The 100 Season 4 Retrospective Part One: Pacing, Plot, Worldbuilding, and Representation
My time has come. I, Gretchen kom saltkru, have returned from my travels. I have taken my seat upon my salt throne and shall proceed to look over what we have been given with a critical eye. Now, I shall plunge my hands into the earth that is season 4, weigh it, measure it, and sift through it, separating the kernels of excellence from the chaff of contrivance, carelessness, and Implications.
In other words, it’s time to take a look back at the season and see what it gave us. Let the retrospective begin.
Worldbuilding: The Continued Trouble with Grounders
I could talk about how The 100 characterizes the Grounders on a thematic level, but at this point it’s become less a theme and more a stable part of the worldbuilding. While S2 looked to destabilize the prevailing norm, the inherently violent and savage nature of the Grounders has since then become ingrained in the fabric of the show. Characters like Lexa, Roan, Emori, and Echo are exceptions to this paradigm, and even they have their moments of unreasonable savagery. In fact, for this season much of the plot would not exist without this particular trait.
Roan’s pragmatism and penchant for diplomacy over violence set him up early on as a successor to Lexa as leader of the coalition of Grounders and Skaikru. While Echo acted as the voice of violence on his shoulder, he rarely acted on this impulse, until he did, for plot reasons. He was reasonable until the plot demanded aggression and violent overreaction (see 4.05, 4.10). Because even the most level-headed, discussion-oriented Grounder is a Savage™ at heart on this show. And when he is being reasonable, characters like Echo, who embody the more stereotypical Grounder perspective, deride or question him.
As established in previous seasons, the story they’re telling has problematic implications in this regard. The Grounders are, in many ways, the indigenous peoples of the show. The consistent coding of them in grossly stereotypical ways deeply troubles me. It’s one of my ongoing complaints about the worldbuilding. Most of the time, the writing treats them as mindless killing machines unless its convenient for them to be reasonable, which is usually treated as the exception that proves the rule of All Grounders are Savages™.
Only 4.12 paints them in any kind of sympathetic or peaceful light, when they accept Octavia’s ruling and peacefully decide who gets a space in the bunker offscreen. Skaikru’s petty bickering and rabble-rousing when faced with the same choices looks all the worse for the Grounders’ orderliness in this regard, but this is a first.
That’s not even getting to the disparity in death tolls. While less graphic and bloody and fewer people died in gruesome ways, most of the body count this season came from Grounder casualties. 17 named Grounder characters died this season, three of which were important secondary characters: Roan, Luna, and Ilian. Compare that to 11 named Skaikru characters, only one of which was an important secondary character: Jasper. (Note: I consider Riley and David Miller to be tertiary characters.) Of the unnamed characters who die, 71+ are Grounders and only 32+ are Skaikru.
This doesn’t include the final death wave, which killed 364 Skaikru and at least that many Grounders, perhaps even more. The fact that we don’t know how many Grounders received no place in the bunker as part of Wonkru is telling given we have a precise number for Skaikru. Because who cares about how many hundreds of Grounders die from radiation, amirite?
Not only that, this season doubled down on the religious primitivism and paradoxical combination of technophobia and technoreligion that has marked the Grounder mythology since Becca and the flame were introduced. 4.01 gave us Grounders once again wanting to kill Wanheda ‘for her power’. Roan painted the Flamekeepers as religious fanatics. Ilian’s hatred for technology led to the destruction of Arkadia. The doomsday bunker as Becca primheda’s burial chamber makes no sense at all, but the mysticism around it borders on infantilizing. In fact, much of the religious aspect to Grounder culture both infantilizes and primitivizes them. Again, given the colonialist backdrop to much of this series, such a storytelling choice has seriously gross implications.
So while we may have Wonkru now between Skaikru and Grounders in the bunker, that does not make up for a season’s worth, nay several seasons worth, of aggressive and violent stereotyping. Seeing the Grounders as the levelheaded ones in their ability to choose survivors without a war comes on the heels of the conclave and the insistence that violence was the only way to achieve a solution. When faced with having to deal with a recalcitrant Skaikru, they chose to arm themselves with guns. Sure, we can argue they ‘had no other choice’ (I’ll get to that next time), but it’s part of the pattern. Grounders will always choose violence over diplomacy and reason because in this show’s worldbuilding, they are inherently and irrevocably violent.
So yes, I’m grateful that more than Skaikru survived. Good job, writers. Hundreds of Grounders survive in the bunker with Skaikru, and Emori and Echo make it to space. But, again, how does that make up for the awful storytelling this season?
I love the ending, don’t get me wrong, but it was out of place based on previous established characterization. It may represent a step in the right direction for S5, but I’m not holding my breath. I’m also not going to pretend that this undoes, makes up for, or somehow erases the rest of the season. This show has been crapping all over the Grounders since it started without giving any visible attention to the Implications given their coding as indigenous peoples. As far as I’m concerned, the writers haven’t learned their lesson yet on this score.
Representation: Where Have all the Queer Ships Gone?
‘Lip service’ is a great way to characterize all of the queer elements to the story this season. Bryan and Miller got a single scene of intimacy in 4.02 before a breakup and Bryan summarily left our screens and the rest of the season. Niylah and Clarke get one awkward, fumbly scene in 4.05 before they’re in bed together in 4.06. The scene revolves primarily around Clarke and Lexa, with Niylah going out of her way to acknowledge Clarke’s feelings for Lexa and that Lexa would be proud of her. The Niylarke ‘relationship’ progresses little beyond that. They only have one other scene together in 4.11 that last only a few seconds and has zero emotional intimacy. They could be besties for all that we know rather than in a physical relationship.
From a character perspective, I don’t mind this for either of them. Clarke is still raw, and a healthy sex life without attachment works well for where she is and what his happening in the world. But it’s part of a pattern of the treatment of LGBT+ characters this season. We see something similar with Miller after his breakup with Bryan. By the end of the season he seems to be growing closer to Jackson, but we’re not given any actual confirmation of anything beyond strong friendship between the two. No kisses, no handholding, no cuddling. Just gestures of affection that could be platonic or romantic, depending on how the audience invests in it.
One might well argue that the end of the world isn’t the right place for developing emotional relationships. Miller and Clarke have neither the head or heart space to form a romantic bond. Yet look at how the show handled Harper and Monty. They got multiple romantic scenes together. They got an “I love you” and an explicit sex scene. The only other sex scene given to a romantic couple this season was Abby and Kane, who also got an “I love you” moment. (Side note: it still squicks me out that they had sex in Clarke’s bed in Polis).
Octavia and Ilian got a sex scene, too, but that was hardly romantic. Emori and John didn’t get a full on sex scene, but their sex life is quite heavily implied by their interactions and they have several intimate moments, both physical and emotional/romantic.
Are you seeing what I’m seeing? Despite lip service to the two canon queer couples, the only romantic arcs were given to heterosexual couples. And the queer scenes we were given were either brief, perfunctory, troubled, or not part of an established romantic relationship. Miller doesn’t even have the excuse that he’s grieving the death of a partner. The representation just isn’t there this season.
I don’t want to speculate as to way this is so; there could be plenty of innocent explanations for the lack of queer content this season. Nevertheless, a shift has occurred. Last season we had two canon queer couples who were given explicit romantic, sexual, and emotional intimacy in their relationships. This season, we have none.
Niylarke does not count in my mind, as it is one scene with little lead up and zero aftermath in the narrative. It’s not romantic nor does it seem to have any strong emotional intimacy involved. Plus, we don’t even get to see the sexual encounter the way we did with Clexa. Not that I want an exploitative scene given that Eliza Taylor has expressed her desire not to have any more nudity (not that that stopped the writers from putting in a shower scene against her wishes).
That’s a bit in the weeds, but the point is in matters of representation, the show has significantly scaled back. All three of the romantic couples are heterosexual. All but one of the sex scenes on screen were of heterosexual pairings, and as I said, Niylarke hardly counts as a sex scene really. None of the romantic couples included a black man, whereas two did last season (Linctavia and Bryan/Miller). Emori is the only woman of color in a romantic relationship compared to two men of color (Monty, Kane), three if you count Ilian. Though that’s not so much romantic, at least on Octavia’s part. And it isn’t as if there aren’t female characters of color that they could give one to.
Again, I acknowledge that this doesn’t seem like the season to be focusing on romance. But the fact is, the show focused on three straight romances while simultaneously dismantling the queer ships until they were little more than brief interludes and potential subtext. And this in a season where the end of the world was looming. So “this wasn’t the right time” isn’t going to cut it for me.
Yes, I adore Memori and Kabby and appreciate how strong and healthy these two relationships are. And how transgressive they both are in their own ways. They’re an adult ship and a Skaikru/Grounder ship. For a show focused on teenagers and Skaikru specifically, both of those go against expectations. Harper/Monty less so, but hey, at least they’re giving the Asian character a love interest rather than having him be the goofy sidekick. That’s an improvement from S1.
At the same time, the show destroyed the strongest and most long-lasting interracial couple (Linctavia) after grossly replaying his death in the background as Kane compared Octavia to a mass murdering xenophobe, so. I’m really not all that sympathetic to how they’re handling the representation department for canon relationships.
Plot and Pacing: Dropped Threads and Plot Necessity
Whereas last season struggled to right itself after the disastrous execution of Lexa’s death and the poorly thought out ALIE plotline, this season has stood on shaky legs from the get go, due primarily to the choice to make it entirely about a second nuclear apocalypse. S1 and S2 had a series of different conflicts that escalated into one large culmination at the end. S3 had two different main conflicts, where one fed into and set up the other, with the focus shifting halfway through the season from one to the other. This season only had praimfaya, and that from the beginning.
More than anything this season stood out as obviously a series of dead ends toward one single solution to the problem of praimfaya’s immanent arrival. It was like watching an egregiously contrived episode of CSI, only spanned out across a whole season rather than a single episode. And that, my friends, is a signal that there is a huge flaw in the writing process.
The suspension of disbelief relies on distinguishing between writerly conceit and the universe of the show. When they start blending together, or the strings the writers are pulling become obvious, there are serious issues to address. Audiences should never start to think “the writers would do this” instead of “the characters would do this”. But that’s precisely what happened.
Even the next to last episode, which I admit was one of the strongest of the season, had its moments where the writing process broke through into the way the plot progressed. Like Jaha’s bullheaded insistence that Skaikru are ‘people’ more than the Grounders are even in the face of reason. Only the finale, in my opinion did not face the same issues as the rest of the season, but that’s not saying much. It only proves that working against a specific time clock in a single episode is the only way this season’s writers room knows how to actually make the characters choices and plot necessity align. You’d think that would be a microcosm for the season given how similar it sounds to the plot of the season overall. Alas, this was the only episode they made it all work.
It may have to do with having a limited cast. As with 3.11, all the characters were in a single location focused on a single goal with only minimal subplots that all feed into the A plot. This seems to be prime real estate for this writing team. Once there are too many locations, character threads, or competing subplots, they start dropping balls all over the place.
I’ll admit they tied up a lot of loose threads in the finale with the many other previous attempts at solutions to praimfaya. I was actually surprised at how much they brought back around. But is that enough to make up for a seasons worth of obvious contrivances? Were it just about logic or failed solutions to problems (like the rocket or the doomsday bunker), I would have less of an issue. But these dropped threads from earlier in the season relied upon contrived character interactions and choices that in the moment, did not make sense.
Like Jaha using Clarke’s list that he decried as awful and people yelled at her for after attempting a lottery that I could have told you (and did) would end up the way it did. It should not have even been an option in the first place because it’s an inherently flawed way to survive an apocalypse. And that’s just one example.
Given how sloppily the events of the season played out while they were airing, the impression is less an intentional laying of groundwork and more like someone realized they had a bunch of dropped threads they could use and yanked them all together. If you make a mess of a story, you don’t get to slap the pieces together and call it a work of art.
Maybe I’m being too hard on the writers. Maybe they had good intentions with all these pieces. That my impression of sheer sloppiness is merely poor execution. Fair. I can accept that. I still won’t call this excellent writing. Shoddy execution with a nice bow on top does not a good season of television make.
That’s not to mention the gaping plot holes (how was Gov-Sci even operational after over a year abandoned in space with no on to maintain it?). And before you tell me to suspend my disbelief, think about it in terms of effort. Throughout the season there have been pacing and plot issues up the wazoo. Even if they managed to pull it all together in the end, the majority of the season seems half-hearted at best. Not that it’s utter trash; rather, it’s mediocre, which is almost worse to me.
With a single line of dialogue, they could have explained Clarke’s magically sped up bone marrow transplant. With more thought, they could have detailed how the Grounders were able to bury Becca’s ashes in the bunker, but did not know how to get in afterward. Or, if her ashes aren’t really there, why they would think that it was her tomb. They could have explained why the hydrazine didn’t blow when an arrow was shot through the barrel when the characters were worried about hitting too large a rock in the road. Or explained anything at all about how Ilian knew how to blow up Arkadia using the server room, or how he even knew what a server room was or how to find it, or why the entire thing didn’t just blow sky high. Or why any hydrazine was left for Raven to use in the rocket.
In fact, 4.06 is a good example of the issues this season has struggled with in terms of plot and pacing. The hydrazine barrel should have blown when the arrow hit it given how volatile every character said it was. And if not, it should not have leaked as quickly as it did, nor should the barrel have been entirely empty when they arrived at the shore given the placement of the arrow. In fact, that entire episode need not have happened at all, had the extremely volatile hydrazine blown while there was a raging inferno right next to it. All that was required for the plot was that Raven have ‘not enough’ rocket fuel to both get to space and get home. As written, the narrative took the longest possible route to get there, and in a contrived manner that made no sense.
We see this same thing happen elsewhere. The writers have options, but they take frequently the longest narrative route possible that ends in a dead end. Even if it is a temporary dead end, the gap between episodes where the thread is dropped and when it gets picked up again is too large. Like the doomsday bunker. When the first one failed to be a solution, the natural reaction to that entire episode will be “well that was a waste of time”. Picking that up six weeks later isn’t all that effective in erasing the impression of the original plot thread as misspent air time. Especially when precisely zero mention is made of the bunker in the intervening weeks.
Moreover, the season had a tendency to skimp on actual emotional scenes in several of the plot heavy dead end episodes. That or shove such scenes together in quick sequence because they were low on time. 4.07, for example, gave us not only Harper’s failed rescue attempt of Louis but also Bellamy’s failure to save the Arkadians and Octavia’s break down and the discovery of Abby’s illness and Emori’s emotional confession about Baylis who isn’t really Baylis…it’s too much. Putting all this into one episode in the middle of the season divides the audiences’ attention and emotionally exhausts them. Especially if you don’t give them time to process each event.
Slow down. Pace out the emotional beats. Give the audience time to process Bellamy’s sorrow at not being able to save the Arkadians before rushing in with another scene that requires a lot of emotional investment. Had Harper’s guilt and grief about Louis been given proper space in 4.07, her suicidal depression in 4.09 would not have felt so out of left field.
When it came to emotional beats, then, the episodes for the most part felt either boom or bust. Couple that with repetitive plots and a sense of filler for dead end episodes that were inconsistently picked up in sudden fashion, and the entire season was sloppy and uneven. The strongest subplot was by far the natblida solution with Raven and Abby, but even that had it’s weaknesses, though they were more of the character and theme variety, so I’ll get to them next time.
Overall, one of my biggest critiques is the power of plot necessity this season. Things happen this season because they have to. Locations exist and people do things because that’s what needs to happen. I’ll get to characterization next time, but for now, it serves to point out just how much of this season’s action derived from plot necessity rather than actual character motivation.
Frequently, this meant creating false dichotomies in the narrative. Characters behaved as if there were only two (or sometimes three) set choices that they could make in any given situation. From an outsiders perspective, the characters actually had more choices than they admitted to or realized. However, by narrowing the choice down to two, the writing creates an illusion that there’s no other way to do things. This forces characters to choose between the options they’ve been written as having. How they decide between the false dichotomy then drives the narrative.
Now, a part of writing a story is narrowing down options and forcing your characters into positions where they have to make a choice. But, much of the time this season, the falseness of the character constraints were so glaringly obvious as to ruin the suspension of disbelief. Take Bellamy’s choice between freeing the slaves or blowing the hydrogenerator in 4.02. We’re meant to accept that he only has these specific two choices. But he doesn’t. I detailed several other options in my review, so for now suffice to say that narrowing it down to these two specific choices only makes sense because the plot demanded it. Any other options would not have resulted in the plot moving forward as the writers desired, so they could not be mentioned or addressed.
This all flows from the choice to frame the entire season in terms of praimfaya. Unlike other seasons where the goals were more open ended, a nuclear apocalypse only has so many potential avenues for resolution. The ticking clock on the whole season constrained the writing. Every episode had to be focused on finding a way to survive praimfaya specifically, and there are only so many ways to survive a nuclear apocalypse.
Hence all the dropped threads that were then picked up again. Hence the inconsistent pacing as they raced through one possible solution, only to dead end and have to slow down to think of another. Only to race through it and then think of another…you get the idea. “Maybe this is the right answer! No wait, this is! No wait!” will only get you so far in a season before boredom and a sense of repetitiveness and contrivance sets in. By the time they reached a solution, my reaction was more “god, finally,” rather than “oh my god, I can’t believe they did it.”
Additionally, some of the more interesting narrative avenues were the ones that got dropped altogether. Making everyone a natblida was a really cool idea, as was fortifying Arkadia, neither of which I saw coming as potential solutions. And yet the most obvious answers, the ones that they ‘seeded’ from the beginning, then dropped, then picked back up, were the ones they went with: a bunker and going into space.
The show literally just recreated the Ark and Mt. Weather. After a second nuclear apocalypse.
So they just rebooted the show from the beginning. Only this time, Clarke is unaligned and now there is a prison ship from space coming that reminds me suspiciously of Fort Rozz. Even the fact that someone other than Clarke survived (and perhaps more someones) is little more than a reiteration of the beginning of the series when Skaikru didn’t believe anyone could have survived the first nuclear apocalypse. The only difference this time is magical black blood. Except that’s not really new either…
There’s something to be said for a subtle echo of previous plot points, but this is ridiculous.
Was it All Bad?
Short answer: no. I enjoyed elements of this season. Despite the uneven distribution of emotional beats, many struck home. I’ll get into it more when I discuss his character arc, but by the end of the season, Bellamy had won me over. The heavy handed demand for my belief in his redemption at the start of the season failed to move me. However, once the show settled on showing rather than telling, I started to pay attention.
From the moment in the jeep where he failed to reach the Arkadians in 4.07, he had a strong upward trajectory. He returned to being the empathetic, impulsive (sometimes stupidly so), bullheaded, loyal character that I found, if not exactly compelling, at least tolerable. He was never a favorite of mine, I’ll admit that, but he at least felt more like the character I knew from S1-2.
The final two episodes had strong emotional pull as well. It veered toward oversaturation, but it made sense in context given that they’re all facing death, separation, and loss. Abby and Kane were strong all season, so their scenes in 4.12 worked well. Octavia has always been significant to me, so I found her transition to power moving and cheered for my baby the whole time. Likewise Clarke finding rest and laying down the burden of leading her people, while inconsistent with the rest of the season, was moving. My girl needs a break after all this, and she got 6 years of it, thank the gods.
I mentioned earlier that the natblida plot was the best of the ‘solution’ subplots in many ways. While flawed in terms of scientific worldbuilding, it showcased real creativity, drama, and character interest to me. It also lacked many of the pacing concerns and plot contrivances seen in most of the other subplots. Roan and Clarke’s interactions were hit or miss, depending on whether or not he was acting in character or if the plot demanded he be unreasonable. But, they had some really great scenes together. Echo was compelling to me as a character. Her struggle with loyalty versus compromise was well executed. Tt helps that Tasya Teles emotes flawlessly and conveys so much with her face that remains unspoken.
But are these moments enough to overcome the plot and pacing issues? Some might say I need to give it more benefit of the doubt or suspend my disbelief a bit more. Yet, there’s more to the show this season than plot, pacing, and deeply flawed worldbuilding regarding the Grounders and a decided decrease in LGBT+ representation.
Next week, I’ll tackle characterization and themes. And if you thought I had a lot to say about the plot, strap in, because I’m not nearly done.
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