“We’re back, bitches!”
Like many-a pilot, the first episode of The 100 could have led to a different show, and that show would have very much been knocked off from The Hunger Games and by extension Twilight. Clarke is our Katniss, and around her are set up the nice boy whose feelings are not reciprocated (Wells) and the bad boy with an honorable soul (Finn) to vie for her heart, a contrasting rival (Octavia) and a clear antagonist (Bellamy, who also happens to be the baddest of boys), and a pair of wacky goobers (Jasper and Monty). Watching the pilot again, it’s easy to imagine, like I did the first time I watched it, the show continuing on with fleeting, grim-seeming but ultimately bloodless adventures that end with the characters shouting “WOOOOO!” at each other in victory, punctuated by a new field of bioluminescent flora every week. And that would have been fine, but it wouldn’t (and initially didn’t) keep me from starting my nightly bike ride an hour earlier the next week, and certainly wouldn’t have me thinking about how the show compares to Buffy beyond the obvious teen soap on the CW connection.
In hindsight, though, the episode’s end, with Jasper taking a spear to the chest, should have been a stronger signal that the show intended to venture down a much darker and starker path—not just because it’s a surprise (it really isn’t), or because it reveals, as Clarke says, the eponymous 100 aren’t alone on Earth with the gargantuan water-snakes and two-faced deer. No, it’s the violence, the way Jasper gets ripped off his feet, leaving him gasping and dumbfounded with the spear still sticking from his chest. “So,” you might say, “it could have been a cheaply violent YA dystopia knock off?” Well, sure, but honestly, that wouldn’t have been so bad, either. Just because it’s for the young is no reason media shouldn’t be harshly violent—honestly, being bloody and body-filled is probably better than empty action. And make no mistake, The 100 is shockingly violent, very refreshing for something not on cable. Really, though, Jasper’s flying carcass signals the show didn’t intend to fuck around and pull punches.
Between “Chosen” and this, in no small part because of Buffy, being serialized became super cool, leading to a few shows becoming so decompressed no one watched because they were so busy setting up cool stuff to come up soon, guys, don’t worry, they forgot to actually do anything cool, so they were canceled before they could get to anything they were setting up. Had The 100 come around in that time, it’s easy to imagine it spending a good bit of time establishing the kids while aboard the Ark (it’s also easy to imagine this if they had more than 13 episodes). These days, though, while serialization is still super cool, people are a bit more realistic about their odds of renewal, so accordingly, the show wastes absolutely no time getting to the point, which necessarily necessitates a fair bit of clunky exposition (my favorite is the hilarious “That’s the girl who lived in the floor for 16 years!” shouted from off-camera. Thanks, mystery voice!) so we know what is going on.
What’s going on is this: for the past 97 years, about 10,000 people have survived a cataclysmic nuclear war aboard the Ark, a massive space station lashed together from 12 national space stations, waiting for the radiation on Earth to reach livable levels, projected to be a another century in the future. With supplies extremely limited, everything is strictly rationed, and any crime committed by anyone over the age of 18 is punished by death. One hundred juvenile offenders are loaded into a dropship, given pardons, and sent to Earth to see if the surface actually is survivable now, and are tasked with locating a known supply cache at Mount Weather. One such parolee is Clarke, who is smart, imaginative, pragmatic, and a bit brusque and jaded, and has a mother of some power. Also going down to Earth is the hated Chancellor’s son Wells, who got himself arrested when he heard Clarke was being sent to the ground, but Clarke hates Wells for his role in getting her father arrested and executed. There is also Finn, who, in the most fitting character introduction, gets two others killed trying to make himself look cool. The dropship is damaged, all communication with the Ark is lost, save the biometric monitor bracelets each of the 100 wear, and then, they land.
All that gets covered in the first five minutes.
We may not spend long with those our preconceived notions of how YA dystopia works encourage use to think are our main characters aboard the Ark, but we return to it frequently. Good thing, because doing so gives us a better picture of the pressures and constraints that shaped the 100, but also I think the Ark is a simple enough concept (“Everything is rationed.”) but endlessly fascinating and compelling. Everything being rationed means everything, and when you take on survival as a theme, making oxygen a concern is a great choice. Buffy was often lightly about how older generations can abuse and exploit the younger, and this theme is quite dominant in YA dystopias, The 100 very much included—the show’s banner image on Netflix is some evocative promo art of young bodies falling through the sky like rain, selling that theme pretty hard while also getting the tone of the show across brilliantly—but the means by which that theme is examined can often feel like an afterthought. But there is motivation for everything done on and by the Ark, and that motivation is deprivation. Every second a character is on screen you are reminded of that deprivation in their faded, worn, and patched over (though still immaculately fitted) clothes. Ark society is quite cruel—while an obvious power-play, the amiss thing in Kane’s attempt to execute Abby for using too much morphine saving Chancellor Jaha was not the execution, but that he attempted it before Jaha was confirmed dead—but unlike a lot of fictional societies meant to examine the lengths of survival, the cruelty of the Ark feels earned. But the Ark isn’t also so strange it has to prevent the kids from acting like kids, exuberant, reckless, and dumb after living under such restrictiveness for so long.
While Abby and Kane duel over beneficence and pragmatism up in space, the same debate plays out on the ground with sympathies reversed as the angry, disenchanted, and dispossessed of the 100 (which is most of them) are more swayed by Bellamy’s “Whatever the hell we want!” than Wells’ “Look, I know being on Earth is amazing and all, guys, but we really need to start constructing shelter and collecting water so things are in order when the people who imprisoned us and threw us away because we’re expendable come down here.” Bellamy has some less than selfless reasons behind his revolt of the underclass, and Wells should probably have considered how popular he’d be considering how many parents his dad had executed, complicating their positions considerably.And ultimately, those considerations are a good enough sign to overcome that over-ass-played Imagine Dragons song.