Machiavelli wrote, “It is better to be feared than loved, if you cannot be both.” Joseph Wilford is certainly trying to be both, but short of achieving both, he prefers to be feared. “All Wilford’s got is fear,” Layton tells Ruth towards the end of this week’s episode of Snowpiercer. “We got something much more than that, friends who have got our back. That is our strength.”
“The Show Must Go On” is aptly named as Wilford literally dons the role of ringmaster after reopening Car 272, a carnival car that presumably Melanie shut down soon after ditching Wilford 7 years ago. The flashbacks from “Many Miles from Snowpiercer” reveal Wilford was determined to keep the train’s entertainment centers operating as bread and circuses to keep the passengers distracted and docile even at the expense of reducing passenger size on this Noah’s ark.
That’s clearly the central role Car 272 is meant to play now, though the puppet show demonstrates it can also serve as a powerful propaganda tool. We’ve seen in Season 1 that Melanie maintained some of the over-the-top Wilford propaganda in the school — reminiscent of the memorable school sequence in the eponymous Bong Joon Ho film version. Thinking Wilford was out of the picture forever, this sort of founding father mythology may have served a healthier purpose.
Less so when the man himself is around to exploit such adulation. Though the only one even amused a little by Wilford’s anti-Melanie propaganda puppet show is LJ, who already hates Melanie. Even Winnie, the little Tailie girl Ruth bonded with in “Our Answer for Everything,” isn’t buying it and calls Wilford a liar to his face.
But the puppet show as well as the dinner that soon follows underline Wilford’s casual cruelty more than anything else. It’s not enough he’s killing Melanie off in the performance to prime everyone for his future order to abandon her. He also depicts Alexandra as an overly emotional baby who just needs someone to shove a pacifier in her mouth to get her to shut up.
Wilford’s art collection also appears to consist only of works depicting grotesque cruelty. Javi glimpses Goya’s “Saturn Devouring His Son,” depicting the titular titan monstrously eating his child out of fear of being overthrown. Alexandra is the closest thing Wilford has to a child of his own. Would he go as far as Saturn to maintain his power?
Later at dinner, Wilford delights in cutting everyone down with words. Granted, LJ was a mass murderer by proxy who once jabbed a fork in her father’s eye, so it’s hard to feel too bad when Wilford targets her. But losing her First Class luxury and now holding down a legitimate community service job, LJ is carrying out a form of rehabilitation.
Her beau Osweiller perhaps demonstrates the best response to Wilford’s biting remarks, just walking over to the piano and showcasing his impressive musical talents. When Ruth’s turn comes, the engineer offers her what she’s always wanted, the position of heading the Hospitality Department over poor brainwashed Kevin, but only on the condition that she publically declare Melanie dead to the whole train. Ruth refuses and is forced to turn in her uniform and join Layton in slave duty at “The Swamp,” the train’s composting facility.
Wilford later offers Bess what she’s been seeking as well, those responsible for the breachmen murders. Apparently, it wasn’t just Pastor Logan acting alone. But Wilford demands an execution. When Bess insists on a fair and just trial, Wilford executes them anyway even though they were acting on his own either direct or indirect orders.
“The Show Must Go On” is a portrait of cruelty, both physical and psychological. It delivers on the promise made at the end of Season 1 when we were told the real Joseph Wilford was bad news. The man’s had to put on a show up until now and comport himself with the air of a dignified gentleman of charm and manners, but now that he’s in power, the claws have come out. Roche and his family have been stuffed in the hibernation drawers we got to know intimately last season.
Even Alexandra is temporarily sent to the brig — where she’s been many times before, we learn — for revealing Wilford’s new census is to be used to justify a horrific population control policy. Alexandra knows this because Big Alice used to have twice the passengers it does now until Wilford culled half the population, based on his personal criteria.
This is our best look at Wilford the man and what makes him tick. This is where Sean Bean gets to shine brightest in the role, as a man who can go from jovial one moment to ferocious the next. And Bean just kills it this week. We hadn’t gotten a new, interesting location in a long while, so Car 272 was a wonderfully rendered piece of set design.
I can’t help but try to study the room measurements of any new car to see if it could believably fit the limited dimensions it’d have to be for Snowpiercer. This one seems like a stretch, but I can suspend disbelief. I do often wonder though if the set design team has official dimensions for Snowpiercer cars that they must adhere to when building each new car.
I’m also always a fan of awkward dinner scenes. The sheer disdain in Mickey Sumner’s delivery as Bess looks at Audrey and whispers to Zarah, “Is she wearing a freakin’ tiara?” is just pitch-perfect. I imagine Bess and Audrey probably were never friends, and Audrey’s appearing to have gone full party-girl at the expense of everyone else as she and Wilford drunkenly traipse and stumble into the car late for their own dinner party recalls the oblivious decadent excess of The Roaring Twenties.
It’s a wonderful small bit of character work here that goes a long way. Same goes later on when Javi tries to avoid looking at the public sexual situation Audrey’s engaged in a few feet behind him just before he receives Melanie’s message.
Wilford is the greatest showman on the train. It’s appropriate that he briefly appears here as a Barnum-esque carnival barker. Like P.T. Barnum, he promises something for everybody, while a peek behind the curtain reveals only a carnival of cruelty as well as just a lot of smoke and mirrors.
New episodes of Snowpiercer air Mondays on TNT.
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