The 100 is two things. One, a show that eloquently and brutally tells a tale of survival in a world that has discarded any pretence that survival is anything but a zero sum game. Two, a show made by people who have obviously grown up watching every single show on television, made by people raised on media, so that their own creation often looks like the fever dream of someone who’s been locked in a dark room with nothing but TV box sets to watch, no sleep. And it’s batshit insane, as a result of both those things, and quite possibly the future of TV, reinventing itself with every new season, never lingering on one idea too long, unstoppably moving forward instead of lingering too long on one thing.
Survival: The premise of the show is that humanity has been wiped out by a nuclear war, with only a handful of people accidentally surviving on a number of space station, which later linked up to form the arc. Survival on the arc is harsh because resources are limited, so leadership imposes rules that would be unbearable under any other conditions, rules that have left deep scars on society. Any kind of crime is punishable by death, except when the person convicted is under 18, in which case they’re locked up to have their sentence reviewed upon becoming adults. Families are only allowed to have one child – and are punished by death if they break that rule. To make things worse, the arc is dying, so the only hope for humanity is being able to survive down on the ground, where none of the survivors have been during their lifetime. To test out if radiation allows for survival, it is decided to send down 100 teenage delinquents and leave them to fend for themselves (sometimes, especially in its first few episodes, the show asks for a lot of suspended disbelief).
Only it turns out that the very premise of the surviving members of humanity was wrong: they are not alone out there. The future of humanity does not rest on their shoulders, but humanity has been well alive all those years, down on the ground. Earth remains populated, and the 100 are in no way welcome once they hit the ground. They are aliens, with no concept of what it required of the survivors down there to remain alive, and no concept of the rules. They are colonizers in the most literal sense, coming from an entirely different place. They are also teenagers, and the rules and society that emerges as they try and stay alive in an unwelcoming terrain is horrifying – a strict hierarchy, with slave labour, pretending to have abolished all rules but in fact just establishing new ones to make their own lives easier. It’s also a society that emerges out of the realization that it is in conflict with an other, that it needs walls and weapons, and that other remains unknowable for a good part of the first season, threatening in its elusiveness. It’s important that these kids were raised in terrible conditions, and made outsiders by their own societies, prisoners for very often only minor transgressions – but it’s equally essential that they were also raised with the idea in their head that they are the last survivors of humanity, humanity itself. By that definition, anything else surviving down on earth is less a part of humanity, is not part of whatever group or tribe they represent. It is hard to blame teenagers for what happens next, because nothing prepared them for it, but the leadership that emerges – Bellamy (Bob Morley) the cynical pragmatist because it is essential for his survival that he steers the direction everyone chooses, Clarke (Eliza Taylor) the idealist (often more dangerous than Bellamy for how long it takes her to realize when she is wrong) because she is resourceful, smart and driven – ends up making all the wrong decisions at every turn. They choose to torture the first Grounder that falls in their hands. Every act they commit ends up being an act of war, and the idea of attempting communication or cooperation doesn’t even appear until it’s too late (and a first attempt goes horribly wrong). In its first season, the show exists as a dichotomy between survival on the ground, which is humanity vs nature but also humanity vs humanity, colonizers vs those that have learned to survive down there from the beginning, and survival on the arc, which is humanity vs failing technology, and the implications of a leadership tasked with ensuring the survival of the many against the sacrifices of a few. In both cases, the underlying question is that of dignity and what is good, and more than that, how one person can remain good under such circumstances. Often throughout the show, characters mention the idea that survival alone is not enough, but the manner of survival, deserving to survive, keeping some kind of civilized idea of humanity alive rather than just people – but a moment later, this question is answered when survival requires terrible decisions. Humanity, in this show, is more defined by bothering to ask the question than by answering it in the affirmative.
What makes The 100 stand out, even from all the things that it is obviously inspired by (Lost, BSG, Jericho, The Walking Dead, any tale about society humanity and survival really, wherever it is set), is how eloquent it portrays that individuals are morally and emotionally destroyed by their attempt to survive, and ensure the survival of whatever they consider their own group. Disturbingly, it does that while often relying on images that are homages to historical photographs and films – of atrocities, concentration camps, massacres – an iconoclastic approach that relies on the associations these images will lead to.
Finn starts out as a moral compass of sorts, someone who always takes a moment to consider the options and then usually attempts to guide Clarke towards a more reasonable and less radical one, but he ends up on the opposite end of the spectrum, massacring an entire village of unarmed Grounders because he believes that they killed the woman he loves. The idea of “doing what needs to be done” turns into a justification for unjustifiable acts, and the show portrays how this hollows out the characters, takes the very humanity that they are trying to retain from them, until the only thing left for them is death.
This is also where some of the shortcomings of the shows are: as much as it shows the brutality of the sky people, the way they are led wrong and make all the wrong choices, this is also for the most part their story. The Grounders, the workings of their society, their rules, are always just the backdrop for Clarke and the others, they remain the other by virtue of how the story unfolds, even if the show hints at how they function and how they survive. The show doesn’t allow them the same space to grow and reveal their inner workings, their conflicts, so somehow, our sympathies are still asked to be with Finn (Thomas McDonell), even when he causes unforgivable harm. The tale of Clarke failing to be able to forgive him becomes more important than the true cost of what he does – in the same breath, Clarke’s war decision to wipe out an entire tribe of Grounders becomes justified, her decision to repeatedly force traumatized survivors to confront the death of their family and friends, by literally leading them over their remains, is never questioned. This is one of the inherent conflicts of The 100, creating characters that do unforgivable things, creating a world in which those things seem necessary, but still somehow asking the audience to root for those characters, to feel empathy for their suffering, to feel more for them than for the unnamed victims of their actions (and of course there is an additional layer where this is problematic if the Grounders are coded as the native population of the lands and the sky people are the colonizers, with superior weapons, believing that the land is their birth right).
Protecting “your own people” becomes the justification for everything, and the show further investigates that concept in its second season. Another group of surviving humans is introduced, the mountain people – they survived in a military base that is hermetically sealed off from the outer world, and without having adapted to the outside, these humans are incapable of surviving the radiation levels. They have all the trappings of civilization, the artworks, the symbols of democracy – and this is their self-conception, even more than the sky people, they consider themselves the only relevant survivors of humanity (the only humans, really, they consider the Grounders as less than human, more animal than anything else) because they are guarding the artefacts of the society that was, even if it’s nothing but a hollow museum of things. They proudly keep portraits of American Presidents, but their own political system is a monarchy, the title going from father to son in every generation. The art they exhibit has no context, it’s like meaningless historical driftwood. The true cost of their survival is revealed after they “rescue” the remaining surviving teenagers, pretending to give them the option of a better life, away from the Grounders, among them. In fact, it turns out, they are feeding off the blood of the Grounders to fend off the symptoms of radiation poisoning, and their end goal is to harvest the bone marrow of the sky people, of Clarke’s people, because it would allow them to set foot on the ground outside again, it would make them immune against radiation.
Survival justifies anything, and one of the core characteristics of any society is that it constitutes itself by creating an other, outside its walls and fences. If being human means having inalienable rights, then the only way to justify transgressions against those rights is to make the other, the enemy, non-human, to semantically define them as other than. It’s easy to do with the Grounders, because their society is so different from both the sky people and the mountain people – it has to be, because they survived out there, without any of the luxuries of modern civilization, without the weapons that the mountain people have and that Bellamy and Clarke find, without the electricity that powered the arc and that still powers the military base. They have clear rules of war because war for limited resources is a reality of their life, they have a clear code of honour and loyalty, because otherwise, any cohesiveness amongst them would be impossible. The show is utterly pessimistic about the human condition, or rather, the condition of society – the second season ends with Clarke choosing to kill every single other in order to save what she considers her own people – but it also, at its fringes, offers hints of what could be done differently if other voices were heard, or other paths were followed. Octavia (Marie Avgeropoulos), Bellamy’s sister, falls in love with Lincoln (Ricky Whittle), a Grounder early into the show, and in falling in love, learns more about how their society functions. They ultimately become outcasts from both their societies, but their ability to communicate and cooperate, to foster understanding, shows what could be possible if everybody tried harder. Clarke almost manages to forge an alliance with the Grounders against the mountain people, except she realizes that having a meaningful personal connection isn’t always enough to override the necessities of leadership, and in the end, someone else makes the hard call to save her own people before she can (which also raises the question of whether true friendship or love is ever possible if everybody is always looking for an edge and analysing every situation only for opportunities to help themselves, when it can’t even be afforded to act out of trust and love).
The show is as pessimistic about religion as it is about society. Jaha, previously the leader of the sky people, the person who had to make all the most difficult decisions about who deserved to live and die, who, driven by the burden of that responsibility, only wanted to be allowed to sacrifice himself, to ensure the survival of his people but possibly also so he did not longer have to carry that burden – re-emerges as a prophet like figure, guided by a (likely questionable) purpose, wanting to lead his people into a promised land, through the desert, but once on his way, all too willing to sacrifice individuals to ensure that he can stay on his path. Nobody gets away clean in The 100.
In the heights of the final conflict that ends season two, Marcus suggests that they attempt cooperation and reconciliation, as mutual survival would be possible – but he is never heard, his words getting lost in a storm of mutual anger and frustration, of everybody grappling for an edge, until wiping each other off the face of the earth becomes the only option available, and the only remaining question is which character will have to carry these deaths around on their shoulders.
The 100 is also constantly eager to reinvent itself, to turn its own concept around. It excels at switching – situations, allegiances, even characters. Nothing is fixed. At its best, that means growth at change, at its worse, it sometimes feels like characters switch personalities according to what is needed by the story (which works since the world of The 100 is constantly traumatizing). At the end of the season, Jaha encounters the AI that started all of it, that caused the nuclear destruction – and she might as well be asking, “are you alive?”, which never just means survival, but also – do you deserve to be?
2014-, created by Jason Rothenberg, starring Eliza Taylor, Bob Morley, Marie Avgeropoulos, Paige Turco, Lindsey Morgan, Thomas McDonell, Devon Bostick, Henry Ian Cusick, Isaiah Washington, Ricky Whittle, Christopher Larkin, Richard Harmon, Adina Porter, Alycia Debnam-Carey.