The opening shot of Amazon’s Wilderness features a disproportionately huge spider — probably, for thematic reasons, a black widow, but I’m not an arachnologist — tentatively starting across a stretch of asphalt leading out to a picturesque Southwestern vista.
So why did the black widow cross the road?
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We’ll never know, because within two seconds, the spider is squished — don’t worry, representatives of People for the Ethical Treatment of Spiders, it’s clearly CG — by the powder-blue vintage Ford Mustang carrying Liv (Jenna Coleman) and Will (Oliver Jackson-Cohen).
Reader, I laughed. Hard. At least half of why I chose to review this six-episode adaptation of B.E. Jones’ novel is because the opening five seconds portended something appealing pulpy and silly, perhaps in a good way.
And you know what? For maybe three episodes, Wilderness comes close to being the show I wanted it to be. It probably isn’t “good,” but it’s unpredictable and, thanks in large part to Coleman, who acts with a perpetual wily glint in her cosmically expressive eyes, entertaining in a blunt way.
The second half of the season, unfortunately, becomes a wallow in too-familiar genre tropes, only surprising when it defies even basic logic. Wilderness goes from light on its feet to quite leaden, from a good Lifetime movie to a bad Lifetime movie that thinks it’s commenting on the tropes of Lifetime movies but doesn’t recognize that the good Lifetime movies are already doing that.
So anyway, back to Liv and Will, zipping through Monument Valley, leaving flattened spiders in their wake. They’re extremely attractive and extremely British and extremely happy.
Only two of those things are true.
The reality is that, after upending her life to follow her husband to New York even though she doesn’t have the paperwork to continue her entirely irrelevant career as a journalist, Liv just discovered that Will had an affair. Will, who works as an “events manager” or something irrelevant, maintains it was just a one-night mistake, and Liv believes him. Or she believes him until she finds evidence that he’s definitely lying, but by that point she has already agreed to a so-called Ultimate American Roadtrip to salvage their relationship.
So there Liv is, putting on a happy face for Instagram and contemplating some form of comeuppance as they chart a course from the Grand Canyon to Yosemite to Las Vegas (it’s a perplexing route). But then, somewhere in the middle, they run into Will’s saucy co-worker Cara (Ashley Benson) and her boyfriend Garth (Eric Balfour). Heck of a coincidence! Oh, and did I mention that Cara is the woman Will has been sleeping with?
Suddenly Liv’s thoughts turn from comeuppance to revenge and, without spoiling anything else, let’s just say the first episode ends with Liv standing in front of a grave and she isn’t there to mourn that poor spider.
Adapted by writer Marnie Dickens and directed by So Yong Kim, Wilderness has an interesting theme — not a “subtext,” because by the sixth episode everything has been so thoroughly explained that there’s no “sub” left — about the way that possessive men and even some women are desperate to categorize women and, in categorizing women, to contain them. In making the move so that Will could pursue his work, Liv transitioned from vivacious professional woman to dutiful wife. People, Will in particular, started seeing her as lacking in drive, sex or otherwise, and then lacking in identity. But just as Cara isn’t simply The Other Woman, even if that’s generally how the show treats her, Liv is about to undergo a rebirth through a gauntlet of blood, getting her proverbial groove back with violence.
For the most part, I feel like Taylor Swift has become so huge and so culturally ubiquitous that only lazy people still make jokes about how her career is built on inscribing bad ex-boyfriends in song. That’s the undercurrent to the show’s use of Swift’s “Look What You Made Me Do,” which was featured in the show’s viral trailer and plays over the show’s terrific animated credit sequence. It even features diegetically in a scene in which the two couples drive in a car and Cara sings along enthusiastically, unaware that she’s not the embodiment of the song’s pushed-to-the-edge heroine. Because Liv likes going for runs, she’s constantly listening to music through her earbuds and if you think “Look What You Made Me Do” is on the nose, future heavily featured needle drops include songs called “Tantrum” and a cover of “Where Is My Mind?”
If that makes Wilderness sound over-obvious, it kinda is, but for a while that’s the fun of it. As the title implies, Wilderness is a story of at least one character getting back to the basics, stripping aside social norms — Liv and Will’s general Britishness is presented as little more than affectation against the backdrop of frontier Americana — and gender-based categorizations and getting down to primal instincts. For men, the show suggests, that’s easy. Men are allowed to make money and fuck and give in to animalistic rage, but when women do the same? The location shooting is occasionally confusing — are the characters in Alberta or just pretending the iconic Banff Springs Hotel is somewhere else? — and sometimes underused, like the five minutes spent mostly in an anonymous cocktail bar representing Vegas. But they keep the show moving.
Of course, the less geographically adventurous, entirely New York-set last three episodes are mostly “shocking” violence and a dull police procedural featuring a pair of detectives (Marsha Stephanie Blake’s Rawlings and Jonathan Keitz’s Wiseman) who exist mostly to reassert the show’s already thoroughly made points. I didn’t quite know where the series would end, but I knew I’d seen its like too many times. The show starts taking itself really seriously in a way it can’t quite earn.
Coleman tries hard, though in making Liv so consistently and playfully calculating, some of the character’s arc gets lost and the more human and fleshed out the character becomes — Coleman and Claire Rushbrook, as Liv’s mother, have some very well-acted scenes that try to get to the root of Liv’s personality — the less entertaining the show becomes. Coleman at least maintains her energy throughout. Benson, whose Pretty Little Liars bona fides are a tip-off to the show’s tawdry intentions, never seems wholly comfortable when Cara is just being presented as a walking social-media thirst trap. But she has exactly one emotional beat in a conversation with Coleman/Liv that is so great I had to rewatch it multiple times.
Wilderness isn’t supposed to be the story of these men, and Jackson-Cohen and Balfour definitely don’t make this an evenly matched four-hander. So great in the two Mike Flanagan Haunting series, Jackson-Cohen is playing a gaslighting cad for the second time in recent years — you can be forgiven for forgetting Apple TV+’s Surface — and the returns are diminished. I’d almost posit that Jackson-Cohen makes Will too tormented and grounded in a way the show can’t really sustain. As for Balfour, it’s mostly just amusing to see him playing the more sympathetic of the two male leads, when you know that a decade ago, he’d have played the gaslighting cad. Like much of Wilderness, pondering this starts off amusing and becomes less so.
Oh, ill-fated roadkill spider! Look what you made me do.
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