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Thursday, April 16, 2015

The 100: Pilot, Earth Skills, Earth Kills

So even though I'm currently juggling a dozen shows and have a TBR pile that is stacked halfway up the wall (I'm not kidding) the prevalence of The 100 on my dashboard and its recommendation in at least three emails from my sister meant that my curiosity was sufficiently piqued. It's time to see what the big deal is.
Here are my thoughts on the first three episodes. Now that it's just completed its second season, I've got a lot to catch up on!

As with a lot of things these days, The 100 has jumped on board the current YA dystopian bandwagon. Personally I don't see anything wrong with a little wagon-jumping as long as the story itself holds up (does anyone remember all the Harry Potter knock-offs of the early '00s? Because there were dozens) and The 100 has a fairly strong premise with which to build on.
Based off a book series by Kass Morgan, we're told that it's been ninety-seven years since a nuclear apocalypse made Planet Earth inhospitable. Since then the surviving population has lived in an orbiting space station known as the Arc, and conventional wisdom states it'll take four more space-locked generations before anyone can go back to Earth safely.
But the Arc is becoming increasingly unsustainable, even with drastic measures taken to cull the population. Criminal offenders over the age of eighteen undergo swift execution in the attempt to preserve resources, but the Arc's life-support capabilities have only three months left before they start failing.
Those in charge come up with a new solution: to send all their under-eighteen reprobates down to Earth as human guinea pigs to see if the planet is habitable.
In the space of a few hours the one hundred teens of the title are secretly herded into a drop ship and shot down to Earth, only learning of their purpose once they're on their way. Chancellor Thelonious Jaha (Isaiah Washington) appears on the ship's monitors to inform them their criminal records make them dispensable and that their lives are of more use as test subjects. 
Among them is Clarke Griffin (Eliza Taylor), the daughter of the man who tried to blow the whistle on the failing life-support systems of the Arc and got "floated" (that is, ejected out into space) for his trouble, and Wells Jaha (Eli Goree) the Chancellor's son who deliberately committed a crime so that he could accompany Clarke on the voyage – not that she's particularly moved considering he's the one that turned in her father.
There's also Bellamy Blake (Bob Morley) who – like Wells – has also tricked his way on board the drop ship for the sake of another; in his case it's his little sister Octavia Blake (Marie Avgeropoulos) whose very existence is a crime considering the Arc's One Child Policy. Then there's Finn Collins (Thomas McDonell) walking the thin line between loveable prankster and insufferable twat, and Jasper Jordan and Monty Green (Devon Bostick and Christopher Larkin) playing Those Two Guys – you know, the dorky nerd and the nerdy dork who seem permanently grafted to each other's side.
Hmm... who do these two remind me of...?
Oh yeah.
For some reason sending these guys to Earth is considered a better idea than a) just telling the Arc's population about the station's dwindling sustainability and b) asking for adult volunteers, many of whom would probably be all too willing to make the sacrifice for the sake of their children, but hey – let's not quibble over a premise that's designed to get teenagers into a life-or-death survival situation.
And perhaps the show's greatest strength is that it's aware of the major flaw within its own premise: that entrusting the fate of humankind to a bunch of teenage delinquents is a really bad idea. Before the drop ship even lands, the titular one hundred is whittled down to ninety-eight after two teens unbuckle their seatbelts in order to enjoy floating around in zero gravity, only to be instantly crushed when the ship hits the Earth's atmosphere.
Upon landing, comparisons to William Golding's The Lord of the Flies become apparent – I've never actually read the book, but I know enough to see how it's inspired the power structures that form almost immediately after the teens hit the ground. Some characters gravitate into the roles of leaders, others into anti-authoritarian rebellion. Some are only concerned with their newfound freedom, others have agendas that are not yet clear. Those who have the foresight to start working towards long-term goals by following instructions given by the Arc are openly dismissed as "the privileged" who only want to maintain the status quo, and most of the teens are content to run riot.
The influence of LOST on the show is also abundantly clear, as the teens quickly realize there's more to their new environment than what first meets the eye: hostile "grounders" that strike without warning, the discovery of strange simian footprints and skeletons, an acidic yellow gas that kills instantly, and a variety of aggressive animals that seem to have mutated over the past hundred or so years.
Thanks to a convenient malfunction in communications (don’t worry; it's the last serious contrivance) the teens are cut off from the adults monitoring their progress from the Arc. The only link left is the teens' mandatory wrist bracelets, broadcasting their vital signs into space. Naturally some of the teenagers waste no time in removing these bracelets, leading to one adult succinctly summing up the flaw in the Arc's plan and in the show itself when she realizes the bracelets are being deactivated simply because "we told them not to."
Bloody kids.
The writers never lose sight of the collective immaturity of their characters, and how this more than anything poses the greatest threat to their existence. Not only do they have all the raging hormones of your average group of teenagers left unsupervised, but they're all a little nuts from having been incarcerated in cells for so long. As such, most of the injuries and fatalities of the first three episodes can be chalked up to the impetuousness of youth.
Octavia is nearly killed when she literally doesn't look before she leaps. Jasper is seriously wounded after he makes himself a target by his excited yelling (brought on by his attempt to impress a girl). Two more teenagers are killed because they wander off into the forest alone.
It's fitting then, that the main conflict on the ground is between those teenagers who want to work with the Arc in the hopes that one day their parents will reunite with them, and those who are more interested in cutting all ties and forging their own society free of rules and constraints. The former group is led by Wells and Clarke, who have loving families and an understanding of social responsibility (their parents are in leadership roles) while the latter is spearheaded by Bellamy, whose commitment to anarchy belies his somewhat murky motivation. On the one hand, he snuck aboard the drop ship for the sake of his younger sister; on the other hand, his insistence on rejecting the authority of the Arc is due to what he did to get on board the ship – an attempted assassination of the Chancellor.
For the most part, the other teenagers are happy to follow his lead in getting rid of their bracelets and chanting "whatever the hell we want", blissfully oblivious to the fact that his "total freedom" mantra involves him doling out punishment to those who disobey him and dictating to his sister where she can go and who she can interact with. It's no coincidence that he's the oldest person in the group (he's presumably in his early-twenties, otherwise he could have gotten on the drop ship by exploiting the under-eighteen loophole – as Wells did – by committing a minor crime) and three episodes in he's already amassed a group of followers that reject the more reasonable courses of action that Clarke and Wells are trying to sell: little things like gathering food and finding medical supplies.
This mentality is explored in a scenario that seems heavily borrowed from LOST, in which a wounded boy is brought back to camp, disturbing the others with his agonised screaming. You'll recall a similar situation in LOST, in which the State Marshal is fatally wounded after the plane crash. But whereas the (mostly adult) characters of LOST quietly and grimly waited for death to take him, the teenagers of The 100 lack the compassion to let Jasper die in peace; and aren't shy about shouting their disgruntlement at his prolonged suffering.
Of course, the shows are opposites in how they resolve this situation. Whereas the adults of LOST (or at least three of them) eventually conspire to carry out a Mercy KillThe 100 allows Clarke, Wells and Finn to return successfully with medicinal plants that restore Jasper to full health.
This resolution might just lull you into a false sense of security in regards to how The 100 will handle the metering out of death. Jasper's recovery is a vindication of teamwork and hope, but perhaps the show's most chilling example (thus far at least) of how its young characters are completely and utterly in over their heads, is in what happens to Wells almost immediately afterwards.
It's telling that the first major death among the main cast is not at the hands of the grounders or the environment or even one of the more violent teenagers, but a little girl who is clearly suffering from some form of PSTD. More disturbingly, her choice to stab Wells in the neck occurs after she misinterprets well-meaning advice/decision-making from Bellamy and Clarke – the former gives her a knife and encourages her to slay her demons, the latter performs a mercy kill on a dying teenager while humming a lullaby to comfort him. Armed with the knowledge they inadvertently give her, Charlotte comes to the conclusion that she has to murder Wells in order to end her nightmares – a murder she regretfully carries out before retreating into the foetal position.
Safe to say, I didn't see that coming.
All this tension on Earth is reflected on the Arc, where the adults grapple over what to do regarding the impending lack of resources. Clarke's mother Abbie (Paige Turco) wants to hold out in the hope that the teenagers will find a way to survive on the Earth's surface, and is opposed by Marcus Kane (Henry Ian Cusick) who is committed to keeping the human race alive no matter what the cost – and if culling undesirables means he accumulates power for himself, who's to say what his real motivation is?
Perhaps the most poignant element of the show is the silent solidarity that exists between mother and daughter, even through their separation. Clarke is determined to keep her wristband intact to let her mother know she's still alive; while Abbie can only stare at her daughter's face on a monitor and pray that her vital signs remain consistent.
That said, a fracture in their relationship occurs when Clarke realizes her father died because her mother gave him up to the authorities. Details are scant as yet, but it would appear that Abbie put the greater good before her husband's life, believing that news of the Arc's impending collapse would only cause chaos. Given that Abbie is already making plans to get herself to Earth in her own space shuttle, the confrontation between them is worth anticipating.
For now at least it's the differences between mother/daughter rather than the similarities that are intriguing – but one suspects that the longer Clarke spends on Earth, shouldering responsibility and struggling to lead a bunch of reprobates, the sooner she'll come to recognise the pragmatism behind her mother's decision.
As with most shows these days, world-building and backstories are gradually metered out across the course of the episodes, interspersed amidst the mini-quests undertaken by the cast to ensure their immediate survival (find food, fix the radio, rescue Jasper, etc). This early in the show's run there are a few clunky bits of exposition (Octavia is introduced as a forbidden second child by a random teenager calling out her backstory when she first appears) and some fairly ludicrous assumptions (you're telling me that a teenage boy deliberately lets the girl he had a crush on believe that he was responsible for her father's death??), not to mention...
Bellamy explicitly stating that his entire motivation on getting on the drop ship was to protect his sister, only to immediately let her wander off into the potentially dangerous forest without him.
Octavia getting viciously thrashed around by a giant snake, and emerging with only a few tiny scratches on her leg.

This mysterious vine which doesn't seem to be connected to ANYTHING:

And of course, this infamous pull-up:
Guys, it doesn't take four of you.
But thankfully, the show knows when to slow down and explore its own ideas. Some of its best scenes involve the teenagers first setting foot on the Earth's surface (and their corresponding vital signs leading Abbie to remark: "they're excited"), Clarke's fears that the forests are contaminated with radiation being answered when they chance across a two-headed deer, and Octavia's childlike joy when she discovers a grove of glow-in-the-dark butterflies.
Like most new shows, it's a somewhat clumsy opening, but already the potential is clear.
Miscellaneous Observations:
My first big surprise on watching was that Clarke Griffin was the show's main character. Yes fandom, you did it again. The prevalence of Bellamy on my dashboard left me under the impression that he was this show's protagonist, when in fact he – for now at least – is a supporting character.
I'm also half-aware that Bellarke is the Fan Preferred Ship of the show, though the two characters currently exist on opposite ends of the morality spectrum. Clarke strives for compassion and selflessness in the building of whatever new community may emerge from their new surroundings, while Bellamy wants self-interested anarchy (technically he doesn't even want that, he just wants to prevent the adults from returning to Earth so he can evade justice). Yet in the first three episodes alone there are two fairly intense scenes between them: the first when Clarke falls into a trap and Bellamy catches her (for a second she's not sure whether he'll drop her or not) and the second when she calmly and carefully euthanizes Adam under Bellamy's quiet scrutiny. Both times they surprise the other, so if this is the major ship of the show, I await its development with interest.
There are some interesting bits-and-pieces of world-building, such as Abbie nearly getting floated for exceeding the limits of prescribed blood per patient in her attempt to save the Chancellor's life, and I have to admit that at times I found the politicking up on the Arc more compelling than the teens down on Earth.
There's some weird chronology about Bellamy's attempted assassination of the Chancellor. Apparently Bellamy makes an attempt on his life to get on board the drop ship, but unless the rounding up of the teenagers happened at the speed of light and with precise timing, it seems impossible that Bellamy could shoot (stab?) the Chancellor and be secreted on board the vessel before Thelonious's body is found (though admittedly Kane is given the line "if only they'd found him sooner"). I'm going to assume flashbacks exploring all this are forthcoming, though for now it all seems a bit too hectic to have been pulled off successfully.
The show does a good job of making all the clothing worn and holey, but naturally everyone has white teeth and perfect hair at all times.
So that was the first there episodes of The 100. I'm going to try and watch/review regularly, though remember what I said about my giant TBR pile?
I wasn't kidding.

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