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Medea for the Social Media Age

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[Editor’s Note: This review contains spoilers for Season 1 of Amazon Prime Video’s “The Wilds,” including the ending. For a spoiler-free review, click here.]

Now, I’m sure you all did what I suggested in my spoiler-free review of “The Wilds” and refrained from blowing through all 10 episodes in two days, right?

Of course you didn’t. So welcome to the review with spoilers.

On the surface, “The Wilds” is about a group of troubled teenage girls who are en route to a female empowerment retreat in Kona, Hawaii, when their plane crashes. They wind up on a deserted tropical island in the middle of nowhere and are forced to join together to survive, despite their disparate backgrounds and personalities.

That is, in fact, about 30 percent of what “The Wilds” is about. But creator Sarah Streicher’s work is more “Euphoria” than “Lost,” and more “The Usual Suspects” than “Lord of the Flies.”

I kept a list of the issues tackled over the course of the show, and frankly by the end it comes across like a DSM-V for events that trigger mental health crises in anyone, let alone young women: Statutory rape. Disordered eating. Euthanasia. Foster care. Drug dealing. Systemic racism. Marriage upheaval. Child molestation. Addiction. Suicide. Parental neglect. Homophobia. Sexual assault. Hazing.

This, to put it mildly, makes it sounds like the show is incredibly preachy trauma porn operating under an action-adventure facade. It is not. The balance between the two storytelling modes usually works quite well — although the flashbacks to life off the island are more compelling than the action on the island — and creates a narrative coherence that winds up celebrating the resilience, strength, and ingenuity of modern teenage girls. It’s incredibly sad and at times very hard to watch, but admiration for the characters always wins out in the end.

Uniformly, the performances are terrific. Rachel Griffiths plays Gretchen Klein, the sociopathic scientist bent on proving via social experiment that a matriarchal structure would alter the course of society for the better. The Dawn of Eve retreat that the group is flying off to is actually Klein’s experiment on an island packed with cameras that she watches over, Big Sister-style. The girls are drugged, the plane crash is staged, and there are two moles among the group to help direct events and send up a flare for help if things get catastrophically out of hand.

It is so far-fetched and such a big narrative risk — yes, again, a plane crash is staged — that it would take a hell of a lot of down-to-earth grounding from the actors to keep it from teetering into absurdity. Thankfully, this group of actors keeps everything firmly rooted, and viscerally so.

Two deserve special attention: Jenna Clause — in her first professional acting gig, which is incredible given the emotional depths she manifests — stars as Martha, a young Indigenous woman who suffered a terrible trampoline accident as a child only to wind up being assaulted by the doctor who helped her rehabilitate. The storyline is reminiscent of the repulsive crimes of serial sex offender Larry Nasser against the women of the U.S. Gymnastics team; Martha is an accomplished Indigenous dancer who wants nothing more than to perform. In her episode, Clause — a Cayuga Nation Wolf Clan Member of the Haudenosaunee People from the Six Nations Reserve located in Ontario, Canada — shows harrowing talent. This is not a narrative of bravery and resilience; Clause plays Martha as agonizingly lost and with a terrifying well of physical rage just waiting to be tapped.

I bought the misdirect that the combative Dot was one of the island’s moles wholeheartedly, and that’s a credit to Shannon Berry’s immaculate work and subtle character development. Dot balances high school with care of her terminally ill father (Greg Bryk) and sells Oxycontin on the side to buy his anti-nausea medication. As they watch endless adventure-based reality TV together, he knows the end is near, but he lingers. Death is just on the other side of a veil that won’t move. He begs Dot to help him die, and Berry beautifully holds the weight of that heartwrenching request as she complies. Trusting Dot is essential to the story’s big red herring, and Berry sells it. This is a young woman who has already held the life and death of a parent in her hands — why wouldn’t she be up for an embedded role with something as dangerous as the Dawn of Eve experiment?

“The Wilds” would be exceptional enough with just these performances, but it really seals the deal by giving a satisfying resolution to the fundamental motivation behind the Klein’s plan. What would inspire such a lunatic experiment? Well, it’s the incendiary combination of a mother’s love for her son and a young woman’s agony at the loss of her first love. When the final episode reveals the connection between Nora (Helena Howard) and Gretchen — Nora’s boyfriend was killed in a fraternity hazing incident by Gretchen’s son — it all becomes clear. Patriarchy begets catastrophe begets renewal. It’s Medea.

No matter how outlandish the twists and turns seem on both a structural and episodic level — when the athletic Rachel (Reign Edwards) unveils a missing hand at the end of her episode, I groaned audibly knowing that meant a shark attack was imminent — it’s the performances and theme of very-hard won catharsis that keep the series centered in something bigger than a survivalism spectacle. One can hope with the cliffhanger ending — Leah (Sarah Pidgeon) discovers Gretchen is running a companion experiment with young men, the ominous-sounding “Fall of Adam” — that there will be a second season. The dynamic is worth exploring more, and in Streicher’s assured hands we can be sure it will resonate.

Grade: B+

Ten episodes of “The Wilds” are available to stream on Amazon Prime Video.

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