Choosing Humanity in The 100
How do we define humanity? Borrowing from feminist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir (who suggested that women are made, not born), we might ask: are we born with our humanity or is it something that society creates for us? If it’s the former, why is it so difficult to define? If it’s the latter, why does society need to create it?
The fundamental premise of The 100 tests our understanding of humanity by placing characters in impossible situations (what we might call dramatized thought experiments) and forcing them to make a morally questionable decision. Do we torture or kill an “other” for life-saving information? Are some people expendable? Is our group’s survival more important than another group’s or an individual’s? Are some people too important to lose?
The 100 implores us to ask ourselves what lines we’re willing to cross, what sacrifices we’re willing to make, and what aspects of humanity we’re willing to suspend or lose for the sake of surviving. And if we lose part of ourselves – if we lose our humanity – will we find it again? (Assuming we’d recognize it).
The show’s fourth season also seems to be asking what happens when we’re faced with the same choices we’ve criticized others for making. The 100 has always found a way to turn the tables on various characters to reveal the significance of context and perspective – what we usually overlook in our criticism. Yet, the current season has done this in nearly every episode, emphasizing the point that criticizing someone’s decision (especially ones made by those in authority – like our parents or our leaders) isn’t so easy when you have to make the same choice.
Even if we tell ourselves “this time is different” or convince ourselves that “we’ll make a better choice” we’re really just repeating history, as if we were in a Doctor Strange time-loop or a Nietzschean eternal return, but with the roles reversed – because, like it or not, humanity has a habit of getting itself into the same dilemmas (and we usually make the same mistakes).
This also reveals the puzzling way many of us wrestle with the decisions we’ve made long after we’ve made them. We might be the only species on the planet capable of philosophical contemplation beyond the mirror test (it’s why we’re homo sapiens, because we’re supposed to be wise) but the danger of this gift is that we often waste it in regret, punishing ourselves (and those we blame or who have wronged us) again and again as we replay (and relive) the key moments of our lives that we use to define ourselves.
It’s what Jasper has done with Maya’s death as he’s tried to move on since the second season, experimenting with various, perhaps unhealthy, ways of coping with her loss. Humor seems to be his best medicine, recognizing the absurdity of life and becoming a sort of Mercutio figure armed with an insightful wit, revealing the hard truths we don’t want to admit and never taking things too seriously.
While Jasper’s been mostly lost in his pessimistic, cynical sorrow for two seasons (he’s tried to commit suicide more than once and he often entertains the death drive by putting himself at risk), he’s nevertheless become one of the more focused (or at least liberated) characters on the show. He knows what he believes and he’s not afraid to say it or act on it. He doesn’t have a mission, but he does have a mantra: “whatever the hell we want” (the same rebellious rallying cry devised by Bellamy in the pilot episode of the series to thwart the adults has become Jasper’s maxim).
As Jasper tells Bellamy in Season Four’s eighth episode “God Complex,” “What’s the point in beating yourself up for all the crappy things you’ve done? You did them. And you can say you had reasons, but at the end of the day, at the end of the world, nobody gives a damn about your reasons because they are your reasons. No matter how much you punish yourself, it’s not going to change anything, it won’t bring anyone back.”
In “God Complex,” humanity is now ten days away from extinction and Bellamy and Jasper represent two different perspectives on how to deal with this impending demise: fight it or just let it happen. To Bellamy, who’s always been charged with protecting his sister, life is something we cherish and defend. For Jasper, life is nothing but borrowed time, an existence designed to end, “one big cosmic joke.”
What’s significant, however, is that Jasper isn’t suggesting that we give up because life is futile and we’re all going to die. Rather, his position is that we shouldn’t waste the time we’re given “wallowing in our reasons” because the clock is always ticking “on this terrible, beautiful planet.”
Jasper is the embodiment of carpe diem, not wanting to just survive, but wanting to enjoy surviving by seizing every moment he has left, especially if it’s his last. Only ten days left? Let’s throw a party with old friends, listen to WVM electronic music, and drink some tea made from hallucinogenic plant seeds (because that’s what a delinquent teenager who aced chemistry would find in a post-apocalyptic, radiation-soaked forest).
Similarly, Murphy, who’s always espoused an “I don’t answer to anyone” attitude, embraces Jasper’s maxim. He even recently cooked a meal for Emori in Becca’s (miraculously pristine) house while rocking out to “Stars” by the Delta Riggs (who knew he could cook?) in the fourth season’s seventh episode “Gimme Shelter.”
Murphy shares Jasper’s sardonic perspective (they’re both jesters – not for comic relief, but for the biting commentary), but the difference for Murphy is that he’s never really cared how happy he is, so long as he’s alive. That’s always been his focus. Murphy wants to survive and he’s willing to do whatever needs to be done to ensure his survival – it usually means selling out his friends (or shooting them), working with the enemy, or making a deal with anyone (because he happens to know something useful). So, it’s a significant development for his character that he’s been able to form a serious relationship this season with Emori, a Grounder who clearly is his soul-mate.
As Emori showed in “Gimme Shelter,” she’s willing to con Clarke, Abby, and their team at Becca’s lab (even Murphy for a while) into believing that an innocent man she calls Baylis is guilty just so she can survive. When Emori tries to beat Baylis to death (because she’d claimed that he’d abused her when she was younger), Clarke decides to use him to test the Nightblood serum, coldly reasoning “what if his death could save us all.” That was the con. Emori believed that they’d use her to test the serum, so she used Clarke’s own logic against her, knowing that Clarke wouldn’t let a good death go to waste.
Of course, the test doesn’t work and Baylis dies and when Emori’s crime is discovered, Clarke and Abby (and everyone else except Murphy) decide to try again and test the serum on Emori. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy for Emori but it proves her fear was right, she’s expendable. Yet, it also reveals how easy it is to calculate a person’s worth.
Emori considered Baylis expendable but so did everyone else – he was just a means to an end, someone who’s life was worth risking for the sake of others. The horror is that not long after he dies, the group in Becca’s lab – led by Clarke and Abby – begin hunting for the next lab rat and it doesn’t take them long to choose Emori, as if her crime deserved immediate punishment.
This is where Murphy finally develops a bit of humanity, as he argues vociferously to try to save Emori – ironically, this echoes a similar argument Jasper had made to Clarke before Clarke killed everyone in Mount Weather, along with Maya, way back in the second season. It’s worth noting, however, that while everyone has someone they’re willing to sacrifice, they also have someone they won’t, even if it jeopardizes everyone else’s survival.
This highlights the difference between Murphy and Jasper. Jasper is embracing the probable end of existence, finding meaning in every moment (because he’s already lost his love). Murphy, however, realizes he doesn’t want to exist without Emori – because her death would make whatever moments he has left empty and meaningless (it’s a bit of a shock to hear him confess to Clarke that he actually loves Emori).
It’s a nice contrast, and for The 100, both positions are compellingly portrayed. The only criticism I have of Murphy is that he should have volunteered to take Emori’s place. It would’ve elevated the entire narrative in so many ways. Yet, it makes sense, given Murphy’s natural instinct to save himself (he’s The 100’s version of Battlestar Galactica’s Gaius Baltar). For someone like Murphy, just protesting her possible death was a big step.
Ultimately, it’s Clarke who decides to take Emori’s place, realizing that if she really wants to save humanity, she needs to be willing to die for it (a nice twist, yet one that is consistent with her Clarkian logic). While it doesn’t work (because Abby destroys test chamber) the message still resonates: you can’t cross ethical lines and then hope somewhere down the road that history will forgive you or that you’ll find your moral compass again. Morality doesn’t work that way.
Everyone in Becca’s lab knew what they were doing was wrong, even if it was for the right reason. But, they were on a slippery slope to damnation, for what would humanity be if it were rebuilt (or saved) by having to sacrifice the expendable for the sake of the valuable?
In other words, Abby may have destroyed the chamber to save Clarke because Clarke is her daughter (and she’s just too valuable to be a lab rat), but it seems as if Abby and Clarke (and everyone else) finally realized that “playing God” wasn’t worth the price. Destroying the chamber, simply took that option (and the temptation to reach for it) off the table, allowing them to preserve whatever’s left of their humanity. Luckily, Jaha, Kane, and Monty may have found a better solution in the city of Polis, giving humanity a much needed nudge in a more moral direction.
In what could’ve been a scene right out of Lost, Jaha, Kane, and Monty (with help from Indra and Indra’s daughter, Gaia) unlock a hatch to a hidden underground bunker. It’s a humane solution, for now. However, because history is repeating itself, they not only run the risk of returning to the blood-experiments of Mount Weather, they appear to be headed toward a new life of complete underground existence – because, unless they develop Nightblood, no one will be able to survive on the ground after ten days. Thus, humanity will be confined to whatever space and provisions the bunker can accommodate.
Returning to our initial question, humanity isn’t defined, it’s created – not by society, but by the individual. The question becomes not a matter of “Who are we?” but of “Who do I want to be?” Defining humanity becomes the way we give ourselves meaning. It’s what Jasper, Bellamy, Murphy, Clarke, Abby, Jaha, Kane, Monty (and everyone else) have in common – they may have different reasons for doing what they do and different ways of coping with the traumas they endure, but they’re all trying to be what they really want to be more than anything else: a human worthy of existence.
Back in the first season, Bellamy told Clarke (after they’d tortured Lincoln), “Who we are and who we need to be to survive, are very different things.” Given all that’s happened to them since then, the fourth season seems to be illustrating how this is more of a choice than we think. We don’t have to torture, we don’t have to kill, we don’t have to cross any line if we don’t want to. We might not survive, but as Jasper might observe, we never really do (that’s the cosmic joke), we just become the choices we make (and that’s the punch line).
Edwardo Pérez, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor in the Department of English at Tarrant County College Northeast.
Beauvoir, Simone de. The Second Sex. Vintage, 2011.
“Contents Under Pressure.” The 100, Season One, Episode 8
“Gimme Shelter.” The 100, Season Four, Episode 7
“God Complex.” The 100, Season Four, Episode 8