Subtlety is not a strength of Wilderness. The first episode of Amazon’s revenge-driven thriller begins with an image of death (a car crushing a spider on the highway) and ends with an image of death (the narrator standing somberly in front of a grave, dressed in black). It’s on the nose, but it’s also appropriate for a story about life and death set in the sweeping national parks and wild forests of America. Stakes are high and instincts are primal; there’s no time for complex metaphors.
Adapted from B. E. Jones’ novel of the same name, Marnie Dickens’ six-episode series follows husband and wife Will (Oliver Jackson-Cohen, The Haunting of Hill House) and Olivia (Jenna Coleman, The Serpent) as they embark on a self-titled Ultimate American Road Trip. Cruising across the country in a blue Mustang convertible, top down and sun-kissed, the handsome husband and beautiful wife appear the perfect couple on a dream vacation.
As the show repeatedly reminds us, appearances are deceiving, especially in Instagram posts featuring carefully selected hashtags. Rather than a relaxing vacation, the road trip is a desperate attempt to save a marriage rocked by betrayal and infidelity. And one of the two attractive people in that car might not come home alive.
Flashing back to nine months earlier, we watch Will and Olivia relocate to New York for Will’s job. With no local friends and unable to work due to visa restrictions, Olivia spends her days alone. But she and Will appear to be truly committed and happy, unfazed by the warning from Will’s boss about Olivia giving up her career for her husband and the possibility of him cheating.
It’s on Christmas Eve, of all times, when Olivia learns Will has been unfaithful. At first manipulative and then apologetic, he convinces her to take him back, swearing it was a single night’s mistake. It’s especially poor timing when, days before the two embark on their road trip, Olivia discovers that Will’s affair with Cara (Ashley Benson) has continued. Not only that, but he plans to divorce her.
The weight of family trauma hangs over the couple, with both determined not to repeat their parents’ mistakes: Olivia’s mother obsessed over her chronically unfaithful ex-husband, and Will’s father was aloof, unloving and possibly abusive. Olivia’s fear of following her mother’s vodka-soaked footsteps gives some context but doesn’t excuse her actual agenda for their vacation: pretend she doesn’t know the affair is still happening and murder her husband in what appears to be a tragic accident.
The invalidation of women’s emotions – people dismissing their anger as hysteria, attributing their grief to hormones – is nothing new. And female characters who channel their anger into revenge (think Gone Girl’s Amy or Promising Young Woman’s Cassie) are not new, either. While Olivia’s story isn’t especially unique, this is only the first episode; one hopes the rest of the season will go down a more original path.
Olivia’s actions may not be commendable, but viewers still sympathize with her. Performed by Coleman, whose wildly expressive eyes can communicate wells of emotion in just moments, Olivia is a fascinatingly complex character. One moment silent and tragic, the next enraged and violent, then cold and calculating, she is impossible to predict. Coleman’s diminutive frame, emphasized by her wardrobe of skirts and blouses with Peter Pan collars, further emphasizes her vulnerability.
As Will, Cohen has much less to do in the first episode. He is charming, apologetic, duplicitous and…charming. It’s easy to see why Olivia fell for him, and it’s easy to understand her anger. The ease with which he lies is infuriating, but it’s also bewildering.
It’s clear someone is going to pay for Will’s mistakes, but it is not clear who. In a surprisingly meta twist that effectively teases Episode 2, the show concludes with Olivia back at the grave (of whom is still unknown), musing about society’s thirst for crime: “We’re voyeurs. We want the blood and the dead girls on the slabs and a look inside the mind of the sick f*ck who did it.” She then adds, “I guess in this case, the sick f*ck is me.”
As Taylor Swift’s “Look What You Made Me Do” plays throughout the series’ credits, it sounds as a warning but also an anthem of support. Like I said, it’s not exactly subtle.
What do you think of Wilderness so far? Let us know in the comments below…
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Warning: May contain spoilers. Still need to catch up on Wilderness episode 2? Read Carey’s review of episode 1 here.
The second episode of a show should establish the pace and tension for the remainder of the series. Unfortunately, the second episode of Wilderness instead inspired a lot of eye-rolling.
The episode’s title alone, “The Other Woman”, felt lazy and clichéd, especially for a show about gendered double standards. Still, one hoped the episode itself would treat this character with more respect.
The show did not, but the actress playing her did. Ashley Benson, who starred in the teen mystery Pretty Little Liars, brings far more depth and sympathy to Will’s colleague and mistress Cara than is written on the page.
Shown only in a glimpse at a party and on a sex tape in Episode 1, Cara is presented as a cliché:
the sexy Manhattan career-girl mistress who the husband romances before going home to his demure English rose of a wife. Olivia (Jenna Coleman) is brunette, and Cara is blonde. Olivia is a stay-at-home wife, while Cara is rising the executive ladder. Olivia dresses in skirts and blouses, and Cara wears a red thong when filming her sex tapes.
In the second episode, Cara unexpectedly shows up at the same hiking trail as Olivia and Will (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). She’s prepared to hike in shorts and a tank top, her blonde tresses long and loose, without a clip or hair tie in sight.
With such little development, one could easily dismiss Cara as a “crazy girlfriend” who flew across the country to chase her lover. But Benson infuses Cara with a grounded warmth that gives her depth, even though it’s not clear what is driving her character or her motivation for showing up at the national park with her boyfriend in tow.
As this awkward quartet is forced together out West, Olivia and Cara share a few (heavily intoxicated) moments of connection. It’s due to the strength of Coleman and Benson’s chemistry that these scenes are actually moving, especially as the two discuss double standards of life and sex with seeming comfort, despite – or perhaps because of – having just met.
But the writing is frustratingly inconsistent. Cara is an ambitious, sexually liberated woman but she has never appeared before her live-in boyfriend without makeup because, “If he’s sold a brand-new car, he doesn’t want to go home and realize the paint’s a spray job.” While this may have been intended to inspire pity for Cara, it only inspired laughter.
A more significant inconsistency is Cara’s relationship with Olivia. Why would Cara loan her lover’s wife clothes, mix her drinks, share an emotional apology and embrace her, if she truly plans to run off with her husband?
It’s also unclear why Cara wants Will so badly. If the writers short-changed her character in this episode, they certainly did Will no favours either. As Will starts a ferocious fight with his wife, obviously fueled by shame and guilt, he reveals how much of a manipulative coward he really is, blaming Olivia for his affair with Cara in the first place. Jackson-Cohen and Coleman are great in this scene, their anger and disappointment shattering even before Olivia throws a glass at Will. Why either Cara or Olivia wants to be with this man is baffling.
Even so, Cara wants Will; as Olivia drowns her sorrows in the minibar, she reads a message from Cara, telling Will to leave his wife and meet her at a waterfall at 1 a.m. Because a waterfall in a dark forest during a thunderstorm is the most practical, and romantic, place for someone to meet their secret lover…
Only slightly less believable is Olivia’s decision to rush into the woods, during a rainstorm, wearing an evening gown, without an umbrella, to confront Will. In a rage, she pushes someone down the waterfall – but we never see who.
This fall is like the series itself, which stumbles after a solid first episode, even while establishing the unknowns needed to propel the story forward. Here’s hoping it finds its footing – with more of Benson – in Episode 3.
What did you think of the second episode of Wilderness? Let us know in the comments below…
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Warning: May contain spoilers. Still need to catch up on Wilderness episode 3? Read Carey’s review of episode 2 here.
Wildernessis starting to give me whiplash. It’s not from the speeding cars or the sweeping vistas, but from the emotional turbulence of Will and Olivia’s relationship, which moves from true love to pure hatred, from codependence to alienation, several times in each episode.
The series’ third installment opens with a flashback to when Will nervously fumbles his proposal to Olivia. It’s a sweet moment, and the two seem to be sincerely in love. But rather than endear Will to the audience, this scene left me wondering how this man could have gone from a devoted fiancé to an unfaithful husband in such a short space of time. When Olivia learns of his affair, the two have been married for just a year. Why would Will even get married if he had such a wandering eye?
These questions are not answered in this episode but others are, including who it was that Olivia shoved to their death the night before. After waking up with what is likely history’s worst hangover, Olivia finds Will at her door – bleary-eyed and repentant, but decidedly alive. A tentative reconciliation follows, during which Olivia desperately wonders what exactly she did last night. If it wasn’t Will she shoved, who was it?
The couple are almost out the door when they run into Garth. He doesn’t know where Cara is and she’s not answering her phone. It sounds like the two of them had a bad night as well, given how defensive he becomes when Will asks why Cara might have left. A search for Cara begins. While hiking through the woods the only thing bigger than the trees around them are Olivia’s eyes as the reality of what she did dawns on her – even more so when Cara is found, alive but barely.
No one knows what to say to someone in the hospital, but Olivia really misses the mark when she tells Cara, “I’m so sorry this happened to you.” Barely conscious, Cara murmurs, “It’s not your fault.” It’s not clear what Cara means with those four words. It could be she knows Olivia pushed her and excuses her because of the affair – Cara did offer a tearful apology the night before – or if she truly doesn’t know or remember what happened.
Episode three is the first time Olivia really struggles with being held accountable for her actions. When she learns of Cara’s death, her first instinct is to run away and call her mother for advice. Coleman is extraordinary in this scene; her prolonged moments of panicked breathing made me feel short of breath myself.
She seriously considers turning herself in but is handed an alibi when Will begs her to provide him with one. He finally admits the affair was with Cara and has continued, and he pleads with Olivia to say he had been in the room with her the entire night. The power dynamics between the two become more and more twisted; Olivia knows far more than Will has confessed and now she effectively has the upper hand in their relationship.
It’s becoming difficult to keep track of all the overlapping manipulations in Wilderness, but the real stretch here – more than a woman pushing another woman down a waterfall to her death – is the police procedurals taking place at the hotel, where Will and Olivia are questioned together, and all she has to do is agree with what he says.
Lines of justice and morality are anything but clear in this story, and moral ambiguity is intriguing, but three hours of it (so far) begs for a clear narrative. Cara was not an innocent victim, but she did not deserve to die. Olivia shouldn’t have killed her, but she did think she was pushing Will. And Will is just awful. The writers seem to have abandoned any attempts of character development, so Jackson-Cohen is left to play him as frantic and desperate, with little understanding of his motivations.
Coleman has much more to work with, but Olivia remains frustratingly ambiguous. As she understands what she has done, it’s impossible to know if her reactions come from a place of morality or just fear of being caught. When she and Will reconcile after their fight in the hotel room, she apologizes for throwing a glass at him, saying, “That’s not who I am.” How do we know if that’s true? It’s impossible to understand who Olivia is or if we should hope she succeeds. What we do know is even more trouble will wait for them back in New York.
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Warning: May contain spoilers. Still need to catch up on Wilderness episode 4? Read Carey’s review of episode 3 here.
There are many ways to describe Will and Olivia. Narcissistic, codependent and emotionally unhealthy are few – but above anything else, these two are terrible criminals.
Episode 4 of Wilderness follows the husband and wife criminal duo as they scramble to cover their tracks following the least romantic vacation ever. After a chaotic night in Vegas, during which Olivia sees Cara everywhere she turns and attempts to obliterate her guilt through drinking, dancing and confessing to a priest at a nightclub (just go with it), the two return to New York and to the remnants of their marriage.
But what happened on vacation didn’t stay on vacation, because the police have determined Cara didn’t fall to her death in the forest. She was pushed.
Now, Olivia needs to know everything about the affair so she can help Will hide evidence. That’s when Will admits he and Cara knew each other’s computer passwords and that he gave Cara a key to their apartment so the two could have sex in his and Olivia’s bed.
Will really is the worst – at marriage and at cover-ups. He manages to log into Cara’s work computer and finds a romantic email that she never sent. He thinks dragging the email to the trash is enough to cover his tracks, but I’m dubious; a company that large would surely have external servers.
The only thing less believable than Will’s lack of technical knowledge is Cara and Garth’s apartment. Paying a visit to reclaim their key, Olivia and Will find themselves in a spacious duplex with bay windows, chandeliers and a walk-in closet. If this is affordable on a handyman’s and junior executive’s salaries, it’s time for me to change careers.
Olivia frantically searches for the key and is successful, to Will’s delight. They may not be winning medals for a happy marriage, but the two seem to work well together in a crisis.
That being said, Will and Olivia are terrible criminals. When searching Cara’s apartment for the key, Olivia touches practically everything in her bedroom. If Garth is considered a prime suspect in Cara’s death and his apartment is dusted, which is likely, Olivia’s fingerprints will be everywhere…
It is these lapses in judgement from the writers that are letting Wilderness down. The show isn’t without its pleasures – Coleman and Cohen-Jackson continue to give impressively strong performances, while picturesque shots of Manhattan help us understand why Olivia left her family behind to move there and why she wants to stay despite the chaos surrounding her. The series also knows how to and an episode on a cliffhanger and ensure we will keep watching.
But I can’t help but wish for better material for both of the leads. Coleman continues to give monologues simply with her eyes that add complexities to each development in the plot, and Cohen-Jackson is gifted at subtly showing the chinks in Will’s obsession with perfection. I found myself wanting to root for one of them, to choose the “good guy” and the “bad guy” in the story, but they are both the villains. It’s only a matter of how much of a “bad guy” each of them is.
Olivia needs some kind of outlet for her emotions. Even after seemingly feeling absolved by her drunken confession in Vegas, where the priest convinced her Cara’s death was an accident, Olivia is restless, anxious and angry, searching for escape by day-drinking and smoking on the roof with her neighbour.
Olivia might need a better escape soon, because the episode ends with Garth being arrested for Cara’s murder, and it will certainly take more than a drunken confession to absolve her of that.
What did you think of the fourth episode of Wilderness? Let us know in the comments below…
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Warning: May contain spoilers. Still need to catch up on Wilderness episode 5? Read Carey’s review of episode 4 here.
“It’s finally, finally over,” Will says with relief in episode 5 of Wilderness. Garth has been arrested and Will thinks he and Olivia can have a fresh start for their marriage. Oh, Will, you sweet, simple man. Don’t you know you should never say that?
Just when you think things can’t get more stressful for our favourite dysfunctional couple, Olivia’s mother has arrived for a surprise visit. The mother-daughter dysfunction promptly ensues, with Caryl (Claire Rushbrook) insulting Olivia’s appearance and her marriage, adamant that something is wrong between her daughter and son-in-law.
Finally, we learn more about Olivia’s past and why she has clung to Will so tightly – Olivia was the one who told her mother about her father cheating, and her mother has blamed her ever since. For most of her life, Olivia sobs to her mother, she felt like she didn’t deserve to be loved.
It’s a painful scene to watch, but it also satisfying because we finally get a clue as to what makes Olivia tick. But this doesn’t excuse her decision to frame Garth for Cara’s death. After learning that he’s been arrested, she tells a police officer that she isn’t surprised, because he had seemed possessive of his girlfriend. Later, she deliberately tips off the police about Garth proposing to, and being rejected by, Cara. Olivia has gone from being a passive bystander in her crime’s aftermath to deliberately framing an innocent man.
Coleman and the show downplay the evolution of Olivia’s character. There are no climactic montages, no shifts in lighting or music to indicate that Olivia has reached this point. It’s refreshing to avoid the clichés of typical thrillers, but I wish we learned a bit more of Olivia’s thoughts and how she came to this decision.
Olivia hasn’t just decided to frame Garth; she has also decided to stay with Will – who wants them to have a baby. Olivia’s response when he brings it up? “F*ck it. There’s nothing else to lose.”
Olivia’s own mother is in high gear. After interrogating Will’s boss, Bonnie, about Will’s behavior, she tricks the couple into going out to dinner and immediately rummages around Will and Olivia’s apartment, searching for proof of… something. Like her daughter, Caryl is the world’s worst snoop, leaving each drawer and shelf a mess. But she does find something – Polaroids of another woman.
Whether she is happy or sad to make this discovery we don’t know, but she’s surprisingly gentle when she tells Olivia. Rushbrook and Coleman’s performances are compelling, as their frustrated love and anger for each other finally surface, and Rushbrook movingly conveys the fear that Caryl feels for her daughter.
She is so afraid, she threatens to take the Polaroids to the police unless Olivia returns to Wales with her. Olivia pretends to play along, gets the photos back and, in a truly unexpected surprise, confesses the truth to her mother while putting her in a taxi to the airport. She immediately claims, “I didn’t mean to. It was an accident,” but her shoving Cara looked pretty intentional to me.
After Olivia’s mother leaves, another unexpected guest shows up at the apartment. Garth, newly released from jail, sneaks into the building. Drunk and angry, he holds Olivia and then Will at gunpoint; Olivia for framing him and Will for having the affair. Pinning Olivia to the floor, Garth is about to strangle her when she hits him on the head with a paperweight, killing him.
Throughout this episode, people keep telling Olivia she is a good person. When Caryl learns the truth about Cara’s death, she immediately tells her daughter, “There is no badness in you.” It’s easy to project onto people, to decide they are who we want them to be. Petite, wholesome Olivia appears to be a blank slate – but she is a complete contradiction. The final shot of the episode leans into this: Garth’s blood surrounds Olivia, as she lies on the floor after murdering him, and it resembles a halo.
What are your thoughts on the characters in Wilderness? Let us know in the comments below…
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Warning: Contains spoilers. Still need to catch up on Wilderness episode 6? Read Carey’s review of episode 5 here.
Wilderness has a lot to wrap up in its final episode. The main question, one which has lingered throughout the series, is: who is Olivia? Having spent five hours so far with the protagonist, we should have an idea of who this person is – but all we have are questions. Is she a sociopath, completely lacking in empathy? Is she a wronged woman, driven to extremes by a painful betrayal? Or is she a latent psychopath who possessed the ability to kill, but wasn’t aware of it?
Even Will seems confused by his wife as she insists on cleaning their crime-scene apartment, saying, “This is my home.” It’s impossible to know if she feels any remorse for Garth’s death. Is she in shock, or does she just not care?
Will and Olivia’s marriage is on even shakier ground after his reveal that he slept with another colleague, and Olivia offers no insight into what she is thinking. We don’t know until Will tells her that he’s arranged for a transfer back to England, where they can have a fresh start, and Olivia responds by saying that she wants a divorce.
We then have a prolonged scene of Olivia drunkenly dancing around her neighbour Ash’s apartment, flirting before kissing the woman who is clearly infatuated with her. It’s really unfortunate that actress Morgana Van Peebles was given nothing to do other than be the token person of colour best friend who Olivia flirts with when she needs validation.
The victory dance doesn’t last for long, because when Olivia returns home Will informs her they are not divorcing. Not because he loves her and can’t imagine life without her, but because he doesn’t want to admit to his parents that his marriage was a failure. And just to make sure we know that Will is the worst person ever, he threatens to tell the police Olivia murdered Garth in cold blood. “Everything from this point further is on you,” he says, once again refusing to take responsibility for any of his actions. If Cohen-Jackson wasn’t such a charismatic, charming man, this series would have fizzled out several episodes ago.
Coleman and Jackson-Cohen build a palpable tension together, but this entire episode is too reminiscent of Gone Girl, with the toxic codependency of two seriously messed-up people bringing out the worst in each other.
Olivia ultimately betrays Will, telling the detectives that she lied to give him an alibi. He is found guilty of Cara’s murder and sentenced to 25 years in prison. Behind bars, Will asks Olivia to wait for him to serve out his sentence. It’s notable that he repeats to Olivia, “I need you.” Not “I love you.” Finally, we get some insight into why Will married Olivia, even though he was chronically unfaithful. He felt like he needed to get married, and pretty, supportive wife Olivia fit the bill.
The similarities between Gone Girl and Wilderness only multiply as the story wraps up, with Olivia resembling Amy Dunne in the worst way. When Olivia visits Will at Rikers, she tells him he will be a father. But he has a surprise for her as well – Will has deduced that Olivia is the one who killed Cara, and he wants to blackmail Olivia into staying with him.
Olivia doesn’t seem to care about being loved – at least, not by Will. She also doesn’t seem to care about right and wrong, or good and evil. She doesn’t show any sadness that Cara is dead, or that Garth is dead, or that Will cheated on her with Marissa and who knows who else. All she cares about is her own freedom. Everyone else is collateral damage.
In a whiplash-inducing twist, Wilderness slaps on a heavy-handed feminist message in its final moments. When Will desperately asks Olivia, “Who are you?” she replies, “I’m who you made me.” This leaves the viewer to conclude that Olivia was a good, non-violent person before Will cheated – that it’s patriarchy that destroyed her values and has driven her to bring a baby into the world out of spite.
In our last moments with Olivia, we see her back out West, visiting the location of Cara’s death, where a man tells her, “Careful, honey!” and tells her about the “silly girl” who fell to her death. Olivia responds by launching into a monologue about how blaming women for their misfortunes drives them to extremes.
“Does it ever occur to you where any of this ends?” she asks him. “It ends with us reaching the end of our tether. And where does that leave us? We become the thing to be scared of. We become the f*cking wolves.”
And this is where Wilderness ends – impressive but unfocused. At first, Olivia’s speech sounds like a triumphant feminist declaration – one we should be cheering along with in solidarity. But we’d be cheering for a liar, a murderer and a potential sociopath.
Moral ambiguity can be fascinating, but Wilderness didn’t inspire any new, original ideas that hadn’t been explored in so many other forms of entertainment. Still, at least this one had pretty scenery.
What did you think of Wilderness? Let us know in the comments below…