It now seems hard to believe, but there was a time when the CW’s apocalyptic sci-fantasy The 100 was receiving high praise. The show’s second season even received some good critical reviews, being as it was a cohesive, character-driven discussion of conflict with strong themes.
Season 2 of The 100 took the characterisation it established in its messy and often silly first year and then let those dominos fall organically over an intelligent and well-written season that examined a range of complex moral and ethical issues. It was by far the peak of the show’s writing and hooked a lot of viewers looking for exactly this kind of show.
Season 2 examined such war-time quandaries as the World War 2 Coventry bombing – where the Allies had to decide between evacuating Coventry and letting the Germans know they cracked their code – and the ethics of handing over your citizens to an enemy for punishment over war crimes.
The extent to which preserving life conflicts with the need to take it is a question the show asks repeatedly throughout its run and nowhere near as powerfully or as painfully as in the finale of its second season.
There was a time, long long ago in a galaxy far far away, when The 100 used to have something to say. Something more profound than “humanity sucks” and “we’re all doomed”.
As someone of the strongly-held opinion that humanity does, in fact, suck and we are definitely all doomed, it’s not that I disagree with the writers’ pessimism generally. But execution matters in television. So does thematic coherence, plotting and consistent characterisation. A tragedy born of humanity’s inherent flaws must first start with believably flawed humans. The tragedy is therefore organic and the viewer is able to hold out hope while being borne towards the inevitable.
A show like the iconic Breaking Bad is the perfect example of this, as is the recent Korean drama Extracurricular. Create strong characters, expose them to an external impetus, and then explore their behaviour from there. Great television comes when the external does not overwhelm the internal but merely uses it to showcase the show’s themes.
It’s why characterisation matters even more in plot-driven genres such as science fiction. Yet ironically it’s the one thing science fiction writers often struggle with. As seasons progress, the temptation to grab your character and place them where you want them to be and get them to do what you want them to do gets stronger. But great science fiction resists this temptation, as recent shows like The Expanse have shown us.
The 100 is not great science fiction. But its early flirtation with greatness is why the show’s biggest tragedy is not the annihilation of Earth but of itself.
The 100’s problem over the last several years is that it has reduced its characters – all its characters – to ciphers. And its main concept – that humanity begins and ends at the need for survival – is simply recycled over and over again in new and frequently uninteresting ways until the show is some kind of fifth-generation writing paper that retains the memory of what it once was but falls apart as soon as you try to put a pen to it.
The show unfolding on our televisions bears little resemblance to the show that started all the way back in 2014. Earth is gone, destroyed by humanity and its penchant for destruction. Last season we met the inhabitants of Sanctum; a society on a new planet run by a cult and looking remarkably like Stargate SG:1 and The Shannara Chronicles had a rather confused baby.
Why The 100 destroyed Earth and proceeded with a new planet made little sense to me when they arranged a new, bigger Praimfaya at the end of Season 4 and then finally destroyed what was left of Earth at the end of Season 5.
But now their reasoning seems clear and it has little to do with coherent storytelling or commitment to the show. It has everything to do with setting up one or more spinoffs; including a prequel for which we got an excruciating backdoor pilot that merely made this season even more plodding.
It also does this show no favours to keep comparing itself to a show like SG1, one that retained its themes, characterisation and wit through eight seasons and – while somewhat compromised by changing networks – was still worth watching at season 10.
Since its seventh and final season started, The 100 has been many things. But the worst of these is that it’s tiresome. Previous seasons of the show have suffered from the same criticisms: that it separates the characters we most care about; that it tries to mask a lack of plot with a lot of running around; that its ethical quandaries have become somewhat trite; that it uses time jumps off screen to change character dynamics rather than showing organic development; and that the showrunner treats badly any actor he’s had a personal falling out with (this season it’s Bob Morley, who plays the very popular Bellamy).
For many people, Bellamy and Clarke’s relationship has underpinned the show from the beginning whether you see it as potentially romantic or not. Both are natural leaders but Clarke has traditionally been a high-level strategic thinker while Bellamy is emotional and relationship-based.
Known thematically as the head and the heart, the show’s contention that they work better together is a strong metaphor for the marriage of an evidence-based and a human-based approach. Bellamy needs Clarke to stop him from reacting too quickly and rashly, Clarke needs Bellamy to keep her grounded. Bellamy, you could say, doesn’t see the forest for the trees. Clarke forgets the forest is made up of trees. Either way, for societies to function properly, we need both.
By benching Bellamy, the 100 has cut out the literal heart of its show. And by removing Clark from the position of strategic leader it has also lost its head. As such, Season 7 suffers from a new problem: it’s boring and thematically weak.
To lay the groundwork they need for the future spinoffs, the cast has been splintered into three plotlines. Indra, Murphy, Emory and the rest of Earth’s refugees are back at Sanctum, which is being threatened by
JR Bourne’s amazing scenery chewing Sheidheda who has taken over Russell Prime’s body. Diyoza, Hope, Octavia and then Gabriel spend several years trying to escape from Skyring before arriving on the planet Bardo, run by a cult. And Clarke, Raven, Niylah, Miller and the insufferable Jordan are bouncing through the Stargate network the anomaly transit system looking for their friends.
The 100 is attempting a kaleidoscopic mode of storytelling, one that they first used for the bunker plotline in Season 5. A kaleidoscopic structure involves episodes that tell us pieces of the overall story, leading finally to an episode that brings the whole picture together.
It’s a frustrating structure if not handled expertly, especially if your characterisation is weak. And for most characters on our screens, we simply haven’t had enough time or development for them to be anything but.
With all the running around, flashbacks and characters popping into and out of anomalies, it’s difficult at this point of the season to know if the plot is moving too quickly or if the problem is that there is no plot at all. What theme is The 100 even exploring? At this stage I couldn’t tell you and that was something I could do even in the nadir of previous seasons.
Worse than that, the retcons needed to make a prequel work have undermined much of the show’s original mythology. I have yet to see a parent show that wasn’t gutted to birth its dramatic offspring – the aforementioned Stargate SG-1 being one of the few exceptions – and The 100 seems determined to do the same thing. Many of the show’s more original and organic elements – such as the evolution of the language Trigedasleng or the rise of the tribal culture the 100 encountered when they first landed – have been sacrificed to the promised prequel.
With the show on hiatus until August and seven episodes left, it’s possible the writers will manage to draw this all together in an ending that is satisfying. But at this stage they seem more determined to set themselves up for future shows than in resolving this one in any coherent way.
And that’s a sad end to this particular story.