The 100 barrelled back onto our television screens this week with its season 3 premiere and, as far as I can tell, this show has lost none of its narrative bravery, moral complexity, or character-focused instincts.
There were many great moments in “Wanheda” — further (casual) confirmation of Clarke’s bi-sexual identity amongst them — but the best moment came in a subtle scene of teenage revelry that is so rare on this show. (At least since the “whatever the hell we want” days of the earliest episodes.)
I’m talking, of course, about the scene that sees Raven, Jasper, Monty, Mills, and Bellamy singing along to the Violent Femmes’ “Add It Up” like a gang of “normal” teenage punks with nothing better to do than drive around with their friends with the radio blaring.
The impetus of this scene is a grieving Jasper, and the concern his friends have for him. When Jasper connects his music player into the jeep’s sound system, Monty goes to unplug it. He is annoyed with Jasper’s acting out, and no doubt struggling with his own inability to alleviate his best friend’s pain. But Bellamy stops him — Jasper needs this. They all need this.
After all, the Sky Teens have seen first-hand the devastating effects a culture of violence can have on an individual. It wasn’t so long ago that Finn started acting out in anger, fueled by his frustation with the violent, unyielding injustice of his everyday reality. Like Jasper, Finn started out on this show as one of the most sensitive, empathetic, and compassionate of the group. First, Finn’s angry transgressions were small. Then, they escalated into murdering a hostage, then a whole group of unarmed Grounders, and would eventually lead to his own death.
The teens of The 100 may be unprepared for dealing with the effects of PTSD, but they do seem slightly better schooled in recognizing the signs of a friend about to go off the rails than they were with Finn. You can see it in the look Bellamy shares with Monty, and later the discussion they have about the mistake it was to bring Jasper along on the trip in the first place. To think that including him or having a moment of light-hearted camraderie would be enough to heal the wounds of Mount Weather.
Unlike so much of what it on television — and especially network television — this scene isn’t interested in spelling things out for the viewer. There is no exposition. Barely any dialogue. The 100succeeds as a show in part because it trusts the visual literacy of its young audience — more than that, it asks its viewers to grapple with tough, politcally-relevant questions about the responsibilities we have in a world filled with violence and oppression, a world of “us” and “them.”
Structurally, this scene tells us more about these characters and their respective relationships to one another than most network shows can manage in an entire exposition-heavy episode. They love each other, but that caring is constantly mediated by the danger of their present. The scene also sets Octavia as an outsider. She is slightly more at ease with her peers than she is with the rest of the Sky People back at the camp, but she chooses not to ride in the jeep with her friends. Still, though she may not be singing along inside of the jeep, she can still hear the music.
Many critics have compared The 100to that other great, gritty, morally-complex, character-driven scifi epic of our time: Battlestar Galactica. Like Battlestar Galactica, The 100expects a lot of its viewers and of itself. And this scene in particular called to mind a similar one from the first season of Battlestar Galactica.
In it, Starbuck (Katee Sackhoff) returns to her former apartment on the now mostly-extinct world of Caprica. She puts on a song composed by her father (in actuality: Phillip Glass’ “Metamorphosis One”) and, in a rare moment of reflection for the character, contemplates the exhausting purposeless of her existence to her bestie Helo.
“After the attack, I never pined over all my old crap. Never missed it. The stupid view of the parking lot. Broken toilet in the bathroom. You know, everyone I know is fighting to get back what they had. I’m fighting because I don’t know how to do anything else.”
This character doesn’t get up in the morning because she believes in some higher purpose. She gets up in the morning because it’s all she knows how to do. The fighting has become routine. When starting The 100, I never would have expected Jasper to remind me of Starbuck (that honor obviously went to Raven), but somehow, in the last few seasons of this wild, crazy show, we organically got there.
Science fiction — and storytelling, in general — is doing its job when it is reflecting our world back at us in helpful, clarifying, and critical ways, but it doesn’t mean anything if it isn’t grounded in the kind of character-driven melodrama that both The 100 and Battlestar Galacticaexcel at. Here’s to many more The 100scenes like this one.