A TonDC lawyer muses about science fiction show The 100‘s political relevance in Washington.
This article was submitted by Hypable reader CapitalChick.
It’s an interesting time to live in Washington DC.
Being a lawyer in a nation’s capital full of lawyers mean that casual conversation tends to focus on politics. Maybe it’s because some of us have worked for or litigated against the government, or merely because politics is a spectator sport in this town. And, being lawyers, we tend to focus on debating more than one point of view and exploring how decisions are made.
But if there’s anything that Washingtonians love more than gossiping about politics, it’s obsessing over television. And recently, I’ve noticed that one television show keeps coming up in conversation again and again.
No, it’s not the show about the sartorially gifted fixer of political scandal or the diabolical congressman who climbed over bodies to ascend to the presidency.
Rather, it’s the one set in ‘TonDC,’ the ruins of my city 97 years after a nuclear apocalypse. The crumbling Lincoln Memorial may be the only recognizable landmark so far (wow, those trees grew fast!), but the dilemmas are eerily familiar. And that’s because The 100 is the best political show on television.
Despite airing frequent stock footage of the U.S. Capitol building, television shows that purport to be about politics often have little to do with gritty philosophical quandaries and petty squabbles that permeate this city. But for all of its wonderful science fiction trappings, sprawling mythology, and excellent character development, The 100 also dwells in the challenges of leading and persuading people to follow.
Do you debate the merits of both real and fictional political decisions over beers with your friends? We, the ancestors of TonDC, do and this show keeps us busy.
The 100 excels at political allegory, and many of show’s most dramatic decisions allude to past or current events. The strategic merits and moral complexities of these admittedly fictional decisions are hotly contested during happy hour.
For example, Clarke Griffin and Commander Lexa, two leaders of allied groups, allowed TonDC to be bombed in the hopes of preserving their agent Bellamy Blake’s secret infiltration of the enemy. Was that scenario an allusion to Allied forces allowing civilian targets to be bombed during World War II in order to preserve the secret that they had cracked the German coding system?
In a later season, a nationalistic leader named Charles Pike rose to power by appealing to fear of foreign attack and a desire for self-determination. Can we equate that to the tide of recent populist election outcomes in Western democracies?
Pike led a deadly preemptive attack on an unsuspecting army out of fear that they would attack first. Is this akin to present day counterterrorism drone strikes abroad?
An overarching theme of the currently airing season is whether strife among rival political factions will threaten humanity’s ability to survive a looming nuclear disaster. Is this a metaphor for the political obstacles that stand in the way of addressing climate change? Yes, these are things that we debate during happy hour.
Beyond political allegory, The 100 explores the ways in which leaders manipulate information to persuade people to follow them. And in the era of alternative facts, fake news, and media outlets barred from the White House, The 100 has never been more on point.
This theme is revisited time and time again and with varying results. First, the drama’s foundational conflict between engineer Jake Griffin and democratically elected political leaders Abby Griffin (Jake’s wife), Marcus Kane, and Thelonious Jaha turned on whether to disclose a space station’s impending system failure to the public.
They debated whether to reveal that everyone on the spaceship would die if a solution was not found. The risk of chaos was real and the democratically elected leadership decided to conceal the crisis and execute Jake to silence him.
Later, Kane and Jaha plan to exterminate a subsection of the public in their sleep so as to preserve more oxygen for everyone else. Abby eventually dissents and serves as a 21st century whistleblower. Her actions allow the public to volunteer for self-sacrifice instead.
In The 100 season 2, we are introduced to Cage Wallace, one of the leaders of a group of apocalypse survivors living inside a bunker at Mt. Weather, VA.
Cage at first hid from his public government efforts to harvest bone marrow from teenagers who arrived to Earth from space for the benefit of his own people (who cannot venture above ground due to their inability to process radiation).
This cover-up allowed Bellamy to infiltrate Mt. Weather undetected and foment opposition during a critical time period. Simultaneously, Clarke and Lexa concealed their prior knowledge of the aforementioned TonDC bombing from the public and leveraged the tragedy as a motivation for battle.
During season 3, Kane and Abby’s failure to explain to the public the terms a political alliance that would end their independent democratic system allowed their electoral rival Pike to swing popular support in his favor and take their people down a path of populism and military aggression.
Most recently, in an episode aptly titled “A Lie Guarded,” we watched the consequences of Clarke’s calculated decision to withhold that fact that only 100 people can survive a second looming nuclear disaster by taking refuge in a spaceship for shelter, and her unilateral creation of a secret list of who will live and die due to limited resources.
The risk of chaos and the necessity of a contingency plan were both real and understandable from Clarke’s perspective. However, once the truth was disclosed to the public by Monty Green, the drama’s second whistleblower, Clarke’s best laid plans were discarded in order to quell dissent. Jaha astutely proposed an alternative lottery system for survival in order to encourage the public to focus on preparing for the apocalypse to come.
Clarke’s decision to withhold the truth and deny the public a stake in openly deciding who will survive was, simply put, bad politics. The lie certainly jeopardized the ability to preselect survivors by skill in the future, and it also may have undermined the public’s future trust in Clarke’s leadership.
Interestingly, even in this moment of supposed truth and open debate, Clarke and Jaha’s final exchange raised the question whether they actually intend to ever hold a lottery. Once again, the public was manipulated by its leaders to achieve a result for the common good. The audience should take note of how easily the public’s outrage at being deceived was swiftly massaged and channeled for the government’s purpose.
In that same episode, Kane, now Clarke’s ambassador and organizational superior, also withheld information from King Roan, the leader of their uneasy but vital ally. The discovery of this concealment resulted in the fracturing of an essential political alliance and a declaration of war. The audience was left to wonder if the conflict was caused as much by Kane’s lie of omission as the undisclosed information.
The fandom of The 100 understandably debates the merits of these choices based on an actual or desired result. But The 100 is also asking deeper questions about the ways in which leaders make these decisions.
Is it ever acceptable for leaders to lie or withhold critical information from their people in order to achieve an advantageous outcome? Does watching leaders deftly manipulate public opinion on screen make us uncomfortable? And with the varying forms of government depicted on the show, ranging from democracy to monarchy, do the rules of the game make a difference in a leader’s ability to lie to, conceal information from, and manipulate the public?
In other words: do we care about the way that we are led, or are we simply focused on the result? And what does this suggest about the public in the real world?
The 100 challenges the audience to debate intractable dilemmas and question how leaders make decisions. In our extraordinary times, those debates matter. I am often amazed as conservative and liberal friends debate events on the show and take positions that, if extrapolated to current events, are the opposite of what they might argue in the real world. That is what makes art in general — and science fiction in particular — a powerful lens through which to explore current political issues.
And so, I like to think that there is a special affection here in TonDC, circa 2017, for this challenging story about a post-apocalyptic future. The gorillas may get bigger, but the politics sure seem the same. As the ultimate survivor John Murphy would say, it’s just another day on the ground.