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Book 3 of Infinity Train shows the series’ infinite potential

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The train takes a backseat to complex character arcs

Grace and Simon stand on the musical car’s raging fire in Infinity Train Book 3 Image: HBO Max

From the beginning, Owen Dennis’ animated series Infinity Train revolved around the title’s enigmatic, infinite train, which spirits passengers away from their homes, marks their hands with glowing numbers, and sets them wandering through a series of cars that each feature a different pocket dimension full of weird challenges and alien creatures.

Originally, the Cartoon Network series was a five-night, 10-episode special event, seemingly designed to be a singular contained story much like Cartoon Network’s Over the Garden Wall. Infinity Train’s first season explores the mystery of the train through 12-year-old programmer Tulip, who arrives on the train after a fight with her parents. Season 1 wrapped up Tulip’s story, without an apparent need for any follow-up. And yet a second season followed a few months later, diving deeper into the train’s functionality, and following a new set of characters.

By the time Book 3 rolled around on HBO Max on August 13, there didn’t seem to be many mysteries about the train left to explore. But that’s a good thing. The train’s functionality can now take a back seat to exploration of more complicated characters — and certainly less sympathetic ones. Season 3 is the darkest and most complex story so far, with two leading characters grappling with toxic mindsets and trauma, interwoven with themes of codependency. And none of it would have been possible without the setting and worldbuilding groundwork laid by the first two seasons.

Unfortunately, though Infinity Train’s third season is a testament to the series’ vast potential going forward, the fate of the show is uncertain. Dennis revealed on Twitter that the team has been laid off and moved onto different projects. Any potential for a season 4 depends on whether people Season 3 is a success. And it should be, both for existing fans and new ones — it’s a culmination of the show’s working parts, the most ambitious and satisfying season yet, indicating where future seasons could go.

[Ed. note: This post contains minor spoilers for the season parameters of Infinity Train.]

a girl watches as a train goes by with an eerie green glow out of the windows Image: Cartoon Network

The first two seasons of Infinity Train interrogated the train itself: how it works and what it’s intended to accomplish. Book 1 focuses on establishing the train’s rules and intentions, and analytical protagonist Tulip is a great vehicle to explore that, as she assesses and evaluates each car carefully before moving on. She’s presented as a typical guest of the train, and as she unravels its mysteries, she’s also letting the audience in on the ways most people experience their time there.

While the second season also features a passenger with a problem to solve, it shifts focus to a new character whose experience is much less typical, which shifts her agenda from experiencing the train’s lessons to subverting them. That involves digging much deeper into the train’s operational mechanics, focusing on how it operates, rather than why. The journey isn’t so much about another plucky hero trying to figure out what the newly applied glowing number on his hand means, it’s about learning how the train assigns numbers in the first place. Both protagonists learn some life lessons, but they also learn how passengers get on the train in the first place, and how life on the train has normalized since the big events in season 1.

With all the train’s major mysteries out of the way, Book 3 further flips the series’ narrative. The central overarching story isn’t about a passenger new to the train, it’s about Grace and Simon, a pair who’ve been on the train for a while, introduced as minor antagonists in season 2. Now they’re at the center of the series, which amounts to a hard pivot for the story. While the first two seasons unraveled the train’s mysteries, season 3 lets Grace, Simon, and their compatriots operate on a completely inaccurate philosophy about how the train works and why.

grace, simon, and the rest of the apex standing around a burning car Image: HBO Max

Because Grace and Simon know the train — and because the audience knows its recurring characters and key mechanics — the way it acts as a vehicle (ha!) for the character journeys in season 3 isn’t as direct as it was in the first two seasons. Grace and Simon aren’t figuring out a big mystery, so they can deal with more complex issues than the previous protagonists. What’s wrong with Grace and Simon has only festered because of their misunderstanding of the train; when those notions are challenged, their lives begin to crumble, along with their established ways of interacting with the train, each other, and themselves.

Their close relationship is also another key change in this season. Previous seasons had protagonists meeting for the first time. But Grace and Simon start off with an established relationship, knowing each other better than anyone else after having spent the better part of their lives together on the train. The first episode and a half shows that they have a system for exploring the cars, and that they know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. But immediately, a rift forms between them, and much of this season revolves around that once-close friendship unraveling. Grace and Simon do discover secrets about the train — but all elements that the audience already knows. The season’s emotional crux is in the ways they deal with these revelations, how the rift between them widens, and how they react when given the chance to grow from their past.

The train isn’t entirely bereft of mystery at this point — there are still lingering questions about the barren wasteland that surrounds the train, and where it and its seemingly magical technology even came from. But they aren’t central to the experience of the train itself, so answering these remaining mysteries isn’t pertinent to the narrative. Enough is left hanging to keep the audience engaged, while shifting the focus away from the specific mechanics. The train itself continues to offer endless possibilities of setting and scenario to entangle the characters.

The heightened focus on complex character issues is a natural evolution for Infinity Train. The series has developed to the point where Dennis and the writers can play with their own established worldbuilding, using it less like a driving plot element, and more as a tool to explore complicated, darker situations. With the fate of the series hanging in the air, Book 3 indicates how future seasons could fully use the pathways the first season laid down to tell deeper and more complex stories — if the show is able to continue full steam ahead.

The first two seasons of Infinity Train are available to stream on HBO Max. The first eight episodes of Book 3 are available now, with the final two dropping on Aug. 27.