A Few Good Character Moments Are Not Enough

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Or, Why The 100 Has Failed To Regain My Benefit of the Doubt

I’ll start by saying I’m a long time watcher of Supergirl, a show devoted to second chances and the benefit of the doubt. If the creative team behind a piece of media proves itself to be listening to fan and media criticism and changes for the better? I’m all for welcoming it with open arms. Bryke accomplished that with Legend of Korra, so I know it can be done. I’m open to shows proving themselves to be better with hard work, commitment to thorough and consistent characterization, meaningful themes, and conscious course correcting their previous mistakes.

I see none of these on The 100, despite what more positive reviewers are currently saying.

That might be because I criticized the show for more than just Lexa’s death, though I did vociferously call them out for that, too. Several of my fellow writers over at the Fandomentalist did as well. Nevertheless, if you read my reviews from last season and my series of three retrospectives co-authored with my friend Elizabeth, you’ll see that I had issues with far more than one character’s death. In fact, it is the failure to address my other frustrations with last season that have prevented the show from earning back my neutrality.

Unequal Treatment of Women and Minorities

If it just been Lexa’s death (and if they’d handled the aftermath appropriately), I might have been more willing to give the show the benefit of the doubt. But on top of her death were the deaths of no less than 7 primary and secondary characters last season, none of whom were cishet white males. I made a chart for every character death for the whole season, and every single primary or secondary character who died was either a woman, a person of color, or an LGBT character. Some, like Lexa and Hannah Green, fell into multiple categories.

As if that weren’t enough, every single villain (Pike, Jaha, ALIE, Nia, Ontari) was either a woman or a black male. And, despite the many strong women in powerful positions in the first two seasons of the show, many were sidelined or their abilities so thoroughly questioned as to make the audience wonder why they were given control in the first place. Abby was told she cannot be a mother, medic, and chancellor all at once, so she gave up her political power in favor of an election between two men (Pike and Kane). Both men also fill multiple roles like she did but are never questioned for doing so. At this point in S4, Lexa (and Nia) have been replaced by a single male character (Roan) fulfilling both of their roles.

While Echo questions Roan’s choices and leadership, it is not done at the expense of his sexuality, as Lexa’s was. We also have yet to see any kind of negative consequences for these choices, though the threat looms over him. The more the show cries “people will hate you” and doesn’t follow through, the more it seems like the appearance of instability without substance. In other words, Roan is coming across as a more capable leader for making the exact same choices as Lexa, and the only difference is that he’s a straight male. It’s…troubling, to say the least.

Bellamy’s So-Called ‘Redemption’

Nowhere does the vastly different treatment of women stand out more than in how the narrative handles Clarke and Bellamy. It began last season with Bellamy’s massacre of the Grounder protective force Lexa sent and subsequently unearned ‘redemption’ arc. His actions were no different from those of certain villains, yet we were told he was ‘right’ for no better reason than that he’s a protagonist. This happened with other characters last season too, like Clarke when she tried to take Luna’s free will as ALIE had. She was called out for it; Bellamy was not.

This season, the narrative literally goes out of it’s way to redeem Bellamy in episodes 2 and 3. And I mean literally. Both episodes feature a rover field trip that dead end after Bellamy has been sufficiently propped up. Episode 2 features Bellamy making a decision that on the surface appears like a sound, moral choice to prioritize saving lives over sacrificing a few to save many. Only it doesn’t. By destroying the hydrogenerator, Bellamy sentences 400 people to death to save 25.

What’s more absurd is the deliberate framing of this decision as a false dichotomy between getting the hydrogenerator (now) or saving the slaves (now). But there were other feasible options—like taking the generator but leaving behind a spy to follow where Azgeda took the slaves while sending messages to Roan for him to intervene. The choice as presented prioritizes the immediate ‘redemption’ of Bellamy (he gets to hug a child! he’s a good person now!) over narrative sense. And all while ignoring the actual devastating toll of his choice. Now 400 people have to be culled from surviving in the Ark.

Last night’s episode went further via the conversations with Jaha. Jaha justifies the doomsday cult leader for “do[ing] whatever it takes to save his people”, implying that the same applies to his choices to join ALIE. Need I remind you that Jaha participated in the torture and deaths of hundreds of people in collusion with ALIE. Hell, he actually came up with the logical loophole that allowed ALIE to use torture as a legitimate means of ‘convincing’ people to join them. Jaha then calls Bellamy’s massacre of the Grounders a ‘mistake’ he made to protect his people. Bellamy ought to be more like Jaha and not beat himself up for his ‘mistakes’; his motives were ‘pure’ (wanting to save his people) which means he does not need redemption at all, actually.

Leaving aside the irony of telling a character they don’t need to be redeemed while the narrative is actively trying to redeem them, this entire conversation is bullshit. First of all, Bellamy was not protecting his people when he massacred 300 innocent Grounders sent to protect Skaikru. They were not an ‘army’ as Jaha claims. They were a defensive vanguard to protect them against Azgeda’s aggression. Second, even if Bellamy mistakenly believed he was acting out of a protective instinct, so what? That does not magically make his decision ethically good. People do terrible things from ‘pure’ motives all the time. Our president believes that banning Muslims will protect the US, but that doesn’t make it a morally good decision.

Jaha and Bellamy should feel bad for what they participated in. They did heinous things. Yet, the writers this season have for some reason decided to equate redemption with lack of shame or remorse. And now they’re trying to force us to do the same.

Blaming Clarke and Forced Apologies

It’s even more troubling when you juxtapose how the narrative has and continues to treat Clarke’s leadership. Blaming Clarke for her decisions has been a consistent issue with the 100. Stephen King has joked about how frequently Clarke apologizes. She cannot make a single decision without being forced by the writers to apologize for it (sometimes multiple times for the same event), and the plot will not progress until she does.

I’m not quibbling over the need to apologize per se. In most instances, her apologies make sense in context and are means of repairing her relationships. At the same time, she’s the only character subjected to the repeated need to apologize. I could count on one hand the number of times Bellamy has apologized for the Grounder massacre. And still have 4.5 fingers left over. Letting his sister punch him does not equal apologizing, especially when the half-assed ‘apology’ he does give her is mostly self-justification. The same applies to his ‘apology’ to Niylah. And he’s always offended that his not-quite apologies do not immediately redeem him.

The inequality is staggering. Bellamy sentences 400 people do death with his choice to blow up the hydrogenerator, but it’s Clarke’s fault for making the list of 100 who will survive in the Ark. Jaha actually participated in torture and murder, but Raven withholding medication from dying people is equivalent to murder. Even though the medication didn’t actually work and the child died anyway.

Thus far this season, the show has been pushing a message that equates Jaha with Clarke. They’re both ‘religious fanatics’ (she for being a flamekeeper, and he for his work with ALIE). They’re both leaders who know how to make ‘tough choices’ for ‘the good of their people’. But they aren’t the same. Not telling everyone the whole truth ≠ helping an AI find a torture loophole in it’s do-no-harm programming. Similar motives do not result in equivalent moral values on the actions stemming from those motives.

Sexism in a ‘Post-Sexist’ Society

The writers may not intend it, but there’s an underlying sexism to the treatment of male and female leaders on the show that defies Rothenberg’s claims of this being a “post sexist” society. Not only do they equate Jaha/Bellamy with Clarke/Raven, they actually minimize the latter while repeatedly and antagonistically calling out the latter. Clarke gets yelled at for making a list, but Bellamy shouldn’t not feel bad for killing people. Raven has to be emotionally punished for her choice to withhold medication, but Jaha is never confronted for his role in bringing ALIE to Arkadia and Polis.

Male leaders are justified and ‘redeemed’, female leaders are blamed, punished, and forced to apologize over and over again for the same things. Roan does not get as much criticism for his pragmatism as Raven and Clarke do for theirs. Despite Echo’s repeated refrains about people ‘losing faith’ in Roan, we have yet to see any negative consequences for his so-called difficult choices. And even so, telling someone “people might not like you if you do this” is a far cry from “you just murdered a little girl”.

It’s awful, and also entirely consistent with what we saw last season in the treatment of Clarke, Raven, Abby, and Lexa versus Bellamy’s unearned ‘redemption’ and Pike’s hail Mary redemption/justification near the end. All this establishes a pattern of differential treatment between male and female leaders over the arcs of S3 and 4. Therefore, even if there are individual instances that break it (like Octavia beating Bellamy), they act as the exceptions that prove the rule.

“Moral Ambiguity”

The way in which the narrative treats Clark/Raven and Bellamy/Jaha defies the idea that The 100 is somehow a meaningful exploration of the travails of leadership. Justifying awful decisions and overly criticizing complex but pragmatic ones does not equal grey morality. It’s the equivalent of the logic that  “calling someone a nazi is as bad as being a nazi”.

Clarke and Raven are pragmatic in the face of overwhelmingly difficult circumstances, not malicious or nihilistic. Asking folks to submit to long hours and rationing without all the information cannot be easy for Raven. Nor is arguing in favor of withholding meds from dying people. At the same time, they’re rational and logical, if morally ambiguous, decisions that someone has to make. We can clearly see that just by the narrative context. The audience can also clearly see that murdering people and sanctioning torture is wrong.

Yet, instead of allowing the audience to come to it’s own decision about the complexity, we’re being told what to think. And it’s the opposite of what the narrative context implies. Telling us a choice is morally grey doesn’t make it so. Neither does telling us it’s justified make it acceptable, nor telling us it’s awful make it the same as an actually morally wrong one. I said it in my review earlier today, and I’ll say it again: this isn’t morally ambiguous, it’s morally backward.

Maybe it’s unintentional, a consequence of muddied storytelling, inconsistent attention to narrative themes, and a desperate need to ‘redeem’ Bellamy. But is that really better? It just proves they’re not thinking things through while at the same time claiming to be morally nuanced and complicated. I admit I’m a themes and characterization gal at heart, but I don’t need super deep themes to enjoy a dystopian sci-fi drama. I enjoyed the hell out of Jupiter Ascending ffs. But, if a show claims to be a morally complex exploration of a meaningful theme, I’m sure as hell not going to give it a pass when the themes are not only weak, but self-contradictory.

Plot Convenience and Repetition

Bellamy’s forced propping up might be my biggest gripe with the characters, but not my only one. The show has a major issue with plot convenient telepathy this season. Characters  know things, and act on them to advance the plot, when they have zero legitimate reason to know it. Roan (and the rest of Polis) know Octavia killed Ambassador Rafael despite her specifically making it look like natural causes. Octavia immediately recognizes the exact person who has stolen the flame despite having zero description and living in a city with thousands of people in it. Ilian knows the flame was stolen and that Octavia is chasing the girl who has it.

And that was just last night. There are other instances, like Azgeda knowing that Abby/Clarke had broken in to rescue Roan or Echo knowing Ambassador Rafael’s heart had stopped (and yet Ilian immediately knew Octavia killed him…). Or when Abby knew Clarke loved Lexa. It’s as bad as ALIE’s magical telepathy last season. The only reason characters know things is because they read the script and knew the plot had to happen.

Ilian’s manpain arc and Raven’s punishment for not giving out useless meds upset me because I’m tired of fridged women and children. Don’t get me wrong, the scene where Luna gives Adria last rites was beautiful and moving. But does it justify killing a young girl on screen just to make Raven cry and feel bad for making a logical decision that she was actually proved correct about by the narrative? And did we really need to watch Ilian kill his brother and almost kill himself while his crucified mother watched only to die in his arms later?

This season is full of other contrived plot tensions as well, like Bellamy’s falsely dichotomous decision about the hydrogenerator and his dead end ‘redemption’ field trips. Ilian’s manpain only serves to create additional tension in Polis that could have been accomplished without introducing an entirely new clan to hate Skaikru and the emotional and physical torture of a woman that ends in her death.

The writers clearly want me to care, but very few of the arcs this season resonate. And small wonder, since we’ve seen almost all of them before. Episode 1 of this season was basically a soft reset to 3.06 or thereabouts. We have a clan that hates Skaikru, a 13 clan coalition, political drama against the backdrop of a global threat, Clarke making decisions and getting blamed, Bellamy being incompetent but never blamed for it, Jaha on a salvation quest, the idea that ‘hard decisions are hard’, Murphy being a rogue with a heart of gold, and on and on it goes. Almost every plot device thus far is recycled from previous seasons. No wonder I’m bored. I’ve seen this all before, and seen it done with more depth and consistency.

The Silver Linings

It isn’t as if it’s all bad. I appreciate that they tried to address Murphy’s rape. Unfortunately, it got a bit muddled because of Emori’s reactions. All they had to do was have Emori apologize once Murphy explained the situation and sympathize with him. Instead she shut down and stared resentfully at him as if she didn’t believe him. So, props for addressing it, but it didn’t quite get there. With minimal effort it could have gotten it to 100%, but at least they tried? It’s more than I expected.

And there are some genuinely good character moments. Gaia is interesting and the Indra/Gaia/Octavia interaction compelling. The lore surrounding the Flame religion and Luna being immune to radiation (or, at least, able to recover) are fascinating. I wish we got more. I love Raven being pragmatic, if they would just cut out her being attacked for it. And it’s nice to see Clarke finally being able to feel again after her shock and flat affect in 3B. I always like it when Murphy is decent; he’s been a surprisingly likable character in the past couple of seasons.

Even some of Bellamy’s moments are good, like the ‘see you in hell’ comment, him saying Clarke keeps him grounded rather than the other way around, and writing down Clarke’s name. But, as with the handling of Murphy’s rape, they’re muddled by larger character inconsistencies and his forced, unearned redemption arc.

When push comes to shove, though, even the concatenation of good snippets of characterization cannot make up for the weight of mischaracterization, poor worldbuilding, contrived plot devices that both rehash old plots and are not as good, and mishandled themes that try to be deeper than they are. The less motivated things are overall the less it matters if some of the character moments are good.

And So, I Persist In My Saltiness

The show really wants us to forget the awful things that happened last year, but is pretending they didn’t happen really the best way to do it? Either find a way to acknowledge them or give us something markedly better to prove you’re paying attention and understand the criticisms of the show. I get the feeling that Rothenberg views himself as Bellamy and wants everyone to admit that he made some ‘mistakes’ trying to protect his people tell his story. We just need to accept him and move on. In other words, the show feels like its justifying it’s past decisions, not making up for them.

So, in the end, even setting aside the death of prominent minority characters last season, what has this season done to show it is listening to criticisms? Aside from addressing Murphy’s rape, very little seems actually improved. It still has issues with it’s treatment of women and minorities. It still struggles with an unintentionally sexist handling of men and women in power, especially when it comes to Clarke and Bellamy. As with 3B, it still does not know how to consistently frame moral ambiguity, to the point that it actually contradicts itself. And yet it still tells us it is nuanced.

Until it can give me a female leader whose decisions are not repeatedly questioned and blamed disproportionately to males and a truly morally grey decision that is not blatantly labeled with a moral value opposite the context, I cannot say there has been progress. Everything that happened last year has erased any benefit of the doubt the show got from me. It’s going to take more than inconsistent themes and characterizations to win me over to neutral. Redemption is earned by making different choices, not by calling yourself redeemed and pretending it never happened.

Image Courtesy of The CW