Season one of Snowpiercer revealed the train’s population as held together by a thin thread. A collective reverence for the train’s creator, Mr. Wilford, was the principal element that kept that thread from snapping.
A savior whose name was beyond reproach, though few on board had ever actually met the man in person. He was, as it turned out, the idea of an all-knowing leader, a quasi-messianic figure for the people of Snowpiercer to put their faith in even as simmering class warfare began to boil over into outright bloody combat. But in the second season, Melanie Cavill’s (Jennifer Connelly) deception is fully exposed and a living, breathing Mr. Wilford (Sean Bean) emerges from Big Alice.
Wilford’s arrival on the scene has infused Snowpiercer with some much-needed life, bringing along a toxic brand of charisma that’s leaps and bounds ahead of the thoroughly forgettable collection of First Class also-rans from season one. Bean plays it with engaging, devilish charm, casting taunts and casual cruelty left and right. But while Wilford’s hold over the imaginations of Snowpiercer’s population seems believable enough, I can’t help but wonder how in the hell this man has managed to hold his crew together on Big Alice.
Thanks in large part to Melanie, most everyone on Snowpiercer feels they owe their lives to Wilford. She spent years using the power of his name to keep the train’s world stitched together. Plus, it doesn’t hurt that the branding is strong. Everywhere you turn, a prominent “W” emblazoned on just about every surface reminds the people exactly who they have to thank for their continued existence.
But here’s the thing, the folks on the big club have never actually had to endure living under Wilford’s rule. To steal a phrase from WandaVision, it was Melanie all along. She kept up the facade to maintain order, if not freedom, and certainly nothing like equality.
But on Big Alice, it’s a different story entirely. Wilford is the man both in spirit and in the flesh, warts and all. He has no discernable second-in-command. Alex is an understudy at best, an object to manipulate and emotionally torture at worst. His head of hospitality, Kevin, is a (very) poor man’s Ruth. There’s a collection of barely-named henchmen and, of course, Icy Bob. But it seems like the burden of functional leadership is fully on his shoulders. And for all of us viewers, it takes no time at all to see that this man is fucking awful.
After Bean’s character first comes along, we assume sure, this guy’s terrible and vindictive and that’s oh so obvious, but he’s only a jerk behind closed doors, showing his true colors to a select few among his inner circle. Nope. Turns out, he’s pretty upfront about it. Episode 4 of the season bears this out pretty clearly when Wilford gathers up the lucky few among the Big Alice crew to accompany him on a night of shore leave on Snowpiercer’s Night Car. He’s not exactly gentle about stressing the point that it’s his big night or making much of an effort to conceal his lousy personality.
Later on, in flashbacks, we see how he meant to lean on a large contingent of Jackboots to maintain order on the train and keep himself on his velvet throne. But from what we’ve seen so far, not many of those guys, if any, made it onto Big Alice. Just like on Snowpiercer, firearms appear to be a rare commodity. Icy Bob is Wilford’s WMD, but it seems like it took a good long while to achieve the ideal level of freezer burn that makes that guy so effective.
So, if Wilford is this obvious about his terribleness, what explains the iron-clad loyalty he gets from the Big Alice crew? I get that they owe him their survival in a broad sense. He ostensibly invented the technology that keeps the lesser train’s lights on. But it’s not exactly plush conditions he’s providing over there.
And Big Alice is no Snowpiercer. Sure, she’s shelter from the certain flash-frozen death waiting beyond her walls, but there’s also a distinct lack of luxury suites, cabarets, or first-class dining cars. Aside from Wilford’s engine control compartment, it’s utilitarian down the line. We’re talking Soviet-era block housing to the Roaring Twenties neo-noir aesthetic of Snowpiercer.
I think I’m supposed to take Wilford as some kind of a mashup of Westword’s Delos and Ford, visionary, architect, playboy, and financier all rolled into one. But whereas Ford offered park guests adventures without limits or consequences (for a while, at least) Wilford only has a drab shelter, Spam, and a prickly attitude. Wouldn’t we all buy Wilford’s hold over this plucky group of survivors more if he wasn’t walking around behaving so flagrantly atrocious?
He’s a schemer who’s used to getting what he wants by way of manipulation and power, but I’d love to see some evidence that Wilford is, in fact, a brilliant engineer with skills to match the preposterous vision of a perpetually moving snow-plowing train. How about a wrench in his hands or some grease underneath his fingernails to illustrate how vital he is to keeping Big Alice running? A competent villain is so much more compelling.
There’s no doubt Snowpiercer has come a long way since its bumpy first season. Sure, Layton’s (Daveed Diggs) puzzling motivations and frustratingly bad judgment have been tough to watch. And Melanie descending into vivid hallucinations after only a few days out on her own was not the most inspiring storytelling. But there are still just enough compelling threads and characters to keep me interested.
Ruth (Alison Wright) has been a joy to watch this season. Sure, she’s deeply flawed, just like everyone else on the train, but I’m rooting for her. The same goes for Pike. There’s literally never too much screentime this show can give Steven Ogg. Till’s (Mickey Sumner) season-long malaise is starting to wear thin, but I’m still here for the character. And Lena Hall’s Miss Audrey is pulling some serious weight.
But it’s Sean Bean who’s ultimately pushed the show up a notch. The endless verbal jabs Wilford slings at Ben (Iddo Goldberg) make me smile, as do the taunts he hurls at Layton and Melanie. But aside from some deeply unsettling physiological warfare aimed at Audrey and Kevin, a lot of Wilford’s antics feel like empty calories.
After last week, it’s clear Wilford has finally realized the sway over Snowpiercer’s population he’s been craving. Layton’s message of unity has lost its shine and we’re primed for a hostile takeover.
We’ve gotten glimpses of the past exploits that led to Wilford’s rise to power and influence in the old world. But without more evidence to illustrate how he’s managed to stay on top of his little realm after the freeze, the idea of his long-term rule over both trains is going to be difficult to swallow.
Snowpiercer seems to finally be heading in the right direction and we’re poised to see just how wacky a proper Wilford administration looks. Whatever the result, after Icy Bob has done his worst, a hearts-and-minds campaign is surely going to be in order.