Those who have never seen "The 100" can safely read this until the spoiler warning below; the first half of this review does not reveal specific plot points about the show. Don't read beyond the spoiler warning unless you've seen the Season 2 finale of "The 100," "Blood Must Have Blood Part 2."
I know I'm preaching to the choir here -- if you're reading this, you're already a loyal viewer of "The 100." You might have some issues with this or that aspect of the show, but by now you're most likely in it for the long haul and you don't need to be convinced that the show is the real deal.
That said, I'm going to preface my remarks about Season 2 finale of "The 100" with a couple of general thoughts. As you might have gathered, my job is to watch a lot of TV -- as much as I can (whee!). A lot of amazingly wonderful people write about TV -- many of them very well -- and I make no distinction between an eloquent analysis that appears on Tumblr or on a solo blog and one that is written for money.
That said, ideally there is a valuable thing a professional critic can bring to the party: A depth and breadth of knowledge about what's happening in many different arenas of television. Most critics I know try to watch almost every scripted drama that comes down the pike, and many of the comedies as well (no shade on unscripted fare, but I don't get to it lately because there's just too much good scripted stuff to watch). Critics try to keep track, to the degree that we can, of the big picture, and we try to let the world know when shows -- big or small, high- or low-profile -- are doing something new and important, or mastering a valuable set of goals with particular force and eloquence.
With that in mind, I can say with some assurance that I've rarely seen a program demonstrate the kind of consistency and thematic dedication that "The 100" has shown in its first two seasons. This is a show about moral choices and the consequences of those choices, and it's been laudably committed to those ideas from Day 1.
You may well say, "But wait, Mo -- isn't this basically an adventure story about risky survival in a series of unforgiving environments?" Well, sure. There is that. But underpinning those plot mechanics and story settings are a series of important questions that the show takes very seriously. What does it mean to survive? Who do you become if you sacrifice others in order to survive? When do the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few? When is taking a life -- or many lives -- justified? What are the consequences of taking those lives -- how does it transform you and your ideas about your self-worth?
The characters don't necessarily know the answers to these questions. Even after they've made a decision, they often struggle with what they've done. What gives "The 100" a particularly rich flavor on the character front is that very few people on the screen are in a position to judge anyone else. No one occupies the moral high ground. There is blood on the hands of just about every person on the screen.
According to one reading of the narrative, Clarke is a mass murderer -- and she's not remotely the only one we've encountered. Of course, seeing Clarke only as a killer would be a profoundly limited interpretation of who she is and what she's done; at every step, I look at her decisions and think I probably would have done the same thing. To its credit, the show explores these issues of morality and ethics without beating us over the head with them. You only have to look at Clarke's face at several key moments in the finale to understand that she herself is asking these questions: "Am I a monster? What kind of person am I?"
The cast does a phenomenal job of quietly conveying these internal battles, the directors and crew have done an increasingly exceptional job of creating tension on the screen, and for a long time, the writers have had a clear grasp of who these people are and where they're headed. All of those things make "The 100" an addictive show. I watch each episode the night it airs (a rarity for me), because I want to know what happens next, but what gives the show extra weight and import are those examinations of personal imperatives versus community needs. How do individuals with limited resources weigh their bonds to each other -- as friends, as family, as clans, as would-be conquerers or reluctant allies? What are they capable of doing to save each other, what are their limits, and do their most terrible acts make them less human -- or more noble?
How many other shows do that -- engage fans on the surface level, on the character level and on the philosophical level? Not many, in my view.
"The Walking Dead" occasionally takes a run at those questions, but too often, it gets mired in circular plotting and takes shortcuts with shoddy, convenient shortcuts. It has its moments, to be sure, but its biggest weakness is frustratingly bland or variable characterizations. "The 100," by contrast, has only grown more assured over the course of its two seasons, and it engages with wrenching questions with far more consistency than a lot of shows with much bigger budgets. Many of us have compared the show to "Battlestar Galactica," its most obvious influence, but what the hell -- I'm going to bring up "Game of Thrones." Yeah, I went there. These shows are not doing the same things, clearly. Of course the CW show's budget is minuscule compared to that of the HBO behemoth, and "The 100" can't necessarily match "Game of Thrones" when it comes to epic visuals and enormous battles.
That said, "The 100" acquits itself very well aesthetically, as I've noted in the past. But the comparison to "Game of Thrones" is apt in other ways as well. I can't think of many other shows that combine moments of high adventure, a devotion to knotty characterizations and a keen exploration of philosophical dilemmas with such frequently fruitful results. Don't you think Clarke and Daenerys would have a lot to say to each other if they ever met?
And let's get real: "The 100" has a better record than the HBO drama in one arena. As far as I can recall, the CW show has never used female characters or extras for lazy or exploitative purposes (the upside to being on the CW: No sexposition). And while I like both shows a lot, "Game of Thrones" has had trouble at times keeping its sprawling narrative under control, while this season "The 100" expanded its array of characters without losing momentum. Everyone in Westeros (and beyond) is fighting for survival, but that's the case on "The 100" too, and as a fan of focused, intelligent genre storytelling, I'm glad we have both shows around to provide very human stories of frailty, sacrifice, connection and greed.
All in all, as this season of "The 100" comes to a close, I have to say I'm generally impressed with how it built on the strengths of Season 1, and I'll be very keen to see where it goes next season.
Don't read on unless you've seen the Season 2 finale; spoilers below.
So, about the finale itself -- who guessed that before the season was out, we'd see a killer sea monster eating a dude! Just when you thought it was safe to go on a cruise with Jaha ...
Seriously, I love the fact that the show keeps finding new things to throw at these characters. There are weird, irradiated creatures on the ground, so it makes a sense that bodies of water wouldn't be any safer than the forests and mountains. In any event, I had a feeling that the guys with Jaha and Murphy were not long for this world, given that I could not remember their names and they certainly seemed like redshirts who would be killed off at the earliest opportunity. Points to the show for taking them out in a scary and surprising way. Nobody expects the carnivorous sea monster!
Speaking of Jaha, he provides a good example of the show's commitment to moral complexity: I should hate him for throwing an innocent survivor off the boat in order to distract the beast and save himself and Murphy, but Isaiah Washington plays the guy with such charismatic zeal that I can't help but be on his side a lot of the time. By the way, it would have been easy for the side plot about Jaha and Murphy's punishing road trip to start to seem like an unnecessary distraction (a la many of the Hong Kong flashbacks on "Arrow"). As it turned out, there was just enough of it to work well as a bit of contrast.
The odd-couple pairing of the cynical Murphy and the messianic Jaha paid real dividends: The fact that Murphy committed himself to Jaha's unlikely mission gave Murphy something to believe in, however preposterous the former president's mission seemed. Murphy didn't get to do much more than glower in Season 1, so seeing new sides of his personality on the Jaha road trip was enjoyable. As for Jaha, his messianic fervor was enjoyable to watch, and in a show that now an then can be a little too committed to its grim, unrelenting worldview, Jaha's fervent, slightly cracked positivity was a nice contrast to the rest of the show.
But what about the meat of the episode, Mo! Well, I've been putting that off because damn, things got dark. It's no surprise that the show isn't afraid to go to pitch-black places, but the finale particularly brutal in certain spots. I still can't get the sound of that drill out of my head, let alone the images of Raven and Abbie on that bloody table inside the mountain's chamber of horrors. Even harder to watch: Dozens of inhabitants of the mountain dying horribly of radiation poisoning. That was rough. I didn't think the season would end with most of the Mountain Men dead, but it fits right in with how things work in this world. There didn't have to be carnage because the show exploits carnage for cheap thrills. There had to be a lot of deaths because in a world with resources this limited, detentes and alliances are always going to be temporary at best.
I give director/executive producer Dean White a lot of credit for how he shot the scenes in which the mountain folk died; they were quite mournful, and rightfully so. There's violence on "The 100," but the show isn't casual about it. Serious bloodshed here is rarely rote or inconsequential. If the dead are enemies, those who did the killing feel bad about it, or at the very least conflicted. If the dead were friends, as was the case in the destruction of Ton DC, the atmosphere of regret is all the more palpable. There was a melancholy feeling to almost every scene of death in the finale, a pained, bittersweet atmosphere heightened by the great work of the cast.
I can't say enough good things about the work Eliza Taylor has done as Clarke: She's continually found new ways to give shadings and nuance to the character's self-doubt and self-confidence. These qualities stand in opposition to each other, yet to remain interested in Clarke, we have to believe in her as both a strong leader and as a human being who feels fear and regret, and who wants the people around her to like her and approve of her actions. I keep thinking about the many emotions -- regret, sadness, shock, relief -- that flashed across her face when she finally embraced Abbie. Taylor imbued two simple words -- "I tried" -- with so much unspoken meaning and barely repressing feeling.
I'm not sure how the fandom in general felt about the Clarke-Lexa kiss (personally, I hope it launched a thousand shipper Tumblrs, which I plan to investigate soon). It was, in my view, an appropriate and well-handled culmination to that storyline. As Ryan McGee pointed out, both women were at ease commanding the large factions following them, but very few of their friends and associates understand the burdens leadership place on them. That kiss represented a moment of comfort and connection, one that both of them knew wouldn't last. Lexa and Clarke just had too many other tasks to complete. But the kiss made Lexa's actions in "Blood Must Have Blood, Part 1" feel like not just a cold rejection, but a personal betrayal as well.
Touching on that for a moment, I think the deal Lexa made was in line with her way of thinking. She proposed allowing everyone in Ton DC to die in order to keep their spy's presence a secret, and she's made similarly brutal calculations in the past to keep her people alive. Though the announcement of the deal was abrupt, all in all, that development made sense within the universe of "The 100." The show isn't just about deploying carnage -- it doesn't raise the stakes by killing more people in more brutal ways. It finds creative ways to increase the pressure on the characters by altering their circumstances in sometimes shocking ways. Having the Grounders abandon the Sky People at a crucial moment -- to my way of thinking, that's the kind of thing this show does. It pulls the rug out from under well-intentioned, flawed people and sees what they do when they're scrambling, angry and afraid.
Given that the show is all about consequences, the high point of the finale was the last scene between Bellamy and Clarke. Both Taylor and Bob Morley have presence to spare, and their on-screen chemistry was simply undeniable in that scene. There's so much unspoken emotion in that moment, and whether or not they ever get together as a couple, the bond they share as survivors of that awful day -- all these awful days -- was palpable. The look on Bellamy's face as he said, "You're forgiven… You don't have to do this alone" -- it was just heartbreaking. But I understood why Clarke walked off to be by herself for a while. She's been through a lot, and sorting it out mentally and emotionally would require some time and space. She knows she did the right thing, yet she still needs to forgive herself, and the many contradictions within that statement are part of what make this show intellectually and emotionally addictive.
Finally, what do we make of Jaha's new friend? Last season's final images were a bit more of a visceral gut-punch, but that's no slam on this season's closing scenes. Given how much of an impact the wrap-up of the Mount Weather story had, we didn't need the Jaha-Murphy closing scenes to melt our brains, thank you very much. I just don't know what to make of the characters the road trip duo encountered, and obviously, that's the point.
Did that nice computer-generated lady want to start another war using Jaha's stray nuke? Did she start the war that decimated the world 100 years ago? What gives with the video of the suicidal guy in the super chill survival bunker? Will Murphy ever get to relax and have a damn drink without something horrifying happening?
We'll have to wait at least six months to find out. See you on the other side.
A few more bullet points before I head into my bunker:
- A recommendation: If you like genre storytelling with a lot of heart, arresting visuals, terrific performances and surprising character depth, check out Showtime's "Penny Dreadful," one of my other favorite under-hyped shows.
- Was Murphy eating Pop Tarts in those scenes? Maybe they were some sort of survival biscuit, but they looked a lot like Pop Tarts. Which makes sense. Even before he got to Earth, I bet the main components of Murphy's diet were alcohol and junk food.
- Goodbye President Dante Wallace. Raymond J. Barry brought a welcome sense of gravitas and wily intelligence to the show. I loved the final exchange between him and Clarke: "You won't do it." "You don't know me very well."
- Emerson may be in the wind. If he is, he'd be well advised to steer clear of Clarke.
- I was a little surprised that so many people in the mountain died; I had been under the impression that more of them got the treatments. I wonder if a number of treated soldiers and perhaps got away, but that seems unlikely.
- I'm glad we got a final moment between Indra and Lincoln. Clearly the Grounders are not out of the picture in the long-term, which is a good thing. Not so good: Alycia Debnam Cary, who plays Lexa, has been cast in the "Walking Dead" spinoff. She was fantastic on "The 100," and I hope we see her again, though her new job may make that unlikely.
- Goodbye Maya. Truth be told, I never felt that character was developed all that well; she rarely felt like a specific person to me. That said, I felt very sorry for poor Jasper.
- A nice moment of badassery: Lincoln getting his revenge on Cage. "The first dose is the worst!"
- An even better moment of badassery: Octavia going Black Widow on two guards inside the mountain. In a dark and eventful hour, that was probably my favorite moment of pure action. If "The 100" launched a Linctavia spinoff which mainly consisted of them kicking a lot of ass, in the style of Cinemax's underrated action noir "Banshee," I'd be OK with that.
- I say this with love: It's kind of funny that amidst the preparations for war, Clarke stopped by the Grounder boutique that sells the latest in all-black badass threads. Her new costume fit in with her status as the leader of an important faction going to war, but clearly the Grounders have a lot of time to devote to making bedazzled gloves.
- If I have one overall idea about what "The 100" could do in its third season, it's this: More "Colonial Day." That's an episode of "Battlestar Galactica" in which we got to see the characters socializing and relaxing, at least for a little while. We saw different sides of them as they celebrated a holiday, and that episode and others like it helped cement my affection for them and my interest in their lives. I truly appreciate the energetic pace of "The 100", its moral gravity and its ability to come up with believable but shocking twists, but having some lighter moments can help the darker aspects of any show stand out. Also, purely character-driven moments can also just be fun to watch. I liked watching Raven and Wick bicker about engineering dilemmas; I like seeing Jasper and Monty hang out; I like seeing what happens when characters are not on the run or being beaten up. When a show pays attention to its forward momentum but gives the people in the story a chance to reaffirm their bonds with each other within non-traumatizing situations, it can really pay off in the long term. I'm not saying "The 100" needs an influx of kittens and rainbows -- this is not that kind of show -- but adding a little more tonal and emotional variety might be a welcome thing when the show returns. It's just a thought.
- The final words belong Murphy: "Your promised land sucks!"