–By Sam Hendrian–
Contains Minor Spoilers
The greatest value of art is that it offers us a window into another human person, if only for a fleeting moment. More often than not, this window becomes a mirror, and we realize that no matter who we each are and where we come from, our similarities outweigh our differences.
Amazon Prime’s original series The Wilds is perhaps the most powerful plea for empathy I have seen onscreen in a long time. There were times throughout watching the first season’s ten episodes when I literally felt the pain of one or more of the characters, even though their life experiences have little in common with my own. Part of this is due to the surprisingly sharp writing and rich teenaged characterizations, but beyond that, the show has another defining aspect: it is unafraid to depict the raw, sometimes unsettling frailty of each of its characters. And in this frailty is a subtle beauty that can both challenge and inspire us to be better vehicles of compassion.
The surface plot of The Wilds is basically a cross between Lord of the Flies and your average teen dystopian novel: eight high school girls get stranded on a deserted island and have to overcome the unpredictability of nature/their own clashing personalities to survive while a maniacal political activist secretly monitors their progress as part of a “social experiment.” There are some thrilling twists and turns that make for compelling viewing, but the core story is far more than a survivalist thriller. It is really a non-musical version of A Chorus Line, taking us behind-the-scenes of every main character and outlining the life events that shaped who they are.
Among the girls is Leah, a spirited but often paranoid book-lover who is recovering from a broken heart caused by a much older man; Dot, a Man vs. Wild nerd whose knack for gracefully handling difficult situations is mainly influenced by the years she spent caring for her dying father; Fatin, a sex-obsessed fashionista who is haunted by her own family’s repressed brokenness; Rachel, a type-A personality and former diver whose overly matter-of-fact coach provoked an eating disorder; Rachel’s twin sister Nora, a quiet intellectual who hides some serious spunk; Toni, an athlete whose bitter attitude is merely a necessary adaptation for rough circumstances; Shelby, a seemingly stereotypical southern “Jesus freak” who is fighting some serious guilt and isolation; and Martha, a gentle spirit who struggles to see anything other than good in people.
The actresses imbue their characters with a profound uniqueness and vulnerability, and the way they play (or fight) off each other is remarkable to behold. They are terrified of dying on the island but even more terrified of being unwanted, unloved, and/or rejected for who they are whenever they continue their so-called “normal lives.” Dark feelings and urges frequently torture their hearts and taunt them with the notion that even good people have the capacity for evil. But no matter how low they steep, they still find unexpected moments of compassion for each other, and they realize that the love they crave must partially be forged in the fire of their own frail deeds and words.
In a haunting scene between Leah and Shelby, Leah opens up about how she is still nursing the wounds remaining from the aftermath of her unhealthy relationship with an adult author, saying, “For 16 days, actual death has been hanging over our heads… and yet the only thing I seem to give a s*** about is love.” Shelby gradually responds:
“Isn’t that what we’re all afraid of? That we won’t be loved… that we’ll be all alone?”
It is such a simple, almost cliched question, and yet it ultimately forms the core of our existence as human beings, and it is the driving force behind how we treat each other. I know that if I were to meet any of these characters in real life without having seen glimpses of their inner demons, my first impressions would not all be flattering, and I might throw around conceited adjectives like “immature” or “lost.” Yet after seeing such inner glimpses, I suddenly felt strangely close to them as a fellow human, almost as a brother, and I ached for them to find the love and happiness they so deeply desired.
However, beyond these fictional characters, there have been real people throughout my life whom I unfairly judged and failed to love because of a lack of empathy. I only saw my own ego and supposed maturity, and I did not realize how they were dealing with enigmatic struggles far beyond my comprehension. I also had an incomplete definition of empathy. Sometimes empathy is not experiencing the pain of others, but rather experiencing the pain of being clueless about their stuggles and therefore feeling helpless. Pride oh-so-easily masks this tough truth.
The past cannot change, but the future can, and I will readily testify to the fact that The Wilds has rendered me a little more empathetic or at least more patient than I used to be. It reminded me that whenever I look into another pair of human eyes, I must see a child of God who seeks to be cherished exactly as they are, a restless wanderer journeying towards a universal light that is perhaps best captured by the following poem:
Somewhere you walk in and kick off your shoes
Without worrying about whose is whose.
Somewhere that “How are you?” means “How are you?”
And cannot simply be answered on cue.
But somehow always close.
Somewhere beyond “Welcome in, well, goodbye!”
Or “Have you given this product a try?”
Somewhere you talk and shut up all the same,
Free from playing the now-it’s-your-turn game.
But somehow still far.
The half-eyed man sitting limp on a bench,
Accustomed to a less-than-ideal stench.
The half-dressed girl clinging to a tall pole,
Attempting to fill a lonely heart’s hole.
The half-somethings from the have-nots and haves,
Only e’er knowing how to accept halves,
Searching for somewhere they might hear a song
Bookended by the lyrics: “You belong.”
Editor’s Note: The Wilds is rated TV-14 for content such as profanity, sexual references, and mature themes.
Sam Hendrian is an alumni of John Paul the Great Catholic University (’20), with a degree in Communications Media and emphasis in Directing.
For more articles by Sam, click here.