There's a good chance you haven't watched Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends in a while. Like everyone else, you probably have this vague memory of barely animatronic train sets going on pleasant, unremarkable adventures set to narration by George Carlin or Ringo Starr. Upon actually revisiting old Thomas episodes, however, reveals a dark totalitarian hellscape where it's better to be dead than one of the island of Sodor's many indentured trains.
You don't have to look far to find depravity in Thomas and Friends. "The Sad Story of Henry" is the third episode of the entire series, and it's basically a crueler version of an old Edgar Allan Poe story. That is not an exaggeration.
The plot centers on Henry, one of Sodor's many cherubic-faced trains. On a particularly nasty day, Henry decides that he's going to chill out in a tunnel rather than let his paintjob get ruined by the rain. Not super profesh, but Henry is far from the only one to ever feel the urge to stay indoors during a storm.
Sir Topham Hatt isn't having it. He's got a railway to run, after all, and they don't call you The Fat Controller if you don't demonstrate your doughy domain over your subjects on a regular basis. After a bit of back and forth, Henry makes it clear that under no circumstances will he leave the comfy confines of the tunnel. Taking a page from the Burger King Book of Wishes with Unforseen Consequences, The Fat Controller lets Henry have it his way. Forever.
Henry doesn't think much of the threat at first, rolling his eyes. But soon enough, The Fat Controller and his men have bricked up the exit to Henry's tunnel.
I wasn't joking when I said this was like something out of Edgar Allan Poe. Those who paid attention in middle school English class will recognize this is straight out of "The Cask of Amontillado." That's the horror story in which a vengeful man traps a former friend in the catacombs by bricking him into a room, leaving him to rot with the rest of the forgotten.
As you've no doubt pieced together, that's exactly what's happening here, but with one important wrinkle: Henry has enough room to see into the outside world. And the outside world can see Henry, wasting away, his engine dead. The few interactions Henry gets are from trains, living their day-to-day lives. They acknowledge Henry, but in a way that makes it even worse.
I'm not sure what's more sadistic, the train that takes glee in "justice" served for Henry's petty crime or the one that rolls on like this public torture is completely normal.
In the American broadcasts of this episode, the voiceover assures the audience that Henry's comeuppance is temporary -- but Ringo Starr's original narration makes no such promises. Instead, we're left with a disconcerting zoom-in set to Thomas' upbeat theme music, and Ringo leaves us with a haunting message: "I think he deserved his punishment. Don't you?"
Imagine not showing up to work one day, and instead of being reprimanded or even fired, you're locked in solitary confinement for the rest of your life. This twisted authoritarian nightmare isn't just confined to this episode -- Sodor was designed like this from the ground-up, dating back to the original books. If you're interested in a deep dive, Jia Tolentino at The New Yorker has done a fantastic job of breaking down the overt fascist themes in the show's "lessons."
This story is terrifying in part because it's been with us for decades and nobody has ever really raised any concerns about it. Hell, there was a train playset called "Henry's Tunnel," in case you ever wanted your child to re-enact this twisted fable.
Note that the set comes complete with a brick wall with which to entomb Henry for eternity, just like in the episode. They don't make children's toys from the movie Se7en, but this is the next closest thing.
It is worth noting that Henry is eventually freed in a following adventure, but there is no evidence of the prisoner's release in the episode in question. So if a kid were to catch The Sad Story of Henry out of order in reruns, for all they know that poor bastard is still stranded in the makeshift prison that was supposed to protect him from the rain.
It only gets darker from here.
The island of Sodor's favored form of torment usually hinges on the psychological, but every once in a while the mildly wicked are brutalized beyond comprehension. Like everyone else in this article, these victims commit petty social faux-pas, but the retribution is unduly savage.
Take this brake van above, for instance. Yes, he is certainly a jerk, so much so that his official name is "Spiteful Brake Van." But his mean spirit doesn't justify him being literally dismembered on-camera in a train accident.
Holy shit! That's the brake van's entire body crumpling like a soggy gingerbread house. True to form, just before this the Spiteful Brake Van was making it tough for adjoined trains to make their journey, but it was Douglas the train who slipped up and crushed his colleague. The narrator has the gall to say "no one was hurt" in the crash, referring to the passengers. The brake van's disembodied face would beg to differ.
That's just the thing though -- the trains, buses and other vehicles of Sodor aren't treated like people, despite being living things with thoughts and feelings and desires. They're property, like dogs at best but more like livestock most of the time.
Really, guys like S.C.Ruffey have good reason to be disgruntled.
If I were Ruffey, I'd be a little wary of having a nasty attitude on Sodor. Maybe Ruffey hasn't seen what's happened to those who misbehave. Maybe Ruffey resents the North Western Railway's harsh zero tolerance policy.
It probably doesn't matter. You don't even need to know why another train intentionally pulled Ruffey apart at the seams. No context in the world is going to make sense of this horrific shitshow.
I wish that I could say that a train car spilling its innards all over the tracks is the most messed up thing you'll see today. I wish I could say that.
We've seen how poorly the living trains are treated on Sodor, but dead trains have it even worse. See, the "scrapyard" is a set used in several episodes, and is often treated with a terrified awe by the local locomotives. In trainspeak, "getting scrapped" is a gentle, family-friendly way of saying someone became obsolete and was sent to the junkyard to be killed and gutted for parts. So when the plucky Stepney accidentally stumbles into the scrapyard one night, he is understandably terrified.
The heroes in Thomas and Friends are trains. Kids are meant to identify with (and purchase toys based on) these lovable railbound vehicles. So it is a little more than concerning that this universe contains a place in which rusty train corpses can be found carelessly strewn about.
This isn't a junkyard. This is a mass grave. Who were these trains, and how did they end up here? Judging by the stories we've seen so far, it seems likely that these bodies belong to those who made a snide remark to The Fat Controller, or maybe sighed a little too loud one day. Taking everything we know about Sodor into account, it's not a stretch to suggest that the lifeless bodies of the insubordinate were left out as a warning to the other trains to stay in line.
The episode I mentioned earlier gets even more messed up when Stepney runs into two dastardly diesel engine bullies, who push their prey into the smelter shed.
This is where trains go before they're scrapped. The claw above Stepney is the last thing you see before you're added to the collection of carcasses outside. Make no mistake, the act of pushing Stepney into the path of this grabber qualifies as homicide.
Of course, Stepney is saved moments before his demise and scoots safely home. For the crime of attempted murder, those bullies were sentenced to: going about their lives as usual. Sounds about right for Sodor.
This is a strange one, but the plot is too batshit to ignore. "Rusty and the Boulder" plays out a lot like a horror movie in which the slasher is... a giant angry boulder.
Rusty tries to warn people about the ominous round rock sitting on top of the mountain, as workers mine a new part of the island. Nobody listens. And then we see this face fade into the boulder.
Now, it's unclear whether that's Rusty's imagination putting a train-like face on the boulder, but it does seem to have some kind of terrible agency. After the miners push too far, the boulder crashes down, stops for a moment and then suddenly gains speed, chasing down Rusty.
Rolling with incredible speed down the tracks and even across a bridge, the boulder appears to be barreling right for Percy. It misses, but only because Percy hadn't done anything slightly annoying that might warrant his body being pulverized by a runaway piece of mountain. The boulder's target wasn't the train, anyway -- it was the station.
After the giant fiery explosion rocked the station, the railway decides to put the new mining operation on hold. Rusty's once-silly suspicions of supernatural haunting gain a little more weight with The Fat Controller's last words on the matter before moving house:
The Fat Controller knows more than he's letting on. Because we are offered no other reason or explanation for the boulder's malicious (and seemingly intentional) behavior, we are left to assume that this part of Sodor is haunted by a malevolent spirit that takes the form of a rampaging boulder to protect its territory. The boulder's exact motivations are unclear, but it appears to bear a grudge against the railway. Maybe the spectre of a train, abused in life by The Fat Controller, seeks revenge against its tormentor.
It might sound like I'm talking out of my ass here, but ruthless sentences like these are bound to produce vindictive ghosts.
Usually running five minutes long or so, episodes of Thomas and Friends don't have a ton of time to get their messages across. The production team needed swift, exaggerated sanctions for anyone who steps out of line so they could squeeze in a new morality play into a short timeframe. As a result, the island of Sodor is like something out of Greek Myth. Screw up one time, and you're instantly hit with a excruciating curse that lasts the rest of your life.
Hell, sometimes you don't even need to do any one thing to have your soul destroyed on Sodor. In the case of Bulstrode the Barge, all it took was one character to say something along the lines of "Boy that Bulstrode sure is disagreeable, eh?" and fate immediately came crashing down on him. In the form of several trucks loaded with rocks.
This was an accident on the part of another train (who isn't even reprimanded for nearly killing a co-worker), but nonetheless everyone around rejoices. Cranky, moody and otherwise problematic vehicles are seen as a blight on Sodor, and any sudden misfortune they might suffer is basically a chance for self-righteous passersby to mock the unfortunate.
Bulstrode didn't sink, but he probably wishes he had. Instead of patching him up or even sending him to the scrapyard, the railway pushed him onto a beach and left him there. For good.
This brutal reprisal is, to say the least, a tad disproportionate to Bulstrode's minor infraction of "being kind of a dick." No amount of snobbery or cranky remarks warrants a Sisyphean punishment like leaving a boat stranded a few yards from water for all time.
Oh right, unlike Henry, there is no rescue for Bulstrode. His Wiki page is comprised of a single stumpy paragraph, ending in the sentence "He remains there today, most likely still grumbling." Even people who write Thomas the Tank Engine Wiki pages can't help but stick it to this dude.
Of all the fates in Sodor, however, Smudger's is probably the most dire.
As you can no doubt tell from his smirking mug, Smudger is a giant asshole. He speeds wherever he goes, never discouraged by his frequent derailments. Smudger definitely deserved to be taught a lesson, but not like this. Nobody deserves to be turned into a generator and left behind a shed. But of course, that's what happened to Smudger.
Look at that face. Smudger is just now realizing the enormity of his situation, the utter hopelessness of his existence from that point forward. It doesn't matter than Smudger may have learned a lesson, nor does anyone care that his harrowing experiences supplying power as a motionless generator might have transformed his outlook on life. Smudger will never get to show anyone he's changed, because this is Sodor, and rehabilitation isn't an option. Instead, Smudger stands as a cautionary tale that is intended to scare trains into behaving, lest they too be sentenced to a living purgatory.
The worst part of it all? Smudger isn't even an visible example anymore. Not after the landslide.
The end of Smudger's only episode is capped off with a timelapse of his old station being retaken by nature. A few trains are hibernating nearby, and we are given a clear "To Be Continued" tease that assures us our heroes will make it out okay next time. And for the most part, that's true. All the trains are rescued. All except for Smudger, who is never mentioned again in the entire series. In all likelihood he's still buried in there somewhere, waiting under the dirt, wondering if anyone will ever come by, wondering if this is part of his punishment. It's not. He was just forgotten, along with any sense of humanity on the island of Sodor.