You could be forgiven for not being caught up with The CW’s dystopian future series The 100. Based on a decent but neglected young adult (YA) book series, the series has taken some time to gain a foothold. But then, last season, the story of 100 teens dumped from an orbital space station onto a toxic, desolate Earth morphed into something much more interesting and complex. Violent and mesmerizing, the show is full of cultural clashes, coercive alliances and a ruthless, uncompromising worldview. This show may not have been on your radar before, but with its third season starting tonight, it deserves to be a priority.
In the series, a small portion of humanity has survived a nuclear apocalypse, and the titular Hundred are a hundred (very attractive) criminal teenagers sent from the Ark space station to investigate whether Earth is now hospitable to human life. Led by Clarke, the show’s protagonist, and a variety of other misfits, the Hundred soon discover that the inhabitants of the Ark are not the only people who survived the bombs.
Far from being empty, Earth is populated by myriad tribes and factions with complicated interrelationships and a unifying wariness for one another. Some of the show’s most surprising and compelling twists come from clashes between communities with different cultures and vastly different levels of technology. Sky People (former Ark residents) have education and technical know-how, but are constantly at a loss of resources; Grounders live in a bow and arrow paradigm; the residents of Mount Weather, who appear throughout season two, are both highly advanced and dangerously weak.
As these groups collide, the show’s world grows larger and more complex, and the episodes are characterized by intensity and constant forward movement. Javier Grillo-Marxuach, a television writer best known for his work on Lost and as creator of The middlemanhas joined The 100 as co-executive producer for season three, and in an interview with Ars described this quality of the show as “breathless propulsion”. on The 100he said to Ars, “there’s no time to sit down.”
The adjective “gritty” is often used to describe The 100, but in this case it does not only imply realism and violence. Characters are perpetually covered in dirt and dried blood, and the dominant wardrobe aesthetic falls somewhere between dirty rags and dirty rags. Heavy metal. At the same time, The 100 can also be visually striking. The look of the show varies from shots of the heroines falling into the mud, exhausted and beaten to a pulp, to stark Sisyphean silhouettes of a group of men scrambling up an empty dune.
Admittedly, the first few episodes seem like other fare from the teen-wearing-post-apocalypse chic genre you’ve already encountered (hunger games, different, etc.), and that impression isn’t helped by hot, leading teens who take their first chance at freedom to get drunk and screw their parents. But things change quickly for the Hundred. The initially limiting character traits that define them (Clarke is the princess, Bellamy is the rebel, Murphy is the villain, Finn is the love interest, parents are parents) fall away and the show turns into something more impressive and considerably more somber. In other words, this is not a soft-focus YA romance. To be Warrior Galacticacomplete with a fully formed world and a gnawing terror of death.
The 100 shares an unwavering hardness with Warriorbut it also picks up on some of it Warriorphilosophical considerations of the ethical implications of violence. Rothenberg says these ideas are ingrained in the show’s DNA, which essentially revolves around “put”[ting] our characters in impossible situations where there are no right answers,” and with those choices, “we’re dealing with real ramifications.”
The constant preoccupation with difficult questions is also the basis of the series’ gloom. Incredibly dark stories can tend to be bleak for bleak’s sake – as an attempt at seriousness and importance. The 100 is certainly serious, but the starkness of its premise also makes it a surprisingly intriguing platform for ethical thinking. The show forces the characters and audience to examine the results of Clarke’s decisions – what does this violence do to her? She couldn’t have made a better choice, but who is she now after being chosen?
Female characters, YA roots and non-being Dusk
The grime and brutality may be the first things you notice The 100, but the next quality is that the cast looks very different from a lot of sci-fi shows and much wider sci-fi. The show is full of totally kickass female characters, many of them leaders or in leadership positions: Clarke, one of the original Hundred; Anya and Lexa, ruthless Grounder leaders; Octavia, trying to navigate between the two cultures; Indra, Lexa’s fierce enforcer; Raven, the Ark’s most talented mechanic – the list goes on.
Even more unusual is that these characters are only very rarely involved in love plots; their main concerns are power and survival, and they parade through the woods of the show, painted in terrifying black war paint and adorned with spikes. They are not interested in male attention unless that attention comes in the form of a warrior’s allegiance.
Grillo-Marxuach attributes part of this aspect of the series to the show’s book roots. “YA was a far cry from mainstream science fiction in terms of having very complicated multidimensional female characters. That’s the good thing we get from our YA roots.” Grillo-Marxuach interjects: “The downside of that is that there is some perception that we are busy Dusk, but I think anyone who’s watched our show knows damn well we don’t Dusk.”
The show has been praised for its diverse cast, but diversity in the story doesn’t matter if those characters are ultimately uninteresting. On the show’s predominance of female leads, Rothenberg notes that it’s not ultimately about gender: “It all comes down to, are you weak or are you strong? Can you help me survive, or should I kill you? These characters are where they are because they deserve to be, not because of preconceived notions.” As Grillo-Marxuach says, “a great character is a great character… and I think everyone, regardless of their gender, will look at this group of people that we’ve created and be really seduced by who they are.”
What to look forward to
After two seasons of world building and launching the main characters, the next season of The 100 will spread outward, showing just how big and complicated his world can be. “[Showrunner] Jason [Rothenberg] really pushed us to explore the geopolitics of the Grounder culture versus the Sky People culture,” says Grillo-Marxuach, and much of next season will be about how the Sky People fit into the world now that they finally settled on the ground. “What effect [the Sky People] have on a world that has evolved into this atavistic warrior culture that surrounds them?”
Whatever happens next The 100‘s third season, it seems clear that the series’ relentless pace shows no signs of entering a more relaxed, measured phase. “It never slows down, it never gets boring, we never ask questions without answering them,” Rothenberg told Ars. “We are going for it in this show. We don’t beat around the bush.”