The Gift of Death in The 100
How do we want to die? It’s not a question most of us want to contemplate. We don’t want to think about the end of our lives much less plan them. End-of-life planning is something we put off or don’t do (or we buy stock in transhumanist technologies and contemplate the possibility of immortality).
What’s significant about planning for the end is that it’s a way for us to feel as if we have some sort of control. Not just legally – if you don’t have a DNR, DNI, or a Living Will, then someone else will decide to resuscitate you and connect you to machines and they’ll decide when to unplug them – but also in the sense of agency, in our freedom and capacity to act and react to whatever befalls us.
We don’t get to choose when we’re born and most of our lives are lived under a set of rules we never constructed (because we’re thrust into a society created by our forebears and told that we have to follow the laws they established). Typically, because life is so random and precarious we don’t choose our death, it just happens. Thus, our agency (even our moral agency) is limited. Or, as Jaha says to a group of wayward teens led by Jasper in the latest The 100 episode, titled “DNR,” “We’re talking about the future of the human race […] participation is not an option.”
Okay, so we don’t get to opt out, but what if we could decide how we die? What if we were told that Earth’s surface would be rendered completely uninhabitable in a few days and would stay that way for the next the five years? What do we do? Do we find a way to survive or do we sing the Bach chorale Komm, süsser Tod (Come, sweet death) and find a good view to watch our last sunset?
As The 100 illustrates, death just might be the only thing we can control, if we can ever control anything. Yet, in “DNR,” the question of death also becomes a question of life. It’s not just How do we want to die? It’s also How do we want to live?
Come, lead me to peace
In hindsight, The 100 has always contemplated the meaning of our existence. The first season asked: Do we need to be worthy of survival? The second season’s narrative questioned what we’re willing to do to survive. While the third season pondered if we’re able to survive with others beyond our tribal inclinations and loyalties. Through it all, there’s been so much death and so little life (at least Lost and BSG had babies being born – with all the fertile teens on The 100 who’ve paired up many times, no one’s gotten pregnant?), it’s become impossible to distinguish between the two. Thus, we find ourselves in the fourth season having to decide whether or not we want a good death or a good life (postponed for five years).
Throughout the larger narrative, but especially in the fourth season, Clarke’s followed her own directive: save everyone (or as many as you can). She sees this as a Kantian categorical imperative and from her perspective it makes sense. Shouldn’t the survival of everyone be a universal maxim? After all, it’s what she’s learned – from her parents and from her leaders, especially Jaha and Kane (perhaps even from Lexa, in the sense that Lexa had been able to unite the Grounder clans under a common rule).
It’s also what drives Clarke to convince Gaia (the Grounder’s current “Keeper of the Flame”) to make Clarke the new Commander (because Clarke is now a Nightblood) and this highlight’s the lesson Clarke still hasn’t learned: being a leader isn’t about commanding others, it’s about respecting others. This is certainly important when it comes to individual life decisions – it’s what freedom is all about. But, to be fair to Clarke, there wasn’t much freedom on the Ark in space. So, she’s having to learn this lesson, not from example, but from her own mistakes.
For I am weary of the world
Consider the bunker Jaha found in the previous episode, “God Complex.” It has enough room for everyone, and for Clarke, it’s an easy decision – share it so everyone survives. But, not everyone wants to share or survive (for various political and personal reasons) and because Clarke believes only someone like Lexa (who seemed to be the best Commander the Grounders ever had) could unite everyone, Clarke takes advantage of Gaia’s religious beliefs and the Grounder’s political structure (which Roan calls her on). When Gaia realizes it, she’s visibly shattered – not just because she’d trusted Clarke, but because Clarke’s deception revealed the nature of the Grounder religion they’ve practiced for nearly a century: it’s rooted in science.
The 100 has never been a particularly religious show, only the Grounder clans seem to have any faith, but as viewers (and Grounders) come to realize, it’s a faith based on a false belief, engineered by Becca, not God. Still, given the focus on death and life, the presence of religion (and its unmasking) in “DNR” helps illustrate the various reactions characters have to the impending doom.
For example, Ilian seems resigned to the fate of Praimfaya (pronounced prime fire, the Grounder term for nuclear radiation) and spends the better part of two days (there are only six left at the beginning of the episode) farming, trying to teach Octavia how to plow soil and plant seeds. When she points out the futility of sowing crops he counters by claiming that because Earth survived one nuclear holocaust, it will survive another – and whoever survives will need food. Ilian’s not planting crops for him or for Octavia, but for whoever comes after them.
Ilian believes in reincarnation and he bases this belief in the cycle of nature. As he tells Octavia, “Do not fear death, for it is only the beginning of the next journey […] the crops, they die in winter and then return in the spring. Most people don’t know when their winter will come, but we do, and that’s a gift.”
It’s significant that Octavia seems to share Ilian’s perspective, as she’s shown tilling the soil on her own. Of course, when three other Grounders come looking for trouble (because Octavia happens to be alone and they know who she is) she expertly and brutally kills all of them with her hoe – she even wears a satisfied grin while doing it, telling Ilian (who shows up at the end of her battle to see her covered in blood-splatter) “this is who I am.” What she’s really saying is, this is who I choose to be, because despite the idyllic life Ilian presented to her, she can’t just lay down and die. She wants a warrior’s death – and her arrival in Polis at the end of “DNR” suggests she’ll get that chance next week.
Similarly, Raven wants to return to space to die as a “spacewalker.” She found out in “The Tinder Box” that her connection to Allie (formed in season three) caused her to have a stroke and her brain is deteriorating. Given the choice between brain-death in Jaha’s bunker and Praimfaya, Raven chooses neither. She wants to die on her own terms. So, with the help of a hallucination of Becca (reminiscent of BSG’s Cylon Six that only Gaius Baltar could see) Raven builds a space suit and readies the capsule in Becca’s lab for launch. As Becca tells Raven, “If you’re going to go out, you might as well go out with a view.” As actress Linsey Morgan (who plays Raven) observes about Raven, “It took me a while to wrap my head around her decision and understand where she was coming from. It wasn’t an easy decision to make, but she’s facing death head-on, and accepting it. That’s what it is; it’s an acceptance of her death.”
Come soon, and lead me
Jasper and Harper (and a bunch of other teens we’ve never seen) also seem to accept death. Although, their plan is to face Praimfaya with a beer in their hands and music blaring. While everyone else in Arkadia is packing up provisions to head to the bunker, Jasper and Harper (and a whole gang of inebriated teens) watch with petulant glee, deciding to stay put in Arkadia (which isn’t fortified and will be destroyed by the Praimfaya).
For Jasper and his gang, the bunker wouldn’t be a place to ride out the storm, it would be a prison controlled by the same leaders on the Ark in space. Remember, the bunker is supposed to be a five-year temporary shelter (it’s never fully explained, but it seems that five years is enough time for Praimfaya to dissipate) and this likely means that some sort of command structure will be put in place to keep everyone from going mad.
As Jasper has observed many times, surviving isn’t the same thing as living. So, he writes DNR on his hand with a black marker (a nod to Lost’s Charlie) and defiantly locks himself in the main room of Arkadia (along with the rest of his followers). To a certain extent, Jasper’s actions echo Raven’s, Ilian’s and Octavia’s: if the end is near, why not just embrace it and go out on your terms? Spacewalker, Farmer, Warrior, Free Teen – death becomes the ultimate way to define one’s identity.
It’s also significant that this embracing of death can be viewed as a nobler form of suicide (if suicide can be noble) because it’s being done as a way of claiming ownership of one’s life and one’s dignity and because it’s not literal suicide (letting a radiation storm take you isn’t the same thing as pulling a trigger when you’re holding a gun to your head).
In Hamlet, our title character contemplates suicide (pretty much throughout the whole play) and in his famous soliloquy he wrestles with the question of death. On the “to be” side, life is painful. On the “not to be” side, death is an escape from life. So what do you do? Persist in misery or run off to the “undiscovered country”? Which is nobler? That’s the rub.
For Jasper and the other kids who stay behind, death seems nobler, for if life is just surviving, then it really isn’t life. Of course, Jasper is still coping with Maya’s death from season two. Like Hamlet, he’s contemplated actual self-inflicted suicide (he held a gun to his head early in the fourth season) and he’s willingly put his life at risk, seemingly hoping that chance (such as a sudden acid rain or pissed off Grounder) would kill him. To Jasper, a good death is simply better than a bad life – and death is nobler because it’s chosen – or is it?
As philosopher Albert Camus famously wrote, “There is but one truly serious problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest […] comes afterward.” Camus has a point and his answer is that life is worth living, because, even if our existence is absurd, we can still find meaning in the choices we make. For Camus, it’s the struggle that makes us happy. Indeed, most philosophical questions seem irrelevant until you decide for yourself whether or not life is worth living, until you become content with your struggle. But how do you decide this? For “DNR,” the decision is based on the quality of one’s life.
Close my eyes
That’s why some people choose a DNR or a Living Will. Being kept alive by machines isn’t the same thing as going to a baseball game, eating pizza, and watching their children grow. It’s why Hamlet broods. It’s why Raven wants to launch herself into space. It’s why Ilian wants to leave something behind. It’s why Octavia wants her death to be glorious. It’s why Jasper and Harper want to get wasted. Seriously, who really wants to live for five years in an underground bunker? What if you can never leave?
To be fair, Clarke seems to want a quality life, too. She’s just willing to wait out the five years to make it happen. In fact, it should be noted that amidst the soul-searching of a few key individuals, hundreds of others are choosing the bunker option – to the point that it ends up becoming a competition. Space isn’t the issue (there’s plenty). Rather, it has to do with quality of life – some people just don’t want to live in close proximity with others they consider to be enemies (especially the tribes of Trikru and Ice Nation – why share a bunker when you can seize it and let your enemy perish?).
Returning to Jasper and his followers, while they might want a quality life like everyone else, their choice to go out in a drunken stupor doesn’t really seem as noble as the choices made by Raven, Ilian, or Octavia. It’s not even as noble as fighting for a spot in the bunker, which gives death (for the sake of life) a poignant meaning.
Perhaps it’s because Jasper and his inebriated crew seem to romanticize death (because in the adolescent brain, death is the ultimate middle finger to everyone who has pissed you off). Jaha and Bellamy understand this, but rather than argue with Jasper, they let him make his choice. Their logic is that “you can’t save someone who doesn’t want to be saved.” But they hardly even try and what they fail to realize is that the kids want to be saved, they’re just being passive-aggressive brats about it. The petulant attitudes are just a façade masking their fear – not of death, but of life.
For Jasper and his friends, death is easy; life is hard. And, death in a rebellious group is even easier (that’s why their called suicide pacts). It’s why Raven and Ilian and Octavia (and all the tribes fighting for a spot) seem nobler, they’re all facing the end alone and they choose a death that ultimately benefits others. Raven’s condition would be a burden in the bunker, Ilian’s crops will sustain others, and Octavia (and the best warrior from each tribe) is going to fight to the death (in the last-warrior-standing/winner’s-clan-takes-all Battle Royale in the next episode) so her people have a chance to continue to exist.
What Jasper and his followers fail to understand is that Jaha telling them that participation in the human race “is not an option” isn’t a command (from an authority figure) to follow. It’s an observation that points to the responsibility we inherit when we’re born. We’re part of the human race and we have a duty to perpetuate ourselves, not selfishly (not even religiously), but for the sake of our ancestors. Put another way, these kids should be advancing the species, not embracing its end.
Come, blessed rest
At the end of “DNR,” Octavia rides in to Polis on her trusty horse and proclaims, “I’m here for the war.” It remains to be seen how things will play out – which tribe will win? Whatever the outcome, it’s a significant illustration of our inclination to equate war with survival, as if life is something that must be earned by fighting (and killing) for it. Noble or not, earned or not, it’s difficult to blame Jasper or anyone else for how they choose to end their life because regardless of the choice they make, they all share the freedom to choose – not just how to die, but how to live.
As Camus explains, regarding the myth of Sisyphus (who had to roll a boulder up a hill every day only to watch the rock roll down once he reached the top), Sisyphus may suffer the same absurd fate every day but it’s his choice because “His fate belongs to him […] he knows himself to be the master of his days.” Octavia, Ilian, Raven, Jasper, Clarke – they, too are the masters of their days. As Camus observes, “One always finds one’s burden again,” and as The 100 shows, we’re free to face that burden, as Bellamy tells Jasper, “However the hell we want.”
Edwardo Pérez, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor in the Department of English at Tarrant County College Northeast.
Bach, Johann Sebastian. Komm süsser Tod, BWV 478.
Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays. Trans. Justin O’Brien, 1991.
“DNR.” The 100, Season Four, Episode 9.
“God Complex.” The 100, Season Four, Episode 8.
Kant, Immanuel. Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals: On a Supposed Right to Lie because of Philanthropic Concerns. Trans. James W. Ellington, 3rd Edition, 1993.
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Folger, 2003.
Swift, Andy. “The 100 Star Breaks Down Raven’s ‘Selfish’ Decision: ‘I Was Shocked.’” Tvline.com, 26 April 2017.