The 100 Season 4 Retrospective Part Three: Themes
Content Warning: This retrospective discusses suicide, as depicted on the show.
This is it, folks. The final salt of the season. The Wynonna Earp premiere was everything I wanted and more, so after today, I shall bask in its glow. But before then, I have some themes on The 100 to talk about. And let me tell you, it’s not what I expected. But not in a good way. Not at all.
When I took a step back to look at the season, one thing became clear. The fixation on surviving the apocalypse that led to the plot driving characterization rather than vice versa also affected the role of themes. I was hard pressed to find many themes that spanned the entirety of the season consistently rather then being picked up and dropped as the plot demanded. The sudden shift in conclusion to Octavia and Clarke’s arcs played a part as well, since themes that seemed relevant to their development early on in the season were either dropped or masked in order to make their ‘resolutions’ this season fit. So with all the plot holes, plot convenience, and shifting characterizations what themes actually managed to stay relevant?
“It Was My Only Choice”/ “There Are No Good Choices”
For all the times that this phrase/concept recurred throughout the season, I think it fair to call it one of the intended themes. Especially given how much emphasis 4.12 put on Clarke teasing out what this means in conversation with Abby and Bellamy. We’re meant to understand that by the end of this season, Clarke understands that a choice isn’t ‘good’ just because she made it. Or, put another way, that the perception of lacking choice isn’t always reality. Sometimes, there are other, less expedient or viable choices, or choices that might do relatively more harm or less ultimate good than the one chosen. Similarly, a choice that does the most good can still not be a ‘good’ choice, assuming by ‘good’ the show intends to mean “morally pure” or “ethically unproblematic”.
On the surface, this is a more honest approach to the ongoing theme of The 100 regarding the burdens of leadership than last season’s “there are no good guys”. Last season they attempted grey morality by parroting this pseudo-profundity despite repeatedly telling us that Skaikru were, in fact, the good guys. This created an ethical quagmire wherein the show contradicted its own confessed lack of ethical stance while at the same time attempting to gain sympathy for one side of the conflict (the good guys) more than any of the others.
It’s also bs to claim “there are no good guys” while actively trying to force a redemption arc onto a character who committed mass murder and condemning another protagonist for doing far less grievous harm. But I digress.
Abby: There was no good choice.
Clarke: There never is.
Honest, right? This moment between Clarke and Abby as they reflect back on their choices and positions as leaders of Skaikru offers an interesting insight into the moral complexity of a pragmatic approach to leadership. Sometimes, there really is no 100% ethically sound way to proceed. Even utilitarian choices have their dark side, like allowing 300+ Skaikru members to die to save the rest of humanity. Pragmatic? Yes. Necessary? Yes. Morally pure? No.
At the same time, this conversation was hardly earned by the rest of the season. This season struggled to ground itself in any sort of credible morality or ethical system in which this conversation makes sense. While it sounds meaningful when given to Clarke and Abby, put those same words in the mouths of, say, Bellamy and Jaha and the conversation takes on a whole new meaning. Rather than expressing the complex moral dilemma of trying to save the most people, it justifies doing great violence to others by implying there were no other viable or better options. As I mentioned last time, mass murder and torture are okay because “there was no good choice” and “I was protecting my people”.
Thus, I’m left asking, what does ‘good’ even mean for this show? I started by assuming that ‘good’ meant ‘ethically unproblematic’ but is that what The 100 means? I’m not so sure. To fully unpack what they mean, we need to look at another theme of this season.
“Giving Up One’s Humanity to Survive” and “Protecting My People”
The show also consistently pushed the message that in times of dire need, people, particularly leaders, have to ‘give up their humanity’ in order to survive and protect their people. On the surface, this appears to mean that sometimes tough choices need to be made for the greater good of helping humankind survive the nuclear holocaust. Clarke’s stated desire to form an alliance with Roan in the beginning of 4.10 was because it didn’t matter which clan survived, so long as someone did. Greater good, right?
This greater good for humanity was used to justify Clarke and Abby’s experimentation on not!Baylis and Emori. Kane uses this phrase to describe the loss of Skaikru life required in order to comply with Octavia’s rule that only 100 from each clan survive so that all get an equal share in the bunker.
In what way is a fair system in which 100 of each clan of human beings is given a place in the bunker ‘giving up one’s humanity’? How is an equitable and fair treatment of all human beings somehow ethically unsound?
The only way this makes sense in context is if we accept Jaha’s statements that imply only Skaikru count as people. Only if the other 1200 survivors aren’t fully equal to Skaikru would accepting the death of 300 Skaikru members be more ethically problematic than killing 1200+ Grounders, including those that didn’t make it into the bunker.
In the end, the only way to reasonably interpret “giving up one’s humanity to survive” as connected to the idea of there being “no good choices” when it comes to the bunker situation is to prioritize Skaikru as ultimately of the most value. Yes, they’re the clan of our main protagonists. Yes, the show has prioritized their perspective to the detriment of the Grounders for most of it’s run (excluding most of S2 and parts of S3). At the same time, the Grounders are people. Whether they’re ‘our people’ or not, they’re human beings who do not deserve to die any more than Skaikru deserves to die. If “giving up one’s humanity to survive” means being willing to sacrifice Skaikru lives to save Grounders, then the basis for morality lies in prioritizing one clan above another.
In other words, ‘my people’ matter more than ‘not my people.’
Holy crap, folks. This show has succeeded in instantiating selfishness, colonialism, and xenophobia as the basis for it’s morality. There’s been recurring issues with xenophobia and colonialism before *cough most of last season*, but it never quite reached the point of being the basis for morality. Excused? Certainly. Explained away and ignored? Without a doubt. But the situation with the bunker in 4.12 took it to another level. Kane’s insistence to Abby that they’d recover their humanity again after allowing Skaikru to die in order for the Grounders to survive turned an uncomfortable undercurrent into a facet of the moral system by which the show operates. And probably without the writers even realizing it.
The goal of these two themes, it seems to me, appears to be an exploration of grey morality in a dystopian, survivalist context. But by putting these them alongside each other, they backed themselves into an extremely problematic corner.
Altruism, compassion, empathy, and bringing the Other into the category of Same have no place in this morality. What matters most is protecting myself and those like me, ‘my people’. Because caring about those outside the group at the expense of those inside the group is ‘losing one’s humanity’. Humanity, then, for this show inherently includes an us-them mentality. Small wonder, then, that competitiveness is built into the very framework of how the different subgroups of people interact with each other. Each one is operating out of the same us-centered mentality.
Sounds like a framework ripe for the undermining, right? But the show never quite gets there. It could have, had it truly honored the thematic importance of Lexa’s coalition and mentality last season. ‘Life is more than about surviving’ was a theme they played with in 3A, but the show veered left in 3B and tore down most of the scaffold Lexa’s arc had built up. This season seemed poised to return to that theme with how much it built up Clarke as the heir of Lexa’s legacy and pressed her to honor Lexa by viewing Grounders as ‘her people’ too. Yet again, they veered left by giving Octavia the ending everyone expected for Clarke.
As mentioned last time, while I am happy for Clarke to have rest, the thematic result of the choice to not follow through on Lexa’s legacy is to once again dismantle the message that ‘my people’ ought to include ‘all people’. Because Octavia, while a better choice in some ways than Clarke to lead the Grounders, is a Skaikru outsider. I suppose at some level someone who belongs neither fully to Skaikru nor fully to the Grounders has a certain resonance. She can bring them together because she belongs to neither.
However, it comes at the expense of Clarke truly learning that ‘all people’ are ‘my people’. The same applies to Bellamy, who doesn’t have to face the reality of living in the bunker either. He will be forced to accept Emori and Echo, but two Grounder women who are also outsiders from their own culture is not the same as having to face the humanity of an entire culture that he has demonized and murdered.
So neither of our two main protagonists actually have to follow through on one of the most prominent questions raised by the themes of the season: who counts as ‘my people’? For Clarke, the answer is ‘other natblida’. For Bellamy, the answer is ‘my friends’. That’s not all that compelling.
Plus, any meaning derived from the creation of Octavia’s wonkru in the bunker falls flat in the face of the other groups existing elsewhere in the world. Had everyone been forced to survive in the bunker together, I might feel different. However, with one group in space, another in a bunker, and a third on the ground, the result feels less like a true unification of the clans than just a reorganization. We’re still left with three clans: bunker kru, space kru, and Clarke/natblida kru. It’s S2 all over again with Mt. Weather, the Grounders, and Skaikru. Only this time with a fourth group from the prison ship that just landed.
For some reason, the show just can’t get out of the mentality that there have to be conflicting clans of some kind. And that points back to the fundamental flaw in the thematic core of the show: that there must always be a ‘my people’ and ‘not my people’. And that ‘my people’ will always count more than ‘not my people’. At it’s heart, this assumes tribal conflict and xenophobia as a core element of humanity. ‘Good’ means ‘whatever is good for my people,’ even if it comes at the expense of other people (who are not my people).
The moral standard, then, is exclusive, xenophobic utilitarianism. And that’s not a value system I find at all interesting or helpful, especially in today’s political climate.
I hesitate to call this truly a theme. Because it’s not so much a theme as it is a topic the show handles about as well as it handled the graphic torture of female characters last season. That is to say, poorly.
From the opening of the season, we were treated to an attempted suicide from Jasper that quickly devolved into hedonistic fatalism and suicide by inaction. There’s just no other way to slice it. Jasper’s fixation on ‘death by apocalypse’ boils down to another form of suicide with the impending radiation/death wave as his weapon. Were this a one time confession or a subdued thread, it would bother me less. But the show seems to revel in Jasper’s nihilistic, suicidal fixation. It accords him an inordinate amount of screen time that, quite honestly, added nothing to the season.
If the point was “this is one way that people can react to doom” that would have been fine. But, Jasper frequently took the role of accuser, especially toward Clarke. Not only does this play once again into the problematic treatment of female characters in leadership positions that the show struggled with last season, blaming Clarke for decisions that other people would also make (or didn’t want to) without giving them the same level of blame/guilt. It gave credence to his perspective. Jasper’s criticisms were frequently supported by other characters (like Monty), which lent an air of credibility to his choice of lifestyle and death.
Furthermore, the framing of 4.09’s suicide pact with the Delinquents seemed to be a moment of empowerment for them. They were taking their death into their own hands rather than being forced to follow the corrupt, or at least suspect, authority of Clarke and Jaha. That they would have probably died in the final culling lends credence to this interpretation. Rather than being forcibly sorted and left to die by their leaders, they died happy and under their own power. Suicide, then, is an empowering way to face the real possibility of not surviving the apocalypse.
Why, then, do episodes 4.10–4.13 repeatedly call this event an act of cowardice? And nowhere is this perspective challenged. When Murphy calls Jasper a coward in 4.13, Monty gets angry, but does not deny it.
Is suicide an act of empowerment? If so, that at some level justifies Jasper being a nihilistic jerkwad most of the season. Except for the moments where he suddenly cares about people or decides to prop up Bellamy’s ‘redemption arc’. None of which make sense given Jasper’s outlook on life. But the plot demands he care about some people in order for him to be able to reasonably confront Clarke, so care he does. Until he doesn’t again. Empowerment comes at the price of consistency I guess.
Or, is suicide an act of cowardice? If that’s the ultimate message—which it seems to be because this is the final ‘word’ we get on suicide in season—screw you, The 100. Society already has a stigma against suicide precisely because many believe it is an act of cowardice and fear. “Weak” people die by suicide, not ‘strong’ people. BS. This way of thinking gets in the way of a lot of hurting people getting help and/or processing their grief after a family member dies by suicide.
It can’t both be empowerment and cowardice and a joke (as Jasper seems to treat it much of the time) and Drama™. Trying to use suicide in all these ways isn’t nuance, it’s messy. And it’s a topic that deserves to be treated with more respect.
I had hoped that the decision to not kill of Jasper by suicide at the end of last season meant the team behind the show had done some soul searching regarding using it as a plot device for Dramatic™ tension. No such luck. Instead of a single moment we got a long, drawn out plotline that both cheapened a serious topic and perpetuated society’s harmful perceptions about it.
Ultimately, it doesn’t even matter if they intended the former message of empowerment rather than the latter. By not actively contradicting the message that ‘suicide = cowardice’ the show reinforced the harmful conceptualization of suicide as an act of fear and weakness. By trying to employ suicide as Drama™, the show fell head first into problematic implications.
Look, I’m not trying to be overly critical just to be snide. I’m genuinely baffled at what my takeaways were meant to be this season. The recurring phrases this season of “there was no good choice” and “giving up one’s humanity to survive” nuance certain character’s behavior (like Abby, Kane, and Clarke) while excusing horrendous acts of violence in others (like Jaha and Bellamy). At the same time, the message reinforces the rising national and international perspective of “us first” (or in America’s case, “the US first”) while masquerading as moral nuance.
It’s more than a failure to address the xenophobia that pervades a certain vocal subset of America’s cultural mentality. Such messaging actively perpetuates the inward looking tribalism we see all around us, even in the highest levels of American governmental office. In such a cultural environment, even unintentional spreading of such a worldview is unforgiveable. The implications are not difficult to suss out if you take the time to look at narrative presented to us. Someone ought to have noticed this and taken pains to at the very least clarify the intended thematic takeaways.
Again, I’m not certain this was an intentional move on the show’s part. But that’s part of what bothers me. It highlights the fundamental laziness with which The 100 has handled and continues to handle sensitive subjects, themes, and characters. They clearly want to be a meaningful show that tackles heavy subject matter. But whenever they do, they drop the ball and end up perpetuating harmful stereotypes. I don’t have to accept a handful of good character moments with a side of xenophobia and an insensitive approach to the topic of suicide. Not to mention the sloppy worldbuilding and pacing and a decided drop in the representation of and screen time for queer characters and storylines.
At the same time, I know it’s trying. There are some who might tell me that trying counts for a lot with this show. They gave Clarke a happy ending (that’s not really an ending, so who knows what they’ll do with her next season)! My answer? So what?
They gave lip service to a handful of concerns that some of the audience had pointed out to them. Good job. At the same time, they doubled down on the problematic aspects of the treatment and characterization of Grounders this season. They continued the thread of propping up characters who had committed atrocious crimes to the point of excusing their behavior multiple times before dropping the issue. If their crimes from last season were even addressed at all *cough Jaha*.
All the while, Clarke spent the first half of the season being yelled at and criticized for her leadership choices in trying to save the most people she could, just like last season. And when they weren’t doing that, they were setting up a false character arc for her regarding Lexa’s legacy that they then decided to ditch in favor of giving it to Octavia. Octavia got to be heda and Clarke got a break from being in charge, but their arcs were entirely unearned in the overall perspective of the season. Meanwhile, Clarke’s grief gets all of 15 seconds while we were forced to watch a suicidal, hedonistic Jasper spew his nihilistic bs that stems from his grief over Maia for far longer than was necessary. Jaha became Pike 2.0, and Raven’s disability defined her entire arc.
Needless to say, little has changed on the whole in the show’s treatment of women and characters of color from last season.
The best I can say is that Monty got to be the hero instead of the sidekick. And he got a love interest. Which is cool, and I’m happy for him. But that’s not a lot to base a changing approach to characters from marginalized communities on. Especially when you recall the sidelining of queer characters/romances and the voyeuristic replaying of Lincoln’s death.
Oh, and Abby’s brain injury did nothing, added nothing, and went nowhere. It was just a woman suffering just to suffer. And to make us think Clarke was going to die because Abby had a prophetic vision. So…just a plot point. The suffering of female characters is a plot point now. Cool.
By the end of the season, the narrative had given credence to an ‘us-centered’ morality eerily similar to what we see gaining ground in our current political climate. Only Skaikru count as people and saving them matters more than saving Grounders. Keeping ‘my people’ safe matters more than keeping ‘all people’ safe, and sacrificing the former for the latter is an act of inhumanity. It’s not a good look for a show claiming to be relevant, even if unintentional.
The saddest part to me when looking at the character arcs is the wasted potential. All of these actors do such a great job selling their roles; they do the best they can with what they’re given, which is sloppy and lazy most of the time. Still, when they’re on point, they’re glorious. Richard Harmon puts so much pathos into John Murphy this season, same with Luisa D’Oliviera as Emori. Put those two in a room together and you can’t tear your eyes away. Lindsey Morgan has been a favorite of mine from the start, and despite how uncomfortable Raven’s arc makes me, Morgan puts her whole heart into it. I can’t but feel for Raven on the one hand while being frustrated at the degree of suffering in her narrative in the other.
I could say the same of so many other actors on the show, too. Eliza Taylor’s facial expressions mesmerize. Tasya Teles and Nadia Hilker have brought so much to this season as Echo and Luna. Truly, the Grounder ladies this season have been positively stunning in their ability to embody their roles and create pathos for their characters. Luna’s scenes with Raven were both stunningly sweet and tragic and beautiful all in one. And ship-inspiring, but that’s another story.
For all that Bellamy is not my favorite character, Bobby Morley really is talented. He deserves to play a much better written character. Paige Turco and Henry Ian Cusick kill it as Abby and Kane; for a show focused on teenagers, these two adult characters manage to be in my top ten solely based on how powerfully these actors play them. They have so much chemistry and play off each other so well. Their final scenes together this season were heartbreaking.
So yes, certain subplots were compelling. Certain emotional beats and character moments drew me in and engaged my sympathies. I have ships I can applaud and ones I can headcanon (some of which are now dead thanks to Luna being killed).The actors do the best job they can with what they’re given and sometimes manage to elevate the script above itself. But as I’ve said elsewhere, that’s not enough for me at the end of the day. Maybe it’s enough for other viewers, and that’s a perfectly valid perspective to have. It’s just not mine. The show has failed to address almost every one of my major concerns on almost every level. Or if it has addressed it, it has made slow and almost insignificant progress while focusing its energies on other, less important things.
“It’s going to take more than inconsistent themes and characterizations to win me over to neutral. Redemption is earned by making different choices, not by calling yourself redeemed and pretending it never happened.”—A Few Good Character Moments Are Not Enough
And yet, that’s precisely what they’ve done this season. Called themselves, and their characters, redeemed and pretended all the terrible choices they made last year didn’t happen. I’m still far more fond of the self indulgent version of this show I created in my head than I am in what graces my screen. There’s so much wasted potential mixed in with all the nonsense and issues, and it makes me sad. I loved this show for two and a half seasons. I wanted it to be more, better. And it could have been. Alas, this season has failed to move me much from my opinion at the end of last season.
In short, you still have a long way to go, The 100, if you’re going to convince me you’re actually listening to your audience and your characters.