Amazon’s “The Wilds” Brings Lesbians to a Deserted Island

“What three things would you want with you on a deserted island?”

Would you want an electric toothbrush? A novel whose margins are marked up by your author ex? The torso of a mannequin?

My answer to that question has always been, “No one who ends up on a deserted island got to choose what they brought,” and the girls of Amazon’s The Wilds prove that point for me. One moment they are on a plane on the way to a girls’ wellness retreat, the next they are on a deserted island. And they don’t get to choose what washes up with them. So they are forced to try to survive with very little of their vacation baggage and a whole lot of their emotional baggage.

At a glance, The Wilds is a story about eight teenage girl archetypes, Breakfast Club-style. The heartbroken loner, the spoiled little rich girl, the jock, the nerd, the Southern pageant girl, the outdoorsy survivalist, the hot-tempered lesbian, and the innocent optimist. It’s a classic story of strangers who seem like opposites forced together and realizing they have more in common than they thought. It’s sometimes cheesy, sometimes saccharine, all times dramatic as hell. It checks all the teen trauma drama boxes — eating disorders, sexual assault, loss of a parent; basically anything Degrassi had a Very Special Episode about. But the girls have this charm that makes you want to learn more about each of them, and the show has a clever way of revealing their backstories bit by bit that keeps you needing to come back for more.

Because, of course, each girl has secrets, each girl is here for a reason, and each girl is more than the archetype she seems to fit. When I first started watching The Wilds, I joked that it was like if a CW show was allowed to say the word “cunt” but the truth is, these girls were more diverse in race, body type, sexuality, and style than I a CW show usually allows. Plus, they get kind of gross. They don’t keep that CW sheen the whole time they’re on the island. They get dirty and their hair gets messy and their skin cracks and peels with sunburn and dehydration.

The show is sort of broken down into three sections. Before the Island, On the Island, and After the Island. And while I would have preferred to spend more time in the Before or On than the After, which at times feels a little contrived as far as how the writers are getting to the things they want us to know, and some of the arcs seem to villainize feminism? Even though I feel pretty sure that’s not what the show is aiming for overall. But the existence of that third timeline lays out interesting crumbs; I found myself itching to see another girl in the After, both because I wanted proof of life and also because I wanted to see what state she was in. Because the truth is, as their layers start to peel back, you get invested in these girls’ lives, and find yourself rooting not only for them to survive, but for their newly formed bonds to come back intact, too.

Take Toni, for example. I bet a lot of you rolled your eyes when you say “hot-tempered lesbian” on the list of archetypes.

the wilds toni angry

The Angry Lesbian is a tale as old as time, and it’s annoying as hell. But then you learn more and more about Toni, about her life, about her past, about why she’s so angry. It also gets one of the truest things right about being a teenage lesbian: a jealousy you can’t quite name when your best friend starts hanging out with a new girl. Are you jealous of their friendship, are you jealous of the new girl, are you jealous of your best friend? Do you want to be friends with the new girl, or get rid of her? Or… be with her?

Toni’s flashbacks tell a tale of a high school girlfriend, and she is comfortable making jokes about having sex with girls in front of her fellow castaways. It’s nice to see a teen girl be so out and open and comfortable in her queerness, even though there’s plenty else bothering Toni.

the wilds toni and her gf

Toni is a great character, she’s funny and tough and loyal to a fault. She’s angry about a lot of things, but never about being a lesbian. She knows family has nothing to do with blood and is no stranger to trying to make the best of being dealt a shit hand.

And I want to talk more about Toni but to do that I have to enter the spoiler zone. So this is your warning. Here, I’ll give you a cute photo of Toni and her flashback girlfriend as a transition.

the wilds toni gf

Spoilers ahead!

On the island, when Toni first starts making jokes about being a lesbian (while they’re eating oysters) most of the girls take it in stride. Except Shelby. Shelby tries to keep her pretty mouth shut but eventually snaps and tells them to tone it down. And this isn’t the first time the girls talk about sex — they discuss who has masturbated on the island and where within the first few days — so while the other girls can’t quite figure out what bee got in Shelby’s bonnet, Toni recognizes it immediately. Shelby tries to defend herself, saying that she hates the sin not the sinner, and that she’s allowed to have her beliefs. But there’s one moment when she’s repeating the things she learned at church when she says, “Everything I’ve ever known has taught me that.”

the wilds shelby

And there’s an underlying feeling of…”and if that’s not true, where does that leave me?” Because when you’re raised Christian, it feels like the church has built walls of Jenga bricks all around you. It’s hard to see through, precariously piled, and you’re warned not to stray too far. So one brick being removed could send it all toppling down. Shelby tried to leave the tower once before, gently, quietly, but her father’s reaction caused her to start supergluing the bricks back in place one by one. She felt safer in her Jenga tower. But the thing is, there is no superglue on a deserted tropical island.

And while at first it seems like Shelby’s “secret” is just that she’s missing two of her teeth (even though she still looks pretty cute without her fakes in)m we eventually learn her trauma goes much deeper than that. Deeper even than being raised in such a strict, Christian household. So it’s no wonder the first time Shelby realizes that the reason her and Toni are always at each other’s throats is because of an underlying attraction they’re both denying, the first time she recognizes that passion for what it is and kisses Toni, she immediately runs. Literally and emotionally runs the fuck away.

the wilds shelby toni kiss

When we learn about Toni’s backstory I thought that was going to be the only gay we got, so I was very happy to be wrong. “Lesbians on a deserted island” isn’t exactly a new concept, and I like that the writers don’t quite romanticize it, though of course they dramatized it. But I loved the concept of what happens when the rest of the world falls away and the girls are forced to contend with who they really are, not who the world wants them to be.

I watched this show with my dad and when it was over I asked if he had a comment he wanted me to add to my review and he just kind of gestured desperately at the TV and said, “There better be a season two.”

And I agree, the way Season One ended demanded a Season Two and luckily Amazon seems to love us more than Netflix does these days, because the renewal was just announced this week. So we’ll see our girls on Amazon again soon, to see who lives, who dies, who gets more sweet lady kisses.

Just a TV-loving, Twitter-addicted nerd who loves reading, watching, and writing about stories. One part Kara Danvers, two parts Waverly Earp, a dash of Cosima and an extra helping of my own brand of weirdo.

Valerie has written 275 articles for us.

13 Comments

  1. I really liked this show! I’m a sucker for teenage TV dramas with complicated female characters. I was excited to see not one but two queer teens on screen especially. I can’t wait for season two.

    Also, I didn’t think the show was necessarily villainizing feminism, but (**spoilers**) that the corporate scientist woman running the experiment was manipulating pseudo-feminist theories (“women are naturally better leaders”) in order to justify her sociopathic/controlling behavior. I read it as a smart satire of white liberal lean-in empowerment feminism, which I really enjoyed. And then I thought the behaviors and relationships of the young women–their bravery, collaboration, emotional honesty, anger, sexuality–demonstrated a more genuine expression of the diversity of women’s experiences that showed a more expansive and less harmful idea of what feminist leadership could look like. To me it definitely felt like a show interested in exploring different types of feminism, rather than criticizing it.

    • I love that take. I guess I’m just sensitive to portrayals of extremism like this because of how often I’m criticized for my own opinions being too radical when I’m not even putting girls on an island just to prove they’re better leaders. But I think you’re right, and I hope in Season 2 we get to explore that more.

    • The issue I took with the caricatured feminist plot is that it makes no sense as an experiment and no one would fund it. Rich people will pay good money to send their allegedly misguided/unwell kids to a bootstraps wilderness experience, so an experiment like that would be very profitable, which makes it a believable plot. But there is no one out there who wants to fund a utopian second wave feminist political experiment because they think it will have a real-world political impact, and surely we already have enough data about homosocial group dynamics from other research. It also makes no sense for the designers of that utopian feminist political experiment to deliberately select ‘troubled’ teens, why not do this with a sports team or a model U.N. club?

  2. At first I wasn’t sure I liked it or that I would stick with it. A lot of the characters were such assholes. But it just grew and grew on me and I came to care about all the girls so much. I’m really impressed with it now.

  3. I loved this show way more than I expected to! I love the diversity and how it doesn’t feel didactic – it just represents reality. And I quickly grew to love all of the characters, but especially Fatin. Fatin is the best.

    I agree with the above commenter that the show’s stance definitely seems like it’s making fun of that superficial ‘girl boss’ brand of feminism, and is highlighting that women in power can do terrible, evil stuff just the same as men, and hide behind ‘but, girl power’. I think the show is interested in complex women, and the characters are all the richer for it. Although I may be biased because Rachel Griffiths can do no wrong in my book.

    Also it’s always nice to see New Zealand in the background! And to learn that 3 of the main cast are a Kiwi and two Aussies. We get seriously excited about this shit down here!

  4. I am HERE for cheese teen dramas! But I was so turned off by the plotline of the sick dad (spoiler) committing suicide/asking his daughter to euthanize him. It’s such a TIRED trope in terms of disability and degenerative diseases and knowing several close people who are sick/in the process of dying/losing bodily autonomy, it just pissed me off! If they can have a diverse cast, then i KNOW they had the funds for a disabled sensitivity reader. It’s another example in a long line of feminism/queerness tossing disabled folks/plotlines out the window. LIKE…the could have just died…it would have moved the plot forward just fine…

  5. so the thing is that i hate this show, but also i watched this show with rapt interest and i think it got a lot better as the season went on? reading this review made me like it more actually! what you said about the diversity vs the CW was so spot on bc in those CW shoes i’m always like “do you have ANY IDEA how much more interesting this would be if it wasn’t six variations on the same boring-ass theme?”

    before understanding what the post-island-interviews actually were, they seemed to be just vehicles for exposition in a way that felt like lazy storytelling.

    a lot of it just felt too heavy handed/contrived and the dialogue was a bit eye rolll but also, at the end of the day here i am with your dad wanting a season 2

  6. I was so excited to see a show that was filmed quite literally in my backyard in Auckland, New Zealand along with many places that I have visited and recognise.

    But then I watched the show and was very interested in the Toni/Shelby storyline, as well as the diverse cast and backgrounds of the characters. I’m looking forward to season 2.

  7. I liked this more than I expected, and was pleased it was more diverse than I expected. I was pleased there was a gay character who was comfortable with her sexuality and happy once I realised Toni was attracted to Shelby not Marty and then Shelby’s storyline was poignant.

    I want a second season if it is about they girls, I don’t want a second season if it is the Twilight of Adam control group (I am as interested in that as I was in the Castor clones in Orphan Black, i.e. not at all).

    • 100% agreed to all of this. I also liked it more than I expected (I went in thinking it was just a “CW-type show”) and for all of the reasons mentioned by @hooloovoo.

      I was also kinda bummed out about the reveal of the Adam control group because I share the same fears – I don’t want them to interfere with the storylines of the girls!

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