In The 100 season 3, I find myself drawn toward the ever-more enigmatic John Murphy. So how the hell did the series’ most despicable villain turn into the best character on TV?!
Since its beginning, The 100 has played with the notion of the traditional ‘bad boy’ archetype. And, like with most other TV tropes, it’s thrown the notion out the window.
In many other shows (see Lost, Buffy, Sons of Anarchy… uh, and Gossip Girl, no judgement), we’re presented with a pretty clear-cut roster of characters that usually include the straight-laced hero, the bad boy, the ‘strong’ woman, the damsel in distress, the wise mentor, etc.
Not so on The 100, which constantly subverts fan expectations and reminds jaded audiences that, yes, a character can be more than their archetype dictates.
This is why we saw the classic Good Guy Wells killed off after two episodes, while rogue(ish) Finn transformed into the show’s moral compass, and handsome rascal Bellamy would continue doing pretty terrible things for most of season 1 before circumstances finally forced him to fill Finn’s shoes and become the hero we all knew he could be.
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And by The 100 season 3, there’s no real Han Solo archetype left on the show — the characters’ enemies have simply been too gruesome for there to be any room for moral ambiguity among our leads. Even Kane, who did his best to piss people off in the first half of season 2 (I still have shocklash nightmares), was compelled to be the voice of reason when faced with Jaha’s madness.
Yes, our heroes do plenty of bad things, but they do so from a place of compassion (and/or desperation). Right now, the closest we come to an antihero is Lexa, and that’s a pretty far throw; she is clearly a good person at heart, and makes all her decisions based on an over-arching desire for peace.
At the end of the day, most of our characters are decent people trying to do the best they can in a terrible world, and I appreciate that on a storytelling level. They make choices — sometimes bad choices — but as a viewer, you’re with these people every step of the way.
But with most of our lead characters ultimately sympathetic and relatable, one lone antihero remains to fulfill our Sawyer/Spike/Malfoy/Chuck/[insert your own bad boy here] needs: John Murphy.
Played to perfection by Richard Harmon, Murphy was unequivocally, universally loathed in season 1, and for good reason. He was your clear-cut villain, there mainly to make Bellamy look better by comparison. His crimes are many and unforgivable: He almost pushed a girl into the fire, he tried to maim and/or kill Wells, he bullied Octavia, and he was more than ready to string up Charlotte after the crowd went wild on him. And then he did actually string up Bellamy, after snuffing out most of his henchmen (luckily Miller survived that massacre, or I might not have been quite so lenient now), and by the end of the season there was still nothing redeemable about Murphy whatsoever.
Cut to season 2, which opened with Raven and Murphy’s hilarious and refreshing tete-a-tete, which started (appropriately) with Raven trying to shoot his brains out, and Murphy smirking sadly. “Yeah, I would’ve shot me, too,” he said, and thus began our era of introspective!Murphy, the perfect counterpoint to our dry and serious heroes. At this time, Murphy was so damaged and broken that he could see the light side of any situation, whether he was up against Raven, Bellamy, or Finn.
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Enter Thelonious Jaha, and the most unlikely buddy-cop comedy duo in recent TV history. I’ve said before that pairing Murphy with Jaha is one of the cleverest writing decisions Rothenberg and his team have ever made (and they’ve made many) because not only do Isaiah Washington and Richard Harmon have surprisingly great chemistry, but Murphy was in the unexpected position of suddenly being the lesser of two evils.
Of course Jaha isn’t evil, per se, but his fanaticism allows him a ruthlessness that the emotionally-driven Murphy will never be able to match. Murphy will strike out in anger and fear, he’ll even cause pain because it’s a power trip and makes him feel a little less vulnerable, but he’d never play God with other people’s lives in the dispassionate, cold way Jaha did in season 2.
Not only was Murphy’s wry commentary the highlight of that storyline, but his increasingly horrified reactions to Jaha’s actions gave the character a new sense of self: He realized that even his considerable dark side had its limits.
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His new level of self-awareness became apparent in last week’s episode of The 100, when he told Emori, “Pain. Hate. Envy. Those are the ABCs of me.” We’re emerging with a Murphy that isn’t necessarily less selfish or sociopathic than what he was, but who has learned the hard way there are much worse things than himself out there in the jungle — and if he sticks by Emori long enough, he’ll probably also realize that there’s more to life than pushing other people down to validate himself.
Importantly, Murphy’s crimes cannot and should not be forgiven, neither by the audience nor the characters. But one of the best things about The 100 is that it preaches hope in dark times, and proves that even bad people can do good things (and vice versa) under the right circumstances. People evolve. They grow. They change. It’s the writers’ challenge to make these changes feel believable, and it’s our challenge, as the audience, to accept the changes when they do come.
Murphy will never be a good guy, but that doesn’t mean he can’t be a hero. He will never be redeemed, but that doesn’t mean he can’t do good things. Like all the other characters on The 100, he will continue to be shaped by his experiences, navigating his way through the increasingly murky moral waters.
And while I enjoy this new, semi-conscientious Murphy, I really hope he keeps doing selfish, terrible things, because I enjoy the ambiguity of his character. The 100 has plenty of heroes, and nothing impresses me more than when a TV show manages to make me root for a character I swore I could never forgive — and suddenly, forgiveness is the furthest from my mind because the narrative has simply forced me to move past it.
No one’s forgotten what a scumbag Murphy is, half-rotten with guilt and self-loathing. But in this immediate world — in stark contrast to the Ark — you aren’t judged by your past mistakes. You’re judged by every action you make, in every moment, because on the ground, your past and your future falls away: There is only the present, and you are only measured by how far you’re willing to go to survive. And surviving just happens to be Murphy’s specialty.
The fact that Murphy has up until this point been a pretty terrible human being, yet at the same time is also funny, relatable, fragile, brave, scared, and a character I have come to genuinely root for, speaks both to the incredible acting talent of Richard Harmon and the strength of writing so often celebrated on The 100. Now that he’s a regular character, I hope that’s confirmation of him sticking around, because I haven’t been this intrigued and genuinely surprised by a character in a long time.