In this article:
- Amazon’s The Wilds follows eight girls stranded on a deserted island after their plane crashes — or so they think.
- With season 2 finally here, it’s worth revisiting the themes and storylines of the gripping first season in preparation for the binge session you’re undoubtedly going to go on.
- The diverse cast in a show created by and for women makes this a strong addition to the public discourse on many women’s issues.
- But the show is far from perfect and it’s shortcomings are important to keep in mind as you watch.
Amazon’s The Wilds is the kind of show that keeps you thinking way after you’ve binged through all 10 episodes.
Premiering in December 2020 to mostly positive reviews, the show follows the stories of eight girls who find themselves stranded on a deserted island after a plane crash — except there was no plane crash, and they’re actually unwitting participants in an elaborate social experiment.
If you haven’t seen the show yet, then it’s best to stop here. There are major spoilers ahead. Also, trigger warnings for sexual assault, eating disorders, and homophobia are in order.
Pitched by creator Sarah Streicher as “part survival drama, part slumber party,” The Wilds weaves a gripping story across three timelines: the girls’ time on the island, their time before it, and their time after, when they are quarantined and ostensibly interviewed by a trauma psychologist and a supposed FBI agent.
The much-anticipated (but delayed) second season finally came out this month. After the first season’s finale ended on a major cliffhanger, there was plenty to chew on while audiences waited for the latest season — particularly when it comes to how the show deals with women’s stories and feminism in general.
Feminism in The Wilds
By, For, and About Women
The Wilds has been described as an all-girl Lord of the Flies. And given the apparent misogynist thinking behind William Golding’s famous plot, it’s worth noting how Streicher’s production is built by women.
Aside from the nine women who star in the lead roles, four out of six of its executive producers are women, with the majority of its episodes written and directed by women. Plus, its amazing stunt coordinator is also a woman.
In a perfect world, all this shouldn’t be groundbreaking or even all that remarkable, but it is.
For Streicher, the show’s premise of an island without men provided a unique opportunity. “It allowed me as a writer — and then as the writers came on to the whole room — to really meditate exclusively on issues and emotions that women experience with a lot of specificity,” she says.
The resulting first season — told from the girls’ points of view and exploring the various issues they face, and the ways they see and deal with them — reflects this. “And that feels important. That felt like a calling.”
This dedication is felt all throughout the show’s 10 episodes, but most visibly in the way it presents teenage girls.
Teen characters on TV have had a long and somewhat ridiculous history of not behaving quite like real teens, and part of the problem, aside from questionable choices in the writers’ room, are the limitations of hiring actual teens versus adults for teen roles.
The stars playing teenagers on The Wilds may not be teenagers themselves — they’re mostly in their early 20s — but they certainly dress and act like them.
Rachel Griffiths, who plays scientist Gretchen Klein in the show, points out just why this simple detail has become so refreshing in the hands of a women-led production: “Adolescence has been viewed through a male lens, reduced and sexualized.”
Responsible, Diverse Casting
In front of the camera, one of the show’s strengths is its cast, whose performances shine both individually and as a group. And in a time when racial diversity in film and TV is getting worse, the different choices made about who gets to be seen (and how) on The Wilds is, once again, quite remarkable.
For instance, the two indigenous characters on the show are played by indigenous actors. Jenna Clause, who plays Martha, is part of the Cayuga Nation Wolf Clan of the Haudenosaunee People in Ontario, Canada.
Meanwhile, Erana James, who plays Toni, is of Maori heritage.
For Sophia Ali, the Pakistani-American actor who plays Fatin, being able to play a Pakistani character on-screen is also a treat. “It’s always been ambiguous, or Indian, or something I’m not but I could pass as.”
It’s also the first time that actor Reign Edwards, who plays Rachel, has been able to wear her natural hair on-screen.
“I’m excited to start the conversation of how our industry needs to do better about knowing how to do textured hair on set,” she tells Shadow and Act in an interview.
Women’s Issues Front and Center
Flitting across its three timelines, The Wilds explores a myriad of issues experienced by its ensemble cast of characters with loving detail and dignity.
Suddenly away from technology, their parents, and the impossible expectations placed on young women, the girls reflect on their distinct home lives, and the terrible ways we as a society treat teen girls even without stranding them on deserted islands.
“What was so fucking great about the lives we left behind?” asks Sarah Pidgeon’s Leah, whose post-island interview frames the first episode. “Yeah there was trauma, but being a teenage girl in normal-ass America — that was the real living hell.”
Even before facing hunger and the dangers of the wild, the girls arrive at the island already burdened.
Leah is grieving the end of a relationship she’s only beginning to realize was predatory. Martha was sexually abused by her doctor. Fatin is betrayed twice over by a cheating father and a mother who takes his side.
Dot is exhausted from caring for and reluctantly euthanizing her ailing father. Nora mourns the death of her boyfriend, who was killed by fraternity hazing, while her twin sister Rachel is recovering from bulimia after being told she is too big for her sport.
Shelby is suffocating under the pressure of beauty pageants and a conservative, controlling father. And finally, Toni’s life falls apart after she angrily fights back against homophobic men.
That is a lot of ground to cover, even for episodes that are just under an hour long, but The Wilds manages it with a lot of care for its young characters.
Though scenes may sometimes feel a little forced, the show does its best to depict young women, who are so often the object of ridicule, as whole human beings with agency — flawed as they may be.
The show’s depictions of queer identity and love are also interesting. For producer Amy B. Harris, being able to tell the stories of both Toni, a fiercely proud lesbian, and Shelby, a deeply closeted pageant princess, was exciting for her.
“Kids who are still struggling to come out, I think there should be characters who are going through that so that they don’t feel alone as they’re trying to get there,” she tells the Advocate.
“And also, when you get there, this is potentially life [as a queer person].”
… and Where It Can Improve
Gretchen’s Girlboss-ism, and the Ethics of Research and Representation
Without a doubt, Gretchen — who sets up the experiment and subjects the girls to so much trauma in her quest to prove that women are better leaders than men — is the villain of The Wilds.
Despite the show’s attempts to humanize her and generate a bit of pity for her and her struggles, she’s pretty deplorable, treating Linh as a necessary casualty for her cause.
She even specifically recruits the girls into her experiment because she knows that they’ve suffered so much at the hands of the patriarchy, therefore romanticizing their suffering in order to find meaning in some imagined innate power.
But she’s also the one who spews out the most feminist rhetoric (evil as she may be) and thus invites viewers to read passionate feminism as evil.
The entire set-up of the show is based on her research, and we the audience are invited to care about the girls’ stories as shown through her staged cameras and her intrusive fake interrogations.
It highlights one problematic idea: to be a woman is to be poked and prodded, to have your agency stripped from you, and to have the burden of proving that your stories are worth listening to if your trauma is framed a certain way.
To be fair, the show does, for the most part, treat her as the villain. But there is something iffy about her being simultaneously the evilest and loudest feminist character on screen.
Bigger Fish to Fry
The stories from the girls’ wildly different home lives cover a range of ways women suffer from individual male cruelty, but where The Wilds falls short is tackling systemic patriarchal issues that allow and perpetuate those abuses.
It’s part of why Gretchen’s particular brand of feminism feels so off.
The end result, then, is that larger feminist issues like discrimination and gender inequality, and how those intersect with race and class, are ignored in favor of focusing on Gretchen’s men-versus-(diverse)-women war.
Here, it might help a little to take a look at the company behind the show. Amazon, a capitalist giant, does not truly take any risks with its conservative consumers by presenting feminism in this way.
The Bottom Line
I know, I know. No show is perfect, and despite the criticisms above, The Wilds has some pretty powerful messages and delivers a truly entertaining 10 or so hours of TV. I’d definitely recommend it.
It also covers very real and difficult issues with a lot of respect for the characters going through them, which means that though it can be hard to watch sometimes, the girls on screen never lose their humanity — no matter what Gretchen and the island throw their way.
All episodes of season 1 and season 2 of The Wilds are available to stream now on Amazon Prime Video.