These days, science fiction seems frighteningly on-the-nose. Bookstores had trouble keeping 1984 in stock after the use of the doublespeak phrase “alternative facts,” The Handmaid’s Tale has been adapted into a terrifyingly prescient TV series, and sales of other dystopian tales from Brave New World to Fahrenheit 451 have skyrocketed. Even in the most seemingly fantastical scenarios, we see our government and ourselves. Nowhere are the parallels between sci-fi and the real world clearer than in The 100, a CW show about 100 juvenile delinquents sent from the space colony where they were born to an irradiated Earth.
The 100, which just ended its fourth season, is based on Kass Morgan’s YA series of the same name. Its dystopian premise has the ring of possibility: a nuclear war renders Earth unlivable and most of humanity dead and the survivors take to space. Humans live on the “Ark,” a massive space colony designed to sustain the race until Earth is once again survivable. 97 years after the war, the Ark’s government decides it needs to test the planet’s habitability and decides to send down people it deems expendable: juvenile delinquents. The 100 kids, for reasons still unbeknownst to them, have a few days of mandatory survival skills classes before they’re strapped into capsules and sent plummeting through the atmosphere.
Even though life on the Ark is far from perfect and the station’s life support systems teeter on the verge of failure, viewers feel for the kids being led like lambs to the slaughter. The callousness of the government’s decision is the first of many actions and subplots that elevate the show into more than just a compelling concept. What is the most effective or right way to lead a group of people whose existence is precarious? Is the most effective way and the right way the same thing? Which is more important?
(warning, spoilers ahead)
Hydrogen bomb. Credit: Photo courtesy of National Nuclear Security Administration / Nevada Site Office
These kids have families and they’ve grown up on the Ark. They all technically committed crimes, but most of them were crimes of survival, such as stealing food or medicine. The show’s protagonist, Clarke Griffin, is arrested for treason because she learned about the Ark’s tenuous oxygen situation. Her father, the one who found out, tries to tell the public, but he’s sent out the airlock for his honesty. The Ark’s leaders punish anyone who dares defy them for any reason—truth is tantamount to treason. Chancellor Jaha, level-headed and at times seemingly sympathetic, is nonetheless a tyrannical ruler. He constantly justifies his actions by saying he’ll do whatever’s necessary to save his people, even if that means lying and killing. Those who challenge his edicts find themselves “floated” into the void of space.
The decision to send 100 teenage delinquents to a possibly still toxic earth parallels the deportations of immigrants who have committed “crimes.” Sending a teenager who stole food on a likely suicide mission to Earth isn’t so different from deporting someone for jaywalking, and it also involves separating kids from their families. While the show primarily focuses on how the kids survive on the ground, it also raises questions about who belongs where and what it means to banish people from the place they consider home.
Despite its dystopian nature, The 100 demonstrates the resilience and adaptability of the younger generation. A situation that threatens to devolve into a Lord of the Flies scenario only does so temporarily, thanks to the surprisingly competent guidance of a few of the kids determined not to emulate the Ark’s leaders. The good news is that growing up in space acclimatized them to radiation, and they can indeed survive. The bad news is that they’re not alone—the group is immediately attacked by “Grounders,” people who managed to survive and similarly grew immune to radiation and are understandably wary of the kids who have dropped from the sky (the “Sky People”). The conflict generates another parallel to modern times—fighting between humans who are more similar than different and who ultimately want the same thing. Yes, the Grounders have different beliefs, traditions, and lifestyles than the space-born kids, but they all want to survive (and in the long run, more diversity among humans is good). Survival would be easier if the groups coordinated their efforts, but suspicion clouds judgment. Neither group gives the other the benefit of the doubt and impulsivity, irrationality, and fear thwarts attempts at peace.
Illustration of a space colony. Credit: NASA
The show’s second season revolves around a pressing real-world question: do some people’s lives matter more than others? The show introduces different high-stakes situations that illustrate why the answer may not be as obvious as it seems—and even if it were, it wouldn’t necessarily be realistic or helpful. Some of the kids and Grounders are captured by a colony of radiation-susceptible humans who want to harvest their blood and bone marrow. The kids want to rescue their friends, but they’re less sure about rescuing the Grounders. And what about the humans who can’t venture outside without contracting radiation poisoning? They’ve been living under Mount Weather—with children—and don’t they deserve more? Someone has to lose or die here and the question of who that should be raises the moral stakes. It’s natural for people to value the lives of their own most, but what if acting accordingly isn’t just?
The situation becomes even murkier when the adults from the Ark decide to follow the kids to Earth. But the adults don’t understand the situation on the ground and wrongly assume they’ll resume control. This plotline exemplifies the pitfalls of colonialism and the disregarding of people perceived as primitive and therefore lesser. Earth has always been home to the Grounders; they have every right to be suspicious of people crashing their home and killing people with guns. The adults write off all Grounders as evil and encourage violence against them to the point that one of the delinquents massacres an entire village for no reason, prompting an ultimatum—either the Sky People pack up and leave or the Grounders will launch an all-out attack. The adult human leaders fight about what to do, while Clarke argues for a truce. The kid sees and recognizes the humanity of the Grounders; the adults do not.
Season two provides escalating ethical conundrums that demonstrate the difficulty of being a leader. Clarke and Lexa, the leader of the Grounders, do nothing to stop an incoming missile from Mount Weather because they don’t want to tip their hand about listening in on their radio transmissions), leaving their friends to die. Clarke’s mother bemoans what her daughter has become and one of the adults says Clarke did what she did “because she grew up on The Ark. She learned what to do from us.” Any innocence the delinquents had is long gone, replaced with ruthlessness born both of necessity and example. The show illustrates Clarke’s journey from reluctant leader to someone who accepts casualties and innocent victims as a necessary evil. “After everything we’ve done, do we even deserve to survive?” her mother asks. Another question without an answer.
Clarke ends up killing the entire colony of humans imprisoning her friends—even the ones that helped them, even the children. Like the chancellor before her, and like the colony’s desperate scientists, she opts for the “by any means necessary” approach. Are any of these leaders better or more ethical than the others? The answer is unclear. The 100 demonstrates that power corrupts, no matter how virtuous the powerful once were.
The 100 demonstrates that power corrupts
In the third season one adult leader, Pike, decides rule hasn’t been effective and stages something similar to a military coup. While there are plenty of external threats to the Sky People, it becomes clear that the greatest threat is from within and is every bit as ideological as it is physical. The situation isn’t so different from declaring Martial Law before or during a terrorist attack or an insurrection (a plot also explored by Battlestar Galactica). Instead of avoiding the mistakes of the past, Pike doubles down on them—an unfortunately common narrative in both real life and fiction. You’d think that near-annihilation would unite this group, but there’s no #strongertogether here. The group splinters under the rule of a demagogue who refuses to acknowledge the humanity of the other tribes or his own people who disagree with him.
It’s hard not to read the show’s recently concluded fourth season as a commentary on “America First.” Radiation levels rise again, causing acid rain and then eventually immolation for anyone not under cover. Most of the season is spent figuring out where the various inhabitants of Earth can safely ride out the radiation for the next five years, which means the tribes start competing for the few safe spaces, particularly a bunker.
Everyone wants their own people to survive. They’re understandably wary of alliances. Instead of sharing the fallout shelter, the clans each nominate one representative to fight. The winner’s clan will claim the bunker and the losers…well, tough for them. The leaders of the Sky People don’t like their chances in this contest, so some of them sneak into the temple above the bunker, slaughter everyone there, and occupy it. It doesn’t matter that all hell would break lose if any of the other tribes did this. It doesn’t matter that taking the shelter breaks a pact. And it doesn’t matter that all of the others will die even while there’s room underground to spare.
The plot underscores the maddening hypocrisy of the Sky People’s leaders, who believe only they are worth saving, despite the dangerously dwindling number of homo sapiens on Earth. Even though everyone ultimately wants the same thing—survival—that’s only a valid justification for the Sky People, and an indictment against everyone else. They are more vicious and duplicitous than any of the other tribes because they believe everything they do is warranted. And they’re sanctimonious to top it off.
The season culminates in a physical and moral battle about who gets in the bunker, how, and why. It raises some great questions: Who determines which individuals or clans are worth saving? What would it take for the human race to unite against a threat? Is there a place for morality in a world like this?
Ultimately, moral guidance comes from Octavia, who lived her entire life hiding under the floorboards of the Ark, as her mother violated a law by having two children. Octavia was an “illegal”—she had to pretend not to exist. After she got caught, her mother was floated and she and her brother became criminals. Punishment for existing, punishment for having a family. She understands what it’s like to be devalued, hidden under the floor like an animal and then jettisoned to an irradiated Earth. Octavia, oppressed and expendable, becomes the spokesperson for empathy and justice.
She also becomes a total badass by undergoing Grounder warrior training until she becomes visible, important, feared. She gains strength and skill not only to validate her existence but because everyone understands the language of battle is. A warrior doesn’t just fight—a warrior creates change, crusades against evil. Octavia wins the conclave for control of the bunker, besting people with far more brute strength. She declares that each tribe will get 100 spots, which means many Sky People will die. But first, they have to take the bunker back from her own people, who refuse to share it, even if it means Octavia will be one of the casualties.
Credit: The CW
The plotline is compelling not just because of its verisimilitude, but also because there’s enough moral ambiguity to make decent arguments in any direction. Is a leader’s job to save her people at all cost, regardless of the fallout? Or is a leader’s job to fight on behalf of the whole of humanity, even if it means some of her people will suffer? Today’s leaders grapple with similar questions (albeit not in such a high-stakes situation), especially when it comes to immigration. Allowing refugees, immigrants, Muslims, etc into a country doesn’t condemn its citizens, though it has consequences. But what is life if not complicated and interesting?
Octavia and her brother stage a revolt and take the bunker. Each clan must decide which 100 members live, including the Sky People. The unwavering ideology of Octavia and those who recognize humans as humans regardless of their origin ultimately triumphs over the “Sky People First” mentality. The question now is who will emerge from the bunker—12 races united or 12 races still at bitter odds over their differences?
A handful of kids, including the group’s genius engineer, Raven, can’t make it to the bunker in time and head back to the Ark (see, it’s handy to have spaceships hanging around!). Clarke stays behind to manually reset an antenna so they can communicate with and dock on their old space station. With some people above Earth and everyone else below it, Earth cedes itself to the elements, awash in fire and acid rain. Perhaps the planet is better off this way, using its own systems to rebuild. In the words of Ian Malcolm, “Life finds a way.” The real question is: will humans?