like herself––someone who didn’t learn this lesson in time to leave the train.
The real villain of Infinity Train is the selfish side of inflexibility, the desire to have things the way you knew them at any cost. And over the course of the series, Tulip has several run-ins with someone who, she learns, has been building her own train cars to restore a world that she lost a long time ago. In her final encounter with this person, Tulip is tested. She is asked whether she wouldn’t choose, given the opportunity, to stay on the train and live in a car where her parents were still married. And given everything she’s learned throughout the series, Tulip finds the answer easily. Of course she would rather live in reality, where her loved ones have the freedom of choice that makes them themselves. And it’s here that she realizes that her parents’ divorce couldn’t have been prevented, and as much as it may confuse and hurt her to live with the changes that go along with it, it doesn’t make sense to continue resenting her parents for making the choice that was right for them.
She realizes, “You can’t keep trying to recreate your old life. You have to live in this one.”
That last discovery– that what’s gone is gone and only the future lies ahead– is the final lesson Tulip needs to learn in order to return to the real world. It’s finally clear that the train was never meant to be a punishment or purgatory. While it seemed at first that a train with no destination doesn’t have a purpose, the train’s real intent was to facilitate emotional journeys in its passengers. Onboard, Tulip made her way through many frustrating little worlds that asked a lot of her, and she adapted. She made the journey from car to car and from her old self to her new self, and she came out wiser and stronger. Contrary to what Tulip’s hyper-logical mentality might have told her at the beginning, the train didn’t have to take her to any specific place for her to grow.
From the clever symbolism to the gorgeous visuals to the masterful writing of Tulip’s arc, Infinity Train was a delight to watch. It was also deeply cathartic. It’s a complex and clever story that I wish I had had by my side when I was Tulip’s age. I can’t begin to imagine what the show’s team has in store for its newly announced second season, but as for me, I’m looking forward to a second round on the train. As Tulip says in the very last scene, “I’m ready for anything.”