It is hard to write and cast compelling villains. But on The 100, the ‘villains’ are so compelling because they are heroes in their own right.

The 100 tells many versions of the same story. At its core, the sci-fi series (like all the best sci-fi) is an exploration of the human condition, an exposé of desperate people under desperate circumstances.

Each season, a new way to be human has been introduced: a new ‘us vs them’ conflict used to illustrate how we define ourselves and ‘the other’ and use those arbitrary definitions to determine worth and legitimacy.

Related: The 100: Kabby, commitment, and the demon of addiction

One of the things that makes The 100 such important television is that it invites viewers to forgive — or at least sympathize with — the main characters when they do horrible things to save their own people.

In many ways, this series is an exercise in empathy: what would you do, if faced with these impossible choices? How would you justify your actions? How would you treat those who made choices equal to your own, but which negatively affected you and your loved ones?

“I had no choice”; “We did what we had to do”; “Who we are and who we need to be to survive are very different things.” These are just a few of the recurring quotes used to express the characters’ moral quandaries, all derivative of the overriding mission statement: that despite what the characters try to convince themselves and each other, “there are no good guys.”

Over the course of the series, these phrases have been used in so many different ways and contexts to communicate the same sentiment: all is relative. Anything can be ‘true’ from a subjective, selective point of view. There is always another side, with their own reasons, and neither side is objectively good. All anyone can do is their best.

And as it is for the heroes, so it is for the villains, most of whom are not villains at all. The 100 certainly has protagonists and antagonists (though even those categories are fluid — some heroes live long enough to become villains, and vice versa), but at the end of the day, there are no good guys, and there are no bad guys. There are just guys.

In The 100 season 5, we are presented with two equally ‘bad’ parties, Eligius and Wonkru, locked in an unnecessary conflict over a patch of land that appears to be easily shareable. Once again, The 100 offers no right or wrong side, but rather a fascinating study of what desperate people can be moved to do for their people.

And just as each individual character has to claim their allegiance to one people or another, it is up to each individual audience member to decide who to root for and why.

The cycle repeats

The 100 jaha clarke

As mentioned above, The 100 tells many versions of the same story. The players change, but the game remains the same: it is always about two or more factions fighting an ideological war, ostensibly territorial, but ultimately for one faction’s inherent ‘right’ to life and land over another’s.

This is a story about leadership, humanity, and war. There will always be another ‘them’ to oppose the ‘us,’ however we construct those categories, and there will always be leaders believing that they are justified in their own horrific actions, even while condemning the other side for the same behavior. The day the characters learn to share and coexist is the day the story ends.

Each season, at least one new faction of humanity is introduced to facilitate a new version of the ‘us vs them’ conflict. In season 1 it was the Grounders versus Skaikru; in season 2 it was the Grounders versus Skaikru versus the Mountain Men; in season 3 it was the Grounders versus Skaikru versus ALIE versus Farm Station — with countless tiny struggles within all of these factions, and characters switching sides/allegiances, all serving to further muddy the waters and preventing the audience from picking one side and sticking with it.

Season 4 deviated somewhat from the formula in that there was not really an ‘us vs them’ conflict, in that Praimfaya was a natural force as opposed to a new human enemy. But, tellingly, even when faced with the extinction of their species, humanity’s instinct was still to construct us vs them conflicts, continuing to tear each other apart for arbitrary reasons.

The 100 season 4 was characterized by desperate actions, wrong choices and bad decisions, as everyone fought to ‘prove’ why their people was the most worthy of surviving Praimfaya. Every man for himself, every clan for itself, as the remnants of humanity scrambled for purchase on crumbling grounds of unity.

When the world ended, Wonkru rose from the ashes, a united clan of Grounders and Skaikru led by Octavia Blake. And, for one shining moment, Wonkru seemed like it might offer a solution to humanity’s persistent ‘tribalism problem.’

But in The 100 season 5, we have to reckon with the fact that Wonkru is just a new clan in place of the old, quickly defining itself in opposition not only to Eligius but to SpaceKru and Clarke.

With the six-year time jump, The 100 has proved that the ‘us vs them’ separations truly are arbitrary. Wonkru is a construct, just as Azgeda and Trikru and Farm Station and Mecha Station were constructs.

And with the time jump, The 100 has also proved that we humans cling to the separations between us desperately, regardless of what those separations are.

It is of course a testament to both the writers’ and actors’ incredible talent that every single character on the show is able to realistically ‘switch sides’ either as they evolve or as their goal changes, and not only does it feel believable in the moment, but it doesn’t erase everything else the character has been up until that point.

Characters that start out being semi-antagonists — e.g. Murphy, Indra, Kane, Lexa, Anya, Echo and Roan — end up being allies to some of our point-of-view characters, even while remaining enemies to others, and it always feels like an organic part of their journey.

Meanwhile, the characters that start off as ‘good people’ do not stay unambiguously good, with the series constantly challenging our allegiances to main characters like Clarke, Bellamy, Abby, Jasper and (most notably) Octavia as their actions grow increasingly desperate in pursuit of what they believe is the ‘right’ course of action.

And nobody is safe from moral ambiguity: whether introduced as a hero or a villain, every main and recurring player on The 100 has the potential to do great or horrible things depending on the circumstances they are thrown into. (And going down one path doesn’t mean that they can’t go down a different path at a later stage in their journey.)

On The 100, everyone has a person or a people for whom they are willing to do anything, and it is up to the individual viewer to decide which characters they will follow over the edge and why.

The 100 season 5 further complicates the situation, as the deck has been reshuffled and everyone is now fighting for a new ‘us’ against a different ‘them.’ Add to that an insolvable land dispute that involves yet another branch of humanity, and you’ve got the series’ most ambiguous, interesting conflict to date.

Team Eligius: ‘The 100’s’ best villains yet

Charmaine Diyoza (Ivana Milicevic) wasn’t expecting to come home to a world that had been ravaged by not one, but two apocalypses. A decorated Navy SEAL-turned-freedom fighter/terrorist, depending on who you ask, Diyoza led an uprising against the “fascist government” of her time — which is our time — and, after a botched attempt at taking her own life, was sentenced to hard labor at a mining colony in space.

There could be a whole separate show in which Diyoza was the main character. Despite the fact that she’s only appeared in five episodes of The 100 so far, and we have in fact been given only a fraction of her story, she already feels like a fully formed, complex individual, with Ivana Milicevic layering a multitude of conflicting emotions into every line of dialogue she has.

Like Lexa and Luna before her, Diyoza only offers up brief pieces of what feels like a massive, elaborate backstory that fully informs her character and intrigues us from the get-go, instantly making her not likeable, exactly, but certainly interesting.

Bits of exposition and other characters’ impressions of her help fill in the blanks, to the point where we understand what kind of person she is, but don’t know all that she is; we know what she wants, but we don’t know all that she wants.

What we do know is that Diyoza is ruthless, shrewd, hard-edged and incredibly dangerous to anyone she considers an enemy to her people. And we know that she believes she is fighting a just cause.

While much of the Eligius faction’s backstory has yet to be revealed, we also know that, at some point during or after their stay on “the rock,” Diyoza teamed up with mob boss enforcer McCreary to stage an uprising, somehow convincing the pilot, Shaw, to help them take over the transport vessel and fly it back to Earth.

McCreary and Shaw, respectively the devil and angel on Diyoza’s shoulders, both have utility to her — Shaw steers the ship, McCreary steers the crew — and she seems equally willing to go along with either of their perspectives, depending on what best suits her current agenda.

Paxton McCreary is remarkable in that he is one of the series’ only ‘pure’ villains: he is sadistic and takes pleasure in torturing young women, including Clarke and Raven, which should leave no room for moral ambiguity in the audience’s eyes. This is a bad dude.

But just because McCreary is evil doesn’t mean he’s not interesting — particularly because he is played by the infuriatingly charismatic William Miller, whose performance makes it almost impossible not to be intrigued by this character and his weird, undefinable relationship with Diyoza.

In direct moral opposition to McCreary is Jordan Bolger’s Shaw, the ‘good guy’ of the group. Shaw is the only surviving member of the original Eligius crew, who turned against his own people in order to help Diyoza take over the ship.

His motives beyond wanting to ensure his own survival are unclear, but we know he wanted Diyoza to spare his fellow crew members, and we know he disapproves of McCreary’s ruthless tactics.

Shaw is certainly not uncomplicated, but he is undoubtedly sympathetic, the Maya to Raven’s Jasper who will ultimately try to do what he thinks is right.

The three main Eligius characters are not only fully fleshed out individuals with wildly different personalities and moral alignments, but they already have a rich, complicated backstory that informs who they are and how they relate to each other. They are criminals, sure, but then again, so were the delinquents.

Although obviously there are key differences, the Eligius characters in many ways offer a mirror image of the delinquents when they first landed on Earth. A warped, murky mirror image, but the similarities are clear.

“We aren’t alone,” says Diyoza upon learning about the presence of ‘Grounders,’ echoing Clarke’s words from the pilot. She and McCreary strongly disagree on the tactic needed to deal with their perceived enemy, just like Clarke and Bellamy did; McCreary himself is quick to anger and violence, much like Murphy was. And Shaw, as the voice of reason and justice when dealing with the other side, becomes a combination of Octavia, Finn and Raven.

And while Diyoza is Clarke, Clarke is now the Grounders, defending her home and instantly marking the newcomers as dangerous, just as the Grounders did the delinquents. She spears one through the chest, like Roma was speared through the chest; she draws their weapons like Lincoln drew her people’s weapons.

As we continue to see the world through Clarke’s eyes, we are now forced to reckon with the fact that our sympathies are based on perspective, and perspective — like everything else on this show — is circumstantial.

And that is what The 100 is all about: perspective. When the show works best, it allows us to understand all sides of an issue, making a given conflict so ambiguous, so confusing and complicated and multifaceted, that picking a side is almost impossible.

A villain is the hero of another story

You would have thought that in a conflict between a united Grounder-Skaikru alliance led by Octavia Blake and an arriving group of assorted murderers and arsonists, it wouldn’t be hard to pick a side. And yet, Octavia “the wind has not met Wonkru” Blake has made it all too easy for Diyoza to craft an image of herself as the sensible one in comparison, both in the audience’s eyes and ours.

Even if 16-year-old Octavia Blake was your favorite character, you have to consider 22-year-old Blodreina and the clan she has built in our absence as an at least partially unknown entity. After the six-year time jump, most of the characters are semi-strangers to us, until the narrative fills in the blanks of their transformation, and Octavia’s story has a lot of ‘dark’ spots still to be illuminated.

Based on what we’ve seen so far, Blodreina’s willingness to kill her own people — including Kane, an audience favorite — and let devoted subjects die for her, stands in sharp contrast to Diyoza, who has not only claimed the Eligius prisoners as her people, but has claimed responsibility for their wellbeing. (And she saved Kane.)

And sure, the Eligius characters might be scary-looking criminals, by our modern standards, but it’s not like anyone on The 100 can claim the high ground as far as ‘murder’ is concerned. We don’t actually have a reason to consider the Eligius prisoners ‘worse people’ than Wonkru, who have spent the past six years cheering for death and fanatically obeying their leader’s every command.

Instead of allowing us to get to know Wonkru and understand their reasons better, the first few post-reunion episodes have tellingly been dedicated to letting Clarke and Bellamy (and the audience, through their eyes) discover just how dangerous everyone they thought they knew have become while they were off living their best lives.

Bellamy and Clarke, initially elated to get away from the threatening Eligius to reunite with their friends and family, have grown scared of Octavia to the point where they both, separately, considered defecting to Eligius to keep their people safe. And can you blame them?

Where Octavia has been shown willing to sacrifice her own people, and kill them to prove a point, Diyoza appares to value each individual person in her charge, and will go a long way to avoid unnecessary loss of life. She saved her fellow prisoners from whatever fate awaited them in space, and now she wants to save them from the mysterious sickness.

(She also wants them to follow her orders, play decent music and stop stomping on the flowers — basically, the bare minimum to prove that they are worth the effort.)

Right now, Diyoza certainly seems like the lesser of two evils. But that, again, is based on our limited perspective: Diyoza, master manipulator, has quickly keyed into Wonkru’s cultish fanaticism, and is now preying on Octavia’s weaknesses to make herself seem better by comparison. She tempts Wonkru with food, she tempts Kane with tequila, and she tempts the audience with wise words and reasonable compromises.

Objectively, Octavia is not worse, nor is she evil, and her accomplishments as Blodreina should not be overlooked. She did save her people in that bunker, and saving her people continues to be her goal as she sets her sights on Eden. Both Octavia and Diyoza considers herself and her people the ‘good ones,’ and that motivates them to see each other as antagonists.

This is, of course, a fully fabricated ‘us versus them’ conflict to inspire devotion in their respective followers. Because, as Jaha so wisely told Octavia before he died, you inspire unity by creating a shared enemy to unite against. “You are Wonkru, or you are the enemy of Wonkru.” Both Diyoza and Octavia are currently employing this tactic.

Meanwhile, we are stuck in the middle with Clarke and Bellamy, not a part of either ‘us,’ and unable to demonize the opposing ‘them.’ Because, lest we be blinded by the instinct to go along with the show’s formula and pick a side, let us remember that there doesn’t actually need to be a conflict at all: Eden itself is huge and easily shareable if not for the stubbornness and egos of humanity’s current leaders.

One garden, two serpents

The arrival of Eligius sets in motion yet another version of the primordial human conflict that The 100 is intent on digging into season after season: that of the people who arrive versus those who were already there.

What we are faced with is yet another land dispute with no clear right or wrong answer, and multiple sides who feel equally entitled to that land, and who are equally sympathetic (or antagonistic) in the audience’s eyes.

We are initially made to see the Eligius faction as the invading force because that is how Clarke sees them. She and Madi have lived in peace for six years, and suddenly, a group of heavily armed strangers arrive, threatening their home.

But, of course, it’s not that simple. After all, seeing as the Eligius prisoners in fact left the planet involuntarily 100 years ago, one might in fact consider them the ‘original Grounders,’ returning home to find that every trace of the world as they knew it has been destroyed.

Home is the key word here, and one of the over-arching concepts of season 5. Because what defines a home? A house? A place? A country? A planet? A family? And who can actually claim Eden as theirs?

Are Eligius, who lived on Earth first, the group with the strongest claim to Eden? Or is it Wonkru, most of whom were born on the surface more recently than Eligius, and some of whom actually used to belong to the Shallow Valley clan?

Or does Eden in fact rightfully belong to Madi, the only person born within that particular (arbitrarily defined) boundary who did not join Wonkru when the world ended? Can the word ‘rightful’ even be applied here, considering that there are no laws or judges to support such a right? And why does Eden actually have to belong to anyone?

The battle for Eden truly is a rat race (or a snake race), with everyone fighting an individual battle for their chosen clan or family, and with nobody seemingly willing to consider forgoing yet another manufactured conflict in favor of sharing the space.

If The 100 has an over-arching message, it is that the greatest threat to humanity is humanity itself: here is this one uncorrupted piece of a broken Earth that offers humanity a fresh start — a literal Eden — and rather than use it to bring people together and forge a better world, humanity immediately engages in a battle to determine which faction the territory belongs to? Maybe Monty is right: maybe nobody deserves the space.

The 100 505 Shifting Sands review

And that’s the point. The 100 season 5 is not about Wonkru vs Eligius; it’s not who Eden belongs to, or who deserves it, or who wants it more. It’s not about identifying the ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ side.

Rather, it is about humanity once again being unable to let go of its arbitrary us/them binaries in order to minimize conflict, with the leaders du jour locked in yet another unnecessary power struggle because of their shared inability to back down. This is a wholly man-made conflict that has no logical solution, and no easily identifiable good guys and bad guys.

Clarke Griffin said it best, in her season premiere monologue/mission statement:

“The truth is, the other side had reasons, too. Their reasons to want us dead were the same as ours. It was us or them, kill or be killed, simple as that.”

It seems that, even after two apocalypses, humanity still has not been able to move on from that mindset. And as the story stands right now, it doesn’t look like they will ever be able to. (But of course there is always hope!)

The 100 is a never-ending story of interchangeable warring factions who all believe that they alone are correct, without being able to see or acknowledge the bigger picture. It is truly a powerful commentary on the world as we know it.

In a media landscape that seems to struggle with creating truly great villains, The 100 season 5 gets it exactly right, because it foregoes the idea of villains in favor of creating people. Instead of enforcing exaggerated archetypes in order to separate the good from the bad, The 100 allows all its characters, antagonists and protagonists alike, to be flawed, contradictory and complicated — in other words, to be human.

‘The 100’ season 5 returns Tuesday at 9/8c on The CW

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