The 100 Is a Master Class in Bonkers-But-Epic Worldbuilding

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/twentysomethings 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 in such an over-the-top fashion, 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 making 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 hired the best conlanger to create an entire language from scratch that you can actually reasonably learn, who continue to build on the narrative ruins of their own layered storytelling so that every new twist actually makes sense. 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.

[This post contains spoilers for season 1-6 of The 100.]

In short, The 100 is a post-apocalyptic drama about the survivors of Earth who fled their home planet during the nuclear apocalypse. Having spent almost a century regrouping up in orbit on the Ark space station, they slowly make their way back down to the planet—first sending down 100 juvenile delinquents to see if the planet has become habitable again. Adults the follow 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, humans who were left behind in the nuclear apocalypse and adapted.

The first several seasons centered on the relationship between the different Grounder nations and the Sky People, later known as Skaikru (pronounced “sky crew”), a group who can’t seem to coexist with anyone without trying to murder them. Then came Praimfaya (“prime fire”), the next wave of nuclear devastation that forced the disparate groups of survivors to band together as Wonkru (“one crew”) to stop history from repeating itself. The past few seasons have found increasingly creative ways to bring in new characters: First, they introduced the Eligius Corporation’s ship of convicts that happened to be orbiting Earth at the same time as the Ark but didn’t touch down til post-Praimfaya. The Eligius IV crew thought they’d found their Garden of Eden; Wonkru was already there and not interested in sharing.

After both parties managed to nuke Earth again so that no one could have it, the remaining survivors went into cryosleep for 125 years until they found Alpha, a habitable moon that had been settled by the crew of Eligius III, honest-to-God Earthlings from 2045, a century before The 100’s initial starting point. Once again, Wonkru played the role of space invaders, and as always, the last of humanity had trouble getting along. (Especially once they found out that the seemingly peaceful settlers of Sanctum were self-styled “gods” and body-snatchers.)

It’s a lot to take in, but the series’ writing staff keeps the worldbuilding strong and (mostly) maintains the consistency of the show’s internal logic 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 re-shift 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’s the focus of the final shot—demonstrating how it has become Skaikru’s home as well. Finally, if you watch closely 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:

Just as I had hoped, the season 6 intro applied the same scanning motif to Alpha, from the perspective of the Eligius IV ship on which our heroes had been cryosleeping for 125 years. Seeing as Alpha is similar to Earth, at first the scan seems pretty rudimentary…except what is that swirling green vortex? The Anomaly sneaks its way into a number of shots, lurking like the killer in “Too Many Cooks,” even though it will remain a mystery for most of the season.

The scan picks up Sanctum and all of its structures, of course, but here’s where the detail-oriented worldbuilding rewards multiple watches: Every shot of Sanctum shows Fibonacci spirals and the strange written language of the residents of the Anomaly, yet the characters have no idea what they’re seeing. Just another bit of foreshadowing for season 7:

And so we come to the final set of opening credits for The 100, which trades the scanning motif for the Anomaly as filter: The camera jumps in and out of that glowing green light, transporting the viewer from teeming green earth to rocky, airless surface; from the base of a mountain to its peak; and up into space, marked by five distinctive logos. Whereas past seasons were all about mapping new physical territory, the season 7 credits seem to be about moving between dimensions:

Each season, where the final shot ultimately lands signals to viewers that this is serving as the protagonists’ home base, either for a few episodes or for an entire season. The season 6 titles stayed up on Eligius IV, hovering over Alpha uncertainly, distanced from Sanctum and from the moon’s many hazards. Season 7’s titles end, fittingly, in the supernatural swirl of the Anomaly. This time, we don’t know where our heroes will wind up calling home.

 

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 far better than anything they could have scripted.

Season 6 was a fascinating experiment in parallel worldbuilding: Because Sanctum was settled around the time that Earth was ending, none of its mythology is rooted in nuclear apocalypse. However, its history is no less bloody: When Alpha’s two suns eclipse, it releases psychosis-inducing toxins from the local plants, which triggers all biological lifeforms into hyper-violence. The Eligius III settlers learn of this toxic side effect of their new home when Russell Lightbourne murders his family under the influence of the eclipse.

But he gets a second chance—and then many chances afterward—thanks to the Flame. That’s right, the 100 writers pulled out their best piece of worldbuilding and explored how it could be reverse-engineered to serve another purpose. In this case, it becomes a Mind Drive that, instead of carrying dozens of consciousnesses, contains just the one. Russell resurrects digital copies of his wife and daughter, then constructs a mythology of the Lightbournes being “Primes,” or divine leaders who are meant to be reincarnated over and over in new bodies. The only tricky part is obtaining those new hosts, whose minds are wiped in favor of whichever Prime gets inserted—but that too becomes part of Sanctum’s worship.

Instead of aiding survivors with a century’s worth of knowledge, the Flame is corrupted to help self-made gods retain their power. None of this would land as well as it did if it weren’t for the seasons’ worth of Flame mythos upon which the writers built this latest turn.

 

Trigedasleng

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 as cautious allies, several key phrases from Grounder culture permeate their confrontations and conversations. A quick Trig primer:

  • Your fight is over: Yu gonplei ste don
  • 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. The notion of Wonkru was all that helped them physically survive Praimfaya, and psychologically endure the trauma of losing Earth again. It also gave them a shared identity for approaching Sanctum in season 6; no matter their disparate backgrounds, they could approach this new, alien society as their own self-contained nation.

But on Sanctum, Trig proves a divider instead of a unifier. Obviously, no one outside of Wonkru knows how to speak it; so while it serves as a sign of security or secrecy for them, it further sets them apart from the Earthlings who never had to develop a conlang in the first place. It will be fascinating to see how this final season forces Wonkru to find yet another new way to communicate—one that encompasses the whole of the remaining human race.

An earlier version of this article was originally published in April 2019.
The final season of The 100 premieres tonight, May 20, 2020.

Natalie Zutter marvels at how far this bonkers, wonderful series has come. Share your hopes and fears about The 100 season 7 with her on Twitter.

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