A Personal Lesson in Privilege, Courtesy of CW’s The 100

I watch more TV than I read books. It’s an embarrassing thing for a writer to admit, but I will here and now. I live and work on the opposite ends of a 25 mile drive, which includes crossing the Amite River. There are four bridges that cross this river in Livingston Parish–that’s a county for those of you who live outside of Louisiana—and only one of them is a reasonable option for a daily commute from my house. That one is Interstate 12, the only reasonable option for 20,000 other people. (That may or may not be an exaggeration.) That leaves a few hours per day when we are not sleeping, working, or driving, to do EVERYTHING else. We don’t read the same books, but we do watch the same TV.

Every so often while I am watching TV, I will see something in a show that will knock me on my butt. It will stick with me, for days. Battlestar Galactica, S1 Ep3, for example. While watching it, I felt deeply in my bones that it might be the best written hour of television ever aired. The death of Fred on Angel, just after she and Wesley finally got together…my heart is still bleeds for them.

And the awe I feel is not always pretty, as in the case of CW’s The 100, currently in its second season. This show has forced me to examine myself as a consumer of television, of fiction, and of storytelling entirely. Bear with me, please, while I set the stage for my problem.

The 100 Season 2 PosterThe 100 takes place after a nuclear holocaust destroys all civilization on Earth. A very small group of humans, in space at the time of the incident, survive by linking their stations and sharing their resources. The assumption is that Earth is contaminated by radiation and life is not possible there. To ensure the survival of humanity, the “Arc” has very strict rules that are brutally enforced. Simple acts of mischief and defiance are met with jail sentences and/or death.

A decision is made in year 97 to clear out the Arc’s jail cells by putting 100 teenage inmates on a drop ship to Earth to test whether it is safe for the rest of the Arc’s people to return to the ground. (More on this later). These kids have been judged to be nuisances to the Arc. Disposable people.

The kids do mostly what you might expect kids to do in the lack of proper supervision…party, have sex, and beat up on people smaller than them. Fortunately, because of Arc’s super-strict rules, not all of the kids on the drop ship were miscreants. Clarke, the daughter of the Arc’s doctor, is a natural born leader. Bellamy, a guard on the Arc, shot the Chancellor to get sentenced to the drop ship because his little sister Octavia was on it. Octavia’s crime was being alive at all…resources being scarce on a space ship, and all, there’s a “one child” policy in force. Finn was jailed for wasting a month’s worth of air on an unsanctioned spacewalk. These four, along with a supporting cast of other teens willing to follow instructions, make sacrifices, and do the right things get The 100 through their first days on an Earth whose dangers come from freak acid fog and vicious neighbors they call The Grounders. By the end of season one, the 100 become the 55 (or something).

I’m a Finn and Clarke shipper and have been since moment one. She’s a strong, but conflicted female in a position of leadership. Finn’s good-looking, takes her lead, and puts his skills to good use…supporting her when he should and disagreeing when he should. For this reason, he’s been called a boring character and viewers like to hate him. But I argue that any group really only needs one alpha male, and Bellamy’s got that roped up nicely. Finn and Clarke have a good thing going, and then it gets interrupted when his girlfriend Raven steals a second ship to ascertain whether or not the 100 survived the trip. Finn’s now caught between a girl he’s cared for all of his life and a girl he fell in love with on Earth. He doesn’t have time to explain the situation to either girl before Raven sticks her lonely tongue down his throat. Clarke gives him up, and then Raven breaks up with him, making a decision for Finn that he wasn’t strong enough to make on his own.

While the kids prepare to defend their new home from Grounders who intend to kill them all, Finn tells Clarke that he’s in love with her, and her response is that he broke her heart. Season one ends with Clarke sealing the drop ship doors while Bellamy and Finn are still outside fighting the Grounders, and Raven blows the ship’s fuel reserves to incinerate everyone outside.

Clarke wakes up in a sterile, white room of an underground, former US military base called Mt. Weather, along with 46 of her friends. And she has no reason to believe that either Finn or Bellamy is still alive.

There are some criticisms I have of The 100. For instance, we learn in Season 2 that this story is taking place within the 50 mile stretch between Mouth Weather EOC and the National Mall in Washington DC. Yet, the Lincoln Memorial is the only indication there was ever a civilization between the two locations. Yes, radiation contributing to the forest reclaiming the Earth, but there should be ruins. I can overlook this though, because the story is concerned with its own present and the past has no bearing on the problems the characters face whatsoever.

In Season two, we see a significant and overnight growth of our key players as all of their circumstances change. Remember when I said I’d come back to the decision to send the 100 to the ground to test survivability? The Arc didn’t just jettison these kids to conserve resources. They didn’t have enough air to support life on the ship for even three additional months, a secret they kept from the people to avoid panic and uprising, and they don’t have enough space on the remaining drop ships to get everyone down to Earth. So, when they have proof that the kids did live through the trip, they took a gamble and sent the stations on a suicide reentry mission that results in a lot of casualties. Now, there are four groups on Earth fighting for survival instead of three.  (I am counting the kids and the Arc ship people separately, because the kids have changed that much.)

The folks living at Mount Weather seem to be nice enough. They cleaned the drop ship kids up, gave them bunks, clean clothes, and food. Clarke doesn’t trust them though. The Mount Weather people ask for nothing in return and that just doesn’t sit well with her. She believes, despite assurances to the contrary, that more of her friends are still outside and she breaks out to find them. Along the way, she discovers Mount Weather is using the Grounders in cruel medical experiments and she breaks one out to make their escape together. Her choice is strategic…a commander of the Grounder military forces, someone she can build an alliance with before returning to Mount Weather for the rest of her friends.

Finn and Bellamy are alive, prisoners of Grounders who have lost 300 of their warriors to Raven’s fuel reserve explosion. They manage to kill their captors and get back to the drop ship where Finn finds a Grounder wearing Clarke’s watch. Bellamy and Finn capture and interrogate him to learn where their friends (the 48 captive at Mt. Weather are), and the Grounder gives them the location of his own village.

Meanwhile, the Arc survivors are setting up camp and picking up life where it left off in space…enforcing disobedience to rules with brutal punishment. They also treat the drop ship kids they encounter as citizens to fall in line with order, and understandably, this doesn’t go over well with Bellamy, Clarke, Raven, or Finn. Octavia, who’s actually earned a modicum of respect in battle from the Grounders, feels no allegiance to, or fear from, Arc authority whatsoever. And Clarke, when she gets back to the Arc’s ruins, she has no problem standing up to her mother who by this time has become the new chancellor. Our kids have friends to find. None of them have time for the Arc’s “business as usual” bullshit.

OK…I hope that sets the stage well enough. We have the kids, who have bonded over shared and deadly circumstances, and are determined to save each other.  Mount Weather, aka “the Mountain Men”, have no resistance to radiation at all and are performing experiments on Grounders to ensure their survival. The Grounders have no trust of outsiders due to the Mountain Men capturing their people and turning them into drug-addicted, cannibalistic beasts. And we have the Arc survivors who have guns and rule of law, but no clue what to do with it.

Let’s return to the moment that made me question my role as viewer in this story. Finn…the sane voice of reason among the core group of discarded kids…is so desperate to find the girl he’s in love with that he tromps into a village of Grounders (mostly women and kids), sets fire to their food resources, pens them together under armed guard, and then ransacks every building looking for captives. When he finds none, a man from the village explains that the Grounder Finn got his information from was an untrustworthy bastard known for lying and he was bitter for having been banished. Finn is convinced to lower his weapon, and then a scared man jumps out of the pen. Startled by the movement, Finn shoots him. And this starts an avalanche of people jumping out of the pen and Finn shooting everything that moves.

Clarke watches from the woods as Finn guns down 16 innocent people, and what does he say as he sees her at the edge of the village?

I found you. No remorse. Two days later, Finn is absolved of wrongdoing by the Arc’s council (insert me rolling my eyes), and he’s bitter that Clarke won’t even look at him. In other conversations, Bellamy tells a struggling Clarke that they all done things they’re not proud of in the war they’re fighting. Other characters are also guiding her to forgive him for what he’s done…as if he kissed another girl while thinking she was dead.

WHAT?!

First, the Finn we met in Season 1 would not have penned up peaceful people and shot 16 of them because someone made a run for it. And doing so would burn his bridge back to Clarke, and he’d know it the moment he met her eyes. The words that fell out of his mouth wouldn’t have been, “I found you.” They should have been, “What have I done?”

So…that’s led me to a week or so of wondering through the writer’s rationale for taking Finn in this direction, how they justify the sudden and drastic dark turn in the boy’s character, and just rapid and complete about face. It required a bit of soul searching and examination of the privilege I have as someone bearing witness to this mess from the safety of my energy-sucking couch.

The only thing I truly share in common with any of these characters is that I know other people. These kids were dropped out of the bottom of a dying tyranny to fight or die on a world where blood shed is answered with bloodshed in return. Respect on Earth is earned in battle and peace lies on the far end of a war against people already committed to kill, or worse, to win.

Finn, as we met him in Season One, was a kind soul. The one ready to take orders, to make sacrifices, and to do what needed to be done. He chose Clarke to follow over Bellamy. Within the first hours on solid ground, she claimed he heart and soul, and he lost both when he realized she was gone in the Season 2 opening episodes. And when he and she return to the Arc ship ruins after his massacre of the village people, he gets both back to find them battered and bruised.

And this is where I believe the understanding and willingness to let Finn’s crime go comes from. Bellamy shot the Chancellor to get onto the drop ship, and he participated in torture of a Grounder to save Finn’s life. Raven built more than one weapon of mass destruction to defend the drop ship camp from Grounders, and the Arc ship ejected hundreds of people to conserve their dwindling air supply. Most of the characters the viewer is meant to identify and empathize with are drenched in blood. We zero in on Finn’s actions only because he had options that he didn’t take. In a moment where his one lead to find Clarke turned out to be worthless, someone startled him while he had his finger of an automatic rifle, and with one innocent life on his hands, the floodgates of desperation and rage just burst in a hail of “what difference does it make?”

Am I making excuses for my favorite character on the show? Maybe. But at the same time, maybe my role is to sit back and let Bellamy, Raven, Octavia, and Clarke judge Finn by the rules forced upon them by their world, and not hold him accountable to the morals of mine.

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