The following contains mild thematic spoilers for 'The Wilds.'
What’s more traumatic; being stranded on a deserted island with eight strangers and no promise of rescue, or navigating the torment of late adolescence? That’s the question that The Wilds poses to its audience, rather brazenly. “What was so fucking great about the lives we left behind?” says Leah, who serves as the narrator for the first episode. She’s being interviewed by two men who introduce themselves as a social worker and investigative agent; Leah is tasked with recounting the trauma of a plane crash that left her stranded on a deserted island with eight other teenage girls, the circumstances of which are still a mystery. “Yeah there was trauma, but being a teenage girl in normal–ass America—that was the real living hell."
Amazon pitches The Wilds as “part survival drama, part [dystopian] slumber party.” All of the girls have gaps in their memories after their plane crashes on the way to “Dawn of Eve,” an all–inclusive girl–power retreat in Hawaii. The show hops between three timelines—the lives of each of the girls before embarking for the retreat, their survival on the island, and finally the present, where each girl is interviewed and trapped in some nondescript facility, “quarantined” from one another and forbidden from speaking to anyone but the two interviewers. The twisted story unfolds only through the girls’ collective memories. At ten episodes, each just under an hour, the show is a temporal and emotional commitment—but one that is certainly worthwhile.
At the outset of The Wilds, the audience is pulled through a supercut of the lives of nine teenage girls from different walks of life. An angsty writer grieving the end of a relationship. Black, biracial twin sisters—one an all–star athlete, the other a bookworm. A bubbly nerd who gabs about her long hours working at her parents’ restaurant and her love for P!nk. A Native American girl with a passion for dancing, and her best friend who’s bounced in and out of foster homes for her whole life. A vanity–obsessed, God–loving Texas pageant queen. An edgy outcast with serious survival skills. A cello–prodigy party girl breaking from her Pakistani parents’ conservatism. The island becomes a microcosm of class, and privilege, and religion, and sexuality—all of the girls holding each other under a microscope.
But if that level of diversity and representation feels forced to you, you’re right. In real life, a group of girls this ‘perfectly diverse’ wouldn’t end up on a plane together. But then you realize—that’s the point. At the end of the first episode, we’re brought into a huge conference room centered around a massive screen with multiple camera angles of the girls on the island. Nothing about this—not the crash, not the unnatural diversity of experiences, not even the fact that all of the girls know CPR—is coincidental. It’s all one big psychological experiment.
These young women are meant to represent some perfect sample of the teenage girl experience, all in the name of some crooked science. It's a meta–commentary on film and TV’s colorblind casting, à la Hamilton and Bridgerton, and a revealing picture of the impossible American ideal of picture–perfect diversity, the kind you see on brochures for schools and on the backs of cereal boxes. Everything about The Wilds’ casting is deeply intentional—and it comments on on the need for complex representation as opposed to the tendency to cast for the sake of diversity, which has been the television industry’s half–hearted response to criticisms pointed at the lack of representation in entertainment.
On paper, it sounds like an ABC Family teen drama with way too many storylines, attempting to provide commentary on every possible teenage trauma. It jumps to and from myriad themes: lust for an older man, internalized homophobia, eating disorders, pedophilia, the foster care system, grief, loss, heartbreak. Yet unlike those teen dramas of yesteryear, The Wilds pulls all of it off with nuance, care, and bravado, covering a multitude of experiences without making it feel forced, or prescribing some solution to the issues. There’s the discomfort and insecurity of suddenly being thrown into a room full of fellow teenage girls, knowing all too well their judgmental nature. It helps, too, that the cast has incredible chemistry. Though all the actresses are relatively unknown, each of their portrayals feels like a breakout role, shining both individually and as an ensemble. The girls are certainly troubled, but The Wilds isn’t attempting to impart life lessons on its audience from their trauma.
The Wilds illustrates a certain reclamation of the melodrama of being a teenage girl. While the dialogue feels slightly dated and uninformed—calling someone "agro" is hardly an accurate representation of the American Gen Z lexicon—the writing as a whole perfectly captures the contemporary teenage experience: the trauma of being a teenage girl, the obsession, the lust, the intensity of every interaction, the over–analysis of every conversation and text message. Even on the island, as they fight to survive, each girl is haunted not by the fear of what comes next, but by the angsty memories of the issues they left behind. None of them want to admit it, but as desperate as they are to be rescued, none are particularly eager to return to the lives they’ve been stranded from.
All of it perfectly captures the intense confusion and trauma of being in your late teens, on the precipice of independence, but feeling in control of nothing—filled with the paranoia that whoever is piloting your plane is going to crash; whoever is feeding you false narratives of safety and security is really lying to you; whoever you’re trusting to protect and care for you is actually the one holding you hostage. They starve, they fight, they build fires; they build a sex doll out of a washed–up mannequin, get high on weed gummies, and drink too much vodka. It’s a twisted, nightmarish depiction of the strange dynamic of teenage friendships—the passive aggression, the calculated remarks, the condescension—but also the intense emotional bond, hyper empathy, and fragility of being a young and traumatized woman. The cadre of a participant–based psychological experiment is the perfect metaphor for the facade of control and ultimate powerlessness of late adolescence.
Don’t worry though—this show isn’t all feminist, girl–power propaganda. In fact, it’s a direct critique of that tired, white–feminist, heteronormative “Future is Female” motto. The functional villain of the show, Gretchen, a debauched psychological researcher behind the “Dawn of Eve” experiment is a stereotypical pantsuit–wearing ‘girlboss.’ She’s been exiled from the field for her radical and boundary–pushing experiments. Though a complex character herself, she’s easy to hate and becomes the show’s primary antagonist, a biting commentary on corporate feminism and the banal girl–power narrative of the female empowerment she preaches. It’s a feminist show that rejects mainstream feminism, taking a close look at each of the girls on the island and their personal struggles of creating their own versions of feminism as they come into themselves. Each version is imperfect and fraught, yet unique to each of their individual experiences.
Some have compared it to a gender–swapped Lord of the Flies, but that analogy fundamentally ignores The Wilds’s premise: these are teenage girls being intentionally held in exile by a high–powered she–boss that claims to care for them. It takes after Lost in its flashbacks to the characters’ experiences and the intrigue of the mysterious circumstances of the power that holds them in exile. Though unlike Lost’s evasive twists and mysteries, The Wilds lets its audience know from the beginning that everything is not as it seems. It’s as much a story of late adolescence as it is about survival and exile. And after a climactic finale that raises a slew of new questions and a renewal for a second season, The Wilds is still leaving its viewers feeling a little lost. But with a strong cast and promising reception, it seems to know where it’s taking us.