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In the latest season of Snowpiercer, the arch-villain is Mr Wilford — the man who designed the Eternal Engine on which the last remnants of humankind live. Hatred for Mr Wilford and irritation with the characters who can’t see his villainy has been my main driver throughout this season. In the latest episode, this has all come to a head, and I’m left wondering if the show has already jumped the shark.
In season 2, we are quickly shown that Wilford is manipulative. He encourages Kevin, one of his hospitality staff, to self-harm by cutting his wrists in a bath tub, in which he sits with Wilford. A strong sexual undercurrent runs through this, suggesting that Wilford is deeply emotionally and sexually abusive. The severity and egregiousness of the abuse underscores his role as primary antagonist (and a much less likeable one that season 1’s Melanie). There’s no subtlety here.
The sexualisation of Wilford’s abuse is realistic. Abusers often fetishise their behaviour to make it desirable — to conflate it with affection. They make you feel as if you are in a privileged position, receiving attentions that are ostensibly exclusive and profound, thereby aiming to prove how intense this bond is. The idea is that you feel you are in a relationship which no one else understands, because you are special and everyone else is not, and therefore any harm that occurs is actually a positive reinforcement of the uniqueness of this ‘affection’. That all works as written.
The problem, however, comes from Audrey and her own character arc (or lack of) this season. Audrey is leader of the Night Car — part brothel, part nightclub, part counselling service. Audrey is established early in season 1 as a healer, but also a woman who is strongly self-possessed. Her job is to mend the broken hearts and tortured minds of those onboard Snowpiercer – a job she takes great pride in – and she is a key player in the rebellion against Mr Wilford’s apparent order.
Yet, come season 2, Audrey undergoes a 180 and perverts everything she was in season 1. Ordinarily this would be fine, but the change is so sudden, it feels as though she is being led by the plot, rather than the plot being led by her. This is where the lack of subtlety starts to fray my suspension of disbelief – though, admittedly, I’m still hooked.
Though Audrey believed Wilford was alive and on the train throughout season 1, she was still willing to rebel against him. She does have a strong moral core and can, with space and time, see past Wilford’s manipulations. Yet, within hours of seeing Wilford, and while evidently terrified, something changes and she becomes his enabler.
Audrey quickly betrays the former rebellion and her role as healer. She wilfully invites others to continue to indulge Wilford’s cruelties – convincing Kevin that this is really just a mark of his love. Even though we learn that Audrey, too, was goaded into life-threatening self-harm – she still bears the vertical scars of her sliced wrists – she is happy enough to let others go through the same thing, almost immediately.
This, in itself, could be a powerful and moving portrayal of how the abused can become abusers, as well as showing how abusers get away with what they do — by twisting the perceptions of those they victimise. The problem isn’t the change, however, but the speed with which it happens, and the lack of development from one state to another. We don’t see, as we do with Ruth, a slow changing of perspective and allegiances. We don’t see her personality shift and warp over time.
Though the finale is yet to be revealed, and this may all be a red herring leading to a spectacular reversal, Audrey’s sudden character change currently feels forced. While trauma bonding can indeed make victims complicit in their abusers’ actions, Audrey’s newfound cruelty is so complete, so sudden, that it doesn’t feel earned.
In truth, manipulation of this sort is usually a slow erosion of boundaries and an isolating of the victim that distorts their sense of right and wrong to facilitate the abuser’s behaviour. This simply felt contrived where it could have felt gradual, inexorable and therefore truly horrifying. If we had seen Audrey’s slow descent into monstrosity, it would have been more effective, and would have worked well to parallel Ruth’s growing remorse and disaffection.
As it is, Audrey seems like a poor shadow of Wilford — a sidekick supposed to show how corrupting his influence is, but actually making both characters seem like cartoon villains. Wilford apparently has some hitherto unexplained mind control which means people flip to his side without warning.
This attitude was also exemplified when Wilford giving a train-wide announcement was enough, on its own, for Layton to surrender himself and the train without so much as a fight. This is a man who has fought for two seasons to end Wilford’s tyranny and bring peace to the train, and yet, Wilford only needs to smirk at him and Layton offers himself up like a lamb to slaughter.
Yes, Wilford got to speak to the train. But Layton could easily have told them who caused the problems to begin with. He could have shot Wilford there and then – something he’s apparently not above, since he asked Pike to kill Terence when that became a risk to Tailie safety. What bigger risk to the Tail is there than putting someone like Wilford in charge? I just don’t buy it.
In both cases, I think it’s a case of plot driving character, rather than the other way around. Let’s hope that when the final two episodes land next week, we get a resolution that feels earned and not forced.