Sunday, June 16, 2024

‘The Wilds’ Explores Anger And Avoids Stereotypes, Part 1: Toni

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It has been almost five months and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about The Wilds. There is a lot to like about this show, from the performances to the cinematography. The thing I keep coming back to, though, is the characters; an ensemble cast of eight teenage girls, who each have distinct personalities who are all given their time to develop and shine. 

In the handling of the characters, one thing that stands out to me is the way the series handles anger issues. I’m always interested in how anger is presented on screen, especially coming from women.

Talking about “female rage” and a woman’s right to express it is becoming a bit of a trend. The idea behind this conversation is to highlight the fact that women have been denied the right to show rage without being labeled as bossy, or crazy, or a b****, and so forth.  

The Wilds allows all its characters anger. The girls all come from some sort of troubled past about which they have unresolved issues, and they are stuck on a deserted island with no seeming means of escape. Of course, they all get angry at some point.

But the show goes beyond just letting these young women be entitled to their anger. There are two characters for whom anger is a core part of their story: Toni and Rachel.

Toni Shalifoe (played by Erana James), a foster kid with only one person in her corner and a history of angry outbursts. Then there is Rachel Reid (played by Reign Edwards), a diving champion who is dealing with an eating disorder and refuses to let go of her Olympic dream.

It struck me recently that both of the “angry” characters are women of color, and that perhaps that should have rung alarm bells in my brain. Yet it never occurred to me to think this because from the get-go, they were established as more than “just angry”, and certainly more than just the stereotypes attached to that.

It’s true of all eight girls that The Wilds first presents the outside, the first impression which gives us an idea of what we’re supposed to think about them, and then carefully deconstructs the stereotype and digs deeper into each of them. This is true of Toni and especially Rachel, who has one of the most complex stories in the show.

Since I can’t get it out of my head, I thought I’d share my character analysis for Toni and Rachel, specifically dealing with anger, how their nuances make them unique, where they intersect, and the ways they differ.


Toni in The Wilds.

Toni clearly has anger management issues. She does not know how to cope with anger or frustration, and it causes her to lose control and lash out.

Her aggression, though almost always directed at objects, can often cause collateral damage. When she gets overwhelmed, Toni goes into a blind rage that can manifest in violent outbursts.

The brief glimpse we get of her in the pilot episode sees her working at a casino restaurant, where her clients have left her no tip and a note saying she should improve her attitude. Toni flips the table.

She almost always directs her anger at objects, though her aggression can and has caused physical harm on others, unintentional as it is.

On the island, Toni’s anger is mostly directed at Shelby (Mia Healey). She reacts badly to Shelby immediately, and that weariness only grows when her best friend Martha (Jenna Clause) becomes fast friends with her.

We see this in her first solo interaction with Shelby when she reluctantly follows her into the woods in search of water. Toni is bothered by her positive attitude and her preaching. During their hike, Toni moves a branch aside to pass through, and Shelby, assuming Toni will keep holding it for her, tries to move past. Except Toni throws the branch back; it hits Shelby and causes her to tumble and fall.

Toni’s regret is instant. She clearly didn’t mean to make Shelby fall, but the damage is done. When Shelby then refuses to tell the others about the incident, it irks Toni even more. Toni’s own episode reveals this lash-out-then-regret is a pattern for her.

Toni has experience with regret

The Wilds is structured in three timelines: before the island, on it, and in the bunker after the girls are “rescued”. Most of the flashbacks of the girls’ time before the island focus on specific moments in time or events that affected them deeply.

In Toni’s case, we get a glimpse into a previous relationship she had with a girl named Regan. They are shown to have had a very sweet romance, a quintessential high school first love, perhaps.

Regan and Toni in The Wilds.

One night, as they exit the parking lot, a group of men approach them, making lewd comments and seeming a little more than threatening. Regan and Toni shoo them away, and they leave while still making tantalizing comments. Regan begs Toni to let it go, but Toni just can’t, and goes after them. In the scuffle, Toni accidentally smacks Regan, drawing blood.

Even after they’re gone, it takes Toni a moment to come back into herself and realize what she’s done. Regan breaks up with her after that.

“My mom says that you’re like birch bark. One little match and you catch fire just like that. It’s what I love most about you. But it’s also the thing I don’t really know how to handle.”

-Regan to Toni

Too often, anger management issues are either played for laughs, or presented as an irredeemable fault in characters (usually villains). Toni’s anger isn’t played for laughs. These instances scare the people around them, make them uneasy – especially if exposed to it for the first time. Toni’s regret after them is instant. It’s almost like you can see her heart drop. She’s just as frustrated with this as anybody else, perhaps even more.

Toni does not want to cause harm, not really. Her reactions stem from defensiveness. Even when her anger is preemptive and seems to come from nowhere.

She knows how harmful these outbursts are, that they hurt people; sometimes physically, like Regan, but more often, emotionally, like with Martha.

The flashbacks reveal more than just Toni’s ex-girlfriend. She is a foster kid living in a reservation in Minnesota. Her mother is an addict who is in and out of rehab, and later we learn her father has never been in the picture.

We don’t see a lot of her relationship with her foster family, but it’s clearly not a good one. Through dialogue we learn that she’s been living with Regan and her family at least part time. After their break up, Martha finds her sleeping out in the open in the bed of a truck.

During Martha’s episode near the end of the season, we see that she’s moved in with Martha. Either her foster family is somehow harmful enough that she doesn’t want to be with them, or they don’t care enough to notice she’s not even there.

Knowing this, we can start to piece Toni’s life together. She acts defensive and abrasive all the time, like the world is out to get her. Presumably, because it is. In her experience, at least.

I think her anger is also rooted in control, or lack of it. In her interview post-island, Toni talks about control:

“Adults love to throw that word around. You know, always telling us to use it, not to lose it. To get ourselves under it. Like it’s the easiest thing in the world. Like I could take a deep breath or a walk around the g**damned block.

Every ignorant sh** who’s ever told you to get yourself under control should just try being young and scared with your heart on the line. Control’s not easy. Control’s a f***ing fantasy.”


Toni thinks getting herself under control is impossible, but this might have a larger context to do with her life. We don’t know exactly how old she was when she was placed in the foster system, but we know it’s an environment where she wouldn’t have had much control. Not over where she went or who with.

I think Toni’s anger partly comes from her frustration at not being in control of her own life, of her own story. As a non-white lesbian in the foster system, she is powerless against odds that are unequivocally stacked against her.

Toni and Shelby (and Martha)

Toni’s aggression towards Shelby seems disproportionate at first. Shelby doesn’t do much more than be overly friendly to everyone.

If we look closer, it really starts with Shelby approaching Martha, and their sudden and intense closeness that soon follows. Martha seems to latch on to Shelby like a kid in a playground. They sit close together sharing secrets and planning trips to Texas “just the two of them.”

As far as we know, Martha is the only constant in Toni’s life. The only person who has stuck with her through everything and despite everything. Seeing her closest friend – her chosen sister – get that close to someone else feels threatening to Toni.

Toni and Martha in The Wilds.

“I could be bleeding? Right, like guts spilling out into the streets but if Shelby came along with a smile and some f***ing muffins, then Martha would just walk right by me.”

– Toni to Fatin (Sophia Ali)

There is also other underlying reasons for her weariness of a Toni and Martha friendship.

Very late in the season, we learn that Martha has been through a very serious and deep trauma that she is repressing under layers of sweetness and innocence. She cannot face the truth, so she doesn’t. Toni knows, and so she is extremely protective of Martha, who could easily fall into anyone’s trap if they spoke nicely to her.

“Martha’s getting taken for a ride. All Shelby wants to do is hang out with her long enough to put ‘saved a little rez girl’ in her college apps. […] I’m just trying to protect my best friend.”

– Toni to Fatin

This goes unspoken, but Toni can definitely see through Shelby’s mask. Or at the very least, see that the persona Shelby presents is a mask. Shelby is too nice. Too optimistic. In a way that reads as fake to Toni. And it is fake. Toni certainly misjudges what’s behind that façade, but she can recognize that there is one.

Toni and Shelby in The Wilds.
“I see you” – Toni to Shelby

There is also another element to her relationship with Shelby, which is what she represents. This is by no means a new take I’m coming up with, but something that has been floated around the fandom for a while that I find very interesting:

Shelby is white, clearly rich, and acts too nice all the time, in a way that (from Toni’s perspective) only a rich privileged white girl could. She is also Christian, and she has no qualms about making a mention of that and bringing up god in many situations.

In more than one way, Shelby represents a lot of the systems of oppression that have worked against Toni her entire life. Toni has maybe met many ‘Shelbys’ before, and it hasn’t gone great.

Despite Martha’s reprimands, Shelby herself proves Toni right in a way when she is openly homophobic towards her.

It doesn’t help that Shelby puts up this mask of the perfect, optimistic camp counsellor. She doesn’t show any cracks, doesn’t demonstrate she’s humanly flawed in any way.

For Toni, who surely feels inadequate in many situations, this just adds to the impression that she’s not being real. Only in the seventh episode does Shelby let the other girls glimpse at a “flaw”: that she wears dentures she is very insecure about.

Leah, Shelby and Toni in The Wilds.
“Oh, so she is human.” – Toni, probably

As soon as Toni glimpses some humanity in her, her reactions to Shelby shift immediately. Even with Shelby’s confessed homophobia hanging above both their heads, Toni offers Shelby an olive branch by joking around with her. Not overtly friendly but not openly hostile. She gives Shelby an opening to really talk to Toni, for the first time.

When Toni finds out Shelby’s homophobia is internalized homophobia, and that she struggles with her own feelings, Toni changes gears. She understands immediately. Her hostility completely gone, she shows concern for Shelby, but is very careful not to push, getting other people to check on her, watching over her.

Ultimately, I think Toni is a very empathetic kid. Both her and Martha’s flashback episodes reveal is that Toni is a soft, soft girl.

She’s not the type of girl to make the first move. Martha has to wing-woman for her with Regan, who then makes the first move, while Toni’s shy and tentative. Martha’s episode reveals how caring and protective Toni is of her. She shows concern when she learns about what happened, prodding Martha carefully, but not pushing the subject, and later offering comfort when Martha needs it.

When Martha’s life is in danger in the sixth episode, Toni berates Shelby for having given her the last bit of medicine instead.

Toni: “You wasted it on me. […] She is a good person and she cares about people and people care about her, and she has a whole family and you threw me a lifeline.”

Shelby: “Toni you were dying!”

Toni: “Who cares! I don’t matter.”

Martha’s good, the implication being Toni is not. Martha was worth saving, Toni thinks she is not. In the end, it all comes down to that fear, that suspicion she’s probably had for a while, that the world could throw her away and no one would bat an eye.

Stab me in the chest, why don’t you.

Much like Shelby’s peppy front, Toni’s abrasive, over-confident persona is just that, a persona, a wall she puts up. She does it to protect herself against a world that has hurt her more than once; made her feel worthless. Sadly, she ends up hurting the people she loves, and pushing them away as a side effect.

It had to be Martha

All of her understandable reasons for acting that way does not excuse her actions, though.

Hitting Shelby with the branch is wrong and Toni knows it. She’s immediately apologetic and braces herself later when she thinks Shelby might say something.

She’s even more uncomfortable when Shelby doesn’t, meaning she now holds some kind of power over Toni, who spends the next few episodes waiting for the other shoe to drop. She keeps trying to push Shelby’s buttons, as if she wants her to tell the others.

A GIF of Toni Shalifoe in The Wilds.
GIF Credit: The Wilds on Giphy.

She understands she’s the one to blame for the confrontation in the parking lot escalating, and hurting Regan.

In the fourth episode—her own flashback episode—she destroys her team’s entry for the shelter-building competition in a fit of anger, and she gets a talking-to from Martha.

Martha is simply exhausted with Toni’s behavior, and sick of having to pick up the pieces. Who knows how many times they’ve had a similar fight or conversation. It ends with Martha declaring she is done with it, and it’s implied this is the first time she has so clearly drawn the line.  

“Why can’t you ever just walk away? Or run, even, you know? And not make your sh*t everyone else’s problem. You ruin things. You destroy things, and you break things! And I’m done picking up the pieces for you. You’re exhausting.”

-Martha to Toni

Toni looks at her guiltily, with her hands behind her back and nervously biting her lip. She knows she screwed up, she knows it’s her fault.

Toni in The Wilds.
Someone hug this child.

The Wilds does right by Toni in making her story sympathetic, making us understand why she is this way, but also understanding that what she does is wrong. She needs to find a way to process anger, or she could end up hurting someone irreversibly.

Ultimately, her anger is self-destructive. Toni’s wake-up call is the danger it poses to her most meaningful relationship—her best friend and chosen sister, Martha.

It had to be Martha for it to get through to her.

Toni runs away after their fight. When she comes back, we see her making more efforts to de-escalate, running away from confrontation instead of towards them head-on. Even when Shelby has her “Westboro-Baptist” moment, as Fatin puts it, Toni lashes out verbally but she quickly pauses and walks away.

Toni gets back into Martha’s good graces slowly, and only by changing her behavior. Something interesting about The Wilds is that a lot of things are left unspoken. The girls don’t hash out every issue they come across, with themselves or with each other. They work through some conflicts through meaningful gestures or interactions, and some and swept under the rug completely.

Though this might seem like an omission, I think it’s on purpose. It works in the way that if feels true to life. As viewers, sometimes we get annoyed with characters folding themselves into knots over something they could “easily talk about”. But the truth is “just talking” about stuff is not that easy, in real life.

Some things we avoid until they bite us in the butt. I have a feeling some of the things the girls haven’t dealt with do just that. However, there are some things we ignore and can move past. The girls make amends often by proving they’re trying, by offering each other olive branches and giving each other space.

Toni makes up for her outbursts through actions, not words.  She improves so much after her conversation with Martha. She actively makes an effort to mellow out. This is of course helped by her discover of Shelby’s real big secret, which also enables her to show her softer side.

At the end of the day, I think Toni is a sweet kid who’s been dealt a bad hand at life. She hasn’t had appropriate support systems, or consistency.

Toni ends the season in a really good place. She has made some sort of peace with what’s happened to them, is on good terms with Martha, and is content with her blossoming relationship. Of course, this doesn’t mean her problems are magically fixed. They are still in a deserted island, isolated from the real world, and we know these eight girls will face more harrowing experiences. I have faith that The Wilds will continue to explore Toni’s character, her past and will give her the space to grow through what is coming.

End of Part 1

Next, I’ll dive into Rachel’s, one of the most deliciously complex character arcs in The Wilds, and also look at how Toni and Rachel run parallel to each other and also in complete opposite directions.

Sneak peek of Part 2:

While Toni manifests her anger outwardly, Rachel mostly directs hers inward.

Rachel’s anger is a little bit more complicated than Toni’s, too. It’s buried in layers  that can be traced all the way to feeling like she has to try too hard, which is rooted in her relationship with her parents and her sister, Nora.

Images courtesy of Amazon

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