Saturday, March 28, 2015

The 100 proves that season 1 wasn't a fluke

I can't remember the last time I was more nervous about a show's sophomore year than I was for season two of The CW's post-apocalyptic sci-fi drama The 100.  After binging on the first season in the span of a few days, I wrote a piece that heaped praise upon the show, calling it the best sci-fi series on television.  My effusive adulation even convinced some friends to give it a chance.  So after all of the proselytizing I did after the first season, I would've had quite a bit of egg on my face if it completely tanked afterward.  That was a very real possibility.  When you're watching a show that's on a prestigious cable network and made by reputable creators, there's more faith that if it starts good, it will remain that way for a while.  With a show like this, it's hard to tell whether or not everyone involved just stumbled upon momentary greatness.  Not to mention the fact that genre concepts generally tend to have a shorter shelf life anyway.

Thankfully, creator Jason Rothenberg and his team of writers kept charging ahead, picking up where season one left off without missing a beat.  The previous season closed on that haunting image of Clarke trapped in a brightly lit, white room that we find out is in Mt. Weather, a massive underground bunker that has housed a society of people for the 97 years since the Earth was irradiated.  Above ground, the other surviving members of the 100 are greeted by the adults from the Ark, which crash-landed on the planet in the season one finale.  Uneasy alliances were a major theme of the season, especially in the beginning, where the teens who'd had months to handle things on their own had to deal with being under the strict rule of the adults from The Ark once again, while Clarke and the rest of the gang at Mt. Weather were left to figure whether or not their hosts were as benevolent as they made themselves out to be.

Season two made The 100 a bigger and more expansive show, both in terms of the amount of stories it was forced to juggle and the physical ground it had to cover.  It stretched out the episode count to match that ambition, increasing from last season's 13 to a total of 16.  This led to some more flabbiness in the storytelling, where it felt obvious that two or three episodes in the middle were just people either standing around or deliberately being moved like pieces on a chessboard, in order to set up the real action.  An increased episode order also carved out space for some iffy subplots, like Jaha and Murphy's trek through the desert, which had a satisfying and bugnuts conclusion, but required lots of meandering to get there.  With so much sprawl and ambition, I occasionally found myself missing the simplicity of season one's balance of Earth stories and Ark stories.

Still, those minor flaws did little to mar the season as a whole, which ultimately ended up being the stronger effort.  This year, The 100 continued its trend of tough, intelligent sci-fi, delivering some of the most brutal and unflinching conflicts on television.  When I wrote about the show last year, I made some superficial comparisons to Battlestar Galactica, but I think it mirrors BSG in much deeper ways too.  Those parallels really clicked when I listened to an episode of the Nerdist Writers Panel featuring staff writer Kim Shumway, when she said that they break stories based around decisions characters have to make.  That's vintage Battlestar, which continually had its characters show you who they are through the tough choices they were asked to grapple with.  The 100 did that in season one and didn't step off of these characters' necks in season two.

The bulk of those tough decisions seemed to rest on the shoulders of Clarke (or, I should say, CLARKE!).  One of the greatest strengths of the show is its ability to really dig into its characters and allow them to grow and change in fascinating and logical ways.  But nobody has gone through a better character arc than Clarke Griffin, who has not only evolved into the best character on the show by a wide margin, but one of my favorite protagonists on TV.  Last week, I found myself randomly going back to watch the pilot, and I was stricken by how different everyone is in it, but especially Clarke, who comes off as a major wet blanket in that first episode.  It's a real night-and-day difference from the Clarke at the end of "Blood Must Have Blood," hardened and scarred by all of the punishing ultimatums placed upon her.

One of the most crucial quotes of season one was, "Who we are and who need to be to survive aren't the same thing."  This season was about those contrasts becoming less clear.  All of their time on the ground has turned everyone into different people.  Their tough choices are no longer a thing they can divorce from their true selves, it's something they have to reckon with.  These are rich, complicated ideas the show is chewing on, and it doesn't get enough credit for taking them on and exploring them effectively.

It's able to ask difficult questions and present weighty themes, yet it never lets plot fall by the wayside either.  Season two just kept churning on, exploring the shifting conflicts between the various factions at play.  (And at this point, the numbers are piling up: the Grounders, the dwindling 100, the adults from the Ark, Mount Weather, etc.)  Many genre shows fall into the trap of having plot for plot's sake, and villains that are mere obstacles without logical motivations, but the writers managed to avoid both of those problems.  Every story development came from a place rooted in character, and though the people from the Ark are the focal point of the show, it's becoming increasingly clear that there are no real good guys or bad guys.  That's what makes the two major twists in the "Blood Must Have Blood" two-parter -- Lexa betraying Clarke, and Clarke choosing to irradiate all of Mount Weather -- such doozies.  They're both powerful moments that challenge our perceptions of characters and the places the show is willing to go.

In my blurb for this show on my Best of 2014 list, I wrote, "The 100 is dark stuff, and whenever you find yourself asking, 'are they really going to go that far?,' the answer is almost always 'yes.'"  If Rothenberg and company aren't careful, the show could become a tiresome series of progressively worse things Clarke must do, but right now the grimness is perfectly calibrated.  I still encounter people on the internet who scoff at The 100 just because it's on The CW, or because its first few episodes were a little on the rough side.  What a shame too, because they're missing out on one of the most gripping shows on television, one that just keeps getting better and better.

No comments:

Post a Comment