“A Single Trade” reduces Mr. Wilford from a symbol to a mere man, but one of peculiar and dangerous appetites, as Snowpiercer finds itself torn apart by transition.
This recap of Snowpiercer season 2, episode 4, “A Single Trade”, contains spoilers.
Mr. Wilford has always loomed large over Snowpiercer, but mostly as an idea. Through whispered tales of his benevolence – forgetting, obviously, the whole matter of the Tail – to the fervent loyalty stoked by a simple emblem of his initial, Wilford has always represented order, hope, and progress. Snowpiercer, 1034 cars long, might circumnavigate the Earth over and over, literally going around in circles, but a train is a powerful metaphor. They go somewhere. They have a destination. And it was always Mr. Wilford who would take the passengers there.
Until, of course, it wasn’t. Wilford was dead and had been supplanted by Melanie (completely unseen in “A Single Trade”). Then Wilford was alive again, but he had ceased, for the most part, to be an idea. Now he was just a man, and a weird one at that. Layton’s promotion to the head of the train, the (relative) empowerment of the Tail, and the fraught negotiations back and forth between Snowpiercer and Big Alice proved that perfect order as Wilford had envisioned it was an illusion. Labels like First Class and Tailie ceased to mean anything. When Snowpiercer stopped being the nexus of civilization, and Wilford stopped being its figurative driver, everything that the passengers thought they believed was called into question. Those who thought they belonged in one place were moved to another. The destination changed.
The macro-level push-pull of Snowpiercer Season 2 is that Wilford would very much like things to be as they were. With the social politics of the train being yanked this way and that, though, his very human psychosexual hang-ups can no longer occur in secrecy. He can no longer be the idea he was once. And with that, his “leadership”, which is really just large-scale abuse, is being gradually revealed as having a terrible, visible human cost. Nobody but Alex, complicit only because she lacks the power not to be, was witness to what Wilford did to Kevin – to what it’s implied he once did to Audrey. When Wilford returns to the Night Car in Snowpiercer season 2, episode 4, he can’t carry on as he once did, even if he might like to. Him being fed like a dog at Audrey’s feet is witnessed. As Killmonger might say, “This is your king?”
Wilford’s obsession with Audrey, and the scars both physical and emotional that have resulted from it, are of enough focus in “A Single Trade” for a warning to flash up before the episode starts and helplines to be listed at its end. Oddly, you see less of what actually goes on between Wilford and Audrey during their alone time than you did when, say, Wilford got in the bath with Kevin, but director David Frazee is able to put surrealism to powerful use. The implications are enough. What you don’t see serves the same purpose as what you do.
Wilford, then, is as broken as everyone else, as susceptible as them to this time of tumultuous change. He’s terrified by the prospect of a new world outside the locomotive because if it comes to fruition he’ll have to cede all his power, rather than the portion of it that Layton has already siphoned away. With the old way of life gone, and a fresh one on the distant, frozen horizon, Snowpiercer has become a middle-ground for old and new people, items, and ideologies to meet in the middle. It’s a trading floor. And someone always gets the raw end of the deal.