There’s a familiar thought exercise one can do after reading William Golding’s Lord of the Flies in school for the first time. What would be different, some earnest teacher asks, if it had been girls on the island instead of boys?
We all know the presumed answer: Girls would get along just fine, braid each other’s hair, and not beat anyone to death. A little slice of paradise where everyone sings along to a ukelele made out of driftwood and quotes Kamala Harris a lot, or whatever.
That, or they’d get all Mean Girls–style catty and act nice while calling each other island sluts in harsh whispers behind palm trees. Because, women, right?
What The Wilds, a new 10-episode young adult drama series from Amazon Studios, gets right is that neither presumption is correct. If women and girls are prone to acting nice, or maintaining order, it’s just because they’ve been taught to stuff their own trauma deep down inside where it can’t be inflicted on anyone else. But when thrown into territory as uncharted as a deserted island after a plane crash, that trauma comes spilling out.
The basic premise is that a group of teen girls find themselves stranded on an island after what seems, at first, to be a plane crash. We quickly learn that it’s all a setup, a ploy by a disgraced researcher to prove a point. But the girls — at least most of them — don’t know that. Together they have to stay alive with minimal supplies and plenty of interpersonal conflicts.
The cast of The Wilds has been lauded for its diversity, but it’s the girls’ stories coupled with their identities that really drives that home. There’s Martha Blackburn, a Native American girl in denial of past abuse, played beautifully by Jenna Clause, a new face from the Six Nations reserve in Ontario, Canada. Her friend, Toni, is a queer teen in the foster system with anger issues, portrayed by Māori actor Erana James. There’s Fatin (Sophia Ali), the spoiled, wealthy Muslim girl who catches her father cheating but bears the burden of blame for exposing him. Dot (Shannon Berry), the survivalist of the group, was forced to grow up too fast by taking care of her sick father, which we learn about in an episode that will absolutely make you cry. Shelby (Mia Healey) is a Christian girl from Texas who is not out and whose internalized anti-LGBTQ prejudice brought on by her conservative parents doesn’t just hurt herself. And Leah’s (Sarah Pidgeon) obsessive personality and relationship with a too-old author fill her with grief. Reign Edwards plays Rachel, an athlete who develops an eating disorder as a result of the pressure to perform, while her twin, Nora (Helena Howard), is grappling with the suicide of her first love.
On the island, isolated with just each other and nature, these traumas explode out of whatever veneer each girl was using to contain it. They snipe, they cry, they collapse, but, ultimately, they survive. Because that’s what teen girls must do. And on The Wilds, they blissfully get to do it in the absence of boys and men, at least on the island itself.
None of the girls’ backstories feel too made-for-TV wild. Each one speaks to the tragically mundane trauma of simply being a young woman moving in the world. While the show hasn’t made the biggest of splashes in the general pop culture conversation, it’s been beloved online by the young women who watch it. In memes and Tumblr posts, watchers have been able to pick out and worship the characters they identify with most and the show has played into that in its own social media blitz, such as with playlists for each character. The show knows what it’s doing, and it does it well.
There is a cheese factor, too, of course. Although it’s better than your average CW-type teen soap, there are still moments where drama takes priority over survival in a way that borders on infuriating. Like when the group is out of food and starving, Toni and Shelby find a lychee tree full of fresh fruit, but instead of bringing the bounty back to the group, they hook up and spend the night cuddling under lifesaving provisions. Sure, it made my queer heart ache, but come on, kids, people are hungry! Or early on when Leah hears a cellphone ringing on their dead comrade’s body, she uses it to call her creepy ex-boyfriend instead of literally anyone else. But, hey, that’s TV, right?
Plus, all of this is set against the backdrop of mastermind Gretchen Klein’s (Rachel Griffiths) secretive experiment that put them all on this island to prove that having women in charge would create a superior society. I’d like to think that’s some sort of commentary on how white, Sheryl Sandberg–style feminism ignores the intersectional experiences and strife of actual women, but that’s probably too generous.
Overall, The Wilds speaks to the grief of emerging womanhood in a way that strikes a fine balance between a Degrassi-esque after-school special and The 100–level TV fantasy. The girls have been thrown into extraordinary circumstances, but they’re so human that it all feels real. ●