investigations

A Close Reading of the Most Deranged Sandwich Commercial Ever

Who is he? Photo: Subway

Yesterday, we as an internet took a collective journey through the cinematic sands of time, shadowing an anonymous young man — our hero? — as he navigated the small milestones of his young life: first steps, first fight, first shave, first kiss, first disappointing sandwich.

On Thursday, SB Nation video director Ryan Simmons tweeted “Timeline,” a Subway ad that originally ran in Brazil in 2016. Had he not flagged it as a capitalist fever dream, every Twitter user who barreled through the twists and turns of the overwrought plot — a handful of Significant Adolescent Moments — may have believed they were watching a would-be Oscar short.

But no: The moody, two-minute montage of sweeping, often faintly beautiful shots had been curated to sell fast-food sandwiches. Not life insurance, not a manly kind of toiletry, not a smartphone, but soggy subs. The explosion of communal shock was deafening.

Those of you who’ve spared yourselves of Twitter might have missed the absolute calamity that ensued when Simmons shared this example of advertising run wild. At the time of writing, it had been retweeted tens of thousands of times, received thrice as many faves, generated roughly 5,000 comments, and immediately cemented itself as a meme. It has also raised a lot of questions:

That last one gets at the single most pressing postgame query currently bouncing around inside my skull: Who in the HECK is this guy? Sure, our protagonist does bear a more-than-passing resemblance to Ellar Coltrane, star of Richard Linklater’s epic saga of a fairly mundane childhood, but do not be fooled: Subway Boy’s trajectory in this melodrama is far more troubling, and violent, than Mason’s in Boyhood. We watch as he goes from benign infant, to regular toddler, to angry youth, to possible incel, to … well, who knows? Who is Subway Boy — who is he, really?

Let’s unpack.

Seen below, he is a fresh, fresh baby, having recently crashed out of his mother’s womb in the opening scene, a tub birth. Just a nice and inoffensive newborn.

Pre-lapsarian Subway Boy.

Fast-forward through Subway Boy’s first years — a bucolic period of toddling steps and firecracker cakes and wild horses horsing — and things take a turn. Subway Boy climbs trees; he races around the fields; he breaks bottles for kicks; he … spits on what I can’t guarantee is one of his friends, but based on the heckling circle seen here, seems like it definitely might be?

Rude.

Well, but kids can be gross little terrors, we know this, and so I am prepared to suspend judgment. I have a harder time justifying the scene that follows shortly thereafter, in which Subway Boy, apparently for the first time, spies a woman’s naked body — literally, spies. Subway Boy’s sexual awakening involves lurking outside what we are left to assume is his mother’s door, watching wide-eyed through the peephole as she drops her towel and steps naked to her wardrobe. Truly, you hate to see it.

No!

Anyway, put a pin in your discomfort with that incestuously sexualized scenario, our read continues apace. Subway Boy rejoins his buds, tackling one and absolutely whaling on him as payback for an unceremonious pantsing. Subway Boy then huffs home, fists clenched and seething. Is Subway Boy okay?

A pivot toward violence?

… no, I don’t believe he is.

*grimace*

Beating behind us, we embark on more milestones: Puberty now underway, Subway Boy shaves his face. Subway Boy meets a girl: They take a romantic, clothed dip in a lake, and as his paramour flips her soaking hair dramatically out of the water in a sparkling arc — as if this were the cover of a romance novel and not a Subway ad — he watches with … tentative? nervous? dead? eyes, his face half submerged in water.

Watching, waiting, anticipating.

Ah, yes, but who among us did not experience sweaty anxiety in the lead-up to our first kiss?

There it is!

Unfortunately, eager anticipation melts to unadulterated, frightening rage when Subway Boy sees his crush flirting with a rival. Subway Boy’s is a violent and explosive anger, disproportionate to the situation (one kiss, one time). We watch him yell in a dark room, strobe lights flashing frenetically in the background.

Screams.

Perhaps you thought Subway Boy chose to blow off some steam in a Dance Club, the first blossom of teenage rebellion, but no: This is a window into his brain space, synapses short-circuiting at unimaginable betrayal. Suddenly we’re in the bathroom, grimacing as he shaves off his shaggy hair — an extreme display of what might be heartbreak, or fury at not getting what he wanted and believes he intrinsically deserves.

Looking like a skinhead now, he retreats to his bedroom (but not before bellowing in his mother’s face and slamming the door on her!) where he flings himself onto his bed. Hoodie on and windows shuttered, he contemplates, I don’t know, the inherent injustice at another Stacy choosing another Chad, maybe?

A portrait of angst.

Flash-forward and suddenly, Subway Boy is grown! We don’t know what happened in the dark times but we do know this: Subway Boy is a traveler, a man of the world, a wealthy young white dude on a backpacking trip through China. He does photography, he does soul-searching, he expands his horizons.

Subway Boy becomes Subway Man.

Back home, Subway Boy will surely continue to wedge mention of his gap year into every conversational crack; he will explain his surface understanding of another culture’s centuries-old traditions to you at every possible opportunity. But who is he, who is he really, Subway Boy seems to ask himself, staring into his bathroom mirror in the ad’s penultimate scene.

Who am I?

And stepping into his friendly neighborhood Subway, the synthetic bread smells swirling all around him, he will discover he is just a man; a man looking for whatever life asks him to try today; a man about to drench his $5 foot-long in sweet onion sauce; a man who will explain to you, his date, that he didn’t sit out the 2016 election because the Democratic candidate was a woman, but simply because she wasn’t the right woman; a man who will grow visibly twitchy when the bartender winks flirtily at you, because, recall, Subway Boy’s been burned before, and the embers of his resentment remain hot; a man who will performatively declare himself an ally online, only to repackage his wife’s identity for his own personal gain.

Ha ha! Or maybe I’m just reading too much into this.

A Close Reading of the Most Deranged Sandwich Ad Ever