REVIEW: ‘The Wilds’ survives despite heavily populated, complex introduction

Promotional artwork for ‘The Wilds’ courtesy of Amazon Films

Amazon’s The Wilds is, put simply, the teen drama version of Lost — if you were able to survive all six seasons of the ensemble series — and a modern gender-swapped take on William Golding’s famous novel Lord of the Flies. The show was created by Sarah Streicher, who is also known for her work on Netflix’s Daredevil and was released last December. Now, it’s making its rounds once again in light of Women’s History Month: the perfect time to appreciate and enjoy the stories of women and lives they lead, both in fiction and fact. 

The show follows the survival story of eight high school girls who have been stranded on an island, left to battle the elements, each other, and themselves. We get our first glimpse into the group’s dynamic as they pile onto the plane that will take them to an all-female retreat in Hawaii, appropriately named “The Dawn of Eve” (let’s just say subtlety isn’t exactly the show’s strong suit). The girls come in pairs, either as best friends, sisters, or classmates, and each with their own traumas that they must face on the island. These complimentary duos establish a baseline for each character, her conflicts, and how she will face and overcome them as the show goes on. 

Foremost among the group is Leah (Sarah Pidgeon), a paranoid lovelorn girl with dark secrets lurking underneath her heartbreak. She’s paired with Fatin (Sophia Taylor Ali): materialistic on the surface, but internally battling addictive coping behaviors and a family on the brink of falling apart. There’s headstrong Rachel (Reign Edwards), a former diver with dreams of the Olympics driven to the edge physically and mentally, and her twin sister Nora (Helena Howard), quirky, meek, bookish — almost the complete opposite of her sister. We’re immediately let in on the strong friendship between Martha (Jenna Clause) and Toni (Erana James). The two are an unlikely pair that work well together: Martha is timid, naive, and optimistic while Toni’s less than ideal home life and anger issues make her quick-tempered and aggressive. Lastly, there’s Shelby (Mia Healey), whose pathologically peppy demeanor hides a truth much more difficult to grapple with, and Dot (Shannon Berry), whose belligerence and pessimism reflect no shortage of struggles in her life. 

For a short period of time, we enjoy the company of bubbly, pop culture-obsessed Jeanette (Chi Nguyen), who, among this main ensemble, acts more as a plot device than a fully formed character. She’s actually playing a double-role, a spy of sorts. Little to the other girls’ knowledge, their plight is actually part of something much larger than them. We find out that Jeanette works for Dr. Gretchen Klein (Rachel Griffiths), a haughty researcher who has thrown the girls into a deranged social experiment about the nature of men and women. She speaks of secret operatives and flips through files detailing nearly every aspect of the girls’ lives as she watches their every move on a wall full of monitors.

The show makes its main theme clear very early on: female empowerment. Even with a quick glance, it’s pretty hard to miss. It’s a coming of age show targeted towards the YA audience featuring an all-female group of lead and supporting roles. With each episode, the show dives into a specific character so that by the season finale, we’ve got a clear picture of where each girl started and where they’ve ended up. This is done using a combination of three points in time: the lives before they got stranded on the island, their lives on the island, and their lives after they were rescued from the island. By interspersing scenes in these different frames of reference among each other, we’re able to follow each girl’s character arc from start to finish. And the main device for doing so is flashback — either the girls are retelling their stories to investigators in a cold dimly-lit room or reminiscing on their old lives as they pass time on the island. It’s smart, really. The Wilds reveals its story piece by piece, jumping between a character’s internal conflict and their conflict with nature so as not to bore the audience. These switches happen exactly where they’re needed too, saving the audience from an overload of drama or creating some when the backstory’s intrigue fizzles out.

On their own, the main cast successfully portrays their characters and stories. For the most part, they’re all breakout actors and fresh faces. Regardless, they do a phenomenal job of setting up their roles effectively, ensuring that the variety in characters is clear from the very beginning. Even in the pilot episode, which is headed by Pidgeon, the rest of the girls find their roles easily and are able to convey exactly what part they might play moving forward. Among them, Howard’s performance really is commendable. She’s quirky in a charming way, not one that’s uncomfortable or off-putting. Her silent demeanor helps her blend into the background, but ever so slightly off that she’s still an interesting character. As a result, later plot twists involving her character are that much more successful and jarring.

Beyond acting abilities, the cast of The Wilds can also be praised for its diversity. Featuring two Black women, two Native American women, and two Asian women, the show makes inclusion part of its agenda. And the theme doesn’t end at just the casting choices. Martha’s relationship with her Native American culture (specifically, the Jingle Dress dance) is integral to her character. There’s also LGBTQ+ representation, with both Toni and Shelby traversing feelings for each other as the season progresses. While Toni is and always has been confident and sure of her identity, Shelby isn’t as secure. Her journey to accepting and understanding her sexual orientation is a large part of her storyline. Having grown up with a strong connection to her Christian faith, Shelby isn’t ready to accept that she might be gay. Her fear costs her her best friend and herself, as by the end of the show, she seems to have developed some sort of split personality. Through this emphasis on diversity, The Wilds acknowledges that not all women face the same challenges. Our interests and cultural identities play a large role in determining our challenges, and the show masterfully incorporates this idea throughout each episode. But as successful as it was in delivering its message on diversity, it’s difficult to say the same about its message on feminism.

In the first episode itself, as Leah recounts her experience on the island to detectives, she says “Being a teenage girl in normal-ass America — that was the real living hell.” And while there’s definitely truth to that statement, it’s lines like these that just throw off the show’s balance. This line, among several others, feels out of place. Leah has just escaped a near-death experience on a deserted island and faced intense physical, emotional, and mental trauma. She’s in a secret facility isolated and separated from her friends and family, and she’s being interrogated by two strangers about what transpired on the island. Like anyone would be, she’s on edge and scared and perhaps, even more than most would be considering that she’s an extremely paranoid person. So why would such an intricate and self-aware line be dropped in this situation? Dialogue that isn’t mindful of context and teen culture is an issue the show consistently has, and hopefully improvements will be made in the future. And, unfortunately, it’s part of why its attempts at a feminist message are so hard to take seriously.

Not a single episode is spared of these dramatic lines, albeit perhaps for good reason. With each episode tracking a single character’s journey, it’s difficult to create a fully fleshed out character with emotional depth without this type of dialogue. As a result, nearly every episode ends with a bang. Each episode is intense given all the internal and external conflicts that the girls face. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. The setup of the show requires this kind of writing to be impactful and to ensure that each character is carefully crafted and conveyed to the audience. And for the most part, it’s done well. The dialogue helps reflect the emotionally charged experiences each of the girls face and convey the intensity of their experiences to the audience. And it covers a fairly wide range of subject matter, given that each character has distinct challenges that she must overcome. As a result, each episode presents something new, and audiences who are fans of ensemble casts will surely appreciate this. 

But as a fair warning, this emotional intensity can get exhausting just because it’s in every single episode. The Wilds definitely isn’t something to binge, at least on the basis of being unable to process everything that’s going on. Instead, audiences are much better off watching around a couple episodes at a time, giving themselves the opportunity to let each character and plot line really settle in before moving on to the next.

The show’s most off-putting aspects come together in Gretchen Klein. She’s #girlboss incarnated, and it’s with her character that the The Wilds becomes too ambitious for its own good. As if conflicts among the girls, themselves, and nature wasn’t enough, Klein’s social experiment adds a whole new side to the story that unfortunately never feels cohesive. Her work means everything to her, so much so that it starts to skew her perception of right and wrong. Klein believes that women are inherently better than men — it’s literally the basis of her social experiment that brought us here in the first place. But at the same time, she makes it very clear that she doesn’t hate men and that she’s even loved some in her life. She made a point to teach her son to respect women, and is clearly disappointed and frustrated when he falls into the jaws of toxic masculinity despite her efforts. She treats her male colleagues without prejudice. Together, Klein’s character doesn’t really seem to have any strong motivation for what she’s doing. Her actions, for the most part, align with what most modern feminists believe: women are equal to men and deserve to be treated as such. Outside of her research, she doesn’t take feminism to any extremes and never gets enough backstory to explain why she believes women are naturally better than men and why she’s willing to go to such drastic lengths to prove her theory. Her character, and as an extension, the entire social science experiment plot line, never really clicks. Instead, they just make for some cringe-worthy monologues on Klein’s part and draw away from the emotional intensity of the rest of the story.

The Wilds definitely isn’t something to binge, at least on the basis of being unable to process everything that’s going on. Instead, audiences are much better off watching around a couple episodes at a time, giving themselves the opportunity to let each character and plot line really settle in before moving on to the next.

A second season is definitely needed, so as to answer the dozens of questions audiences were left with after the season finale. Hopefully they’ll address Klein and her project, shaping her into a more believable and fleshed out character.

In all, The Wilds is a worthy watch — if you’re able to catch its wavelength. Putting the social experiment plotline aside, it tells eight different complex and compelling stories, made possible by the ensemble cast that allows the show to explore various themes. Every episode offers something new, whether it’s a challenge all of the girls must face together on the island or something an individual character overcomes herself. As the show progresses, each girl takes more and more steps to understanding her identity, showing its success as a coming-of-age work. And once you’re able to look past some awkward dialogue and plot choices, these eight girls, these eight stories, come together to reflect truths evident in our own society.

The Wilds is rated TV-14 and has been renewed for a second season (release date yet to be announced).

Sriya Veeramachaneni is a staff writer for Oswego East High School’s online news magazine the Howl

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