If you haven’t been watching The 100, a CW show adapted from the young adult works of Kass Morgan, then take it from me: you’ve been missing out. Full of complex, well-written characters and boasting a thoroughly diverse cast and crew, The 100 is easily one of the best things I’ve seen on TV in the last few years, and in the wake of the Season Two finale, this seems like an ideal time to stop and talk about why.
[Spoilers through the end of Season Two ahead…]
Depending on your tastes, the initial premise of The 100 is either sublime or ridiculous: 97 years after a nuclear holocaust devastates Earth, the only human survivors are living on the Ark, an orbiting space station which, unbeknownst to the majority of its inhabitants, is on the brink of a catastrophic systems failure. In a bid to save oxygen and gain time, Chancellor Thelonious Jaha (Isaiah Washington) sends one hundred juvenile prisoners to the ground, hoping to learn whether Earth is survivable again.
Among these delinquents is Clarke Griffin (Eliza Taylor), the daughter of Dr Abigail Griffin (Paige Turco), one of Jaha’s councillors, who swiftly finds herself in a leadership position when a crash landing cuts off all communication with the Ark. But Clarke’s authority is challenged by that of a stowaway, Bellamy Blake (Bob Morley), older brother to one of the other prisoners, Octavia (Marie Avgeropoulos), who bought his way onto the transport by shooting Chancellor Jaha at the behest of his political enemies. The power struggle between Clarke and Bellamy soon becomes a tense alliance, however, as they realise Earth isn’t anything like they expected. Not only are there survivors already living on the planet in warlike tribes—the grounders—but the land itself is full of hazards and secrets—and with time running out for those on the Ark, Clarke and her friends are forced to make increasingly difficult choices in order to survive.
Aside from the skill of the actors—Eliza Taylor does an extraordinary job as Clarke, easily rivaling Jennifer Lawrence’s portrayal of Katiss Everdeen in the young dystopian heroine category– what makes The 100 so compelling is its consistent refusal to shy away from morally complex issues. Though the first two episodes are much more anarchistic-teens-run-amok-on-earth than anything that follows—realistically so, given the narrative context, unless you expect criminal teenagers who’ve never gone unsupervised to behave like sober adults when suddenly given free rein—their comparative simplicity serves as a powerful counterpoint to what follows.
While never quite straying into full-on Lord of the Flies territory, the brutal necessities of self-governance among a former prison population are soon put to the test. It’s Bellamy who makes use of the hardened criminals, gaining their allegiance by making them his enforcers, while Clarke employs different tactics, assigning duties based on knowledge and skill. By the end of the sixth episode, the group has been tested, not only by external assault, but by an abortive mob lynching, murder, suicide, a mercy killing, exile, and the deaths of some three hundred people. Each incident packs a sucker punch, and still, the hits keep coming, forcing the teens to adapt. By the end of Season Two, there’s scarcely a character left without blood on their hands—but when everyone is guilty of something, how do you distinguish atrocities from necessity? How can any of them pass judgment without also judging themselves? In the seventh episode of Season One, ‘Contents Under Pressure’, Bellamy tells Clarke that “Who we are and who we need to be to survive are very different things”– but as another character poignantly states in the Season Two finale, “None of us are innocent.”
The 100 is, above all things, a show about development, and as such, it embraces change wholeheartedly, not just in terms of motive and characterisation, but setting. Particularly in shows geared to a young adult audience, the environment tends to be purposefully static: it’s a rare teen show whose characters transition from high school to university, or where the ostensible base of operations regularly moves. But in The 100, this is exactly what happens: the characters are struggling to build homes for themselves, or to rebuild what was taken from them, and as such, nothing is safe from disaster. Throughout both seasons, new environments are introduced and altered, broken and abandoned, undermining any sense of permanency or ease. Indeed, it’s telling that the two ostensibly ‘civilized’ environments we encounter—the Ark in Season One, and the airlocked society of Mount Weather in Season Two—are both shown to be crumbling from the inside out. Though they possess the trappings of strength, like advanced weapons and creature comforts, their forced isolation from the outside world is a crippling weakness. In both cases, these static societies have achieved self-preservation at the expense of change, physically unable to develop beyond their own limits. Only the grounders have successfully built a new culture; but when the hundred try to do likewise, they are met with hostility on all sides—not just from their new enemies, but from their traditional allies.
In Season One, the primary conflict is waged on two fronts, with Clarke and the hundred caught between the grounders on one hand and the Ark on the other. The grounders have a martial culture, wanting to wage war on the Sky People for invading their land, while the leaders on the Ark have been running an effectively dystopian state. As Bellamy is quick to point out, the hundred were sent down because they were expendable, but if the rest of the Ark population comes to Earth, their current autonomy will be lost. That Bellamy is still wanted for the assassination attempt on Chancellor Jaha and therefore has a highly personal reason for keeping the Ark distant doesn’t change the validity of his point; and, indeed, from the start of Season Two, when the remaining Ark survivors finally crash to Earth, his fears are swiftly borne out. Though adults like Abby and her fellow councillor, Marcus Kane (Henry Ian Cusick) were initially quick to send the hundred to Earth, forcing them into violent self-governance, their desire to protect these ’children’ once on the ground themselves is laughable. The grounders, by contrast, are running a meritocracy: they have as many female combatants as male, their warriors are trained from a young age, and as tempting as it is to view their culture as barbarous, the fact that they instinctively accord Clarke and Bellamy more respect than their ostensible allies speaks volumes.
As, indeed, does the patronising behaviour of the leader of Mount Weather, President Dante Wallace (Raymond J. Barry), which perfectly personifies the hypocrisy of such apparently civilised adults. At the start of Season Two, Clarke is frightened and furious to find that she, along with her friends, has been effectively taken prisoner by the so-called Mountain Men: survivors who, unlike the denizens of the ground and Ark, have never evolved an immunity to the planet’s radiation, and are therefore unable to venture outside without the protection of hermetically sealed suits. In their first conversation in the second season premiere (‘The 48’), in response to Clarke’s query about his apparent knowledge of her, Wallace says, “They [your people] also told me you were their leader. Looks like we have a lot in common, kiddo.” In one breath, he both extends Clarke the courtesy of an equal—we are leaders; this makes us similar—and then retracts it, diminishing her with a casually disrespectful kiddo. Clarke, like so many things and people in The 100, occupies a liminal space: both child and adult, teacher and student, leader and follower, and Wallace’s refusal to recognise her complexity from the outset is ultimately what prompts her not to trust him.
Yet at the same time, there’s a real sense in which the development of the adult characters in The 100 parallels that of the teenagers; especially Abby and Marcus, who act as mirrors for Clarke and Bellamy. In both cases, their initial interactions are highly antagonistic, with Marcus and Bellamy set up as foils and competitors for Abby and Clarke, albeit from different political positions. Whereas Marcus begins the show as a strictly authoritarian character, willing to enforce the rule of law at any cost, Bellamy begins as an anarchist, rallying supporters with a claim that, on Earth, they can do “whatever the hell we want.” As such, Abby and Clarke face opposing challenges in trying to work with them: Abby bends the rules to keep the peace, while Clarke enforces them to ensure the same outcome. Through these push-and-shove alliances, both Bellamy and Marcus steadily lose their radical edges, becoming more willing to compromise. But when mother and daughter finally reunite in Season 2, the tension between them is difficult to resolve. Both are in leadership positions, and while Abby expects her daughter to defer to her, this new Clarke is battle-hardened, both literally and figuratively, in a way that her mother isn’t. Though both are healers, Clarke has gone from field medic to general, and while Abby’s pacifistic politicking has played an important role in tempering Marcus, her reflexive aim to protect her daughter from the horrors she originally left her to face alone is, at absolute best, an act of willful ignorance.
In all respects, The 100 is a show rife with complex tensions. On the Ark, Octavia, Bellamy’s sister, was an illegal second child: her early life was lived in hiding, and when her existence was discovered, their mother was killed and Octavia was, once again, imprisoned. Octavia is an outsider by birth: the first of the Sky People to set foot on the planet when the dropship lands, she has even less loyalty to the Ark than most, and is, like Bellamy, desperate to simply do whatever the hell she wants—to be, for the first time in her life, unsupervised and unchecked. The fact that Bellamy, whose entire life has been dedicated to her protection, wants to keep her safe and in sight, is a point of contention between them, and when Octavia forms an emotional bond to Lincoln (Ricky Whittle), a grounder warrior whom Bellamy initially captures and tortures, their conflict is forced to a head. But for all the Romeo and Juliet undertones to their relationship, both Octavia and Lincoln are iconoclasts, dissenting voices within their respective communities whose mutual attraction—and whose willingness to both teach and learn from each other—steadily forges them into a unit of two, forcing them to carve out a moral and cultural space occupied by themselves alone. Like Clarke, they take on liminal roles, their points of difference reflecting and complimenting each other as their characters develop. Lincoln goes from protecting Octavia to being protected by her, while Octavia transitions from ward to warrior, submitting to no authority but her own.
At base, then, The 100 is a show about humanity: about the definition of culture, its intersections with morality and need, and the communities we both make and enforce for ourselves. With Clarke revealed to be canonically bisexual as of Season Two, it’s also one of the only shows around with a queer female protagonist, a fact that is respectfully and believably integrated into the narrative. Just as significantly, not only is The 100 incredibly diverse in terms of casting, but so too is the production team, boasting a curve-wrecking number of women and POC among its writers and directors.
With its powerful politics, compelling storyline, well-drawn characters and moral complexity, The 100 has quickly becomes one of my favourite shows, period, and is perfectly placed to become the kind of trendsetting cult phenomenon that we’ll still be discussing decades into the future. Bring on Season Three!
Foz Meadows is a bipedal mammal with delusions of immortality. As well as being the author of Solace and Grief and The Key to Starveldt, she reviews for A Dribble Of Ink and Strange Horizons, and is a contributing writer for The Huffington Post and Black Gate; her writing has also appeared at The Mary Sue and The Book Smugglers, and in 2013, she was nominated for a Hugo Award for Best Fan Writer. She like cheese, geekery, writing, webcomics and general weirdness. Dislikes include Hollywood rom-coms, liquorice and waking up.