Eternal Return in The 100
We have to let our children fail, make mistakes, fall down … don’t we? It doesn’t matter what we try to teach them, in the end, they have to learn on their own. We can guide them, offer advice, help them as best we can but we can’t do it for them or they’ll never learn how to take care of themselves and that would truly be the end of humanity. Yet, given the advancements in technology, it seems like we’re headed there – self driving cars, automation in almost every industry, even knowledge on the internet seems to suggest teaching and schooling is obsolete (Bing, Google, Siri, Alexa – who needs to learn anything when all you have to do is ask a computer? Will anyone know how to drive a car or do anything thirty years from now?).
It’s what makes the teens in The 100 so interesting and so hopeful. They’ve had to learn the hard way to take care of themselves, and while some have acted like typical rebellious teens, most have shown a thirst for knowledge, an appreciation of skills, and a sort of reverence for history, especially ancient history. Bellamy, a gifted orator and natural leader, named his sister Octavia after the Roman Emperor Augustus’ sister (which he knew about when he was only six) and in the fourth season’s finale “Praimfaya,” Bellamy likens Octavia to Prometheus, defying the gods. (How many kids and teens have a working knowledge of Greco-Roman mythology?)
Clarke has always shown a penchant for not just admiring those with knowledge and skills, she’s prioritized them, deeming them too valuable to risk and absolutely necessary to save – and she’s made some hard choices that cost the lives of “non-essential” people so those deemed “essential” could survive. In fact, it was her list of one hundred “essential” people that Kane and Jaha used to select the members of Skaikru who would survive in the bunker in “The Chosen.”
And then there’s Raven, The 100’s resident badass genius who could single-handedly rebuild humanity if she had to. Originally referred to as just a mechanic, her savant-like qualities (equal parts Da Vinci, Einstein, and John Glenn) instantly made her the MVP of humanity – so much so, that Clarke, Bellamy, Monty, Murphy, Harper, Emori, and Echo risked their lives to save Raven in “The Chosen.” Indeed, at the end of “Praimfaya,” Raven and Bellamy, having returned to the Ark in space (along with Murphy and Emori, Monty and Harper, and Echo), seem like they’re going to be a celestial Eve and Adam.
What’s significant about The 100 in this regard is that its narrative has always relied on two things: history repeating itself and looking at an issue from both sides – and in the really cool episodes, it’s merged these two devices by allowing characters to go through a situation they’ve endured before but from the other perspective. For example, it was easy for the delinquent teens to criticize the adults who sent them to Earth in the first season until they realized (because there weren’t any adults around) that someone had to be in charge. Once they became the “adults” they saw that being in charge isn’t as easy as it looks, especially when the lives of those you’re in charge of can literally depend on every decision you make.
This merging (of history repeating itself and of examining issues from both sides) permeates The 100’s fourth season. Skaikru became Grounders, kids became adults, enemies became friends, friends became enemies and somehow, regardless of whatever horrible circumstances befell them and whatever impossible decisions had to be made, life continued to survive.
What makes the fourth season’s final episode so interesting is how we only see the kids fighting (one last time) to survive. With the sole exception of Indra (who’s become Octavia’s counselor) the narrative focuses only on the teens – Octavia, Bellamy, Clarke, Raven, Monty, Harper, Murphy, Emori, and Echo (and even some quick shots of Miller, Jackson, and Gaia). The absences of Abby, Kane, and Jaha are notable – as if they’ve now become dispensable, not in a judgmental way (they’re not being punished or blamed for anything). Rather, in a way that speaks to how life works: the old must give way to the new.
This was always the outcome – the kids had to govern themselves in the first season and they’ve retained that status ever since. Despite Abby and Kane taking turns at being Chancellor, along with Pike, the Grounder leaders (especially Lexa and Roan) have really only recognized Clarke and her pals as being the ones truly in charge. Thus, when the fourth season ends we’ve seen an official changing of the guard. Octavia (who’s only supposed to be seventeen) is the leader of humanity’s last twelve hundred people in the bunker. Bellamy and Raven are in charge (of only five other teens) up in space on the Ark. While Clarke is left on the surface, shown in the last scene (which is a flashforward six years and seven days after the nuclear death wave swept the globe) with a Nightblood Grounder named Madi, who looks maybe twelve years old (and who we’ve never seen before and have no idea where she came from). They are apparently the last two people on Earth, as Clarke claims she hasn’t had any contact with those in the bunker or in space.
What all of this illustrates is the idea of eternal return (or eternal recurrence), a concept explored through mathematics, religion, and philosophy (from Ancient Egypt and Ancient Greece to Buddhism and Judaism to Nietzsche and Camus) and the basic premise is that life (and time) is cyclical, not linear. Instead of having a beginning and an end, existence simply repeats itself in an endless cycle of returning. The 100 develops this in two ways: narratively, through the repetition of storylines; and symbolically, through the use of imagery and implied meaning, such as the infinity symbol (used by Becca and her corporation), circles (like the ring of the Ark the kids return to in space), and crops (like the ones Ilian tried to plant with Octavia) – and hopefully, next season, babies (it would be fun to see Murphy and Emori or Monty and Harper as parents and we know Bellamy would make a great dad, as he helped raise his sister Octavia).
What’s paramount is how The 100 employs eternal recurrence, highlighting its role in our continued survival: we don’t survive once, we survive again and again in our own lives, and continuously as a people from generation to generation. This brings us back to where we started – with the kids having to learn on their own.
It’s fitting that the fourth season’s final episode focuses on and ends with the main teen cast and with a six-year jump in narrative time. We only get to see Clarke six years older, looking relaxed in her early-twenties, suggesting that surrogate motherhood agrees with her. That Madi isn’t Clarke’s biological daughter doesn’t matter. What matters is that Clarke is now in Abby’s role – a single mother keeping her daughter alive and teaching her daughter how to stay alive.
For example, in the final scene, Clarke and Madi see a ship in the sky. At first, they assume it’s Bellamy (and the rest of the crew in space) finally returning to Earth. But as the ship gets closer they realize it’s different. Setting up what’s sure to be an interesting storyline in next year’s fifth season, the ship appears to be some sort of prisoner transport – Who are the prisoners and where did they come from? Were there other survivors somewhere else on Earth or in space?
Whatever the answers, Clarke realizes they need to possibly defend themselves and she instructs Madi to get all of their weapons. With that, the cycle repeats. Survivors descending from the sky to inhabit Earth after a holocaust and Grounders wary of uninvited guests ready to defend their territory. The difference is that Clarke isn’t the one coming from space, she’s now the Grounder. Thus, for The 100, the eternal return doesn’t mean that you live your life over in the same way. What The 100 shows is that humanity is reliving the same story – we just take turns playing different roles. Clarke is now Abby and Bellamy is now Clarke, as he realizes in his storyline that he needs to become the logical, pragmatic leader Clarke’s always been.
Indeed, Bellamy’s first “Clarkian” decision is to leave her behind at the end of “Praimfaya” when he realizes that she’s not going to make it back to Becca’s lab in time for Raven to launch the rocket (because Clarke had to complete one last-minute task so the rocket could launch and safely reach the Ark in space). If he waits, they all die. If they launch, Clarke likely dies (she doesn’t, but Bellamy doesn’t know that – in fact, the who space crew thinks Clarke died to save them). It’s a nice parallel to how the first season ended, when Clarke had to seal the door of their dropship, leaving Bellamy outside as Raven exploded the dropship’s rockets to kill three hundred grounders (in a wave of fire, no less).
In other words, what might seem like repetitive (and sometimes frustrating) storytelling actually has poignant meaning (the writers are far from lazy, in fact, they seem to be very deliberate in the things they choose to repeat and reference). Nietzsche asks whether we’d be willing to live our lives over again and have everything happen to us exactly the same way, every moment and experience. The 100 seems to answer yes. Whether our roles remain the same as Nietzsche suggests or they change as The 100 dramatizes, The 100’s “may we meet again” mantra offers a positive affirmation of life, a reason to say yes, and a reason focused on the joy of eternally recurring (which Nietzsche and even Albert Camus might agree with) in whatever existence we emerge.
Part of the joy in eternally recurring is getting to live through the same story again (like we do when we’re children, watching and re-watching the same movies over and over again). Another part is finding each other again – friends, lovers, and family – with all the joys and sorrows that brings. And another part is having to relearn, rediscover, and renegotiate everything – the story may lead to the same ending but it’s still fun getting there. And, whatever role we play we know it’s important, because what The 100 also shows us is that there really aren’t any non-essential people. We’re just people, all equally significant and precious, living and dying for one another in the endless cycle of existence, gifting the world to those who follow.
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.
Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays. Trans. Justin O’Brien, 1991.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Gay Science. Trans. Walter Kaufmann. Vintage, 1974.