The opening shot of Amazon Wilderness shows a disproportionately large spider – probably, for thematic reasons, a black widow, but I’m no arachnologist – starting gingerly across a stretch of asphalt that leads to a scenic southwestern vista.
So why did the black widow cross the road?
It comes down to
Starts messy-fun, becomes messy-boring.
We’ll never know, because within two seconds the spider is squashed – don’t worry, representatives of People for the Ethical Treatment of Spiders, it’s clearly CG – by the powder blue vintage Ford Mustang with Liv (Jenna Coleman) and Will ( Oliver Jackson-Cohen).
Reader, I laughed. Difficult. At least half the reason I chose to review this six-episode adaptation of BE Jones’ novel is because the first five seconds portended something appealing, pulpy, and silly, perhaps in a good way.
And you know what? For maybe three episodes, Wilderness is close to the show I wanted it to be. It’s probably not ‘good’, but it’s unpredictable and largely thanks to Coleman, who acts with a perpetual sly glint in her cosmically expressive eyes and bluntly entertains.
The second half of the season unfortunately becomes a wallow in overly familiar genre tropes, which is only surprising when it defies even basic logic. Wilderness goes from light-hearted to quite heavy, from a good Lifetime movie to a bad Lifetime movie that thinks it’s commenting on the tropes of Lifetime movies, but doesn’t acknowledge that the good Lifetime movies already do that.
Anyway, back to Liv and Will, whizzing through Monument Valley, leaving squashed spiders in their wake. They are extremely attractive, extremely British and extremely happy.
Only two of those things are true.
The reality is that Liv, after turning her life upside down to follow her husband to New York even though she doesn’t have the credentials to continue her completely irrelevant career as a journalist, just discovered that Will was having an affair . Will, who works as an “event manager” or something irrelevant, claims it was just a one-night mistake, and Liv believes him. Or she believes him until she finds proof that he’s definitely lying, but at that point she’s already agreed to a so-called Ultimate American Road Trip to save their relationship.
So there’s Liv, putting on a happy face on Instagram and considering some form of comeuppance as they plot a course from the Grand Canyon to Yosemite to Las Vegas (it’s a mind-boggling route). But then, somewhere in the middle, they encounter Will’s sassy colleague Cara (Ashley Benson) and her boyfriend Garth (Eric Balfour). Very coincidental! Oh, and did I mention Cara is the woman Will slept with?
Suddenly Liv’s thoughts turn from retaliation 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’s not there to mourn that poor spider.
Adapted by writer Marnie Dickens and directed by So Yong Kim. Wilderness has an interesting theme – no ‘subtext’, because in the sixth episode everything is explained so thoroughly that there is no ‘sub’ left – about the way possessive men and even some women desperately want to categorize women and, in categorizing women, to contain them. By making the move so Will could continue his work, Liv went from a vibrant professional woman to a dutiful wife. People, especially Will, started to see her as lacking drive, sex or something else, and then lacking identity. But just as Cara isn’t simply The Other Woman, even if that’s the way the show generally treats her, Liv is about to undergo a rebirth through a gauntlet of blood, forcibly regaining her proverbial groove.
For the most part, I feel like Taylor Swift has become so big and culturally ubiquitous that only lazy people still joke about how her career was built on enrolling bad ex-boyfriends in songs. That’s the undertone of the show’s use of Swift’s “Look What You Made Me Do,” which was featured in the show’s viral trailer and plays during the show’s awesome animated closing credits. It even appears diegetically in a scene where the two couples are driving in a car and Cara sings along enthusiastically, unaware that she is not the embodiment of the song’s heroine pushed to her limits. Since Liv enjoys going for runs, she’s constantly listening to music through her earbuds and if you think ‘Look What You Made Me Do’ is on your nose, future highly recommended Needle Drops include songs called ‘Tantrum’ and a cover of ‘Where Is My thoughts?”
If that matters Wilderness It sounds overly obvious, and it is, but for a while that’s the fun of it. As the title indicates, Wilderness is a story in which at least one character returns to basics, pushing aside social norms – Liv and Will’s generic Britishness is presented as little more than affection against the backdrop of cutting-edge Americana – and exploring gender-based categorizations and in primal instincts. For men, the show suggests, that’s easy. Men may make money and fuck and indulge in animal rage, but when women do the same? The location shooting is occasionally confusing: are the characters in Alberta or are they just pretending the iconic Banff Springs Hotel is somewhere else? – and sometimes underused, like the five minutes you spend mostly in an anonymous cocktail bar that represents Vegas. But they keep the show moving.
Of course, the less geographically adventurous, entirely New York-set final three episodes are mostly “shocking” violence and a dull police procedural with a pair of detectives (Marsha Stephanie Blake’s Rawlings and Jonathan Keitz’s Wiseman) who are mainly there to uphold the show’s pre-existing features to reconfirm. thoroughly made points. I wasn’t quite sure where the series would end, but I knew I’d seen it too many times. The show is starting to take itself very seriously in a way that it can’t quite earn.
Coleman does his best, but making Liv so consistent and playfully calculating loses some of the character’s storyline and makes the character more human and fleshed out. Coleman and Claire Rushbrook, as Liv’s mother, have some very well-acted scenes that try to get to the core of Liv’s personality – the less entertaining the show becomes. At least Coleman maintains her energy throughout. Benson, whose Liars bona fides tip off the show’s tawdry intentions and never seem entirely comfortable with Cara merely 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 several times.
Wilderness This isn’t meant 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 Spooky series, Jackson-Cohen plays a gaslighting cad for the second time in recent years — you could be forgiven for forgetting about the Apple TV+s Surface – and returns are reduced. I’d almost say that Jackson-Cohen makes Will too tormented and grounded in a way that the show can’t really sustain. As for Balfour, it’s mostly just funny to see him play the more sympathetic of the two male leads, knowing that ten years ago he would have played the gaslighting cad. Like a lot of it WildernessWhen I think about this, it starts out funny but becomes less and less fun.
Oh, ill-fated roadkill spider! Look what you made me do.