What The 100 Season 1 says about making rules and how to follow them
The moral case for why rules are necessary and figure out how to get people to follow them.
What would you do if you had no one telling you what to do? How would you act if no one cared what you felt or believed or wanted?
This is the central premise behind season 1 of The 100, the seven season TV show that recently ended and eager fans are wondering whether they'll see a prequel that was teased will come to life. For the uninitiated, The 100 is a post-apocalyptic series set 97 years after nuclear war destroyed basically all life on earth. Of the few survivors, forced to live on a space station known as The Ark, life isn't exactly a paradise or easy like the mythical boat from the Bible.
Life is harsh and brutal with absolute authority in the hands of a few and brutally forced on everyone who exists on it. And existence is a more reasonable way to describe it, because it's not exactly what anyone would call 'life'. Everyone on The Ark subsists on the bare minimum of what's available. Things are strictly rationed and any kind of deviation from what you're given is punished with death. Having children is even criminalized to the point that if you have a child outside of what you're allowed, you can be killed, as one of the main characters is a product of that.
Existence is the only reasonable way to describe this way of life. One of the great parts of the show is how it showcases this type of existence. It doesn't present a simple view of existing that way. There are all kinds of interesting dynamics to why they do things the way they do. These people are the last survivors of the human race and they're doing everything to keep people alive long enough that humanity can reclaim the planet they destroyed. Obviously the intent behind that is noble. Survival is a basic human instinct and one of our most primal functions.
Can that type of thinking go too far though? At what point does survival become insufficient to justify the actions being taken?
Characters like Marcus Kane exemplify this in spades in season 1. He will pay any price, do anything necessary to achieve the goal of survival. Abbey Griffin on the other hand, mother of the main character and chief medical officer of The Ark, showcases the opposite view. In the pilot this is most expressly shown in her exchange with Marcus.
“I choose at every turn and any cost, to make sure that the human race stays alive.”
“That's the difference between us Kane. I choose to make sure that we deserve to stay alive.”
Marcus even suggests that things like friendship and mercy are things that humanity can't afford to have. He views the world in very black and white terms. Survival or death, there are no other options to consider. Kane, at least initially, has no other motivation beyond that. Fundamentally, he's a product of the environment he's been raised in. A place like The Ark space station needs people like that for a properly functioning society. If people were allowed to think in any other terms, things would break down pretty quickly.
Despite this however, there are people who think differently. People who want to do things differently then the world they've grown up in. Black and white thinking might be at the core of how The Ark works, but that doesn't mean shades of grey don't exist. Even in a society which is destructively punishing of descent, alternative views still emerge. Choice still exists, and where it still exists, the possibility of what would've happened if a different one was made will always create uncertainty and ultimately, descent.
Does choice only work in a simple binary way though? What would happen if you had more than two choices? What if you could have as many choices as you wanted?
This is at the heart of the other major plot line in The 100, and in many ways the central one of the entire series. The show's title comes from The Ark sending 100 teenage criminals back to earth in order to see if it's survivable. Only people above the age of 18 get punished with death. In this you find an interesting kind of mercy given in a place that generally doesn't have mercy to give. Even sending them down in the first place is a type of mercy. After 97 years, the system they have in place is no longer working, mainly the The Ark itself has stopped functioning properly. Survival on The Ark is not guaranteed anymore and new choices have to be made in order to ensure the continuation of the human race.
From the perspective of The Ark, what they do by sending The 100 down to the ground is a type of sacrifice. They're sacrificing the teenagers in order to keep people on The Ark alive. Fewer people on the space station means more resources for those left behind. Even if sending children to the earth doesn't work out, they buy themselves some time.
Children don't like to follow rules though. Anyone whose had children will tell you how hard it is to get them to do what you want them to. Raising them in an environment of strict rules always invites the kids of those enforcing them to rebel against those rules. Every character that's sent to earth has broken those rules in one way or the other. So if you raise children in an incredibly strict structure like The Ark, what do you do when you don't have it anymore? When the parents who want you to do things a certain way aren't around anymore?
“Whatever the hell we want.”
Which is exactly what they do. They break the rules. Or more accurately, they start making up their own rules, exemplified by the statement of doing whatever the hell they want. Rules only matter if there's someone around to enforce them. At least, that's what they initially believe when The 100 first arrive on the ground. What quickly becomes apparent though is not having any rules doesn't work. Even in a society without rules, people still have basic needs. They still need things like water and food and shelter to survive. A world without rules doesn't provide these things to people.
So they have to invent them.
But having rules doesn't mean people are going to want to follow them. If people create a rule that no one wants to follow, then why would they follow them without a reason to? So creating rules that people will actually follow is fundamental. At least that's how it should work in theory. Whether people will follow the rules or not, some people won't even follow those. You have to find a way to make it a bad idea not to follow the rules for those who refuse.
On The Ark, this calculation is simple. Death is the ultimate motivator for basically anyone. Survival is preferable to death unless you're suicidal. Threatening that survival is the simplest way to ensure compliance. People don't have to put a lot of thought into such a system. It's direct and obvious what the choice has to be.
But it's much harder to enforce a system like that when people don't have to listen. When you don't have to worry about the fact that there's nowhere to run, because you can if you want. If you don't like a rule, you either get them to abandon the rule or you just walk away. Anyone who walks away does risk death too, but it's much less of a certainty. The rules then become much harder to enforce. Especially if you begin from the premise that people can do whatever they feel like.
Bellamy Blake and John Murphy exemplify this idea and the evolution of these concepts in the show. It's Bellamy who says they can do whatever the hell they want initially. But as time goes on, he realizes why that doesn't necessarily work. People around him threaten his safety, his and his sister's, Octavia. So he decides to create his own rules that benefit him and his sister. Of course, Octavia doesn't have any more interest in following Bellamy's rules than anyone else. Which makes Bellamy's attempts to enforce them extremely difficult. He does manage to get a few people to go along with his rules and even to enforce them on Octavia as well.
John Murphy exemplifies the idea of people who don't want to follow any rules at all. He makes his own rules and they serve his own interests. Even when his rules hurt other people, as long as they don't hurt him he's okay with whatever goes on around him. If people die, it doesn't matter. If people get hurt, it doesn't matter. All that matters are him and his own rules. He's even willing to endure a certain amount of pain being inflicted on himself if he gets what he wants in the end. But despite living that way, he recognizes over time it doesn't always end well for him. He can't only be interested in himself if he wants to survive. Which means he makes compromises to his own rules if it serves his own ends.
Compromise is at the heart of who I think are the main characters of the show, at least in season 1 for sure. Clarke Griffin, daughter of Abbey Griffin, and Thelonius Jaha are perfect examples of the importance of compromise. Clarke and Jaha live in between people like Bellamy, Murphy, Abbey and Kane. They see the merits of both sides of the people around them do. They understand why each way of thinking exists and what the benefits are.
What they don't do is ever completely give in to either. While they will do one or the other if they think it will keep people alive, they don't do it because they believe in it. Clarke and Jaha's motivations fundamentally are to keep the peace. To manage the impossible realities they live in and keep their societies functioning long enough so people don't die.
Yet even this has its downsides. Jaha experiences them on The Ark, but the more interesting way this is expressed is in Clarke. Being willing to compromise means never giving people exactly what they want. It means not giving in to the idea of doing whatever the hell they want. This doesn't make you all that popular. In fact, it tends to make you the target of people's frustrations when they have to give up things to serve the broader purpose Clarke is trying to achieve... survival.
No one ever entirely understands what it takes to find the middle ground. To be the one who is serving more than just one's own interests. Serving everyone's interests means rarely serving your own. But if you don't at least partially serve your own interests, it ends badly for everyone.
Raven Reyes is the best example of what happens when you compromise too much. She compromises in a way that makes things work, usually for her own ends but also for everyone else too. Being an engineer, if things didn't work then it doesn't work for anyone. And if you do what works, it has to serve a specific purpose. Things don't just work for the sake of working. They have to do something, otherwise they wouldn't need to exist. Raven doesn't like to do things which don't work. Whatever the hell we want doesn't work if it ends badly for everyone. Absolute authority doesn't work if no one recognizes your authority. Serving other people doesn't work if it harms one group to serve another. Compromise doesn't work if you give up too much to achieve peace.
It's Raven who often points out why a goal someone has doesn't make sense. Which is why it makes perfect sense that the climax depends on Raven. She brings together all the various elements season 1 revolves around. Raven proves the necessity of rules. She compromises where necessary, but not at the expense of her own self-interest and in the interest of others.
This is the brilliance of what a show like The 100 does in season 1 (and hopefully explore further in the prequel). It shows you all the different aspects of a society through so many of the characters.
Bellamy and Murphy tell you why there are rules and why you can't just do whatever the hell you want. Kane and Abbey give you different ways of enforcing those rules. Clarke and Jaha show why it's important to listen and understand different kinds of rules. And Raven shows the how of what makes those rules work.
There are definitely other dynamics at work in season 1, some of which might be explored in better detail later on. But for now, hopefully you've understood what makes The 100's first season so compelling and will want to stick around when season 2 is tackled at some point in the future.
Just a heads up, this blog also has the option of paid now but it’s going to be mostly for free for the foreseeable future. However if you’d like to help pay for the future writing being done, please do if you can afford it.