Monday, July 22, 2024

‘The Wilds’ Dissects the Teenage girl experience through big concept

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I am a simple person when it comes to watching shows: I either take two months to watch a season of television or binge it in three days. Usually when the latter happens, it’s when the show partly takes over my life for a while and I want to do some analysis. This year it only happened with two shows: Netflix’s Warrior Nun and Amazon’s The Wilds.

Created by Sarah Streicher, The Wild’s was released on December 11, and I was done with it by December 15. As is the case when I’m temporarily obsessed with anything, I want to talk about it. I think there is a lot to like about The Wilds, from its cast of characters to its structure.

I do feel it important to point out it is not exactly light-hearted, and it does contain plenty of things that can be triggering for many. The most notable are: depictions of an eating disorder, implied sexual abuse, allusions to teenage suicide, homophobia, depictions of paranoid episodes and distress, as well as so much vomiting (I could have used a warning, so I am giving you one).

That is not to say the show is all doom and gloom either, but I think you should know all this before you go into it and I go on my tirade. With that out of the way.

It’s Lost, but with only teenage girls

I can imagine something along those words in the pitch meeting for this show.

Eight teenagers end up stranded on a deserted island when their plane crashes on the way to a women’s empowerment retreat in Hawaii. The show is structured in three timelines: on the island, before the island, and after they’ve been rescued, as the girls undergo questioning about what happened in the island.

Like in Lost, there is more to it. It is revealed at the end of the pilot that they are not in the island by accident. It isn’t a supernatural reason though, more of a conspiracy situation which feels admittedly contrived and at times a bit unbelievable.

I can see this being a deal-breaker for some, but I wholeheartedly believe if you can get past it and suspend your disbelief, it adds to the enjoyment of the show.

Without this element, it would just be about exploring the characters. Their past experiences and traumas inform how they react to the island and each other, and the relationships they form among each other. All of that is in the show, but the conspiracy elements adds  a mystery to unravel, with clues and misdirects, which not only adds to the viewing experience in terms of engagement, but also layers nuance into the characters’ interactions with each other. It also makes the show an enjoyable re-watch.

An important difference with Lost is that there is much less obscurity in the contrivance of how the got there. It is not so much mystery box as it is that you can’t see the whole picture at first. Streicher said that in her heart of hearts, she sees The Wilds running for four seasons for her to complete the story, implying she knows where it’s going. Ostensibly, whatever mystery is introduced will be solved.

The Unsinkable Eight

It is rare to have a big ensemble cast of just women. It is one of the reasons Warrior Nun is special (yes, I will keep referencing this show, thank you very much), and I wasn’t expecting another show to deliver that last year.

The main cast of The Wilds consists of not two, not five, but eight diverse girls who are all well-rounded and fleshed out.

There is Leah (Sarah Pidgeon), who is spiraling in her obsession with an older man, incapable of realizing his wrongdoing. Her classmate Fatin (Sophia Ali), a cello virtuoso who really just wants to party and be freed of the pressure to excel.

Rachel (Reign Edwards) is a competitive diver who is dedicated to a fault, and her twin sister Nora (Helena Howard), a book smart teen who spends her life trying to protect her sister despite her efforts being badly received.

Toni (Erana James) and Martha (Jenna Clause) are best friends from Minnesota who couldn’t be more different. Toni is a foster kid who is angry with the world, while Martha is sweet and desperately wants to see the best in everything.

There is Shelby (Mia Healy) a religious pageant queen from Texas who “doesn’t do anger,” and her schoolmate Dot (Shannon Berry), a former drug dealer obsessed with survival reality television who carries burdens like it’s her damn job.

Each episode is dedicated to one girl. Flashbacks show us their life before the island, and focus on her defining experiences in the year or two leading up to the crash. On the island they play front and center in the conflict , while we also see their interviews after the rescue.  Only Leah gets a repeat episode, as she is a protagonist of sorts due to the fact that she is the only one who suspects something is amiss with their situation (more on this later).

While I can play favorites if forced to, just by virtue of relating more to certain experiences, I found all eight girls to be interesting and nuanced.

We start with Leah, and one by one you get each girl’s perspectives, which helps to draw a bigger picture of the events on the island—why Rachel and Nora’s relationship is so tense, why Shelby is so determined to be positive, why Toni immediately clashes with it.

Rachel and Nora having it out on the beach.
Martha: “Don’t get involved. When me and my sisters fight, it’s to the death.”
GIF credit: queenrojpag on Tumblr

For example, in the pilot, when all the girls fight about who gets to make the one call they could have to get help, Dot remains silent, despite it being her phone she’s fighting over. It’s only in episode three we get to see Dot’s story and we understand why.

These girls need a hug and therapy

Every single one of the girls has gone through it. This is by design, for (ahem) conspiracy reasons. Each of them has suffered serious traumas and in many cases struggle with their mental health.

As mentioned before, there is a character who struggles with an eating disorder, implied abuse and neglect, homophobia and repression as well as burdens too heavy for someone so young.

Portraying these issues can be tricky. The Wilds manages to balance the ugly parts of the girls’ issues while having compassion for them and also holding them accountable to their own actions. The girls sometimes reject help when it’s offered, react badly to others shining a light on these issues, all the while helping us understand where they’re coming from, and not erasing their responsibility.

Toni has anger management issues. Her temper gets the best of her, and it builds until she blows up. Her explosions often cause damage to objects, to feelings, and sometimes even physical harm. The times we see these incidents, we see Toni immediately show regret. She looks like she’s about to throw up when she apologizes to Martha for what must be the millionth time. And it hurts to watch her get an overdue talking-to while we also completely understand Martha’s frustration and exhaustion.

I feel like anger issues are some of the most commonly played for laughs, and I appreciate them showing the difficulty of living with them. No one is more frustrated with Toni than Toni herself.

With the rest of the girls it follows a similar vein, not pulling punches when it comes to representing how hard it is to actually live with these issues. It avoids romanticizing them but has empathy and compassion for everyone. Granted, that means sometimes the show is not easy to watch.

We need to talk about Leah

Leah Rilke received a lot of hate initially. Annoying and boring were the most common accusations against her character, bemoaning the fact that she gets two episodes while other characters are more fun to watch.

While the general attitude has calmed down as the show gained more followers, I do feel the need to go on a little Leah defense, because while it is true that she is not the most entertaining character to watch, her story is important.


Leah spends a lot of the show stewing in her obsession with her ex-boyfriend Jeffrey Galanis, a 30-something author. Leah can’t see the fact that their relationship was most definitely effed up, and certainly can’t see that Jeff is a creep who took advantage of her and gaslighted the crap out of her.

Leah has an obsessive nature, suffers from paranoia and sometimes has trouble differentiating what’s real and what’s in her mind. While her condition hasn’t been named, and she apparently hasn’t been diagnosed in-universe, it is clear that she suffers from something.

Not understanding why you struggle with things that seem normal to others, and why your mind works so different from others’ is one of the most frustrating feelings in the world. Not only is Leah struggling, but she doesn’t understand why she’s struggling so much.

When Leah isn’t obsessing over Jeff, she is obsessing over the island, and her sensation that there is definitely something wrong with their circumstances. Because her mind is so clouded, though, she can’t think coldly and clearly about what’s happening, instead spiralling into paranoia and losing her cool, which in turn decreases her credibility with the others when she expresses her concerns. It is absolutely tragic, and a bit too real for comfort sometimes.


So no, Leah isn’t the most fun to watch, but she is valid, and she is going trough it big time. Also, don’t you dare tell me she is not relatable.

Power in specificity

The cast’s diversity is one of the show’s strong points. All of the girls come from different backgrounds and their experiences contrast but at the same time run parallel to each other.

I am sad to say I can’t remember a teen show that so heavily featured a Native American character before, but I am very glad that we have one who is so fleshed out.

Of course, it doesn’t cover the full scope of the teenage girl experience, because that would be impossible, but there is notable diversity. The girls have very distinct personalities and idiosyncrasies, and the specificity of each of their situations and stories is what gives them power.

The girls manage to meet each other halfway despite their difference, and help each other when they need it. They come together and fall apart, under the pressures of the duress they are all under.

If you’re wondering, yes, this has major found family vibes and I am here for it. Some of the best moments in the show is when the girls find the time to be silly and have fun despite their horrible circumstances.

The cast is great

Praise for the actors is due. Most of the cast are newcomers, and in the case of Mia Healy, who plays Shelby, this is her first gig with on-screen credit. The only person I’d seen before is Sophia Ali, who looked familiar and I was shocked to find out was on Faking It.

These girls carry the show on their shoulders, together. They play off each other and have scenes by themselves and do a great job at it.  Everyone is a standout, in my opinion. Every girl gets their moment to shine.

Systems of oppression and Gender Essentialism

“As a teenager I remember feeling a little bit at the whim of authorities”

Sarah Streicher

At the beginning of the show, Leah explains to the investigators that while the island was traumatic, their real issues come from their life and experiences before that. All of the eight girls have been victim to the oppressive system of the society they live in.

When you see the show as a whole, the villain isn’t the  island and its perils, it is more the system : patriarchal, hetero normative, dismissive of their pain, neglectful of them, abusive of them, sometimes. They have all suffered differently but acutely under it, and they were picked for the island because of it. Which brings us to the other big bad.


Gender existentialism is represented in human form in Gretchen Klein (Rachel Griffiths), the reason these girls are in the island.

I would so appreciate seeing her lynched in future seasons, thank you.

Through her some of these themes are talked about explicitly, but she comes at them from a gender essentialist perspective. It seems the show wants to explore it at its most extreme. Gretchen’s endgame is still not entirely clear at this point, but it ties directly with the idea that females are inherently better.

I am a little nervous about how the show is going to keep exploring these ideas in future seasons. It can be a slippery slope and I do fear they could end up saying the opposite of what they’re trying to say.

I do hope that if the show gets its projected four seasons, the care put into the development of these characters carries through, and that they take these ideas they’re planting here to their last. There is always a risk it won’t be what any of us are hoping for or expecting, but without risk, there is no reward, and I do commend them for trying to tackle it and shine a light on how utterly ridiculous it is.

All in all…

It’s not perfect, by any means.

I bet some will find frustrating how some conflicts are swept under the rug (for now), much in the way we do it in real life, tucking some things away to deal with later.

It is a bit feeble in regards to the entire conspiracy concept (though I wouldn’t go as far as to call it messy).

Word on the street is they did the Texans dirty with the choice of ice cream (say some Texans). Plus, some of the things the girls do on the beach in regards to survival will have you yelling at your screen.

But I do think it’s worth a watch. Though there really is so much puking.

Images courtesy of Amazon Studios.

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