The 100 spotlights the need for unity through a tale of a fragmented humanity that appears unable to transcend the tribalism inherent to our species.
When The CW’s The 100 enters its fifth season in spring 2018, six years will have passed since the last remnants of the human race survived the second nuclear apocalypse.
Roles are set to be reversed as Clarke, a Sky Person, has now become one of the only Grounders left on the surface, claiming a small patch of survivable land for herself; Octavia and Wonkru are the new Mountain Men, presumably emerging from underground and assuming that the Eden territory is their birthright, and Eligius (potentially along with Bellamy and co.) are the new Sky People, coming down to invade someone else’s land/returning to their rightful homeland, depending on your point of view.
Related: Why The 100 is the best political show on television
The 100 has always been a story about warring sects of people fighting for survival and dominance, making a point that no matter how much the world changes, at its core, humanity will continue to make the same mistakes as our ancestors, falling into ever-shifting constellations of us versus them, right versus wrong; too focused on winning over ‘the other side’ (and justifying why their own side is ‘right’) to look at the big picture. In The 100 humanity is, as humanity has always been, its own worst enemy.
It is also an overtly relativist narrative, always careful to remind us that anyone considers herself the hero of her own story, and that multiple subjective ‘truths’ govern our actions and opinions at any given time.
At its best, The 100 expands the limits of both its characters’ and viewers’ empathy for and understanding of ‘the other,’ the multiple conflicting perspectives guiding the various main characters’ actions illustrating the sometimes hard-to-grasp fact that just because someone else’s worldview differs from yours doesn’t make it wrong.
But perhaps, underneath the thought-provoking exploration of the human condition (valuable on its own, certainly), there is a grander message to be derived: perhaps, in the science fiction tradition, The 100 is ultimately a story of evolution and progress, in which the human race will eventually break away from the patterns of the past towards a brighter future.
All of this has happened before
It is no secret that the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica was one of showrunner Jason Rothenberg’s primary influences when creating The 100. And the core tagline of that series, “All of this has happened before and it will happen again,” echoes through The 100 in major ways, through its repetition of quotes and narrative devices and by constantly forcing characters into moral dilemmas where the ‘right’ choice is one they previously condemned others for making.
One of the major themes of The 100, as of Battlestar, is the cyclical nature of humanity. The series repeatedly shows that, however well-intentioned they start out being, humans are inevitably bound to repeat the mistakes of their ancestors and perpetuate the patterns of the past. They fight the same wars for different lands, and construct the same ‘us versus them’ constellations based on shifting premises of othering.
The characters on The 100 always end up in the same place, good intentions whittled away until they face yet another ‘only choice.’ There will always be a 13th clan, a 13th station, a 13th bunker. There will always be an ‘us’ and a ‘them,’ a ‘my people’ of intrinsically higher value than the generalized other.
So far on The 100, the narrative seems to suggest that humans will never transcend the tribalism so inherent to us that we would rather die than become one with those we oppose. (And looking at the current state of the world, that seems right on the money.) Only a few individuals have fought to break the pattern, and so far, they’ve all failed.
Every single major alliance on the series has fallen apart. Even standing on the verge of extinction in season 4, the human species chose to fight rather than work together. Because doing otherwise would mean accepting that there is more than one truth — that one person or clan does not see the whole picture, that the picture will never be whole until we accept that there is no such thing as a fundamentally ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ side.
Even if Wonkru, the most recent attempt at a lasting unity and peace, stays united through the six-year time jump, there are new factions coming in that shatter the illusion of a united human race. The 100 season 5 will be a battle for Eden, and a battle to determine which people can claim it as their own. The players change, but the game stays the same.
However, significantly, the human beings on The 100 keep trying to unite, one Unity Day at a time. Alliances shift and change; characters die and new players seize power on behalf of new peoples, but on a macro level, The 100 inches closer and closer to peace. Despite the ‘one step forward, two steps back’ pattern the narrative has followed so far, it keeps waving the faint hope that maybe this time it will work. Maybe this time, humanity can break its self-destructive pattern and be better than it was (and currently is).
…But will it happen again?
‘Breaking the pattern’ is a theme that crops up repeatedly in sci-fi and fantasy fiction: In the final episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Buffy fundamentally altered the Slayer line, breaking the pattern that had defined the series’ premise. In Game of Thrones, Daenerys Targaryen is on a quest to “break the wheel.” And the Battlestar Galactica finale strongly insinuated that humanity might at last avoid initiating another round of the robot/human war cycle.
The 100 is, in big or small ways, inspired by all of these shows, so it is not hard to imagine that it is steering towards a similar ending (an ending which would not be happy, but would be hopeful — bittersweet, just as Rothenberg has said it will be).
And if any pattern is to be broken in The 100 — if this is a hopeful narrative as opposed to a cautionary tale — it’s the tribalism at the heart of every conflict. If humanity is to in any way move towards a better future, it needs to be through a conscious effort to quell the instinct to construct an ‘us’ to fight the ‘them’; of understanding the world in such unambiguous terms, wanting so desperately to believe you’re the hero, that you make villains of everyone else.
We have been repeatedly told that “there are no good guys” on this show, but that statement — repeatedly misinterpreted by characters looking for easy absolution — does not actually suggest that everyone is bad. It suggests that there is no such thing as an objective good guy, because ‘good’ is not an objective value. (Thus, when Abby told Clarke she was a good guy after all in 4×12, she was nudging Clarke to see herself as good, knowing that her actions would reflect this mindset.)
There are no good or bad guys on The 100, there are merely ‘guys’ looking to justify their morally ambiguous choices, arbitrarily drawing lines of moral superiority that position themselves and those they claim kinship with as ‘right’ versus an opposing ‘wrong.’ The only way to unity is to accept that there is no such thing as objectively good and bad people (and by extension there is no such thing as a good or bad people), and that most actions can be deemed either good or bad depending on your point of view — but until the characters realize this, nothing will change.
But if The 100 is positing that humanity’s fatal flaw is its inability to compromise individual beliefs and agendas, then logically, we will eventually see humanity learn to do just that, with some of the characters’ whose journeys have led them to understand the necessity of this (Clarke, Octavia, Bellamy, Kane) leading by example.
‘Ogeda’ towards a united future
The 100 tells many different versions of the same story: two or more opposing forces must set aside their differences in order to unite against an external threat. Whether this is through interpersonal relationships or on a grander, saving-the-human-race scale, the series repeatedly makes a point that it is not enough to team up with those who are already just like you. True victory comes through compromise and the merging of separate entities into a new whole.
There are countless examples of how this plays out in story- and character arcs. It would be impossible to list them all, because almost every narrative conflict on the show is built on either the perpetuation or overcoming of tribalism. But I do want to highlight a few key players who have, significantly, learned from experience and taken concrete steps to break the pattern.
Octavia Blake is perhaps the character who most directly embodies humanity’s paradoxical quest for division and unity, herself made up of parts that should not connect, and yet somehow, she’s had to force them to fit together. Early in the show, I wonder if they did not plan to have Lincoln and Octavia serve as a dual metaphor for unity, having them on either side of a divide, meeting in the middle and crossing over to the other side before finally coming back together.
Whether or not that was the plan (and if it was, Octavia’s character outgrew that potential endgame very quickly), Octavia now seems to be carrying the torch of unity alone: one single girl, holding all the pieces — Skaikru, Grounder, love, violence, war, peace, nothing, everything — and stumbling into power she does not want and has no idea what to do with.
“We are one clan. And this is our home.” – Octavia Blake
Significantly, Octavia is far from perfect. She is at once big-hearted and short-sighted, and she has a rigid sense of right and wrong even if she allows herself to operate by different moral standards. How ironic (yet perhaps fitting) that it was this grief-stricken, rootless warrior girl who united the human race under a single banner almost entirely by accident, rather than any of the multiple accomplished leaders who had been actively working towards such an endgame.
But it is not actually the end yet, so — if for no other reason than that — clearly the Wonkru experiment won’t go as smoothly as we might hope. The clans only united because it was their one chance to survive, and we have no idea what will happen once riding out Praimfaya is no longer their only concern. But it’s a start: the fact that Wonkru exists in the first place is a bit of a miracle. Octavia built this unity on the work of those who came before her, and her efforts might get the human race just a little bit closer to tangible, lasting peace.
Whatever happens next, Octavia’s journey from the girl under the floor to the leader of Wonkru has taught her to compromise her multiple, conflicting identities, which in turn reflects on the show as a whole, in showing that neither individual identity nor ‘clan’ affiliation is as fixed of a value as most of the characters on The 100 like to believe.
Even before she arrived on screen, Lexa was described as a visionary: she was the first and only person who had made any significant progress in breaking the Grounders’ pattern of division and war, having already come very far by the time we met her in season 2. The series’ first harbinger of peace and unity, her lasting legacy will ultimately contribute to making it possible.
Despite her impressive accomplishments, Lexa was of course not omnipotent; she was operating within the limits of the Grounders’ violent traditions, and fought to change the hearts and minds of her people in slow, incremental ways that wouldn’t get her assassinated or removed from power.
“Sometimes you have to concede a battle to win a war.” – Lexa
It was the combined efforts of Lexa and Clarke — each peacemakers in their own right, and formidable as a unit — that united the Grounders and Skaikru, even against a common enemy as it was. All of humanity, except Cage Wallace and his followers (the most overtly tribalistic, draining Grounders’ and Sky People’s blood based on a reprehensible belief that a Mountain Man’s life had quantifiably more value), were for a brief period of time working towards the same goal. Although it ultimately fell apart, this storyline proved that it was possible for Grounders and Sky People to unite, under leaders that were willing to adapt, compromise, and learn from the other.
But Lexa was clearly signposted to be the exception, not the rule, and her death undid years of progress for the Grounders in terms of achieving true unity. Nonetheless, her life showed that progress was possible; her abandonment of “blood must have blood” in favor of “blood must not have blood” proved that human beings — specifically those in positions of power — can change, and affect greater change in the world around them.
In season 4, we saw Clarke trying to build on Lexa’s legacy and continue their quest for unity (much like Octavia adopted Lincoln’s altruistic vision of peace when uniting Wonkru); for the surviving characters, and Clarke in particular, Lexa’s vision has sparked something bigger that might just play into the series’ ultimate endgame.
Kane is a one-man army in the war for unity — and in some ways, he always was, but his motivation has changed. When we first met Kane, he was presented as a quasi-villain because of his unyielding, near-fetishizing of the rules. Sending children to near-certain death, almost having Abby executed and culling 300 people in cold blood were not decisions he allowed himself to feel any emotion about; embodying the ruthlessness that founded the Ark in the first place, Kane’s definition of unity had nothing to do with the individuals he enforced it on, and everything to do with an idealized belief in uniformity.
That changed, first when he was directly confronted with the consequences of the system he so religiously upheld, then with the realization that Abby, the person he had constructed as an idealistic enemy, might perhaps have been right all along, and finally when he fell in love with the Grounders — and, on a more abstract level, the ‘other.’
“These are times when we have to look beyond the rules. To realize they were established to serve a world of the past. Not of the future.” – Marcus Kane
Kane is perhaps the only character on The 100 who does not fear or mistrust that which is different to him. Since a string of traumatic events forced him to abandon his own staunchly-held belief in what he thought was right and wrong, Kane not only has an almost childlike curiosity about the world and all the ways of being human that he never let himself see before, but fundamentally understands that there is more than one side to every conflict, and that one’s own truth is not the whole truth.
It is a perspective which he is very decidedly alone in, to his very evident frustration and dismay in season 4, although it would appear that (in the capacity of father/mentor) he has the ability to influence Bellamy, Clarke and Octavia, as indeed he influenced Jaha in “The Chosen.”
That breakthrough was highly significant, not just because it provided a rare win for Kane, but because it was one of a handful of times in which the show has allowed one character to change another character’s view of the world with words alone — to truly make them understand that their own perspective is flawed. I still maintain that this moment, which might have seemed minor in an otherwise action-packed season, spoke to the core of what The 100 is ultimately about: progress through compromise.
Murphy and Emori
Murphy and Emori seem like the last two characters you’d bring up in an article about unity, and yet, The 100 season 4 took great pains to show that even they — the ultimate outsiders, whose story has been relatively self-contained — could find somewhere to belong in this brave new world.
Murphy has always styled himself as a loner, but he is obviously anything but. Throughout the show he has tried to convince himself and everyone around him that he is an individualistic survivor, but Murphy’s sense of survival has almost without exception been tied to his desire to be part of a group: as Bellamy’s henchman, as would-be delinquent dictator, as Bellamy’s ally, as Jaha’s disciple, as Emori’s partner in crime, as Clarke’s friend, as Ontari’s Flamekeeper (initially), and finally as part of the inner circle helping to secure humanity’s survival.
And what he has discovered on this strange and fascinating journey is that you can’t have community without “unity”: by the end of season 4, Murphy is neither pretending nor (badly) attempting to be part of the group; he is an active, emotionally involved participant.
“It felt good to be safe. I never felt that way before. Like I had a home.” – Emori
Emori, meanwhile, was cast out of society at birth due to her status as a Frikdreina, and community is a completely foreign concept to her. And while her evident love for and attachment to Murphy provides her a sense of belonging, it might be akin to the partnership she had with Otan (if of a different nature). But in season 4, Emori was incorporated into the group in two very extreme ways, first by betraying them for her own survival (and once again being ‘cast out’) and later — as Murphy did — accepting herself and being accepted as part of SpaceKru.
Self-preservation ironically forced Emori and Murphy, together and individually, to abandon the self in favor of the group. Particularly Emori’s arc (and mental shift) in season 4 speaks to the show’s larger theme of inclusion, of breaking down not only societal divides familiar to us, but those of its own construction.
Murphy and Emori having joined the space gang is a cute plot device, but beyond that, it eliminates their status as outsiders, or ‘others,’ to the main characters. Apart from Octavia, these were the only two characters who did not identify themselves with a specific ‘people,’ and who were loyal only to themselves and each other. Incorporating them into a community, even if it turns out to be temporary, might just be yet another piece of the unity puzzle slotting into place.
Clarke and Bellamy
The original unification of Bellamy and Clarke (who were initially presented as enemies, the most unlikely pair to agree on anything) in the season 1 episode “Murphy’s Law” was not in opposition to the Grounders, but based on a shared understanding that without their unity, their newly formed ‘society’ would self-implode. However briefly, Clarke and Bellamy’s joint leadership of the delinquents created a balance that neither would have managed as solo leader, and it was only their alliance that prevented the onset of true Lord of the Flies-style chaos.
While Bellamy and Clarke have been both physically and ideologically separated over the course of the show — in several cases being in direct and painful conflict — the narrative has made it abundantly clear that they work best as a unit. They have each acknowledged a “need” for the other that harkens back to that initial team-up and how many problems it solved, and it has been repeatedly made clear that, while both have developed immensely over the course of the series and are certainly individually competent, neither Bellamy nor Clarke is a perfect leader without the other.
“This isn’t about saving my people. This is about saving the human race.” – Clarke Griffin
They each carry with them pieces of past leaders (Jake, Abby, Jaha, Anya, Dante Wallace, Lexa, Roan, Kane and Pike), enabling them — separately and together — to combine elements of a vast array of leadership styles, learn from past victories and mistakes, and be better leaders moving forward.
The season 4 finale, while slicing the main characters into three disjointed units, focused mainly of the separation of these two characters specifically. The flash forward showed us that Clarke had found some kind of contentment, and that she wasn’t alone. And yet we saw her still waiting for Bellamy; their separation is once again positioned as being a narrative problem that needs to be solved. Why? I’m sure there are many possible answers to that question, but I believe that it is because, in their capacity of being a leadership team, Bellamy and Clarke still represent that initial unification of opposing entities, and a lingering promise of eventual, wider peace through compromise.
Bellamy and Clarke are similar in many ways (having mirrored many of each other’s victories and mistakes over the course of the series), but can perhaps be most aptly described as complementary opposites. The show repeatedly pulling them apart and pushing them back together — and, more importantly, systematically problematizing their separation — could be, and I believe is meant to be, read as a metaphor for humanity’s paradoxical pattern of breaking apart and coming together in new and better ways.
Not so different after all
If you want to get extremely extra™ (who doesn’t?), The 100 is a story of the Sky and the Earth colliding in the horizon (the future). Whatever way you look at it, the people who fell from the sky will always be battling the people who rose from the ground for control of the surface. And in some ways, this is reflective of every single land dispute in human history: the struggle between those who arrived — or returned — versus those that were already there.
The Grounders and Arkers’ repeated failed attempts to unite is an over-arching theme of the show, even as more and more individuals form alliances, friendships and romantic relationships across the various divides. The inherent mistrust of the ‘other’ runs deep in both groups, and even when they’ve fought common enemies they’ve been very decidedly separate.
Significantly, however, we know that the Grounders and Skaikru are not as different as they have constructed themselves to be. Not only did their ancestors only separate 100 years ago, but their origin stories are so intrinsically tied together (the Ark was built on the annihilation of the 13th station, on which Becca made the Nightblood that allowed the Grounders to survive on the surface) that their constant villainizing of each other feels increasingly performative, with each new Grounder-Skaikru conflict more contrived and unnecessary than the one before.
“Don’t you get tired of it? Sides. My man, your king. Praimfaya doesn’t give a damn what clan you’re from.” – Bellamy Blake
In season 4, it became clear that most of the characters’ priorities had shifted beyond the petty clan wars that distracted from the much more imminent threat to humanity. Characters like Bellamy, Clarke, Niylah and Roan expressed weariness and frustration with the constant, unnecessary perpetuation of difference; Luna was so frustrated, she decided to end the human race because she had completely lost faith in humanity’s ability to rise above its self-destructive tendencies.
But, by the end of the season, everyone left standing — even the most stubbornly totemic characters like Echo, Indra and Jaha — had ceded their previously unyielding commitment to their respective clans. (Whether or not that sticks of course remains to be seen.)
And the six-year time jump has facilitated changes that will allow the show to eventually bring the Grounders and Sky People together as equals, with equal claim to the land, in the fight against the series’ most symbolic enemy to date: The Eligius prison transport, which is an overt representation of the past and everything humanity has worked to rise above.
We know that the crew of the Eligius set out from Earth before the 2052 apocalypse, and have been in cryo sleep for most, if not all, of the past 103 years. As such, this group of humans — much like the Mountain Men, who served as a living time capsule (albeit seemingly of the 1950s) — represent a past version of humanity that our heroes like to think they’ve evolved beyond.
The Eligius crew, ostensibly ‘just another enemy’ for the Grounders and Skaikru to temporarily unite against, might just serve as a mirror for the future of the human race to reflect itself in, and to examine just how closely they’re replicating their own past. And maybe this clarity, this final piece of the puzzle, will enable the series’ leaders to finally build a better future — by managing to maintain unity even when there are no third parties to unite against — rising up from the smouldering wreckage of humanity’s past mistakes. From the ashes they will rise, indeed.
After all, both the Grounder and Arker societies have already evolved beyond certain societal norms of our present day, most remarkably when it comes to gender equality. The 100 is already a few steps ahead of us in terms of social progress, and everything we’ve seen so far has hinted that they can go further. They will go further. As all the best sci-fi, they will show us the way through the oncoming storm.
Certainly, it will not be an unequivocally happy ending, for any one character or the human race at large. But it will ultimately convey the hope that humanity, as a whole, is indeed capable of change and progress. Grudging, imperfect, and probably not permanent (humans gotta human, after all), but progress nonetheless.
Showing a divided humanity coming together, finally managing to achieve something resembling true unity — breaking the pattern that has consistently led to our downfall, and continues to cripple us today — not only works within the parameters of science fiction storytelling tradition and aligns with the conclusions of the series’ generic ancestors, but would give the story of The 100 an over-arching cohesiveness and deeper meaning.
In The 100, humanity won’t continue to go around the same circles for infinity. They will, eventually, break the wheel and move forward. The series’ endgame has been in the opening credits all along.
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