In 2149, on the future-Earth of The 100, mutated gorillas and two-faced deer give Annihilation a run for its money. Middle-aged adults defer to teenagers/20-something kids in typical dystopian fashion, treating them as prophets or healers or Chosen One leaders. Leather corsets are casual fashion choices. One of the series’ most dramatic deaths was filmed so over-the-top, with some overlay/split-screen effect, that I can’t help but laugh every time they reference it in the “previously on” section. Everything about this show is extra AF.
But it’s this commitment to the biggest possible choices that lets you know that you’re in good hands when it comes to The 100’s worldbuilding. The people who decided it makes perfect sense for the show’s doctor to perform impromptu surgery in a leather harness are the same ones who drop Easter eggs into the opening credits, who build layer upon layer of story like the post-apocalyptic city of Tondc, who hired the best conlanger to create an entire language from scratch that you can actually reasonably learn. The 100’s future is ridiculous, but it’s also weirdly familiar, the kind of future that still has recognizable and relatable ties to its past. And that’s all in the worldbuilding.
In short, The 100 is a post-apocalyptic drama about the survivors of Earth who fled their home planet during the nuclear apocalypse. Regrouping up in orbit on the Ark space station for almost 100 years, they slowly make their way back down to the planet—first by sending down 100 juvenile delinquents to see if the planet has become habitable again, then the adults following their kids after there is unrest on the Ark… only to find that their children have had to take on leadership roles on Earth in order to survive against the Grounders, or the humans who were left behind in the nuclear apocalypse and adapted. The series mostly centers on the relationship between the different Grounder nations and the Sky People, later known as Skaikru (pronounced “sky crew”), the latter who can’t seem to coexist with anyone without trying to murder them. Then comes Praimfaya (“prime fire”), the next wave of nuclear devastation that forces the disparate groups of survivors to band together to keep history from repeating itself.
It’s a lot to take in, but the series’ writing staff keeps the worldbuilding strong and (mostly) internally logical in three key ways.
The Opening Credits
A great television opening will automatically raise my appreciation for a series… and if it changes with the seasons? All the better.
The funny thing is, the first season of The 100 is just the title card, albeit with the very fitting visual of the two zeroes in the number 100 crashing together, signifying Skaikru clashing with the Grounders. Or perhaps what’s even funnier is that once the show got renewed and they invested in some proper credits, the end result still leans pretty cheesy, with the warbling theme song and the camera panning over the Statue of Liberty submerged in the wasteland like we’re in Planet of the Apes.
Regardless of execution, it succeeds by giving viewers a mutated-bird’s-eye view of Earth, with scanners (presumably from the Ark) charting everything from the 100’s initial settlement to whatever’s going on inside that distant mountain… It’s just enough to establish the landmarks that Skaikru and the Grounders are fighting over, while hinting at some new locations. It’s a perfect encapsulation of what Nerds on Earth describes as playing both God and tour guide within one’s fictional world:
Be a tour guide, letting them see only what you are ready for them to see. Worldbuilding isn’t about so thoroughly developing a world that as creator god you need to have an immediate answer for every possible consequence of the development of your universe.
Worldbuilding often needs to only go for sufficiency—that the world is logical enough to play in for the purposes of your immediate story—and direction—moving people along in the story quickly enough that they don’t have time or the interest to question your worldbuilding or story-telling choices, at least until the story is done and you’ve pushed them back out into the real world, waving and smiling.
Season 3 is when shit starts to get real. As the camera moves away from Mount Weather (RIP) and further outward toward the Grounder lands of the Ice Nation and Polis, two drones zoom by. Those drones are artificial-intelligence-turned-villain A.L.I.E.’s deadly messengers, and they immediately and radically reshift the viewer’s sense of perspective. Were those scans and readings ever from the Ark, or were we one of A.L.I.E.’s drones from the start? Suddenly, the same footage from last season—like of the Ark crash-landing, or where Raven and Jaha made their respective landings—takes on an ominous cast when you consider who else was observing it.
The changes in the season 4 credits are subtler but nonetheless represent key plot developments: instead of the drones zooming in on the shabby splendor of Luna’s oil rig, we get a close-up of Becca’s secret, futuristic-looking lab jutting up out of of A.L.I.E.’s island; and where season 3’s credits end on a shot of Arkadia, by season 4 it’s the Grounders’ haven of Polis that gets the final shot—demonstrating how it has become Skaikru’s home as well. Finally, if you watch you’ll notice the storm clouds darkening the opening footage, as Praimfaya approaches.
And then season 5 just blows it all up: Praimfaya creeps over every inch of the landscape, turning the whole map fiery orange. The cheesiness of Lady Liberty aflame is balanced out by the somber disintegration of Polis, as whatever entity—drones, Ark, Eligius IV—is clocking this transformation replaces the old data with the new status quo:
If the season 6 intro is anything less than the same motif scanning the Adventure Squad’s (h/t Toni Watches) brand-spanking-new planet, I will be sorely disappointed.
Retroactive Storytelling Done Right
As The 100 takes place 97 years after the nuclear apocalypse, it would have been tempting to gloss over the actual throughline of how Earth society in 2052 somehow evolved into the warlike clans of the Grounders a mere century later. For the first two seasons, it’s enough to contrast how radically different these two groups of people are, to set up culture clashes, knee-jerk prejudices, and tragic misunderstandings. But once Skaikru massacred both the Grounders and most of Mount Weather in two breathtakingly violent season finales, the writers took a different tack for season 3, by unearthing some ancient history.
In the same season whose credits made room for A.L.I.E.’s drones, the writers slowly filled in the history of the Grounders, introducing one concept at a time and then contextualizing it within their culture. Or perhaps the better way to envision it is like the Grounders’ city of Polis, a massive cylindrical skyscraper that is appears to have been rebuilt upon itself, layer by layer, by subsequent generations. To wit:
- Season 2 seeded the mysterious City of Light, thought to be a physical city occupied by another subset of nuclear apocalypse survivors, but revealed to be a shared mental space overseen by sentient artificial intelligence A.L.I.E. Turns out that back in 2052, this Thanos-esque AI dispassionately calculated the best outcome for Earth’s warring nations: arm dozens of nuclear warheads and launch them all over the planet.
- But the hologram with which our heroes interact is an attractive woman in red: A.L.I.E. taking the form of Becca, its creator.
- In 2054, up in space after escaping Earth’s nuclear devastation, a guilt-stricken Becca decided to play with fire a second time and create A.L.I.E. 2.0. Instead of a sentient being who thinks it knows what’s best for humans, A.L.I.E. 2.0 was an AI designed to interact with human biology—namely, the brain, so that human and machine could understand one another.
- Becca makes herself the first test subject, but in order to do so, she has to modify her genetics… which manifests as special black blood, or Nightblood—the same that certain Grounders, including their Commanders, bleed. Then Becca goes back down to Earth, to share that genetically-modified blood with the survivors most affected by radiation exposure.
- Becca the scientist is killed—burned at the stake like a witch—but Bekka Pramheda becomes a martyr and a myth for the society of survivors who become the Grounders. Because this “first Commander” (so named for the nametag on her stolen spacesuit) brings the Nightblood, and the Flame—the biological implant, A.L.I.E. 2.0, passed down to each new Commander with the memories of their predecessors intact.
- The Grounders establish Polis and their culture. How do they build Polis? From the wreckage of Polaris, Becca’s space station. And so it all comes full circle.
It is unclear how much of this story the writers had planned out ahead of time, but the way in which they chose an already-introduced detail of the present world and then reverse-engineered it back over a century is incredibly impressive. Watching the latest bit of Flame mythos unfold, or seeing another artifact of Bekka Pramheda’s life unearthed in the ruins of Praimfaya, mirrors the delight of watching an improv troupe take a random noun and verb and come up with something better than anything they could have scripted.
What most sells the culture of the Grounders, and my very favorite thing about The 100, is the entire language that the creators devised in order to show just how much humanity has changed in a century, but also how it’s stayed the same. Trigedasleng is the brainchild of linguist David J. Peterson, perhaps better known for creating the Dothraki and Valyrian languages for Game of Thrones, plus various tongues for The Shannara Chronicles, Thor: The Dark World, and more. But unlike these other conlangs (that’s constructed languages) rooted to alien cultures, Trig is an evolution of American English that still resembles its predecessor enough to make sense to viewers. In some cases, seeing it written out makes it clear what slang or shorthand inspired a new word; in others, it’s based on in-universe linguistic changes, like how in the early post-apocalyptic days people spoke in code for protection. For instance, “mother” became “number one,” which eventually got shortened to nomon; “father” was “number two,” or nomtu.
As the 100 encounter the Grounders as first enemies and later cautious allies, several key phrases from Grounder culture permeate their confrontations and conversations. A quick Trig primer:
- Your fight is over: Yu gonplei ste odon
- Blood must have blood: Jus drein jus daun
- May we meet again: Mebi oso na hit choda op nodotaim
- All of me, for all of us: Omon gon oson
- Commander: Heda
- Commander of Death: Wanheda
- Red Queen: Blodreina
- Nightblood: Natblida
- Flamekeeper: Fleimkepa
- Sky People: Skaikru
- Death Wave: Praimfaya
The titles are key: Becca, coming down from the sky with her genetically-modified blood, becomes the first Commander, or Pramheda. Clarke and Octavia begin the series as Skaikru, with the former being christened Wanheda for her decisions to kill in order to protect her people in seasons 1-3, and the latter creating a Trig word (Blodreina) to describe a children’s book character (Red Queen) in order to define her murderous rule between seasons 4 and 5.
For all that Skaikru and the Grounders consistently clash and misunderstand and war with one another, Trigedasleng is the greatest step toward harmony between the two cultures: Its roots are recognizable to the people who must make the effort to learn it, and its language of war and sacrifice (blood must have blood, your fight is over, may we meet again) creates a shared foundation for the losses they must sustain in order to build their new lives. Season 5 was all about creating a new, shared identity for the remaining survivors: Wonkru, or “one crew.”
And right as both sides seemed to have found common ground, they literally nuked it again to keep it out of enemy hands and fled Earth for an entirely new planet. Who knows what Wonkru’s new home holds, but one thing we know for sure is that the writers get a new narrative sandbox in which to worldbuild, and the results will be nothing short of spectacular.