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'The 100': The unbinding and unwinding power of sacrifice


The 100 is uneven, eye-rolling and yet, at times perplexedly moving. Its strongest moments are those that flirt with the edges of deeper truths, especially those that revolve around a dominant theme exploring the temptation to act on self interest in environments that beg us to give into a “survival of the fittest” worldview. I am particularly intrigued with the way the series explores the unbinding and unwinding power of sacrifice as way to navigate through that challenge.

The 100 is set about a century after a nuclear war on Earth. The only survivors were 400 inhabitants of 12 space stations in orbit. The 12 stations linked and reformed into one station called the Ark, and three generations later, they now number 4,000. With limited and dwindling resources, the leaders of the Ark enforce harsh measures—like population control and capital punishment for even minor crimes—to ensure humanity’s survival.

When chief engineer Jake Griffin discovers that Ark’s life support systems are critically failing, he wants to tell the rest of the population, believing the Ark community had the ability to make a decision together that would be best for all. The Council, fearing riots and chaos, execute him and imprison his teenage daughter, Clarke, to keep her quiet.

As they grow more desperate to reduce population and preserve humanity, the leaders send a group of 100 juvenile prisoners (most ranging from pre-teen to 17) to Earth’s surface to see if it’s habitable. Among them is Clarke, whose mother (the Ark’s chief medical officer) finds herself increasingly at odds with the rest of the leadership as they wrestle with how to prevent the extinction of the human race.

One of the strengths of the series is the parallel explorations of the best and worst in humanity in both the youth and the adults. The adult leaders on the Ark exhibit conflicting instincts and approaches. Some push for utilitarian solutions; some, who don’t agree with those solutions but give into them seeing no other choice, are eaten away by guilt; and others, like Clarke’s father, risk (and sacrifice) their lives to find alternatives. On the earth’s surface, the 100 give us a more literal version of the adult struggles, vacillating between a Lord of the Flies survival-of-the-fittest and acts of self-sacrifice and compassion.

Kane (CW)
This contrast confronts us with the fact that we humans—young and old—are broken, flawed and selfish creatures but also creatures with the capacity to sacrifice our own best interests for the best interest of others. While the characters in The 100 initially seemed to fall into stock roles (like Clarke as the voice of reason and compassion on the ground and Councilman Kane as the representation of a coercive utilitarianism on the Ark), over the first seven episodes the individual characters actually begin to flesh out as they vacillate between the two contrasts. However clumsy some of those character shifts are, I appreciate the exploration of the how our own individual choices are not always consistent—and why.

But a greater strength of the series—or at least one most interesting to me—is its emerging theme of the power of self-sacrifice as a way to confront, navigate through, and even diffuse situations of violence, coercion and deception.  

In “Twilight’s Last Gleaming,” the leadership of the space station must finally make a decision about what to do about the dwindling air supply. Not knowing that the Earth is safe, Councilman Kane urges the Council to act on a secret plan to seal off a section of the space station and leak a sleeping agent into the air supply in order to euthanize over 300 of the population and buy more time for the remaining people.

In desperation, Jake’s widow, Abigail, leaks a video he’d recorded informing the population of the problem and his confidence that they could work and pull together to solve their problem. To the rest of the leadership’s surprise, instead of rioting, far more than is needed of station’s population volunteer to sacrifice their own lives for their spouses, children and the rest of the Ark's population.

Admonished and overwhelmed by guilt, Chancellor Jaha wants to join them. Against his own best interests, Kane (who’s been after the Chancellor’s position from the beginning), urges him to stay, confessing that Jaha can inspire the people to pull together, something they need in order to survive.

Jaha (CW)

Three hundred volunteers—fathers, mothers, individuals, couples, husbands, wives—bravely and resolutely enter a chamber and sit on the floor, slowly falling asleep as the air supply eventually is cut off to the section. It is a moving scene, driving home the tidal power of self-sacrifice to unravel deception, coercion and self-interest and move and inspire others to act in the best interest of others.                                                                                                                                                             
That episode gets at a deeper truth in our own experience—and in our larger Story. I don't know if the writers knew that episode would air during Holy Week when they wrote it, but I couldn’t help but think of how it echoed the self-sacrifice of a God who is desperate to save us in our Story.

The theme resurfaces even more boldly in “Contents Under Pressure.” One of the Grounders (a group of people who survived the Earth’s holocaust but appear to live in brutal and tribal groups) saves Octavia’s life when she falls down a ravine, but keeps her captive to protect her from the rest of the Grounders. Even though Octavia begs her brother Bellamy and others not to harm the Grounder when they rescue her, Bellamy orders him killed. When the Grounder fights back, Jasper—for whom Clark has deep feelings—is wounded by the Grounder’s poisoned blade.

Octavia and Bellamy (CW)
Bellamy strings up the Grounder in a crucifix-like position and wants to torture him for information. Clarke, who has repeatedly pleaded with the rest of the 100 to stop making violent choices because “this is not who we are,” not only doesn’t argue against Bellamy’s choice, but literally gives her assent because she wants to know the antidote to save Jasper. When beating the Grounder fails to make him talk, Bellamy drives a spike through the Grounder’s bound hand.

Clarke (CW)
In desperation to stop the torture, Octavia slices her arm with the poisoned knife and kneels before the Grounder with antidotes in her hands. The Grounder, wanting to save Octavia, reveals the antidote, and Jasper lives. But it is Octavia’s sacrificial action that takes center stage here. Her action breaks the cycle of escalating violence and not only affects the Grounder’s choices but surprises, admonishes and even convicts Clarke and Bellamy, the former actually breaking down in confusion over her choices. In addition, Octavia’s action builds trust with the Grounder, who, in an apt metaphor, unclenches his fist in trust to allow her to clean the wound her brother had made.  

As in our own world, choosing to act in the best interest of another and doing the right thing doesn’t always end well. In The 100, Clarke’s father was sent out an airlock for his risk. Wells, another character who made sacrificial choices, is senselessly killed early on in the series. The Grounder is still a prisoner. But these acts of self-sacrifice consistently work to convict, admonish and dismantle self-interested utilitarian actions, soften hardened hearts, and lead to reconciliation, transformation and healing. Jake’s sacrifice inspires 300 others to sacrifice their lives, and their sacrifice causes a deepening crisis of conscience in Kane, who by the end of “Contents Under Pressure” is reexamining his actions and confesses to his mother that “I don’t know who I am anymore.”

Consistently in this series, acts of self-sacrifice offer a new way to face life and interact with others, both for the one who is sacrificing and those who witness it. In spite of continual challenges and pressures, ways of coercion, power and fear give way to trust and reconciliation. Deception is dismantled. Hearts are softened. Lives and hearts change.

This echoes our own Story. Jesus calls his followers to a new way of life. He calls us into a new Kingdom ruled by a King who is sacrificial love. This is the way he has chosen to work in his mission to restore and redeem a broken world and people. If we walk with and live in trust of him, we find that he has joined us to that mission—a mission in which we chose a way of love-drenched self-sacrifice in submission to a Lord of love over the way of fear, coercion and power. When we do that, we see over and over the dismantling of deception, the diffusion of violence, the restoring of the broken, reconciliation of enemies, and the changing of lives. As in The 100, that doesn’t mean we’ll come through unscathed; it may even cost us our lives. But we know that this is the best and most powerful way. We know because we know the end of our Story: love wins.

But we don’t know how The 100 will end; that story is only beginning. When Clarke reflects on and questions their actions at the end of “Contents Under Pressure,” Bellamy tells her that “who we are and who we need to be to survive are very different things.” And while they now know Earth is now habitable, the leaders on the Ark face the reality that they don’t have enough transport ships to get everyone onto the ground. “We are on the Titanic and we don’t have enough lifeboats,” the Chancellor tells the other leaders. The screws are tightening, and we can already see new deceptions winding their way in to replace the old ones.

This show has potential. Just as I roll my eyes, it has a moment that makes me take notice. If the series can develop a little more evenness in its characters and writing, I wouldn't mind sticking with The 100 for the long haul. In fact, I'd look forward to it.