In The Wilds, far from the strictures of society as they knew it, a love story between once-closeted beauty queen Shelby and proudly out Toni blossoms while they are stranded on a deserted island. Much of the Amazon Prime series’ first season about a homosocial experiment that involves a staged plane crash and loads of teen drama, saw the two young women at odds. But season 2 begins with Toni and Shelby fully entrenched in their romance even as their group of young women hunts and scavenges for food and shelter to survive. For Mia Healey and Erana James, the actors who portray Shelby and Toni (respectively), playing these characters whose love story has resonated so deeply with fans is something they take to heart.
“I had no idea that playing this character would open up so many doors for people to have open conversations about their queer experience. The fact that people could see themselves in Shelby and be at peace knowing that they're not alone in this, that has been such an honor for me,” Healey tells The Advocate. “I’m so happy that this character could give that to someone.”
To be “able to play a gay Indigenous young woman on-screen, I wish I had this when I was in high school,” James says. “It’s been such a privilege being able to have so many people see themselves in my character and feel like they are being represented. I feel like representation is a word that kind of gets used a lot. But when someone I meet somebody, or when I read something and [the fans] say, ‘You have represented me,’ that really does mean so much.”
The second season of the YA series from Sarah Streicher features a diverse cast including Indigenous and queer characters. The show touches on gender, the effects of toxic masculinity, and environmental concerns, and this time around, there’s a parallel island of teen boys.
The original cast of young women besides Toni and Shelby includes the bookish Nora (Helena Howard of Shoplifters of the World) and her athletic sister, Rachel (Reign Edwards); wild child socialite Fatin (Sophia Ali); the empath Martha (Jenna Clause); the brokenhearted Leah (Sarah Pidgeon); and the reliable Dot (Shannon Berry).
Sarah Pidgeon, Jenna Clause, Reign Edwards, Mia Healey, Erana James
In the first season finale, it was revealed that the social experiment at the hands of Rachel Griffiths’s genius/mad scientist Gretchen Klein included a test case of a second plane carrying teen boys (with the queer character Ivan, played by Miles Gutierrez-Riley). The difference between young men and women under pressure with no food, shelter, and amenities is where season 2 picks up. And the Wilds wastes no time in season 2 revealing that away from her homophobic evangelical father, Shelby is all in with Toni. Amid their extraordinary circumstances, they steal away to consummate their queerness as often as possible.
“I would have loved to have seen [characters like Shelby and Toni] when I was in high school. Same-sex relationships are so important to be seen on-screen because we’re artists. This is supposed to be a reflection of the world that we live in,” Healey says. “And the world that we live in is a lot of the time very queer. Experiences. It’s been such a pleasure and an honor.”
Toni hasn’t struggled with her queer identity like her paramour has, but as a foster kid who’s quick to anger and who’s made her way with the support of her best friend, Martha (Jenna Clause), she finds a family among the women on the island. That feeling of finding a family carries over off-screen with the cast as well, James says.
“It's so beautiful for Toni and Shelby because they both don’t have a family. Obviously, Shelby has her own relationship to her family that I won't speak to. But the family that they find with each other, and of course, with the other young women on the island is so special,” James says. “I didn’t know any of these women before we started making this. And then we spent three weeks creating a pilot together. After that, we kind of knew it was going to be special, and we knew that they were going to be family forever.”
Throughout television history, there have been great shipped couples between women-loving-women characters from Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Willow and Tara to The L Word’s Bette and Tina to Orange Is the New Black’s Piper and Alex, and so on. While the creators and stars of The Wilds set out to tell an authentic story of young queer women falling in love, the reaction from fans continues to overwhelm them.
“It’s almost hard to for me to talk about how meaningful [fan reaction] is because we really tried to show two different versions of the queer experience with Toni and Shelby,” producer Amy B. Harris says. “We hoped that for people who were struggling to come out that Shelby would be maybe a story they could relate to. We knew they had chemistry and that the stories we were trying to tell were really important to us, but how much the fandom felt, it’s just such an honor.”
“I almost get weepy because I couldn’t believe how much how much poignancy there was in the fandom and how much that made me feel. It just was very intense and a great way,” she adds.
Watch The Advocate’s full interviews with the Wilds cast below.
Erana James and Mia Healey
Sofia Ali, Jenna Clause, Shannon Berry
Reign Edwards, Sarah Pidgeon
Creator Sarah Streicher and producer Amy B. Harris