It’s amazing how much one actor can transform a series. Countless shows in TV history have had new life breathed into them by one virtuoso performance, been saved from lackluster territory by the efforts of an outstanding actor at the top of their game. Well, the second season of post-apocalyptic drama Snowpiercer might only just be getting underway, but one episode in there are already hints that the show might soon be joining that list, with the high profile addition of Sean Bean doing a lot to suggest that the series is on an upwards trajectory.
Bean plays Mr Wilford, a character who was regularly mentioned in the first run but was thought dead until a major twist at the end of the season finale. The billionaire owner of Snowpiercer, Wilford is referred to as the ‘Great Engineer’ and is revered in an almost god-like fashion by many of the train’s passengers. Despite his absence from the first series, he is a character who was given a fairly dramatic build-up, so it’s safe to say that whoever took on the role had to go big. On that front, thankfully, Bean does not disappoint.
His Snowpiecer debut arrives roughly 15 minutes into the season two premiere. We hear him before we see him – a sinister chuckle followed by the line “she remembers you” in his signature Yorkshire accent. If the ominous delivery of this brief gambit wasn’t immediately enough to convince that Bean is not planning on phoning this in, our first sight of him a few seconds later only confirms it. Sitting arrogantly atop a throne-like chair, Bean menacingly smiles his way through his opening exchange with Jennifer Connolly’s Melanie. There’s an almost Bond villain-esque energy to his taunts, setting up an intriguing relationship with the first season’s main baddie in the process.
Beyond this, his appearances in the first episode are relatively sparse – he doesn’t crop up again until the final 10 minutes, at which point we see another side to the character: manic fury. But even with relatively limited screen time, Bean steals the show in every frame he appears in, giving it large as a showboating villain full of gleeful sneers and sociopathic smarm. Even the manner in which he peels and eats an orange is wonderfully compelling.
It’s the kind of bravura performance the series desperately needed after a first season that was often a rather drab and lifeless affair. I mean this, of course, with no disrespect to other Snowpiercer cast members, including Daveed Diggs and Connolly, two exceptionally charismatic performers who have proven their worth many times over – but it often felt like their performances in the first run were too serious and solemn for the material, which made the whole thing a bit stilted and dull.
The concept of Snowpiercer works best when it juggles a certain degree of wackiness alongside the gritty themes – a line tread expertly by Bong Joon-Ho in his spectacular 2013 film – but in the first season it seemed that only Alison Wright was having any fun, channeling Tilda Swinton’s superbly eccentric performance (and accent) from the movie. By adding a scenery-chewing villain to the equation, the series suddenly becomes a much more engaging and, most-importantly, entertaining experience.
All this is not to say that the series is suddenly without fault: many of the issues I had with the first season are still present in the season two premiere. The episode still feels a little stodgy and slow, with much of the dialogue continuing to feel overwrought and too portentous for its own good. There’s also the fact the show’s mammoth supporting cast can make it all rather unfocused, with too much time given to characters and storylines that don’t feel particularly developed or interesting. And then there’s the point that, even with Bean’s introduction, the show would still benefit from adopting the more bonkers approach used so well in the film.
But despite these flaws, Bean’s presence does enough to indicate that the show is on the right track, setting up some intriguing new relationships and adding another mystery to the fold regarding Melanie’s daughter Alexandra (who has seemingly been under Wilford’s command for several years). If nothing else, it’s just great to see a beloved actor give such an enjoyably full-on performance – and that alone might be enough to keep fans tuning in every week.
Snowpiercer season 2 begins on Tuesday 26th January 2021 with new episodes released on Netflix every week. Looking for something else to watch? Check out our guide to the best TV series on Netflix and best movies on Netflix, or visit our TV Guide.