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Why Ruth Wardell is 'Snowpiercer's Season 2 wild card

Alison Wright in Snowpiercer
(Image credit: TNT)

This post contains spoilers for Snowpiercer.
Check out our 
last review here

“Good men and women don’t seem to stay good long doing this, do they?” Ruth (Alison Wright) observes when she says an emotionally charged farewell to Melanie (Jennifer Connelly) on Snowpiercer a couple of weeks ago. Tensions between the previously tight co-workers are still high after Melanie pretended Mr. Wilford (Sean Bean) was on board the train for the last seven years. Both women have done horrifying acts while dressed in the impeccable teal hospitality uniforms and the word “good” is hard to parse in this environment. As factions and loyalties shift, mortal enemies are now allies and Ruth has a lot to reckon with regarding her actions on the train. There is also a concern that the head of hospitality is a Wilford fanatic who will easily be swayed by the silver tongue antagonist and the battle for control continues in “Keep Hope Alive.” However, Ruth turns down the offer of a lifetime in the closing moments of this episode, which suggests she can be counted on.

Wright’s ability to serve steely determination runs parallel with brimming emotions that make her one of the most captivating performers in this wildly talented cast. She sells Ruth’s sincere belief in what Wilford stands for coupled with her growing concern about those in power. Hospitality might seem like it is about fine dining and pleasantries, but those who control the image of the train and the airwaves hold an important card in this delicate system. Anger clouds her judgment but when Melanie asks Ruth to look out for Alex (Rowan Blanchard) in her absence, her former friend’s teary assurance is a reminder of her humanity. Ruth isn’t just an automaton doing her master’s bidding.   

Alison Wright in Snowpiercer

(Image credit: TNT)

Hospitality is in charge of informing Snowpiercer’s passengers of the outside temperature and their location. They are the face of this operation, which has shifted a great deal since the first episode. When one of the passengers snarkily suggests that Melanie is getting an image rehabilitation thanks to the dangerous endeavor she has undertaken, it pulls one particular issue into focus. In the past, Ruth has put on her signature fur jacket and gone to the tail section to dish out punishment. When six guards were killed, she initially said the blood of six tallies should be shed before agreeing to freeze off someone’s arm as punishment. This sadistic act was originally going to be inflicted on a child, but Winnie’s (Emma Oliver) mother volunteered in her place. It isn’t easy to forget the deep acts of cruelty Ruth enforced while she wore her perfectly pressed suit, even if a bigger threat has entered the picture. Part of the reason fractures run deep aboard this train is because a lot of abhorrent acts took place in the name of Wilford.

Layton (Daveed Diggs) witnessed many of these moments and Ruth has bristled against his leadership, so it isn’t a stretch to see why he doesn’t trust her. “My advice, don’t lie to her. I regret that I did, and I’ll probably never make it right. But, for you, she’s a rare straight arrow if you can keep her,” Melanie tells her new co-conspirator before she leaves. Some matters are on a need-to-know basis, which Ruth considers a personal attack. Acting as a bridge, Zarah (Sheila Vand) joins the hospitality team to assuage Ruth’s fears. Giving her a sounding board offers an opportunity for a deeper insight beyond the “polished perfection” she asks her team to deliver. 

Taking away the apocalypse element, Snowpiercer is a workplace, and Ruth is irritated by her new boss not realizing how hard she works. Moments like this are highly relatable even if the rest of the scenario is an extreme departure. She snipes at how she is perceived — “People need to realize I wasn’t born yesterday” — before suggesting she has some self-awareness. “I know that people in power lie. Even I’ve done things in teal that I am ashamed of,” but she doesn’t go into specifics about her crimes in the name of Snowpiercer. Ruth can’t hide behind a crisp collar forever. In last week’s episode, Ruth defended herself against the notion that she will bend for Wilford, "Just because I admire Mr. Wilford, that doesn’t mean that I’m disloyal. I am loyal to the train.” She might be dedicated to the train but she hasn’t always seen the passengers as equals.   

Alison Wright in Snowpiercer

(Image credit: TNT)

There are echoes of Tilda Swinton’s Minister Mason in the 2013 movie adaptation from their choice of fur coat to passing on messages from Mr. Wilford to the rest of the train (Mason also partakes in an arm freezing punishment and is also from northern England). One major difference is that Ruth is unknowingly getting her instructions from Melanie posing as Wilford and Wright doesn’t lean into the eccentricities of Swinton’s cowardly antagonist. Similar to how Sean Bean’s Wilford is not replicating Ed Harris in Bong Joon Ho’s cult classic, Ruth is more grounded and recognizable.   

Giddy at the reappearance of Wilford, Ruth practically gets high off every wax seal and message sent back and forth. She craves order and the recent revolution is a nightmare come to life. Having a theme gives Ruth something to work toward, which in this case is selling hope in a world in which it is in short supply. But how can she sell something that might not be true? “Poise under pressure” is a pithy catchphrase she uses on Zarah, but she is forced to take her own advice when telling a white lie to keep morale up regarding Melanie’s status. Spinning this story is how they keep everything from figuratively derailing and Ruth’s calm tone is in contrast to her tense body — luckily, this is an audio-only broadcast.   

Alison Wright in Snowpiercer

(Image credit: TNT)

Giddy at the reappearance of Wilford, Ruth practically gets high off every wax seal and message sent back and forth. She craves order and the recent revolution is a nightmare come to life. Having a theme gives Ruth something to work toward, which in this case is selling hope in a world in which it is in short supply. But how can she sell something that might not be true? “Poise under pressure” is a pithy catchphrase she uses on Zarah, but she is forced to take her own advice when telling a white lie to keep morale up regarding Melanie’s status. Spinning this story is how they keep everything from figuratively derailing and Ruth’s calm tone is in contrast to her tense body — luckily, this is an audio-only broadcast.   

This is not the first time Alison Wright has portrayed a woman who has plaster a fake smile on her face to fool people. Playing Martha in The Americans was a tightrope walk, depicting a manipulated woman in love who still continued to do Philip’s (Matthew Rhys) KGB bidding even after he revealed his true identity. Her whole worldview was shattered when Philip removed his wig at the end of Season 3, but Martha was already in deep. The FBI secretary might not have inflicted physical harm on her co-workers, but Philip did kill her colleague to cover up the real culprit behind the bug in the pen. The guilt she feels almost consumes her before she is exfiltrated to the Soviet Union when her cover is blown. Critics singled out Wright, and lauded the FX spy series, however, not nearly enough Emmys were bestowed on this cast (see also, Keri Russell). Snowpiercer is a reminder of Wright’s strengths as a performer and while Ruth might appear black and white on the surface, the actress ensures the subtleties and nuances of a woman in her position shine through.

A strength of the second season is how much time is being spent with characters who could easily become caricatures. Ruth’s department is the face of Snowpiercer and her devotion to the man whose name is plastered in every carriage could easily hit fanatic levels. Instead, she is surprisingly pragmatic in the face of her idol (after initial giddiness). The biggest test occurs at the end of “Keep Hope Alive” when literal alarm bells are ringing and she turns down Wilford’s tempting offer to step across the border into Big Alice. Her former boss might be all smiles but we have seen what he does to people who falter. Of course, there is still time for Ruth to fall foul of his charm, and what makes her such a wild card is this refusal. She says no to Wilford and maybe Melanie was right about Ruth’s value to Layton — but first, she has to confront the shameful actions she committed in teal.