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‘The Wilds’ Boss on Crafting a Controversial Island Experiment and Plans for Season 2

The Wilds Amazon Studios
Matt Klitscher/Amazon Studios

SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched “The Wilds,” streaming now on Amazon Prime Video.

An eccentric woman with a criminal son decides young women might be better off if they lived unencumbered by patriarchal oppression, society’s judgmental eye and modern distractions such as social media. So she tricks eight teenagers’ parents into signing them up for a retreat that is really a twisted experiment in which they will be stranded on a desert island and forced to rely on each other to survive. What could possibly go wrong?

As it turns out in Amazon Prime Video’s “The Wilds,” those eight characters did come into conflict with each other while on that island, over discoveries of secrets in the various girls’ pasts, such as Leah’s (Sarah Pidgeon) inappropriate relationship with an author, Toni’s (Erana James) propensity toward rage, and Shelby’s (Mia Healey) sheltered and downright homophobic upbringing. When Leah got too close to figuring out it was all a set-up with one of the group (Nora, played by Helena Howard) working with the woman in charge (Gretchen, played by Rachel Griffiths), Nora left her in a pit alone in the woods. But even through that turmoil, and the shared trauma of their new experience, the series did not turn into “Lord of the Flies” — at least not in Season 1.

“This is I think partially the way Sarah [Streicher, creator] and I view the world, [but] we did think that probably Gretchen was right — that women at the bottom of it would find a way to build a community,” showrunner Amy B. Harris tells Variety. “Obviously we’re living in a very divided world right now and people are behind their computer screams trolling one another and screaming strong opinions and not listening to one another. What would happen if you pulled people out of that world — a Dot and Shelby who don’t have a ton in common, but are from the same place — would they start to see common ground? We felt like they would. That is maybe a little bit of our hope: If you just put down your phones for five seconds and actually talk to someone else, you will see you actually have more similarities than differences. And their greatest similarity is the desire to survive.”

However, any truly scientific experiment needs a control group, and even Gretchen, who proved herself to be less than mentally stable at certain moments within the first season, knows that. (“She doesn’t have the wherewithal, I think, to look at herself and be like, ‘What else is going on here for me?’ She’s like, ‘I have a mission and a cause, and I believe in it,'” says Harris.) So while the girls’ experiences on the island was the bulk of the first season, the cliffhanger ending was that after the girls’ rescue, there was a group of boys in the same position.

“In her mind she is saying, ‘I am an honest broker and see, I’m not just proving my point by skewing it this way; I’m doing what good researchers do and I’m creating a control group as well,” Harris says of Gretchen’s mindset with the group of guys.

The second season has yet to be officially greenlit by Amazon, but Harris says her writers’ room has a “very strong blueprint” for what it would look like, while still being “wildly open to new things.” This proved to be an especially important strategy already in the first season when, “about half-way through,” she notes, “Amazon beautifully asked us, ‘What’s the [hook] for next season?'” And thus, that control group twist was born.

“For me, one of the fun things about a Season 2 is watching as [Gretchen’s] loyal team decides whether or not they feel the way this is going is worth the damage,” Harris says.

Additionally, since the girls have been removed from the island and have thus far been in quarantine for two or three days in their post-rescue facility, Harris notes, they have been doing “three or four interviews a day” to see if stories line up while the State Department is dealing with visas and their parents’ flights and true homecomings. “The idea was the Thai boys, [who], when they were pulled out of the cave, were kept in isolation because they weren’t sure if they had been exposed to stuff within the cave,” she says of crafting the rescue facility. “We had this idea that they would be kept away from people for a few days in quarantine and that they were being separated from each other because awful things happened on the island and things happened in the plane crash and they’re trying to get everyone to tell their honest story without each other’s influencing.”

Fleshing out the first season of “The Wilds” was like a “Jenga puzzle,” Harris says, because of the non-linear storytelling. Episodes featured scenes of the girls on the island, as well as flashbacks to their pre-island lives to explain why their parents might sign them up for a wellness retreat in the first place, and the post-island interviews. Seeing the girls in those interviews in early episodes established where their mindsets were after experiencing all they had on the island and therefore often dictated what island events could occur in later episodes.

If the girls’ version of events are “not going [Gretchen’s] way — which it might not, always; she might not be getting the results she wants [so] what might she do to get the results she wants?” is an interesting element to Gretchen that Harris wants to keep exploring.

After all, Gretchen “fully believes in the mission,” but is also “a megalomaniac and maybe a sociopath,” she explains. “The idea of controlling people and having power over people and thinking she’s the smartest person in every room, how much is that contributing to her decision to make the choices she’s made? I think that’s a huge part of it. [Executive producer] Jamie Tarses always used to say she’s as cuckoo as can be because she basically kidnapped a bunch of girls, so there’s no redeeming her. And my feeling is, I don’t know if you can redeem her but I certainly want to understand who she is and why she’s doing it.”

“She’s a person with a cause and a belief in something I think is good and interesting, but when you lose yourself to that cause and want it despite the costs, it’s a question,” she continues. “Someone recently said if there’s a Picasso in a building and a child and it’s burning, what do you grab? Of course the child, but someone said, ‘Imagine you got the Picasso out, sold it for $50 million and imagine the amount of people — children — you could take care of, if you used that money?’ So I think that’s Gretchen’s POV: there will be losses, but if it’s for the greater gain, then so be it.”

By the end of the first season Gretchen already has a lot to which to answer, even if she finds a way to keep Leah quiet about the control room at the facility that showed real-time footage of the boys’ island. The girls were thrown into a dangerous environment full of external threats due to weather conditions, wild animals and lack of proper food and shelter. When a plane passed by, Gretchen said she was able to get the pilot different coordinates, but her team already started to question if that was true or if she had the pilot killed.

“The truth is whatever serves her purposes,” Harris says. “We at one point planned to shoot what she was explaining, which is a coast guard pulling up to an island where there were people toasting and having drinks at a cute little resort. And when we really started talking about it, it was a) that’s another location and some boats that will have to be used, and when we really started to think about it, we were like, ‘Maybe it is better to leave it a little bit unknown — what is this woman capable of?'”

Also, Rachel (Reign Edwards) lost a hand, presumably due to the shark that was seen circling the water while she floated, and it seems like Nora lost a lot more. Early on in Rachel’s interviews, she asked if her parents knew about Nora, and Harris confirms that that line did not refer to Nora being Gretchen’s operative.

“One of the things we talked about very early on was, no one was safe. Talking about what happened next, it was the ‘Game of Thrones’ of it all: your lead dies at the end of the first season and you’re like, ‘What!?'” Harris says. “That is an incredibly exciting way to tell a story as a writer.”

When it came to deciding who the operative who would make it onto the island was, Harris says that came from Streicher, who wanted the character to be “a girl who’s trying to save her sister from an eating disorder and destructive, potentially life-threatening physical manifestation of her stress. The reason why she did it wasn’t that she was evil or wanted world domination or even believes in what Gretchen believes in. Really, she thought, ‘I can’t save my sister any other way.'”

For a while as they were crafting the story, they kept an open mind about who else it could be, and they intentionally through red herrings into the first season, including the scene in which Dot (Shannon Berry) meets with Gretchen. “We knew that no matter what we did, we were going to be tilting the audience one way or another along the way,” Harris says, adding that Dot does have a deal with Gretchen, in that she really thought she was getting a daily per diem for going on this “retreat,” but she’s not another secret operative.

The reason the writers thought Nora made the most sense as the operative in the end was because it gave her an emotional arc that, if she came through the other side, could be just as wildly therapeutic for her as what the other girls had to go through, from Dot grieving her father, to Shelby getting comfortable with being her true self, to Leah and Toni dealing with their anger.

“Nora had to learn to live a life outside of her sister; she makes every decision about her sister, and that’s the sadness,” Harris says. “The reason she was capable of what she did to Leah was the idea that her sister could find [and] if her sister found out about the betrayal, it would be the end for Nora in terms of her emotional safety.”