TW: This article mentions sexual assault.
The first season of The Wilds premiered in December 2020. It was a busy year. The first COVID vaccine was created and the Duke licked a spoon on Bridgerton. The Prime Video survival thriller returns for a second season with a bigger, newer cast and much darker themes set around the lives of young teenage girls and boys. Their survival is gripping, intense, and peels back layers of trauma. That trauma includes misogyny, racism, homophobia, and expectations of a young teenage girl in America.
When a group of young teenagers’ plane crashes on their way to a female empowerment retreat called the “Dawn of Eve” in Hawai’i, they wash up on a deserted island. The group is certain that rescue will come any day. Soon days turn into weeks and the girls must learn how to survive together and build friendships among the members. The young girls consist of the bookish Leah (Sarah Pidgeon), who makes an unexpected connection with a much older man; Rachel (Reign Edwards), who is an elite diver but pushes herself to extreme limits to her Olympic dreams and her twin sister Nora (Helena Howard), who suggests going to this retreat. Dot (Shannon Berry), deals with the loss of her father after a long illness.
Fatin (Sophie Ali), forced to go to the retreat after discovering her father’s affair with another woman; Martha (Jenna Clause), an optimistic and loveable animal lover with a traumatic past; her best friend Toni (Erana James), who is a tomboy with anger and trust issues and fierce loyalty to Martha; Shelby (Mia Shelbey), who lightens the mood on the plane but has a hidden grit and secrets about her identity; and Jeanette (Chi Nguyen), an overenthusiastic chatterbox and the ultimate P!nk fan.
After Jeanette dies from traumatic internal bleeding, Leah finds a phone hidden where they had buried her body. From this point on, she begins to think that there is something strange and sinister about this island. Leah finds out that Nora is an operative. As she prepares to share that information with the group ,Rachel’s hand is bitten off by a shark. Nora jumps in to help her sister, but she disappears. In the episodes, it shows how the girls survived the ordeal by telling their side of the story. Their stories are shared with a trauma specialist Dr Daniel Faber (David Sullivan) and an investigator, FBI Agent Dean Young (Troy Winbush).
They are both responsible for extracting valuable information for social scientist Gretchen Klein (Rachel Griffiths). Gretchen has different plans for the female empowerment retreat. Beneath the secrets of the all-female retreat is a hidden agenda. Gretchen is out to prove that a matriarchal led-society will succeed. That it will be more efficient and less violent compared to a patriarchal society. She is determined to prove her hypothesis by putting together a carefully orchestrated social experiment called “Dawn of Eve.”. At the end of the first season, Leah finds out that her group of friends weren’t the only ones trapped in their social experiment/retreat. A program called “The Twilight of Adam” consists of teenage boys, and that is where the new season begins with new experiences and stories.
After the apparent success of “Dawn of Eve,” Gretchen moves forward with the second phase. A new group of teenage boys are hoisted into the same plane, fed the same chocolate cake, and dumped on an island, just like the girls. The new participants are shown in a video montage introducing themselves; they consist of Kirin (Charles Alexander), a short-tempered athlete with little patience; Rafael (Zack Calderon) is a teenager who lives in Tijuana with his parents and gravitates towards people with strong personalities; Josh (Nicholas Coombe), a talkative and awkward kid from a wealthy family who doesn’t know where he fits in.
Seth (Alex Fitzalan), a charismatic teenager who is a people-pleaser and would rather stay on their good side, unlike his step-brother Henry (Aidan Laprete), who is a hardcore pessimist and prefers to isolate himself from any social life with noise-cancelling headphones; Ivan (Miles Gutierrez-Riley), an activist with a sharp tongue which causes him to lose friends; Bo (Tanner Rook) is a soft-spoken neat freak, has a naively optimistic outlook about life and proves to be unquestionably loyal to his best friend Scotty (Reed Shannon), who is a business entrepreneur with a big personality.
Meanwhile, at the headquarters, Gretchen happily claims that the girls completed 50 days at the so-called retreat, while the boys only lasted 34 days. This means that her social experiment to prove that a women-led society is a success but she needs the data to prove it to her audience and sponsors. But when the boys return to be interviewed by Dr Daniel and Agent Dean, they are hesitant to reveal what made the group fall apart. Leah quietly breaks into Rafael’s room and tells him the truth behind Gretchen and her experiments.
The Wilds recounts racism, and homophobia, and tackles a delicate subject matter that might be disturbing to many audiences. But the issue of this season is how the audience never truly knows much about the boys’ backstories and their personalities, except for some flashbacks and video montages. Compared to what the writers did with the previous season, the new character’s stories are not fleshed out. It seems like there were too many characters to develop and not enough time during an eight-episode season. It’s a shame because The Wilds is known to dive into complex themes. Themes like young adulthood, sex, racism, homophobia, mental health, and death. There isn’t much room for the second season to explore it as broadly as they did in the first season.
For a show that discusses patriarchy and feminism, and looks at how the world views teenagers, it tackled a delicate subject matter without discussing the roots of the problem. Midway through the season, the boys are celebrating a tremendous win for them. They drink and sing and dance around the bonfire. At one point, amidst the celebratory speeches, Kirin pulls down Seth’s pants. Seth storms off the campsite to be alone. Josh steps in to comfort Seth and begins to tell stories about when people picked on him. Seth asks him to leave.
Later, he barges into the group’s makeshift tent where Josh is lying, forcefully pushes him to the ground and masturbates. It’s a harrowing scene to watch. The consequences of Seth’s action lead him to be kicked out of the group. But the show doesn’t discuss the root of why this happened in the first place. Instead, the boys decide to take a vote to separate Seth from the group and only Rafael is on his side.
There’s no discussion of toxic masculinity, rape culture, male victims of sexual assault, or the roots of patriarchy, which leads to men not being able to talk about their trauma. The Wilds does show Seth’s backstory, his childhood and how his mother abandoned him, which lead to him hurting himself probably due to his unresolved anger. The show doesn’t try to give him a redemption arc. It shows the repeated violent pattern in an earlier episode where he tries to harm Henry. This anger manifested in his relationships. He tries to harm other people and then tries to make up for his bad behaviour by being optimistic and falsely nice to people. Seth tries to do the same with the group on the island. He offers food and pretends to get on their good side by being a good sport but not everyone is convinced.
Gretchen blames patriarchy and not the men who are, in fact, at fault. In season one when Gretchen’s son was responsible for a hazing accident that killed Nora’s boyfriend, she blames patriarchy. She claims to have taken her son to women’s rights marches and read Adrienne Rich poems to him before bed. Still her son joined a fraternity and became a toxic man.
Patriarchy is the root of every problem, but in this case, Gretchen doesn’t acknowledge her son’s wrongdoings. This led her to begin her social experiment that the world can be less violent when it’s led by women. Although, in a realistic world, this kind of research and the social experiment would be dubious and problematic. But why does a show that discussed women’s issues fail to provide any kind of explanation when it comes to sexual abuse against men?
Her social experiment seems like a mockery of feminism. It doesn’t prove any point other than her brand of feminism revolves around the betterment of herself. It has little to do with others, whether it hurts them or not. Jeanette is an operative on the island and works for Gretchen. Her real name is Lynn. She volunteers to be part of her experiment after hearing Gretchen’s speech on changing the world.
The trauma of her sexual assault as a teenager meant that she could finally make the world a better place. However, when Lynn sees Leah’s unconscious body on the boat, she is triggered and doesn’t want to be part of the experiment anymore. When she trips and hurts herself, leading to her death, Gretchen cares little about it and continues with the experiment, telling her team that this is what Lynn would have wanted to do.
All of the contestants were selected personally by Gretchen due to their traumas and the elements of patriarchal influence. Kirin’s tough exterior and dude-bro behaviour, Seth’s anger issues and the subsequent assault on Seth are both rooted in patriarchy. Their personality, physical ability, and beliefs also influence the deep-rooted issues. It doesn’t help that the boys are labeled as “monsters”. They are turned into villains as a shallow representation of toxic masculinity. Gretchen believes that she can control them. She plays a game with these levels of trauma and abuse to prove a point regarding her social experiment. The truth is that Gretchen is the villain. She practices a girl-boss feminism that doesn’t want to help these vulnerable young women. She wants to control every aspect of the experiment and her hypothesis. It’s a bid to maintain some kind of personal control and prove that total matriarchal control is successful.
Despite all of this, The Wilds develops a lot of the character plotlines and arcs for each of the teenage girls in the second season. Toni and Shelby’s relationship blossoms and shows sweet and tender moments between them. Leah tries to part herself from her hallucinations and tether away from her relationship with an older man. Rachel mourns the disappearance of Nora, learns to get along with her friends and finds a higher purpose. All the cast members are brilliant and show how comfortable they are playing these complicated characters.
Even if Gretchen’s experiments grow nonsensical and messier, The Wilds is still dynamic and intriguing in its storytelling. However, the problem is that there is very little time for the audience to learn about every character, especially the new characters introduced in this season. Also, the complicated portrayal of feminism, toxic masculinity, and patriarchy seems more like ideas rather than fleshed-out characters. Perhaps, if there is a third season, the writers would give enough time for the audience to learn about the male characters and their history. To learn what it means for them to be in the social experiment. The Wilds is a show that presents women trying to prove that the patriarchy drove them to violence, rage and despair. Unfortunately the feminist message might be a bit backwards in its execution.
For more from Nuha, check out her review of Barry here.
Nuha Hassan is a film and TV writer and reviewer, based in the Maldives. She is a Staff Writer at Film Cred, Off Colour, and Flip Screen. Apart from writing about film, she is a Video Editor at Dead Central. She studied Master of Media at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia. Her love for film started with David Fincher's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel. Her favourite comfort film is When Harry Met Sally.