Finding The Better Angels Of Our Nature in The 100
There are two things we need to survive: pain and fear. When they work right, they motivate us to preserve ourselves. But, if we let pain and fear overtake us, then the opposite happens and instead of fighting to live we convince ourselves that death is the better option. So, we have a choice: do we want to live or do we want to die?
Many philosophers wrestle with this question in different ways (in fact, it might just be the root inquiry of all philosophy). One way the question of existence is contemplated is through the somewhat obscure concept of conatus: the desire to continue to exist. For Hobbes, humans desire peace and our will to survive (our conatus) is what compels us to fight (or make social contracts) when peace is threatened. For Henri Bergson, conatus (what he calls our élan vital) is what propels life. For Benedict Spinoza, conatus is what drives us to maintain existence. As Spinoza states: “Each thing, as far as it can by its own power, strives to persevere in its being.” Freud, interestingly, sees not just a drive to live (his Eros drive), but also a drive to die (his Thanatos drive).
In any case, conatus is our survival instinct. It’s innate, something we’re born with and something that kicks in when our life is threatened (or when we see the lives of others, especially those we care about, threatened). Certainly, pain and fear can trigger our survival instinct – especially in a state of nature environment like the one depicted in The 100. In fact, the concept of conatus represents, if not encapsulates or distills, the entire narrative of The 100.
Throughout its first four seasons, The 100 has explored the survival of humanity (in a post-apocalyptic world) in intense and sometimes surprising ways. At root, nearly every storyline and character arc can be viewed through the concept of conatus, illustrating the myriad moral dilemmas we struggle with when we’re confronted (often quite dramatically) with the possible (if not probable) end of our lives. What’s significant is that The 100 explores our survival instinct not just through pain and fear, but also through love.
It might seem axiomatic that love would help us survive but ask yourself this: would you be willing to put your life in someone else’s hands? Could you trust them enough to save you? Do they love you enough to save you? And, if you’re the one entrusted with someone else’s life, do you love them enough to save them? Do you love them enough to sacrifice your life (or other people’s lives) for theirs?
As always, there’s never a clear answer or easy choice on The 100. As Clarke tells Bellamy in season four’s twelfth episode “The Other Side,” “Whatever choice I make, somebody always dies.” Death is certainly ubiquitous on The 100 (someone has died in all fifty-seven episodes aired so far). Yet, until the fourth season, the threat of death has been human, highlighting the ideological and cultural differences between different groups of people endeavoring to create some sort of ordered, peaceful society out of the chaotic and constant confrontations.
In the fourth season, however, the threat is different: the meltdown of nuclear reactors around the world has triggered a radiation death wave (called Praimfaya on the show) that will leave Earth’s surface uninhabitable for five years. It’s technically man-made but it can’t be reasoned with, delayed, stopped, or out-maneuvered. Like a hurricane, there’s been time to prepare for the death wave, but the time is limited and the result of the devastation is certain: no one can survive the death wave (unless you’re born with or have been modified to have radiation-proof Nightblood). Shelter is the only hope and that’s where the survival instinct gets best explored.
In “God Complex,” Jaha finds a bunker capable of protecting and sustaining 1,200 people for five years (that’s how long it will take for Earth’s surface to recover from the death wave). The dilemma is that the twelve surviving clans (including those from the Ark, called Skaikru) have several hundred people. So, who gets a seat in the bunker? Who gets to ride out the storm and who has to die (has to know they’re going to die) so that others can live?
In “Die All, Die Merrily,” the solution is to have a champion from each clan battle to the death – winner’s clan gets the bunker. Octavia (from Skaikru) wins but rather than give the bunker to just Skaikru (who numbers 462), she decrees that every clan gets one hundred spots so that humanity (not just one group) has a chance to survive. As she explains to a bewildered Skaikru in “The Chosen” (grappling with the cold reality of math), “Every other clan has chosen their survivors, every other clan, Skaikru is no different. You have until midnight to choose, or you all die.”
In “Die All, Die Merrily,” Skaikru had stolen the bunker and sealed themselves inside – they reasoned that the odds were against Octavia winning so they followed their survival instinct and did what they had to do (it’s difficult to blame them). Of course, Bellamy and Abby open the bunker and allow the Grounder clans to enter, which means 362 people from Skaikru must exit.
Octavia’s decision to share the bunker and Bellamy’s and Abby’s decision to open it may have been the morally right things to do, but how do you select one hundred people from every clan? Are some people’s lives worth more than others? And, if you’re not selected, do you just walk out to meet your death or do you fight for your right to live? How does your conatus function?
It’s an interesting parallel to our current political climate with regard to several issues such as immigration, nationalism, exceptionalism, health care, taxes, education, jobs, and so on – we may not be facing a literal death wave in America (right?) but there are many socio-political aspects of our lives that increase or decrease our chances of survival and what a show like The 100 does is reveal the good and bad sides of our survival instincts. Let’s start with the bad side first.
We want to fight to live, don’t we? Seems natural, right? When Skaikru’s crew learns of their fate it doesn’t take long for chaos to ensue. No one wants to think of themselves as expendable, we want to believe that we have something to contribute (and if we realize that we don’t, our survival instinct finds an extra gear). As Murphy (who’s always in high survival gear) tells Bellamy, “We can’t all be essential personnel or have a sister who’s queen of the Grounders” – Bellamy’s safe (he’s valuable), but Murphy isn’t (most of Skaikru isn’t). Kane tries to reassure Skaikru (sort of). Consider his speech: “We have faced extinction before and we have always persevered but we have always been familiar with sacrifice, and today we will be tested once again. […] I don’t like this any more than you do, but we must call upon the better angels of our nature to guide us […] some must die today so that our people may survive.”
Kane’s solution is to hold a lottery, but the crowd doesn’t buy it – Kane’s logic and Octavia’s threat don’t have any effect. People want to live and they’re willing to fight to the death to have the chance to survive (especially if they’re going to die anyway – what have they got to lose?). So, the crowd destroys the lottery bowl, chanting “fight, fight, fight, fight.” And yet, in the midst of this chaos, some listen to their better angels and this is where the good side of our survival instinct surfaces.
Abby, who is dying of a brain tumor, gives up her spot in the bunker. Miller’s dad (before the lottery bowl was broken) gave his lottery slip so that Miller would have a better chance of being chosen. And Bellamy and Clarke volunteer to leave the bunker to save Raven (who’s about ten hours away on Becca’s island lab). Murphy and Emori (who know they don’t stand a chance at surviving in the bunker) decide to join Bellamy and Clarke (to take their chances at surviving on Becca’s island).
Along the way, some random Grounders attack Raven’s rescue crew and try to steal their radiation suits but Echo saves them. Roan had banished Echo (so did Octavia) so Echo saves them with the hope that they’ll let her ride out the wave with Murphy and Emori. Echo’s already being affected by the increased radiation levels so Clarke gives her a radiation suit. But Emori’s suit was torn in the attack and after Murphy demands that Echo give it up for Emori, Clarke decides to give Emori her own – Clarke is safe because she has Nightblood (but it was still risky for Clarke since her Nightblood hadn’t been tested – Clarke could’ve instantly died).
Eventually, Monty and Harper join the group and arrive at Becca’s lab. The only problem is that they don’t have enough time to get back to the bunker. They knew this, but they went to save Raven anyway. Of course, they decide to use Becca’s rocket and return to the Ark in space, which nicely sets things up for next season.
Back in the bunker, Jaha, who was leading the chaos, wanted to gas the Grounders and commandeer the food (because he thought by doing so, he’d be able to use the food as leverage and save all of Skaikru). Kane talks him out of it, arguing that his plan would likely fail (eleven hundred Grounders versus Jaha?) and would lead to many more than 362 people from Skaikru getting killed. So, they use the gas on Skaikru. They then decide who stays and who is removed (carried out, unconsciously, by Grounders). Kane and Jaha simply use the list Clarke had made earlier in the season. It’s a devastating scene, but it was the kindest way to do it. Being gassed, those taken out wouldn’t consciously experience the fear of being forcibly removed or the actual horror of being vaporized by a radiation death wave – they simply fell asleep.
Returning to the concept of conatus, it’s significant how the narrative illustrates the survival instinct through the aspects of pain, fear, and love. Everyone endures some sort of pain, the most prominent and potent being regret. There aren’t many characters who haven’t betrayed or killed in order to survive (or save others) and the weight of those actions (their pain) proves almost unbearable. It certainly seems to be the reason Abby wants to leave the bunker, the reason Clarke easily removes her helmet for Emori, and the reason Harper wanted to end her life (until her love of Monty changed her mind). And, it’ll be the reason Kane and Octavia (and a few others) will be haunted once the bunker is finally closed with hundreds of people left out to die in the radiation death wave.
Fear is what drives Murphy, Emori, Echo, Jaha and many others to do whatever they can to survive – even in the face of overwhelming odds, they’re willing to risk their lives (and the lives of others) in order to have a chance (however small) of living, even if it’s just for one more day. Fear of life is what drove Jasper and all the other teens who formed a suicide pact in Arkadia to choose death in “The Other Side.”
Then there’s love, which permeates The 100’s narrative, as its woven into nearly every episode in clever ways, driving character decisions as much as pain and fear, especially when it comes to survival – certainly in this latter half of the fourth season, love has been an integral part of the drama. What the most recent three episodes (“Die All, Die Merrily,” “The Other Side” and “The Chosen”) capture is how love can propel us to listen to our better angels, especially in the form of sacrifice – not because some lives are worth more than others, that’s not what sacrifice means. It’s an act taken, not because we’re worthless (or non-essential), but because we’re valuable. At least, in the context where there are literally only hours left to live, sacrifice allows those who die to die with meaning and purpose, allowing those who live to carry the torch for humanity. Thus, what The 100 shows is how love doesn’t just trump hate, it trumps selfishness. Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” becomes survival of the compassionate.
As Dacher Keltner explains, Charles Darwin “argues that our tendencies toward sympathy are instinctual and evolved […] and even stronger […] than the instinct for self-preservation.” Consider the excerpt of Darwin (taken from The Descent of Man) that Keltner cites: “the social instincts lead an animal to take pleasure in the society of his fellows, to feel a certain amount of sympathy with them, and to perform various services for them […] Such actions as the above appear to be the simple result of the greater strength of the social or maternal instincts than that of any other instinct or motive.”
Throughout The 100’s fourth season, many characters have wrestled with finding the balance between survival and humanity, telling themselves “first we survive, then we find our humanity,” as Abby says in “God Complex.” By referring to President Lincoln’s “better angels of our nature,” Kane seems to finally realize that it’s the other way around. We survive because of our humanity not in spite of it. It’s why Octavia decides to share the bunker, it’s why Bellamy and Abby open it, it’s why Clarke finds Raven, and it’s why Kane ultimately (if not desperately) decides to gas his people rather than see them all killed.
For The 100, then, our humanity becomes defined by our ability to balance pain, fear, and love – all three are essential for our survival, as individuals and as a people. For our survival instinct, this suggests that we’re not just striving to keep ourselves alive, but our group alive. Conatus, then, evolves from the singular to the plural, from the selfish to the altruistic. After four seasons, we’ve certainly seen how many characters have learned to care about someone other than themselves (especially, Murphy, Octavia, and Kane) and we’ve seen how most of the leaders (Clarke, Abby, Lexa) have always done whatever they could to make sure everyone survives. On Lost, the slogan was “live together, die alone,” on Battlestar Galactica it was “so say we all.” On The 100, it’s “may we meet again.” So long as humanity survives, we will.
Edwardo Pérez, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor in the Department of English at Tarrant County College Northeast.
The 100, Season Four. The CW, 2017.
Bergson, Henri. Creative Evolution. Dover Publications, 1998.
Darwin, Charles. On the Origin of Species. Dover Publications, 2006
Darwin, Charles. The Descent of Man. Penguin Classics, 2004.
DiSalvo, David. “Forget Survival of the Fittest: It Is Kindness That Counts.” Interview with Dacher Keltner. Scientificamerican.com.
Freud, Sigmund. “Beyond the Pleasure Principle.” Dover Publications, 2015.
Freud, Sigmund. The Freud Reader. Ed. Peter Gay, Norton. 1989.
Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. Dover Publications, 2006.
Lincoln, Abraham. First Inaugural Address. Abrahamlincolnonline.org
Spinoza, Benedict. Ethics. Penguin Classics, 2005.