Review: Sean Bean gives Snowpiercer a charismatic villain to stir the pot

The unexpected arrival of the presumed-dead Mr. Wilford throws a wrench into the revolutionaries’ plans to reform governance aboard the train, in the second season of Snowpiercer, TNT’s TV adaptation of the 2013 film of the same name, directed by Bong Joon-ho. Most of the talented ensemble cast members who made S1 so worth watching are back and as good as ever, but ultimately S2 belongs to Sean Bean, whose portrayal of Wilford gives the series the charismatic, larger-than-life (human) villain it needed to really raise the emotional stakes.

(Spoilers for S1 below. Major spoilers for the S2 finale below the second gallery. We’ll give you a heads-up when we get there.)

As we’ve reported previously, TNT’s series is set seven years after the climate catastrophe that produced the Freeze. Daveed Diggs (Hamilton, Blindspotting) plays Andre Layton, a prisoner at the tail end of the train (aka the “Tailies”)—those without tickets for the train who managed to climb onboard at the last minute, before the train departed and left the rest of humanity to die. In S1, Layton gets caught up in a revolutionary struggle against the strictly imposed social hierarchy aboard Snowpiercer. The conditions in the tail are squalid and typical punishment for insubordination is having one’s arm stuck through a portal into the cold outside until it freezes solid and shatters off. There’s also a prison car to punish more serious infractions, whose occupants are kept in suspension in “the Drawers.”

Jennifer Connelly (Alita: Battle Angel) co-stars as first-class passenger Melanie Cavill, who is the Voice of the Train, responsible for daily public announcements and the train’s smooth operation (both mechanically and socially). The show’s large ensemble cast also includes Alison Wright (The Americans, Castle Rock) as Ruth Wardell, who works in hospitality and is devoted to Mr. Wilford, as well as Mickey Sumner (The Borgias, and daughter of musician Sting) as brakeman Bess Till, whose move to second class in S1 to be with her romantic partner is threatened when she starts to question the train’s status quo.

S1 ended on a cliffhanger.  Melanie eventually confessed to Ruth that Mr. Wilford had never been aboard and that she had abandoned him to die at the boarding site, convinced the passengers had a better chance of surviving without him. In the penultimate episode, Layton and his revolutionary Tailies finally succeeded in wresting control of Snowpiercer—albeit at a cost, since Layton was forced to disconnect seven cars and send all the people in them to their inevitable deaths. Melanie told him this was the kind of hard choice she has had to live with ever since the train began its endless journey.

Layton assumed leadership of the train, with plans to set up a democratic style of government on board. But as the train approached Chicago, a mysterious signal was detected from a supply train called Big Alice, running on a prototype of Snowpiercer‘s eternal engine. Melanie feared Wilford was aboard. Thinking the supply train had things they could use, the engineer, Bennett (Iddo Goldberg, Peaky Blinders), slowed down Snowpiercer and Big Alice clamped on, stopping the train. A young girl emerged: Alexandra (Rowan Blanchard, Girl Meets World)—aka Melanie’s daughter, whom Melanie believed was dead—demanding that everyone aboard surrender to… Mr. Wilford. And, scene.

As I noted in my S1 review, “This is one of those slow-burn shows that takes a while to build, which could try viewers’ patience. But that patience is rewarded when everything kicks into high gear for the final few episodes, ending on one last cliffhanger twist.” I’m happy to report that those minor pacing issues have been resolved with the second season. Freed from the burden of building out an elaborate fictional world, showrunner Graeme Manson and his team of writers delved into the complicated relationships. political machinations, and shifting political loyalties that inevitably arise with Wilford’s unexpected return.

“Invisible” effects

Snowpiercer S1 boasted some eye-popping visuals, and S2 maintains those high production values. While VFX specialist Damien Thaller (who worked on Game of Thrones before Snowpiercer) and his team were able to reuse some of the effects from S1, the second season expands the storytelling environment a bit beyond the train’s interior, giving us exterior shots not just of Snowpiercer and the icy terrain around it, but also of frozen, decaying city skylines in the distance, such as Minneapolis. “The focal point was always about what was happening in the story, so our visual effects needed to be [mostly] invisible,” he told Ars.

One example is Melanie lying on her back in the snow beside the train, watching a single exquisitely rendered snowflake fall from the sky. It’s significant for the plot, since this is the first indication that the Earth might be finally starting to thaw from the Freeze—until now, it has been much too cold for snowflakes to form in the atmosphere—but it’s also an impressive achievement from a VFX standpoint.

For that scene, Thaller and his crew researched how the geometry of a snowflake would interact with light. “We realized that that they would start to look glassy and unrealistic in a lot of ways,” he said. “The Snowpiercer world is an Ice Age, so our snowflakes needed to feel not too soft and fluffy; they needed to feel more icy, with more colors, more bling.”  Thaller even recalled borrowing his wife’s diamond engagement ring one day, holding it up to the sunlight to observe not just the reflections but what kinds of colors it picked up from the surroundings. Much of that opening sequence was shot in the studio on front of a green screen, with almost none of the original shot left after all the CGI had been added.

(Warning: some major spoilers below this gallery. Stop reading now if you haven’t finished watching the season.)

Each S2 episode opens with a voiceover from the perspective of a different character, providing rotating perspectives. Those voices include Miss Audrey (Lena Hall, Girls), who runs the Nightcar in Third Class and turns out to have a complicated history with Wilford, threatening her loyalty to the revolution; Alex, whose loyalty to Wilford is tested when she begins to bond with her mother; Josie (Katie McGuinness, The Borgias), who miraculously survived extreme exposure to the cold and is nursed back to health aboard Big Alice (acquiring a remarkable resistance to cold in the process); and Ruth, who has one of the most dramatic arcs this season, transforming from her almost fatuous devotion to Wilford into another ally for Layton. In the process, she must reckon with the cruelty of her past actions, as well as what life on the train under Wilford’s iron-fisted rule would truly be like.

But it’s Bean’s portrayal of Wilford that drives the main narrative engine in S2. He brings just the right mix of sadistic flamboyance and playful cruelty to the character—the proverbial match thrown into what was already a potentially explosive situation. Diggs’ Layton remains the moral compass of the train—at one point he taunts Wilford by calling him “an old white dictator with a train set”—while Wilford describes himself as “morally dyslexic.”

He’s being generous; Wilford’s only “morality” is centered on whatever is best for Wilford, and his generosity and favoritism can turn on a dime. That’s why Melanie stole Snowpiercer in the first place, and based on what we eventually learn about his “governance” of Big Alice, she made the right call. Yet he’s also utterly brilliant, making him a truly formidable opponent He’s able to always stay a step ahead of Layton and his allies with his machinations, and superficially charming enough to seduce the hearts and minds of many of the passengers who don’t (yet) know any better.

TNT renewed Snowpiercer for a third season in January, even before S2 premiered.  That’s great news, since the finale ends on another game-changing cliffhanger: Wilford eventually regains control of his train and abandons Melanie to die in the cold. Ruth joins Layton, Bess, Alex, Josie, and Bennett to create a ten-car pirate train, breaking off those cars and the eternal engine from the rest of Snowpiercer (now propelled forward by Big Alice) to go save Melanie. They are too late: Melanie sacrificed herself by walking into the Freeze, in order to conserve the remaining heat at the station, thereby ensuring that the data she has collected survives. That data shows Melanie was right: parts of the Earth are indeed beginning to thaw. The pirate train crew resolves to go get the rest of Snowpiercer back, setting up yet another new train configuration for S3.

The real question is whether Melanie somehow miraculously survived the frozen expanse; Connelly’s role in S2 was significantly reduced due to scheduling conflicts. But executive producer Becky Clements said in an interview with Deadline Hollywood that the actress will be returning for S3. It could be in flashbacks, or it could be as a major player—we’ll have to wait and see. As for the season as a whole, Clements said there would be “a bit of a time jump” to establish the new world order, so to speak, and teased a “big new character.”

All episodes of Snowpiercer S1 and S2 are now available for streaming on Amazon Prime.

Listing image by TNT