Saturday 26 December 2020

The Wilds

I don’t know how long it took for this show to hit the point where it felt almost exactly like that moment, a few years ago, where Pretty Little Liars was the greatest television show for a tiny bit. I find it difficult to remember the moment exactly because it didn’t last very long, and the fall from it was steep, but Sarah Streicher’s The Wilds brought it back – maybe because one if its setting is similar to that of PLL’s dollhouse, where the figurative prison of being a young woman becomes a literal one, with all the layers of control, violence and gaslighting that come with both. 

The first thing to say about The Wilds is that it is outstanding. It relies heavily, in great parts almost exclusively, on a very diverse group of young actresses. Its structure means that a third of its narrative takes place on an island that doesn’t have anyone but them on it, so for hours, they negotiate their own survival, talk about their backstories, figure out who they are to each other and what their situation means. 

The interlude here has to happen – the premise of how they get to the island is ridiculous. It is also entirely irrelevant. Along with the very reality that is created, it reminded me of the YA classic House of Stairs by William Sleater, which for some reason I was given as a birthday present at 10 – the teenagers stuck in the titular structure do somewhat figure out the reason for why they are there (and the social background is a political regime that reads totalitarian, the experiment one of control and programming), but in the end, the power of the novel lies in what these character do to each other under extreme circumstances, not really how the circumstances came to be. In The Wilds, Gretchen Klein (Rachel Griffiths, or in Aussie TV speak, AUSTRALIA’S RACHEL GRIFFITHS, to me forever Brenda from Six Feet Under) is a university professor and researcher of some sorts (the humanities, broadly, likely sociology or anthropology) who has failed to get her pet project off the ground, or through an ethics panel, and is now funding it with the help of rich private investors. The study is meant to prove that women, left to their own devices, in an isolated setting, will act more cooperatively and in the end, productively, than men do (the great reveal at the end of the first season become slightly less great if you think about that premise a little bit, and what it would require). What I like about this idea is the positive approach and Gretchen’s conviction that she will prove something about the course of world history in the process. What is problematic is both the particulars of the approach (sending teenagers under 18! Into a potentially, and very soon actually, deadly situation! The legal ramifications!) and the assumption that stranding a group of people on an island automatically leads to a tabula rasa if they are all female, rather than a situation in which a vast number of other fault lines rapidly appear to differentiate the girls from one another. But I am not an academic, so I appreciate that there had to be a reason for the girls to be on the island, and this reason was as good as any other, just as much as “we built it, so we better use it” was a fine reason for those people to end up in Vincenzo Natali’s original Cube. It feels fitting that for a little bit before the mechanics behind the show are revealed, one could just as easily have thought that Gretchen is a particularly unhinged and immoral reality television producer in it for the stories.

In a way, how unrealistic the premise of the show is works: because the outcome is so interesting. On the one hand, the girls hit all their targets. They build a fire, find shelter, find water and food. They overcome horrible obstacles. They survive. On the other hand, the true strength of the show is revealing how impossible a tabula rasa for a teenage girl on a Pacific island is. Episode by episode, The Wilds peels back layers of what a patriarchal society has done to each and every one of the main characters, the horrors that they carry within themselves, which haunt them even into what Gretchen conceived of as a pure, collective attempt at survival far away from peer pressure. There are some horrors here that we have seen many times before, but somehow The Wilds, in its Skins-style exploration of how each of the characters ended up on the island, finds a new angle somehow.

Leah (Sarah Pidgeon) falls for a genius-young-writer manchild and his precocious brick of a novel and once the man figures out that she is under 18 (note that they first meet when he reads at her high school), he immediately turns himself into the victim of a grand conspiracy, instead of investigating why exactly it is that he is more attracted to a 16-year-old than someone within his own age-range of over 30. It’s again like Pretty Little Liars, but a version of events in which the show is self-aware of how fucked up the behaviour of the writer is (somehow, likely due to audience pressure, PLL never quite got there with Ezra Fitz), without romanticising the event or shying away from portraying how utterly it destroys Leah’s mental health. Leah also suffers from an undiagnosed psychiatric illness that predictably escalates once she is on the island, especially once she begins to stumble across clues of the conspiracy behind it. Leah is the first one to realise that not all lines up, but at the same time she is the least reliable narrator of that discovery.

Rachel (Reign Edwards) is a top athlete, a twin from a highly academic and artistic family with which she feels deeply at odds, and The Wilds details how gruelling it is to be serious about any highly competitive individual sport (also highly recommended: Megan Abbott’s work on the same issue, especially Dare Me and You Will Know Me). For Rachel, it leads to a severe eating disorder and alienation from other girls her age, including her twin sister Nora (Helena Howard), who spends all of her energy on trying to save her sister and then, because of their co-dependency, misses out on building a life of her own. Nora’s story is one of the most captivating one, especially because of the reveal at the end – she is one of the quietest girls on the island, yet quietly incredibly capable of survival and eerily observant. Towards the end of the island-timeline, just before the girls make it (off-screen) off the island and into the remote facility in which Gretchen has two employees pretend that they are police officers, investigating their disappearance, the girls, starved, feast on a goat and lychees, and it is the first time in forever that Rachel has enjoyed the feeling of being full, of feeding her own body, of seeing it like something that isn’t an obstacle to college and the Olympics (both dreams that are already dead when she arrives). It’s a moment of clarity that Nora wanted for her sister, to save her, to heal her. But in the after, Nora is absent, and Rachel has lost an arm to a shark attack, which is a more literal mutilation than the gruelling routines of being a diver. 

Fatin (Sophia Ali) appears to be an insta-famous, superficial and useless addition to the survivors, but of course that appearance is soon undermined. She is a brilliant celloist, daughter of parents who have big plans for her, balancing those big plans with her own attempts at a life. The break comes when her beloved father – a man she connects with – turns out to be a cheater, and very unforgiving of her daughter revealing his indiscretions. His own failures are put on her, and her decision not to keep his secrets from him are held against her more than his own betrayal of the family. They send her away as punishment, because the truthfulness of one teenage girl has endangered the security of a family unit built on a profound lie. On the island, Fatin reveals that she is resourceful and a secret pillar of the small community. 

Dot (Shannon Berry, likely soon AUSTRALIA’S SHANNON BERRY, because she is an absolute break-out talent) is my favourite. Her storyline is the hardest to connect back to Gretchen’s idea of patriarchal control – when we meet her in the flashbacks, she is the primary carer for her father, who is dying of cancer. She has no life apart from the physically and mentally draining care work, and yet, once she arrives at the island, she proves to be the most resilient, strongest, most prepared among the girls. She knows how to build a fire, how to find sustenance. She knows the dangers that await them (because she loves her survival wilderness shows). Dot is an absolute gem. She holds everyone together. I think out of all the stories of how the girls and girls’ parents are seduced into Gretchen’s scheme, hers rankles me the most. Gretchen profits from the family’s medical debt and Dot’s insecure position once her father passes away (once her father asks her to help him die – a moment I’ve turned around in my head, investigated for cruelty, trying to understand what it means for a man to asks that of his daughter and say that it is for her freedom). She sells it as a retreat after years of suffering, which of course it isn’t – it’s even more responsibility piled on someone who hasn’t rested, or had a childhood, or had a chance to begin her own life. It’s a monstrous act, and an unforgivable one I think. 

Toni (Erana James, New Zealand) and Shelby (Mia Healey, Australia) are pitted against each other from the beginning. Toni is angry, because she is growing up in foster care, she has to fight for everything. It’s uncontrollable rage, one that has cost her everything except her best friend (Martha, played by an incredible Jenna Clause), who happens to be on the island with her but is now beginning to form a new friendship with a rich, blonde, beauty-pageant-trained Texan who could not further, socio-economically, from Toni. She is so afraid that she might lose the one thing that she has left that she lashes out, and spends a good part of the first season sulking somewhere, missing how much her best friend is struggling. Toni has every reason to be angry, and has been given no resources to deal with that anger in a more productive way – and again, all of those are factors for Gretchen’s power over her. The irony of the whole experiment is that Gretchen wouldn’t even have managed to get these girls on the island if it weren’t for patriarchy, and all the reasons why parents would be absent, or misled into thinking that sending their children off with a stranger was a better option for them. Shelby has learned that she needs to have two faces, one that matches her extremist Christian parents expectations of her, and another that is still developing, that matches her many, many feelings. On the island, she begins to fall for Toni, while knowing that she absolutely cannot fall for her. In the flashback, we find out that she was in love with her best friend, and then was forced to betray her (which, because The Wilds is sometimes unnecessarily cruel, led to her suicide). It’s a pre-written train wreck (you would think that Gretchen had thought of the possibility – if she were a reality tv producer, she would have) – Toni hates Shelby, because she stands for everything she despises and has all the privileges that Toni lacks, and she is taking her best friend away from her. Shelby doesn’t understand why Toni hates her so much, but can’t take her eyes off her, but feels the danger looming behind that because it’s already led to a catastrophe before. Obviously they end up together, and obviously, none of it can possibly end well. 

The most heart-breaking of the eight – and we’ll talk about Jeanette/Linh soon – is Martha. She is bright, positive, loving. The most horrible moment of the series isn’t any of the deaths, it’s when Martha – who loves so completely, and wants nothing more than to be loved back – decides to kill a goat she befriended to feed her starving friends. It goes against her faith, against her spirit. And then the flashback reveals – in a more gentle way than you would have expected – that she was abused, and so deeply traumatised because she trusted her abuser, that it became impossible for her to fight back. We don’t know what happens to Martha at the end of the first season, only that she is absent during the interrogation. 

Which brings us to Jeanette (Chi Nguyen). She is the impossibly cheerful and excited girl on the plane, the one that is just that little bit too much, too over the top. She dies soon after arriving on the island from internal bleeding, and is the first signifier of how terrible things can get, that the danger is real. It feels like a sad one-off, a redshirt of a character – until she returns in a flashback, not as Jeanette the overly excitable teenager but as Linh, an (Australian, and not in a The Good Place way) grad student who fucks up being the mole in an experiment about peer pressure in all female groups. As a sidenote, I also at this stage had a genuine personal moment of realising that I know associate Australian accents with home, which I guess is the ultimate proof that my newly acquired citizenship is for real. Gretchen swoops her up like she did all the other girls, and the team members of the experiment, except in this case, their connection feels genuine. We will only find out later what Gretchen’s very personal reason for the experiment is (something about the patriarchy turning her beautiful son into a murderer), but it clicks with Linh’s reason, which is being assaulted while under the influence of drugs, and being filmed. Linh is passionate about the experiment, and eager to join, and Chi Nguyen plays her with so much force that a fully formed person emerges from the few scenes that she gets – including writing a whole backstory for Jeanette, and revealing a love for drinking beers and singing Velvet Underground songs at karaoke. The way she dies is awful, and it leaves a hole (and makes me wish she could have been in the show more – what a loss). She dies changing her mind about participating in the experiment, being (figuratively and literally) pushed by a male team member, and then taking the resulting pain and injury not seriously enough. Instead of leaving, she gets on the boat, she is stranded with the other girls, which is when her internal bleeding becomes terminal. 

I think this show succeeds utterly in portraying the process in which the girls, on the island, figure out how survival works in the absence of anyone guiding them. It succeeds in portraying their individual trauma, and the way in which Gretchen prayed on them to get them where they are. It shows the many pressures – the absolute mindfuck of growing up as a woman, of figuring out how to navigate all of the competing standards, the just enough and too much of every single demand. The show announces this literally in the first episode, when Leah points out all the pressures of the world outside, and how they appear to be a greater burden than the day-to-day life of survival, except once Leah begins to see the strings. I want to watch more of this (I don’t want to watch the male control group version of this, though), and I want it to not go the way that PLL went in the end. 

2019-, created by Sarah Streicher, starring Shannon Berry, Sophia Ali, Jenna Clause, Reign Edward, Mia Healey, Helena Howard, Erana James, Sarah Pidgeon, Rachel Griffiths, Chi Nguyen.  

No comments: