“Well, if it’s any consolation, the boys haven’t fared much better.”
This line from The Wilds’ first season would become the key to the show’s sophomore outing (and, perhaps, also its undoing). After spending 10 episodes plumbing the depths of teenage trauma with diverse, exclusively female stories, season one ended with a twist: There was another island, filled with young men. Yes, boys officially entered the narrative.
It’s a potentially fraught choice. Leading up to the premiere of season two, the show’s social media accounts tried to hype the introduction of the boys: “Who are you most excited to meet?” read the caption below a rotation of their headshots. “None of them,” many fans replied. Others simply shot back with: “The girls.”
In season two, the writers are trying to walk a fine line. If they spend too much time with the boys, they’ll risk alienating fans who love the girls. If they don’t spend enough time with them, the fans won’t connect with them. The show errs on the side of not enough time with the boys, which is smart; the girls are our leads, our loves, our flawed heroines. But the decision has consequences. By season’s end, the boys still mostly feel like the two-dimensional caricatures they’re introduced as.
Without preamble, season two throws us right into the literal waters where we left off: Nora (Helena Howard) and Rachel (Reign Edwards) in the ocean following Rachel’s shark attack. From their post-rescue interrogation rooms, the girls recount what happened as we see the aftermath onscreen: Dot (Shannon Berry) cauterizing Rachel’s wound, grief over Nora’s disappearance, and Leah (Sarah Pidgeon) realizing the pit she clawed her way out of has been filled—all set to Taylor Swift’s “epiphany.” (This is the first of many signs that the music budget was higher this season.) The speed and neatness with which The Wilds deals with last season’s cliffhanger is frankly impressive; we’re quickly onto new things.
Except, we’re also onto old things. Each episode’s title reflects the split in the narrative, with the premiere being “Day 30/1.” And the big problem is that day one for the boys feels like a retread of season one, except with new characters that we don’t really get to know. A hallmark of the first season was an episodic focus on each girl, one that weaved flashbacks from her life with post-rescue interviews and her time on the island. With two fewer episodes and twice the characters, season two doesn’t have that luxury. Some episodes skip the flashbacks entirely, and when they do happen, they often try to cover two characters at a time and with much less depth. The transitions between the islands are uneven, with some feeling poignant and others awkwardly unfinished, but every cut to the boys’ story is disappointing, because we’re leaving the momentum of the girls.
The girls are so lived in, so nuanced and familiar, that season two can do exciting things with them. Their established histories allow for a constant reshuffling of the dynamics. Rachel and Shelby (Mia Healey), for instance, didn’t have a personal bond in season one, but they connect over guilt in losing Nora and Becca, respectively. Toni (Erana James) calls Fatin (Sophia Ali) out on her anger toward Leah’s self-destructive tendencies. Martha (Jenna Clause) leaves behind her vegetarianism to become the group’s hunter, which connects her to Shelby, who is also processing a shift in her values as she becomes more comfortable with her sexuality.
The love story between Toni and Shelby continues to unfold in genuinely beautiful moments, with winking treats to the viewers like Fatin referring to them by their ship name, Shoni. The actors seem more comfortable with their characters, too, with especially affecting performances from Ali, Berry, James and Pidgeon. Not that there aren’t missteps in the girls’ story: Leah has always courted madness, but this season that gets a lot more literal and a lot less relatable. And the machinations of Gretchen’s (Rachel Griffiths) experiment only grow messier and more nonsensical, with threads picked up and dropped without explanation.
Back to the boys. The question of the season is: What do they add to the equation? What can The Wilds say with them that it couldn’t say with the girls alone? “We wanted to be men, but the truth is, some of us were becoming monsters,” says Rafael (Zack Calderon). The statement holds true, but one thing we loved about season one was that, even though all of the girls did terrible things, none of them could be so easily labeled monstrous. To flatten any of the boys into villains feels like a shallow exploration of masculinity. Here, a lot of male characters feel more like ideas than fleshed-out people.
The good news is that the women of The Wilds are still intriguing, dynamic, frustrating, and accessible. The bad news is we get way less time with them.