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Amazon's 'The Wilds' is much more than just a gender-swapped 'Lord of the Flies'

"The Wilds" tells a complicated and ambivalent story about how for teen girls, so-called civilization is a danger and — and sometimes, an opportunity.
\"The Wilds\" on Amazon Prime Video.
"The Wilds" premieres on Amazon this week.Matt Klitscher / Amazon Studios

The elevator pitch for Amazon Prime's "The Wilds" might well have been, "It’s 'Lord of the Flies' — but gender-switched!" As you'd expect from that description, the show does include rumination on the patriarchy, toxic masculinity and even fraternity rituals. But "The Wilds" is perhaps even more interesting in the way it takes the "Lord of the Flies" colonialist ideas about what makes one civilized and uncivilized and messily, but thoroughly, evacuates them.

"The Wilds" takes "Lord of the Flies'" colonialist ideas about what makes one civilized and uncivilized, and messily but thoroughly evacuates them.

"The Wilds" starts with nine teen girls flying to Hawaii for an empowerment retreat. The plane crashes in the ocean, and the girls have to figure out how to find shelter and food amid natural disasters and personal drama. At least one girl also begins to suspect that the island is not what it seems and that they've been set up by shadowy forces for purposes unknown.

William Golding's "Lord of the Flies" has a similar plot: A plane carrying a bunch of prep school British boys crashes in the water, and the survivors make their way to an island. Like many a colonial narrative, it features white British males exploring uncharted territory, with the heart-of-darkness twist that these colonists, cut off from civilization, become the stereotypically savage colonized. Without adult supervision or the benefit of English discipline, the boys quickly retrogress, worshipping a blood- soaked pagan idol and splitting into hostile, murderous bands.

Golding's very proper loathing of the supposedly primitive, and his vision of degrading devolution, gives the novel an exhilarating narrative rush. Strip away the veneer of higher culture, and civilization hurtles briskly toward atavistic nightmare.

"The Wilds" is a much less streamlined narrative, not least because its main touchstone is not colonial literature, but reality television survival shows. It even has confessional talk-to-the-camera moments, as each girl is interviewed in a nondescript room by a couple of investigators in suits. These interviews, conducted after the girls get off the island, frame every episode. The confessions also include reminiscences about the protagonists’ lives before the plane crash. So each episode is a hodgepodge of life before the island, on the island and after the island.

This may sound inelegant, and it is. It even undermines what seems like it should be the main point of suspense; you know some girls survive the ordeal from the very first scenes.

But there are advantages to this convoluted approach, too. Specifically, the sharp contrast that Golding presents between civilized and uncivilized never takes hold in "The Wilds." The show is very aware of itself as a staged and stagey drama, and so the survivalist, back-to-nature fantasy is presented very much as a fantasy. Golding's island reveals that the true human is a savage, primitive human. But in "The Wilds" the island is just a kind of stage, created by "civilized" people for their own, philosophical, lascivious or sadistic aggrandizement. In other words, it's like a reality survival show.

"The Wilds" is clear from the very beginning that the island doesn't peel civilization away. The first monologue of the series is by broken-hearted Leah (Sarah Pidgeon), who explains to the condescending investigators that she and the other survivors were already traumatized by a patriarchal culture that hates teen girls before they ever got dropped out of the sky. The flashbacks show the nine survivors dealing with sexual abuse, homophobia, absent parents, controlling parents, eating disorders, abusive guys, homicidal guys and the occasionally even worse nice guys.

The show can sometimes feel like a teen problem of the week after school special. But the actors are uniformly excellent.

The show can sometimes feel like a teen problem of the week after-school special. But the actors are uniformly excellent, and the writers do a good job of keeping characters sympathetic even when they make transparently terrible choices that leave you wanting to yell at the screen.

And some of the portraits are remarkably sensitive. For example, Fatin (Sophia Ali) is a sexually precocious teen who the show resolutely refuses to slut-shame or to fetishize. Instead, she ends up being punished by her family for her clear-eyed and passionate sense of sexual ethics. Patriarchy is OK with sexual young girls, her experiences suggest, but less so with young sexual girls who know their own minds and their own boundaries.

Fatin is South Asian, and the show's diversity is as important a contrast to Golding as its gender flip. The majority of the castaways are people of color. That means there's enough representation that no one feels like a token or has to bear the weight of representing an entire group.

Just as importantly, with white characters in the minority, the girls aren't stand-ins for white colonial history in the way the white boys in "Lord of the Flies" are. Instead, their island “civilization” is clearly made up of many civilizations. In Golding's book, white British culture fills a new space. In "The Wilds," a complicated clump of different people from different backgrounds with different traditions get to meet, rather than discover, one another.

"Lord of the Flies" is about how when civilization is stripped away, boys turn into beasts. The norms of the West keep the male children of the West from slipping into barbarism — or at least, they try to. "The Wilds" tells a much more complicated and ambivalent story about how for teen girls, so-called civilization is a danger and — when it involves friendship and sisterhood — an opportunity.