Wreck — which aired in the UK last fall and hit Hulu in the U.S. last week — is a slasher-comedy/murder mystery/dystopian six-episode queer series set on a cruise ship. And if that description alone doesn’t pique your interest, I cannot relate.
The series indeed is a mix-mash of tones and genres, opening with a very slasher prelude. We watch as a girl is pursued in the night through the dark corridors of a massive cruise ship by a person in a duck costume holding a knife. Before he can kill her, she jumps off the side of the ship.
That girl is Pippa (Jodie Tyack), and her disappearance — quickly covered up by the luxury cruise company Velorum — becomes the crux of our protagonist’s journey onto the ship and through its winding, mysterious corridors. Her brother Jamie (Oscar Kennedy) buys his way onto the crew of the ship by taking on the identity of Cormac (Peter Klaffey) and immediately begins looking into his sister’s strange vanishing, unfurling a murderous and sprawling conspiracy along the way. On his first day on the ship, he’s given a crash course on the rigid power structures aboard: At the top are the guests, especially the premium first class guests known as the “whales.” Next are a fleet of officers — a bunch of muscly men, one of them particularly sadistic, led by a no-bullshit woman named Karen. Then there are the performers, a gaggle of pretty, mean theater kids who get preferential treatment because of their guest-facing duties. Next are the crew, where Jamie works, who are expected to do anything for guests, to essentially sacrifice themselves for the sake of the guest’s luxury experience. There’s also a largely Filipino crew that works in the ship’s underbelly in engineering and housekeeping. Racial as well as socioeconomic dynamics factor significantly into how the ship functions.
On that first day, Jamie also instantly hits it off with Vivian (Thaddea Graham), a fellow crew worker who has come on board because she has been rejected by her homophobic family and is trying to build a life for herself. Vivian is a lesbian, and Jamie is gay. This is one of my favorite aspects of Wreck, because it is still somewhat rare to find best friendship pairings between a gay guy and a lesbian on television, even though that’s what a lot of my early queer friendships looked like. Vivian and Jamie’s friendship is so queer on so many levels. It can be seen in the ways they talk to each other and make jokes, in how they connect, in how they take care of one another. Vivian doesn’t have a family, and a big part of Jamie’s relationship with his sister was that she was the first and only person he really felt comfortable being out around.
Vivian and Jamie also both get love interests. Jamie gets close to Olly (Anthony Rickman), who’s caught up in some of the underground drug dealing web onboard. Vivian meets Lily (Ramanique Ahluwalia), a whale, making their fraternization illicit. I was immediately struck by the ways Vivian and Lily flirt with each other, which drips with playful double entendre, frequent references made to the fact that Vivian is a giver. We love a service top! And it’s just fun to see women flirt with each other in a way that’s not necessarily sweet but steamy. Much like the friendship between Jamie and Vivian, their horny flirtation stands out.
When it switches into slasher mode, Wreck delivers stunning horror. A lot of these sequences and scenes aren’t necessarily reinventing the wheel but rather employing familiar horror angles, devices, and movement and doing it supremely well. It terrifies in all the right moments, and it doesn’t pull any punches as it builds to its big reveal — and a major twist. Wreck’s puzzlebox is just enticing enough to keep you wanting to click play on the next episode right away but not overly complicated in its mythology. In fact, the real answer as to what’s happening aboard the ship is starkly straightforward. This isn’t as complicated of a conspiracy as Jamie initially believes. It’s ultimately about rich people just being evil as hell.
The particular twist I’ve been hinting around — which has huge stakes at an interpersonal level for the characters — is sure to be divisive, and while I often will write series reviews with some spoilers (that I warn about first of course), I’ve decided not to spoil this one, because I do think it works quite well and the less you know about the plotting going into the show, the better. It’s a brutal twist, but one that makes sense not only in the confines of the horror genre but also in terms of Wreck‘s overall themes of class injustice and the wickedness of the ultra wealthy. On Wreck, the powerful will do anything to maintain their power, and violence becomes not just a means of preserving that power but yet another luxury experience. Class stratification is extreme onboard, and anyone who threatens the status quo becomes a target.
While there’s indeed a mix of genres at play, Wreck is first and foremost horror. The brutal twist will perhaps be easy to see coming for anyone familiar with the genre, as it was for me, but also just because I anticipated it, its blade wasn’t dulled by that anticipation. Hope and happiness are elusive in horror, but Wreck does have one source of hope: Jamie and Vivian’s friendship. It’s a light that never extinguishes, even as the ship sinks into increasingly monstrous territory.
The writing throughout isn’t perfect. I don’t mind camp and over-the-top dialogue, especially in this particular style of horror, but there are a few moments where the line readings very much make the characters feel like characters on a television show and not real people. This usually happens more with the peripheral characters and the one-note ones, like the particularly violent officer Beaker. As Vivian and Jamie, Kennedy and Graham are fantastic, and the characters’ friendship is the real thrashing heart of the series. They come onto the boat as strangers, but their fight for survival and for each other becomes so urgent so quickly. I did run up against some frustration with the fact that Vivian’s arc is significantly more traumatic than Jamie’s. Jamie’s whiteness is technically acknowledged in the script when it comes to the relative power and privilege of different characters, but I wish there was a bit more there, and I wish it didn’t sometimes feel like the show gives Jamie more protective armor than it gives its other characters, especially its characters of color. Ultimately, I do keep coming back to the fact that any trauma Vivian and Jamie experience is actually somewhat shared, their friendship so intense and deep-set from the start that they have a ton of empathy and care for each other on a level that far transcends traditional models of friendship.
The entire friend group — including Olly, Cormac, and Cormac’s ex-girlfriend Rosie, who is trans and played by trans actress Miya Ocego, even though her transness isn’t explicitly acknowledged in the script, which I often have mixed feelings about when it comes to LGBTQ+ characters — is charming, each of them solid slasher characters who get to play with some of the tropes of the genre while still ultimately being complexly written and specific.
Like a lot of horror-comedy, the social commentary Wreck makes is very explicit and heightened, but there are moments of nuance in there, too. It’s a series that surprised me and not in the expected avenues of plot twists but rather in its humor and its characters and relationship dynamics. Vivian and Jamie make for one of the best queer friendships I’ve seen on television in a while.
Note: Please include spoiler warnings in the comments if you wish to discuss any of the show’s twists, deaths, or specific plot points.