The Aesthetics of Survival in The 100
About five minutes into “We Will Rise,” the sixth episode of The 100’s fourth season that aired on March 15th, we see Clarke sitting on the edge of her bed gazing at a drawing she made of Lexa. When the camera pans out, we see several drawings of forest and mountain landscapes hung above her bed – Clarke’s been drawing again and art has returned to The 100. Yes, it’s only been absent for five episodes, but given the narrative’s trajectory this season, it’s felt like more.
One of the interesting features of The 100’s first three seasons was how art and music were compellingly incorporated into the narrative, adding weight to certain scenes, giving depth to various characters, and making the story seem like a puzzle begging to be solved. If we could decipher the visual and aural clues left for us – the use of real paintings (that Art Historians like my wife recognize) and popular songs from actual groups (like Imagine Dragons and Violent Femmes) to punctuate the emotion of certain scenes – we’d find a larger meaning, see the grand design.
Those of us addicted to Lost (and thus trained in observing and analyzing such things) have spent many nights excavating scenes from The 100 as if we were a literary Indiana Jones (especially during the second season) to find (or impose) meaning in the various sights and sounds scattered throughout the story (seriously, this is what Lost did to me).
So, it’s telling that there’s been an aesthetic void in The 100’s fourth season narrative, as if somebody stole a few hues from the visual and aural palettes, leaving everything grey and gloomy, with a sparse soundtrack – only three songs so far: two in the first episode, one in the second, and nothing else since. By the sixth episodes of each of the first two seasons, ten songs had been used – six in the third season, now only three in the fourth? (But not in the same way as before. They’ve been notably diegetic, with Jasper listening to one on his headphones, singing one in the shower, and playing one on a radio. Perhaps the music will come back when Raven and Abby launch Becca’s rocket – something from Charlie XCX or Ariana Grande perhaps?) So, let’s consider the return of art.
The use of art has always been significant to The 100’s narrative, in subtle ways. In the second season, we saw how Mount Weather wasn’t just stocked with provisions, someone actually decided to save many of history’s most valuable paintings and stockpile them in a warehouse – and President Dante Wallace decided to display an eclectic array of them throughout Mount Weather as if the bunker were an underground museum, one everyone was forced to admire. Now some of these paintings have returned in “We Will Rise.”
Many of Mount Weather’s paintings have been stored in racks behind Arkadia’s bar, with a few of the larger works hung, creating an almost surreal, post-apocalyptic ambiance for patrons drinking Monty’s homemade moonshine. Most of the works are unclear (because they’re glimpsed, not fully shown), but the two most recognizable ones are Pieter Bruegel’s “Tower of Babel” and what appears to be the “Hell” panel from Hieronymus Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights.”
Certainly, we could analyze the symbolism and meaning associated with these works in relation to the narrative. Earth has become a Hobbesian Hell, a perpetual state of “a war of all against all” and technology (trying to play God, if not reach him) is to blame for the discord – it’s not just “nasty, brutish, and short,” it’s an illustration of the futility of human pride. This resembles the use of Maya’s favorite William Blake painting (“The Lovers Whirlwind”) in previous episodes, most recently in season four’s “Echoes.”
In the third season’s second episode, “Wanheda, Part 2,” we see Jasper desperately searching for Maya’s Blake painting in Mount Weather’s warehouse – Jasper and Maya were in love and the painting is all he has left after she died (she was one of the casualties when Clarke killed everyone in Mount Weather). When Jasper finds it (after tearing apart the warehouse in a rage) he sits and stares at it gloomily, as if he were looking at Maya’s corpse, crying as Octavia finds him and holds him. As Jasper tells Octavia, Blake’s painting symbolizes the second circle of hell from Dante’s Inferno, the circle of the lustful – which could be interpreted as a judgment against all forms of corruptive power and materialism (that led to nuclear holocaust?) or as a warning against loving something too much (which fits Jasper’s somewhat dysfunctional love of Maya).
Maya’s Blake is special to Jasper and when we see it again in “Echoes” (he took it and put it in his room in Arkadia) it’s in a similar, though more somber, way. In a moment of despair, Jasper props it up against a wall in his room while he sits on a plastic-lined floor contemplating suicide (he’s holding a gun to his head). Luckily, Monty knocks on the door and as Jasper gets up (and puts the gun away) we see a glimpse of what looks like a smaller Blake painting (or something similar) hung by the door. It’s a compelling use of art, one that certainly adds more dimension to the narrative, not just as a background prop but as something integral to the story. It also suggests that while the meaning of the paintings is important, so is the reason they’re there – or not there.
As Ollivier Dyens effectively argues, “Art as a device to enhance our survival is key to our continued existence in a profoundly technological world. Art can act as a bridge between a deeply altered world and humanity; it can deliver the means to a better understanding and control of our ecosystem; and it can provide the seeds to a thriving humanity in a machine-dominated world.” Or, as Eric Kandel observes, art is “an evolutionary adaptation – an instinctual trait – that helps us survive because it is crucial to our well-being.” So, art isn’t just something meaningful to look at, it’s an adaptive trait, one we need more than we may realize.
As Charles Darwin maintained, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.” For Darwin, our chances of survival are better if we’re able to adapt. The 100 seems to agree, especially with regard to art. Let’s consider two other examples in addition to the Bruegel and Bosch bar art and Maya’s Blake to see how the show illustrates this.
The 100 began with an image of Clarke drawing on her jail-cell floor – the landscape of a tree-lined lake cradling a night-time sky sprinkled with stars and a crescent moon. Drawing is part of who Clarke is and she happens to be good at it. It’s the aesthetic soul that balances the pragmatic leader we usually see making impossible life and death decisions – Patton had poetry, Clarke has a pencil. But lately, it’s something she seems to have either forgotten, set aside, or simply given up until “We Will Rise.” That’s what makes the scene of her staring at Lexa’s picture stand out in the episode.
Those of us who’ve spent uncountable hours behind an easel (or in a practice room) can appreciate what it means, not just to create, but to simply sit and admire a work of art (or listen to a musical performance). Given all the weight that’s been placed on Clarke’s shoulders, it’s nice to see her take some time to just sit and gaze – yes, it’s her own drawing, but her stare isn’t narcissistic, it’s sentimental and it resonates with Jasper staring at Maya’s Blake.
Lexa was the love of Clarke’s life (so far) and her death continues to resonate for Clarke. Yet, she’s not lost in sorrow like Jasper. Rather, she’s invigorated by Lexa’s memory, Lexa’s strength, and Lexa’s spirit. The drawing reminds her how important it is to fight for every last breath and every last soul – a contrast to Jasper’s despair. From this perspective, art certainly helps Clarke cope and the ability to cope is crucial to the process of adapting to the challenges life throws at us and the uncertainties we face every day (especially in The 100’s environment). Hopefully, Jasper will have a break through instead of a break down (he’s tried to kill himself three times) and we’ll see him burn the Blake (sorry, Babe) so he can move on.
While we’ve seen Clarke’s drawings before (their familiarity is comforting and it’s nice to see Lexa again, even if she’s just a drawing), “We Will Rise” introduces a new scheme into The 100’s visual template: futuristic, quasi-abstract, pre-apocalyptic art. The characters don’t admire these new works like Jasper and Clarke. Instead, the art simply accompanies the scene, adding some new tones and perhaps (as my Lost-trained eyes detect) some hidden meaning.
In a scene between Murphy and Luna in the office of Becca’s lab, we see highly abstracted human-figure statues resembling the work of existentialist sculptor Alberto Giacometti (okay, my wife’s Lost-trained eyes caught this – thanks Babe), two hummingbird statues, enlarged images of what appear to be DNA stains (of DNA sequencing?), what is either a framed portrait of the double-helix or it’s some kind of futuristic x-ray of a double-helix, and a strange capillary sculpture (fashioned in a deep red) sitting on Becca’s desk. The whole office looks like an Ikea catalogue for mad scientists. It’s significant that, while scientific, none of the objects seem functional – they have no purpose in a lab except to decorate it, providing an interesting glimpse into Becca’s personality.
Thematically, however, they echo an existentialist perspective focused on the disoriented human subject struggling to face a perplexing world. In fact, Clarke has a smaller version of the human figure statues in Becca’s lab displayed under Lexa’s picture. This draws an interesting parallel between Becca and Clarke – both are leaders who didn’t want to accept the reality of their existence (that it was about to end). But rather than sink into despair or resign themselves to doom, they find a way to survive, not just themselves, but everyone. From this perspective, we can see how art – it’s production, its appreciation, and its source of inspiration – is indeed an adaptive trait, one that helped Becca save the human race long enough for Clarke to have a turn.
Thus, the return of art seems to signal a return to life as much as its absence signaled its fading. The message seems to be that without art, we can’t survive and it shouldn’t be lost on us that art returned after a disaster (remember the previous episode, “The Tinder Box,” ended with Ilian having set off an explosion that destroyed most of the Ark, the only potential shelter from the impending nuclear meltdown). It’s the pattern The 100’s established from the very beginning and it’s comforting to know that these objects of art remain significant to human existence. When you think about it, our art is really all that survives us from one century to the next, speaking to us from the past into the future.
Paintings, sculptures, films, stories, and songs outlive us all, reflecting our souls, our humanity, our grace (and our sins) on the faces of those yet to come. As The 100 compellingly illustrates, the arts are who we are and they’re perhaps our most meaningful adaptation for survival. When they begin to fade, so do we. When they return, so does life.
*Special acknowledgement to my wife, Suzanne Perez, Assistant Professor of Art at Tarrant County College Northeast (a fellow Lost addict who helped me dissect things) – thanks Babe!
Edwardo Pérez, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor in the Department of English at Tarrant County College Northeast.
Darwin, Charles. On the Origin of Species. Dover Publications, 2006
Dyens, Ollivier. “Art can enhance humanity’s survival.” universityaffairs.ca, Dec. 10, 2014
Kandel, Eric. The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain, From Vienna 1900 to the Present. Random House, 2012.
Kafka, Alexander C. “Eric Kandel’s Visions.” universityaffairs.ca, March 11, 2012
“Wanheda, Part 2” The 100, Season Two, Episode Two.
“We Will Rise.” The 100, Season Four, Episode Six.