Wednesday, January 27, 2016

The 100: Season 1, Episode 3

“I guess we are going to have to get used to people dying down here, aren’t we?”

I imagine this is a story you’d recognize:
            In the adventuring crew, there’s an adorable moppet, the youngest among them, only barely more than a child. She’s small, fragile, traumatized, very frightened, haunted by nightmares, and could use some help and encouragement. The moppet gets some coaching, some platitudes, she’s encouraged to confront and face her fears, find strength so she can find peace. Then, the moppet then stabs and kills a major character, because her nightmares are of his father executing her parents, and every time she sees him, she sees his father, too. “Oh, that old trope!” I’m sure you exclaimed.
            Clarke was right: Wells should not have come to the ground.
            In a hilarious bit of understatement, Charlotte killing Wells, prompted by Bellamy’s words, mimicking Clarke’s actions, yet given opportunity by Wells’ dunderheaded ideas of gallantry, is a real turning point, and more than anything else I’ve said convinced me this show was worth paying serious attention to. After all, if you just want a post-apocalyptic flavored teen soap, you don’t kill the “Nice Guy” leg of your narrative tripod in episode three. Yet, Wells is dead, killed by the simultaneously least likely, yet most inevitable person.
            That comes at the end, though. Before the shock of Wells’ murder, I was amused by the show getting its Lost on. I mean, there does seem to be a smoke monster afoot. Also, there’s a sequence of flashbacks.
            Flashbacks are tainted in the minds of many because of some antipathy toward Lost. The stupidest thing I’ve ever heard is someone calling flashbacks a “lazy crutch, because they show you what happened, rather than having characters tell.” That was in reference to The Americans, by the way. Point is, they’re actually a remarkably powerful narrative tool, and one The 100 is pretty judicious with, employing them to illuminate the complicated circumstances behind relationships—it seems exceedingly unlikely we’re going to get an episode devoted to Monty growing weed any time soon, nor one all about the crimes that got Murphy arrested (even now, I don’t think we actually know what Murphy did to end up in the Skybox, but we don’t really need to—his imprisonment seems likely to be quite justified). And we don’t see Clarke’s arrest, or Wells’ for that matter. We do get to see them in better days, before Clarke was hardened by loss and Wells was burdened by secrets, when they could kick back with their dads and talk smack over a century-and-a-half old soccer match (another great and sad detail of Ark life, evocative and mysterious). It also affords us the opportunity to witness an execution, the abrupt violence and sudden totality of the loss they create, and the dispassionate, implacable manner they are carried out, which can’t help but inform our understanding of Charlotte actions.
            It also gives some specificity to our understanding of Clarke, who is intelligent, cunning, skilled, focused, practical, resolute, highly moral, serious, and hard. She is a hard ass woman. She’s impatient, she doesn’t suffer fools, and while “she wears her heart on her sleeve” is accurate, that colloquialism is a bit too flowery and twee for her candor. She was perfectly willing to let her last words be “I do hate you.” You might not see these traits directly as being my issues with late-season Buffy, but they certainly are akin to those issues. That’s a big reason why I chose The 100, because as much as Buffy the Decider didn’t work, Clarke totally does work. Clarke is straight up awesome, because, among other things, she’s perfectly willing to let her last words be “I do hate you.” There are presumptions of what a youth-geared show should and should not do, and accordingly how their protagonists ought be, but those presumptions are false, and I thought some of my criticisms might imply I think otherwise. Both The 100 and Clarke Griffin complement Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Buffy, the Vampire Slayer in showing how far they pushed the form forward and how much further it’s come since their ends.
            But the show is not Clarke, the Ground Leader, it intends to be much more of an ensemble with a strong lead, and part of that effort involves asserting characters as independent from Clarke, instead of just bodies in her orbit. We regularly return to the worsening conditions on the Ark. Octavia does more than just be Clarke’s more amorous rival (indeed, by this episode she’s abandoned any thoughts of Finn). And while they are in conflict, Bellamy isn’t just Clarke’s antagonist.
            With Jasper ailing quite loudly, Bellamy strides onto the scene to drop a big post-apocalyptic theme/cliché: “I can make the hard decisions.” Most of the time in this genre, that “hard decision” revolves around murder. It does so here, too, but The 100 is smart enough to make the possible victim one of their own, and also smart enough to make Bellamy wrong on two fronts—by episode’s end, Jasper is on the road to recovery, but also it turns out Bellamy can’t actually make the hard decisions when he actually needs to. He, like many of these young characters, makes big assumptions and favors bold displays of competence and, to be honest, masculinity, that reality is unwilling to buttress. The words he imparts to Charlotte—“Fear doesn’t matter, what matters is what you do about it,” “Slay your demons while you’re awake, they won’t be there to get you in your sleep,” “When you feel afraid, hold tight to that knife and say ‘Screw you, I’m not afraid”—seem like the right things to say to him, and to we the audience too, as everything about the scene looks like a scene where the big, snarling heavy is humanized by his affection for the moppet. It’s not to be, though.
            Poor Adam, as an aside, gets impressively fucked up, from his scarred-over eyes to his nasty burns to the wheezing that speaks to blistered lungs. It’s tough to call “great,” because dude suffered hardcore, but you can’t go on thinking the 100 haven’t been dropped in the middle of an extremely dangerous environment.
            Despite being a bit of a weenie, Wells is no stranger to bold displays, which ends up being what gets him killed. He’s ultimately a casualty of the move away from YA dystopian forms, which express themselves most strongly in how some of what’s revealed is a little ridiculous. His choice to let Clarke think he sold out Jake so she doesn’t figure out it was actually Abby is the sort of thing the Nice Suitor should do, so any possible Warke or Clells shippers could cite his gallantry, but it’s a bit hard to swallow in the ensemble the show is rapidly becoming. And unfortunately, his story outside Clarke’s orbit is this one, where he pays a hefty price for his rather condescending protectivism of Clarke (his saying “No” for both of them when Finn discovers whiskey is pretty obnoxious). He thought he needed to keep Clarke safe, so he followed her into a dangerous exile surrounded by criminals who have reason to resent him if they don’t have reason to bear a vicious grudge against him. Someone, Murphy, another of Bellamy’s goons, someone was going to kill him. Charlotte’s just the one who did.
            Buffy took great delight in skewering cliché, punctuating the villains pompou speeches with subversive jokes, and in many ways The 100 continues on in that tradition. Their differing moods just require a different sort of skewering.

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