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'Snowpiercer' and the charm and menace of Sean Bean's Mr. Wilford

Sean Bean as Mr. Wilford in Snowpiercer Season 2
(Image credit: TNT)

This post contains spoilers for Snowpiercer.

During the first season of Snowpiercer, it appeared the TV adaptation had killed off the powerful inventor of this lifesaving train. At the end of the pilot, it is revealed that Melanie (Jennifer Connelly) was the elusive man behind the curtain, and details about her train coup are disclosed later. Pretending to be Mr. Wilford (Sean Bean) could only sustain for so long and before he made his dramatic return in the finale via supply train Big Alice, the cat was out of the bag regarding this deception. Revolution aboard Snowpiercer resulted in Layton (Daveed Diggs) returning power to all people — regardless of the carriage class — but Mr. Wilford’s surprise comeback has thrown a massive spanner in the already contentious works. 

Casting an antagonist of Wilford’s standing requires an actor who can deliver intimidation and charm in equal measure. In the 2013 adaptation of the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige, Ed Harris played the mad genius villain of Bong Joon Ho’s cult classic. In the movie, Wilford has orchestrated the uprising to cull the population and is playing God from the engine room. For long-term storytelling on a television show, it makes narrative sense to shift Wilford from the front of the locomotive to the back. He is still beloved, which adds to the already precarious leadership situation. Rather than wait until Season 2 premiered, TNT gave viewers a glimpse of the magnetic Wilford last summer in the first teaser trailer. We have got so used to showrunners keeping big plot developments secret that this choice to show Bean as Wilford six months ahead of time felt like a bold move. Instead, it plays into the strengths of this well-known actor’s stacked resumé and emphasized the havoc he would cause for Melanie and Layton.

After two episodes, Bean has exhibited both magnetism and an unflinching menace to those who have crossed his path or betrayed him. He has spilled blood without inflicting the wounds himself and his manipulation skills are as impressive as his personal suite on Big Alice. For Wilford, it is all about what he has given people and what he believes is his. “I want my train back, Melanie” he orders when reunited with his former protégé. Unfortunately for Wilford, it is no longer hers to surrender. Unlike Lord Eddard “Ned” Stark in Game of Thrones, Wilford is a man that craves power and will do anything to take back what he believes is his. Bean has played leaders (reluctant and willing) and countless villains across television and film, which makes him ideal for a character who is considered a savior and a monster. He rarely shifts his accent from the dulcet Yorkshire tones that gives his performance an everyman quality — even when he is wearing luxurious velvet suit jackets or a jacquard bathrobe.   

Languishing in the bathtub listening to David Bowie’s “Life on Mars” on vinyl while sampling the luxuries from Snowpiercer that he has been craving further highlights how Wilford isn’t a man of the people. His name is plastered over the vehicle as a reminder of who is in control and while Melanie has so far found a number of ways to challenge this power grab, he will stop at nothing to rule over this fractured society.

“Wilford, he doesn’t just want a castle, he wants a court. He needs to be revered,” Layton astutely observes while brainstorming with Melanie about how to approach the discovery that the Earth’s atmosphere is warming up. Layton and Melanie were on opposing sides in Season 1, but Wilford’s arrival has created an alliance between the former enemies. Melanie’s experience with her former boss is invaluable and she knows how he ticks — it is why she stole Snowpiercer in the first place. “You give him a stage, he’ll put on a show,” she warns and Wilford truly plays it up as the hero when he makes his return to a mostly cheering crowd. It isn’t just Ruth (Alison Wright) who is giddy to see the life-saving symbol in the flesh and “Smolder to Life” shows how dedicated some of the Snowpiercer inhabitants are. His three-piece pinstripe suit and fur dial up his larger-than-life persona and costume designer Caroline Cranstoun sets him apart from everyone using luxury items. (Although it is impossible to see him wearing fur and not momentarily picture Winterfell)  

Sean Bean as Mr. Wilford in Snowpiercer Season 2

(Image credit: TNT)

Bess Till (Mickey Sumner) has been promoted to train detective and her first case is to investigate who attacked and mutilated Lights’ (Miranda Edwards) hand. Quickly deducing the assault was not random, Bess notices Wilford’s three-finger salute is mirrored by others on the train and determines that Lights has been branded — or rather her thumb and pinky finger were cut off to create a permanent three-finger salute. Flashing his trademark smile, Wilford has plenty of support among those fighting for equality. It is also notable that teen psychopath LJ Folger (Annalise Basso) is Team Wilford and we already know the lengths she will go to. 

At the moment Wilford has control over Melanie’s daughter Alex (Rowan Blanchard) after years of filling her head with stories — Melanie was trying to keep her away from this troubling influence. And while she has so far done everything he asked her to do, the more time she spends with her mother, the more Melanie can break the troubling bond. Ned Stark encouraged daughter Arya’s (Maisie Williams) sword-fighting endeavors and this feels like a more twisted version of fatherly advice. He trained Melanie and when she betrayed him, he took it upon himself to make Alex an improved model. She turns a blind eye (or rather drowns it out with music) when he does something awful and while she questions his strategy, Alex ultimately complies and becomes his weapon. Wilford doesn’t need to strike a blow when he has a squad to do it for him.  

Sean Bean as Mr. Wilford in Snowpiercer

(Image credit: TNT)

Manipulation is his greatest weapon (along with fear) and while Melanie will not fall for the “I gave you everything” emotional blackmail. Not everyone can say no, and the fate of Kevin (Tom Lipinski) in the second episode emphasizes how much power Wilford has. This coupled with the extreme lengths he will go to in wielding control over his dedicated subjects is a recipe for horror. As soon as Kevin took a bite of the fried chicken (and admitted to doing so), his days were numbered. The offer of a warm bath seems like a benevolent act but anyone who has watched TV (or seen any number of Bean’s villainous performances) knows this will not be a soothing experience. Even if you haven’t guessed that Kevin’s time in hospitality is over, Alex’s exit makes this clear.

Stripping off and climbing into the bath with Kevin is another tool to aid compliance. By entering this watery space it gives the impression they are on the same level, but this is how the magnetic Wilford actively coerces Kevin into ending his life. Placing the knife in his hand, Wilford delivers this news like it is a glowing performance review telling him it has been an honor and that Kevin “served the mission well.” Kevin doesn’t immediately do as his boss wants him to do: he is scared and hesitates. “You’re free,” Wilford emphasizes before guiding the knife to the point where it should be. He doesn’t physically make the deadly cut, but nothing about this is Kevin’s choice. The horrifying tableau is made even more disturbing as his dog drinks the bloody bathwater.   

Rather than waiting for a big showdown between Wilford and Layton, Snowpiercer is moving full steam ahead by featuring this first meeting early on. The battle is far from over and while there is a long-running joke that Bean always gets killed on screen, Wilford has already proved he is a hard man to leave behind. The energy he brings as the ego-maniac has already cranked the post-apocalyptic series up a notch and temperatures are heating up on board this extended locomotive.