Unnatural Selection in The 100
Death is a fate we all share. And yet, we do whatever we can to give ourselves and our children an advantage over death, anything to increase the odds of survival to cheat death and prolong life, because most of us aren’t willing to accept its inevitability. We also don’t want to accept anyone or anything else deciding whether we get to live or die. Our instinct is to fight against death, for ourselves and for those we love.
So, what would happen if every country sent their best warrior to fight to the death in an arena, with the victor’s country getting to survive and every other country (all it citizens) having to die? Would we accept defeat if our champion lost? Or, would we do whatever we had to do to make sure our country wins. As Jaha says in “Die All, Die Merrily” (The 100’s fourth season’s tenth episode), “if only one clan could survive, it might as well be ours.”
We might not imagine that the fate of our existence would ever be decided by the outcome of a global Battle Royale, but for The 100, that’s where things stand as one member of each of the thirteen clans fights to the death until one victor remains in “Die All, Die Merrily.” The prize is the bunker, where the winner’s clan gets to ride out the nuclear meltdown (called Praimfaya) and survive as the last remnants of humanity, while the losing clans agree to let themselves perish (has no one realized how small this makes the gene pool?).
What’s significant is that while the narrative dramatically portrays the stoic and resigned reactions of various clans (hugs and tears, not outbursts or protests) as they realize their champion has fallen (as if fate and nature have deemed them unfit to survive), the episode is nevertheless realistic in its depiction of how selfishly devious and how selfishly caring we humans can be when it comes to survival.
At the beginning of the episode, Clarke – in a last-ditch effort to try to save, not just her people (known as Skaikru), but humanity – does her best to persuade Roan to make an alliance. There’s a sense of added urgency (beyond the fact that there are now only three days left until Praimfaya comes) because Luna has come to join the battle, not to win for her clan but to win for death. Luna, who’s already the only surviving member of her clan, recently witnessed the depths of depravity Clarke and her mom, Abby, were willing to pursue to save Skaikru in “God Complex” – to quote Abby, who imparts this pearl to Clarke as if it were sage motherly advice: “First, we survive. Then we find our humanity.” So, Luna, acting as judge and executioner of the human race, decides that people are not worth saving and she makes it her goal to win the melee. As Luna proclaims before the battle begins, “I fight for death, and when I win, no one will be saved.”
Despite this, Roan won’t make a deal. So, Clarke being Clarke takes matters into her own hands – not just because of Roan, but because she doesn’t believe Octavia (who is fighting on behalf of Skaikru) will win. With the help of Jaha, and many others, Clarke seizes the bunker during the battle (while everyone else’s attention is diverted) and claims it for Skaikru. She cheats in order to survive. As she later tells Bellamy at the end of the episode, “we did what we had to do.”
So does Echo, who is part of Roan’s clan. Echo has faith in Roan, but she’s not willing to take the chance that Luna (or anyone else) might win and since she’s a skilled archer she finds a nice elevated spot and picks off a few warriors until Bellamy stops her. The sad part is that Clarke’s and Echo’s actions were pointless. Not only does Octavia eventually (and gloriously) win, she does the unexpected and decides to share the bunker with every clan so that all of humanity, not just Skaikru, survives.
It’s a significant development for Octavia, as she’d been on a death overdrive for most of the season, earning the nickname Skairipa for being an effective killer, showing no remorse for taking lives, and becoming obsessed with achieving a warrior’s death. Of course, she’d been motivated by Lincoln’s pointless execution from season three, killing as if everyone were guilty and as a way to feed the pain driving her anguish. So, it’s a beautiful moment to see Octavia rise above the fray and emerge as the compassionate, capable leader everyone desperately needs – one who leads by example, one who earns their place, and one who is wise enough to see the forest and not just one tree. She won through violence, but she reigned through love – for about five minutes, until everyone realized what Clarke and the rest of Skaikru had done. As Indra observes in the last line of the episode: “Skaikru betrayed us all.”
It’s a tough scene because, for a brief moment, we get a glimpse of what we’re all capable of becoming when we realize our common purpose. Consider Octavia’s victory speech: “I wasn’t fighting for Skaikru today. I thought I was fighting for myself. But, I now know that’s not true, either. I was fighting for us all. Skaikru will not take the bunker alone. We’ll share it, equally, because we are equal, we are one clan and we will survive Praimfaya together! Ogeda!” It’s emotional, especially when the Grounders around her begin to chant “ogeda” (their word for together) in agreement.
It’s a timely message, given our current political climate, which frames everything in tribal, adversarial terms – the only will of the people we seem to respect is the will of our people. We certainly have no leader capable of doing what Octavia did. If anything, our leaders resemble Clarke and Echo, who not only cheat, they completely disrespect, disregard, and dehumanize everyone else. Clarke’s and Echo’s betrayal of humanity represents the deviousness and pettiness that plagues our politics (seize power, change the rules, gerrymander districts, undo legislation, redo legislation, obstruct, spin, and the list goes on). And yet, we really can’t blame them, can we? We might have the capacity to be like Octavia, but in reality, aren’t we just as selfish when it comes to survival as Clarke and Echo? Don’t we do whatever we have to do to survive and take care of our own? If we were Clarke and Echo would we have made a different choice?
As Richard Dawkins observes, “We are survival machines – robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes […] Let us understand what our own selfish genes are up to, because we may then at least have the chance to upset their designs, something that no other species has ever aspired to do.”
Octavia does her best to upset the design. She could’ve gloated, she could’ve consigned every other clan to extinction, she could’ve just saved herself and Skaikru – she could’ve been as selfish as Clarke and Echo (and Republicans and Democrats). But, she saw the benefit of everyone surviving. It was a moral choice that follows both a deontological duty (to humanity) and a utilitarian greater good (for humanity). As Dawkins observes, “You can make some inferences about a [person’s] character if you know something about the conditions in which [they have] survived and prospered.”
Indeed, we could examine every character’s character in The 100 under this lens and, to be fair, we probably couldn’t fault any of them for doing what they needed to do to survive – not just because they have selfish genes they’re programmed to obey, but because their state of nature is so Hobbesian, it’s difficult to criticize any self-defensive choice they make. At root, everything they decide to do (nearly everyone has betrayed and killed others in some capacity) is done in the hope of living another day. What’s wrong with that?
Of course, life doesn’t work too well alone. We stand a better chance at surviving longer than a day if we work together. But, despite the best efforts of several characters on The 100, no one has been able to achieve what Octavia did. She rose above the occasion, choosing altruism over selfishness, choosing to upset genetic programming, choosing to fight against the (un)natural selection that resulted from the battle. But, it wasn’t an easy choice. She’s a bad-ass warrior with a wonderful capacity for love but she’s not perfect. As she admits, it wasn’t her original motivation. What’s significant is that she came to the decision gradually, throughout the battle, and that’s because sometimes we need a war to remind ourselves what we’re really fighting for – it’s what makes “Die All, Die Merrily” even more profound.
At first, Octavia was fighting for herself so she could have a good death – and she really seemed eager to meet it (because, from a more pessimistic perspective, she’d lost everything that mattered to her). But, as the narrative progressed, she began to see everyone around her who’d played a significant role in her life, everyone she’d come to love. In interesting and poignant ways, Octavia was reminded of Bellamy (her brother), Indra (her mentor), Kane (her father figure), and Lincoln and Ilian (her lovers) – of everyone who’d helped shape her in different ways.
Indeed, she wouldn’t have become the person she became without each of them in her life. Each memory (juxtaposed with the violence of the melee that she sometimes just watched, not in fear, but like a scientist curiously observing the ritual of two humans trying to kill each other) triggered her capacity for love, energizing her and motivating her to keep fighting – because she’d found something to fight for, not just die for: humanity. As Marie Avgeropoulos (who plays Octavia) explains: “Indra reminds [Octavia], it’s who you fight for that’s up to you. That’s the philosophy that [Octavia] takes on when she’s the champion […] because she decided that she was fighting for everyone, she was fighting for peace.”
Early in the battle, Luna observes to Octavia, “Look around you. This is what mankind chooses to do with its final days. Another battle, more blood.” Luna has a point, but what she misses (what Clarke and Echo also miss) is what Octavia sees: the fight is what gives our lives meaning, its common purpose unifies us, and its result reveals our true worth. Like Octavia, our task is not just to overcome our selfish programming, it’s to realize that our fight is never over. As Bellamy says to Roan during the battle, “she’s survived harder things than this.” So have we.
Edwardo Pérez, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor in the Department of English at Tarrant County College Northeast.
“Die All, Die Merrily.” The 100, Season Four, Episode 10.
Darwin, Charles. On the Origin of Species. Dover Publications, 2006
Dawkins, Richard. The Selfish Gene, 4th edition. Oxford University Press, 2016.
Gennis, Sadie. “The 100: Marie Avgeropoulos on How Octavia’s Shocking Decision Honors Lincoln’s Memory.” Tvguide.com, 3 May 2017.
“God Complex.” The 100, Season Four, Episode 8.
Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. Dover Publications, 2006.