SPOILER ALERT: This story contains spoilers for the limited series “Wilderness,” now streaming on Prime Video.
Laced into the scripts of Amazon Prime Video’s new limited series “Wilderness” are the blueprints of a vast revenge saga set against the backdrop of America’s National Parks. But among those finer points, writer and creator Marnie Dickens also embedded the songs she envisions playing alongside the action. A curated playlist for retribution, if you will.
Based on the book by B.E. Jones, “Wilderness” follows Liv (Jenna Coleman), a British expat living in New York City, who learns her charming husband Will (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) has been having an affair essentially since they touched down on American soil. Shaken by the resurfaced trauma of her father’s own infidelity, Liv begins plotting to kill her husband when they embark on a delayed honeymoon road trip through America’s natural wonders like Yosemite and the Grand Canyon.
He thinks sightseeing will save their marriage. She thinks the wilderness is where tragic accidents happen all the time.
As the two descend deeper into her deadly itinerary, Liv retreats to the music in her headphones as things go awry (Will isn’t as easy to kill as she thought) and new obstacles emerge (the unexpected arrival of his mistress Cara, played by Ashley Benson). Scoring Liv’s internal moments of reflection are songs by Britney Spears, St. Vincent and Tkay Maidza –– all female artists that Dickens identified in her scripts to illustrate her heroine’s complicated mindset. But one needle drop was left blank.
Executive producer Elizabeth Kilgarriff tells Variety that she and Dickens (who is eschewing interviews because of the ongoing WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes) wrestled with what the series’ theme song should be –– a conversation that shot for the stars, and actually managed to land one.
“Marnie messaged me one day and said, ‘Obviously, the perfect song would be Taylor Swift’s ‘Look What You Made Me Do,’” Kilgarriff says. “That would be incredible, but it’s probably never going to happen.”
The song, which served as the lead single off Swift’s 2017 “Reputation” album, embraces the liberating power of karma –– a core tenet of Liv’s motivation. Dickens and Kilgarriff initially wavered on whether to even ask whether using the song was a possibility: Until they realized they had nothing to lose.
“This was genuinely such a fairy tale moment,” Kilgarriff says. “And it was as simple as Marnie writing a letter to her, which we sent with the first two scripts to her label, and it got passed to her team.”
It’s here where Kilgarriff laughs in the disbelief she still has about what happened next.
“Somehow, it reached her very close entourage, and we got the message back that she would like to be involved,” she says. “It just all became a constant conversation from there. It honestly was this random approach that turned into such a joy.”
This isn’t the first time Prime Video has courted Swift and the not-yet-released “Taylor’s Version” tracks from her ongoing efforts to re-record her early albums. This summer alone, Prime Video’s teen drama “The Summer I Turned Pretty” debuted the first clips of “Back to December (Taylor’s Version)” ahead of July’s release of “Speak Now (Taylor’s Version)” and “Delicate (Taylor’s Version)” from the upcoming re-record of “Reputation.”
But unlike “The Summer I Turned Pretty,” which deployed nine Swift songs in its second season alone, “Look What You Made Me Do (Taylor’s Version)” is far more intertwined into the fabric of “Wilderness.” In August, Prime Video debuted a teaser set to the song, marking the first time fans heard the new version. As Dickens and Kilgarriff initially envisioned, it also plays with the series’ opening titles, another verse is heard in Episode 2 and it even inspired the tagline –– “Look what he made her do.”
Narratively speaking, the song coils nicely around Liv’s story as well. The first lyrics sound as if they written to be part of Liv’s narration in the series –– “I don’t like your little games / Don’t like your tilted stage / The role you made me play of the fool / No, I don’t like you.”
Now armed with their dream anthem, Kilgarriff says she and Dickens still fought to make “Wilderness” something more than just another revenge story. To do that, they threw a wrench in Liv’s plan.
In Episode 2, her missions to push the heights-phobic Will off the Grand Canyon or orchestrate his drowning on a whitewater rapids excursion have both been thwarted. Instead, the couple find themselves on a hike with the other woman, Cara, who has followed them on vacation, and her unsuspecting boyfriend, Gareth (Eric Balfour).
Confronted by her husband’s lies more viscerally than ever, Liv’s drunken rage gets the better of her one stormy night, and she pushes a person she thinks is Will off a cliff, only to realize it was Cara wearing his coat.
“The whole of Episode 2 was about leaning into the tropes of the ‘other woman,’” Kilgarriff says. “But every step of the way, we try to undercut that and take the layers off. Hence why, at the end of the episode, Liv has realized that Cara isn’t the enemy, and has been just as let down by Will. She is another victim in this triangle. Then, for her to be the character who dies, we had to really carefully think about that and how Liv will carry that weight forward from that point. But if anything, it supercharges the need and the feeling for revenge — because it is almost like she is getting revenge for the two of them.”
By the time they return home from the honeymoon from hell, Liv and Will are entangled in each other’s lies more than ever. He’s concealing his affair with a dead woman, and she’s supporting his lies to deflect her own guilt. By Episode 6, they are forced to lay bare everything between them, especially when Liv finds out there’s a second woman in Will’s life. With nothing but hatred left for her husband, Liv unleashes a calculated tirade against him in front of his colleagues — striking a different tone from the one she took when she met them as the dutiful wife in the premiere.
“We had always talked about the journey for Liv across the season as a journey from mouse Liv to wolf Liv,” Kilgarriff says. “We wanted to get to the moment where the gloves were off. There was no saving this marriage. It is over, and it was sort of them being able to really enjoy that fact.”
She says Coleman and Jackson-Cohen were particularly excited about playing off each other in the finale’s climactic standoff, which comes after Will’s arrest for Cara’s murder. Visiting her former husband in prison, Liv confirms his suspicions of her complicity, and laughs off his request to wait for him until he’s released from prison. In return, she gets a glimpse at the self-centered survival instinct he so often hid behind a smile.
“It is the moment, it is the confrontation that we are building up to,” Kilgarriff says of the scene. “From the beginning, this whole thing has been about betrayal, and when they go off on this trip, it was about getting revenge. But that revenge doesn’t come until that final moment in the prison. And it is quite delicious for Liv.”