The 100 and the Problem of Evil
By Edwardo Pérez
One of the interesting narrative dilemmas for post-apocalyptic fiction is deciding what happens after the world is destroyed. How does society get rebuilt? What does that society value? What are its morals, beliefs, religions, and laws? Of course, not many such stories really show this. After all, the focus of dystopian narratives is not on rebuilding but on surviving in what’s been rebuilt. It’s just more dramatic to see protagonists suffer and rebel. (As the Star Wars prequels showed, nobody cares about senate deliberations and trade disputes.)
Indeed, our current fictional landscape is littered with such narratives, especially the YA genres. Perhaps it’s because they fill an emotional need, given how close we seem to be to losing our sense of humanity – from an absence of morality to our lack of understanding of what relates us to one another to what seems to be a desire to destroy ourselves and the world just to see what would happen (not just the threat of nuclear war but the rise, if not normalization, of hate groups). In other words, given the lack of moral leadership in our world, we turn to fiction.
On one hand, we turn to superheroes who embody the traits of humanity we most admire and perhaps wish we could see more of in those who purport to lead us – really, any of the Avengers who lived or died in Infinity War could provide the moral compass we sorely need right now. I mean, if we’re going to have a narcissistic, egotistical, sexist president, I vote for Tony Stark, who, even when drunk, has more moral clarity, courage, and compassion than most of our elected leaders. On the flip side, it’d be cool if the comic book gods turned Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez into Batgirl. (Hey Christopher Nolan, you up for another trilogy?) Perhaps this is why our cinema is saturated with superhero narratives, not just the Marvel juggernaut (twenty films so far, three more in 2019 – seriously, Marvel has made DC and even Star Wars irrelevant) but also films like The Incredibles and Teen Titans Go To The Movies.
Yet, equally significant is how there also seems to be a turn to children as heroes, not the bit-by-a-radioactive-spider kind of child hero, but the Hunger Games style of I-just-want-to-save-my-loved-ones kind (which, even The Incredible’s Violet, Dash, and Jack-Jack seem to embody in their sequel, saving all the adults and the world from the Screenslaver).
Indeed, many of us so-called adults (who feel guilty for screwing up the world so much?) probably see children as our only real hope – whether in the voting booth or in the sense that their collective vision is simply more clear-eyed than those of us who’ve been jaded by nearly two-decades of post-9/11 angst and the racial and political animus it’s helped foster (which includes endless violence and perpetual war, not just abroad, but in cities like Chicago where more than seventy people can be shot in a single day). Really, the current generation (those around twenty-five and under) don’t care what color your skin is or who you love and they really don’t see the benefits of capitalism or nationalism – they see humanity as it is, as one tribe struggling to exist on one planet, but who might need to find a new planet because let’s face it, Earth is screwed. (We don’t need Thanos to snap his fingers, we can wipe out half the universe on our own.)
Implicit in all of this is the problem of evil, not just in dystopian fiction, but in our real world, too. As formulated by philosopher David Hume, the problem of evil can be summarized as follows: “Is he [God] willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?” This is pretty much what Greek philosopher Epicurus stated in what is known as the Epicurean paradox, except that he added “Is [God] neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?”
Is this why we’re looking for heroes and saviors? We know evil exists (from terrorism to school shootings to sexual assaults in the military and on college campuses) but we don’t know if God exists, regardless of how we attempt to solve the problem of evil. So, perhaps we look to our children to save us because we want to believe in their innocence, in their good, maybe even recapture it (if we can remember what it was like to be innocent and good).
Or, for all the fierce ugliness plaguing our society maybe we just want to believe in happy endings again (how about a Tony and Pepper wedding in Avengers 4?). Indeed, whether God exists or doesn’t exist doesn’t seem as important as why evil exists. But, it’s not really about why it exists. It’s about how we respond to it and this brings us to The 100, one of television’s unsung heroes when it comes to illustrating the very real and very grey moral dilemmas that occur when people struggle to survive in a brutally evil world.
For five seasons, The 100 has focused not on rebuilding society but on keeping it alive, which often requires choosing, as Kane (Henry Ian Cusick) recently remarked, “between the devil and the monster.” The trick is knowing not just which is the lesser of two evils, but knowing which is the one you can really live with when the other is destroyed.
Or, as the finales of Season 4 and Season 5 suggest, maybe we can all choose to live together. It’s what Octavia (Marie Avgeropoulos) tried to do at the end of Season 4 when she won the battle royale and decided to save one hundred people from each clan, rather than only save her people at the expense of others. They were supposed to ride out a wave of nuclear radiation sweeping across the planet, but after a few years in an underground bunker Octavia forced the group of survivors to resort to cannibalism with an “eat or die” mantra – because when you run out of protein you do what you have to do, right?
Still, it worked to the extent that humanity survived, but when a threat came in the fifth season, it didn’t take long for Octavia’s group and a group of recently-awakened-from-cryogenic-preservation prisoners to seek to mutual assured destruction.
In fact, when Madi (Lola Flanery) takes over Octavia’s group and leads them to victory in the final episode of the fifth season, she nearly continues the cycle of evil, initially deciding to kill every prisoner (that’s why you’re supposed to do when you conquer, right?). But, thanks to Bellamy (Bob Morley), who suggests that Madi can make a different choice (and not follow humanity’s bloody history, which includes the many mistakes several characters made during the first four seasons), she does, choosing not just to let the prisoners live but saving them when they realize that the last patch of livable land on Earth is about to be destroyed (by a guy so evil he actually says “if I can’t have the land, then no one can” right before launching a bomb).
So, they all board a spacecraft that takes them to the prison barge still orbiting Earth – everyone, who minutes before were trying to kill one another, now has to live together in space as the last few hundred human souls left to human history. Peace, rather than evil, is given a chance – and it’s ironic, given how the chance was forced upon them through annihilation.
Yet, as I see it, what’s significant is that Octavia and Madi are children. Yes, they’re girls, and there are many interesting feminist analyses we could delve into for the plethora of female characters The 100 has given us through its five seasons. Yet, to me, it’s more significant that they’re children (in Season 4, Octavia is seventeen, and in Season 5, Madi is twelve) who have to face the problem of evil, not as an abstract, philosophical problem debating whether or not God exists, but as a boots-on-the-ground problem where the survival of the human race depends on how they choose to respond to the evil laid before them.
It’s an interesting interpretation on the problem of evil – because even though The 100 develops religion to a certain extent (especially for the Grounders), religion is more of a cultural practice rather than an actual belief in an almighty God who created Earth and all life on it – in fact, the Grounders don’t believe in God, they believe in a commander (a very human, very mortal female leader).
In other words, the problem of evil typically takes two paths. On one side, the goal is to show how God either doesn’t exist or, if he does exist, he couldn’t be all powerful, all knowing, and all good – if he were, then why does evil exist? On the other side, the goal is to show that evil exists because it’s part of our free will to be able to choose our actions (otherwise, everything would be predetermined and that brings us back to the problem of why evil exists). If we have free will, then God can’t get involved – not because he can’t, but because he’s letting us choose for ourselves (if he gets involved, then we have determinism, not free will). And, of course, there are many other nuanced approaches to solving the problem of evil either in God’s favor or not.
It’s tempting to say The 100 promotes the free will side, showing (in every episode through each of its five seasons) various characters making extremely difficult choices that, depending on whose side your on, could be seen as morally justified or purely evil. Yet, what The 100 really seems to be doing is not asking why evil exists, but rather how we define it. The cannibalism plot is a good example of this.
It’s understandable why most people in the underground bunker don’t want to resort to eating one another. It just seems morally wrong, if not wholly unjustifiable, regardless of the circumstances – because if you define the consumption of human life as evil, then there is no argument that can morally excuse such an action.
But, isn’t it also evil to let a thousand people (who happen to be the last thousand people on Earth) die of starvation when there is technically a supply of food capable of sustaining them? To be clear, the people being eaten were already killed in fighting pits (which brings up a whole other set of issues) and their bodies were simply going to rot. Is this not a waste of food?
It’s extreme (and the circumstances that led Octavia to decide that cannibalism was the only way to survive were arguably contrived – there really was no other way?) but this is what happens when you have to choose between the devil and the monster. At least the cannibalism only lasted a year (because that’s how long it took to get an Algae farm up and running) and there were no signs that anyone continued to harbor the taste for human flesh (they endured tremendous psychological pain, but seemingly no cravings) and they fought hard to simply forget that “Dark Year” ever happened.
Still, it’s a strange dilemma that reworks the problem of evil into an examination of human behavior, asking if our actions and the context in which they’re made, are what ultimately define what is good and what is evil. Certainly, the way in which Octavia forced people to “eat or die” (if they didn’t eat, she’d kill them and then they’d become food) was morally wrong. She should’ve given them the choice. Yet, as their leader, her goal was to save as many people as she could (because the saga of the human race was at stake!). As Abby (Paige Turco) reasoned (on several occasions, usually when she was about to do something evil), “first we survive, then we find our humanity.” Is survival enough? Is evil subjective and relative? Can morality be abandoned? Should the human race be preserved at all costs?
This brings us to British philosopher Richard Swinburne and his view of evil as a source of knowledge. As Swinburne notes, “the operation of natural laws producing evils gives humans knowledge (if they choose to seek it) of how to bring about such evils themselves […] [increasing] the range of significant choice.” In other words, for Swinburne, evil can be viewed as a source of knowledge and, importantly, once we’re aware of such knowledge (once we eat the fruit?) the subsequent choices we make become significant because they’re made knowing the difference between good and evil. If Swinburne is right, then we at least have a reason for evil existing. And, we also have a reason for morality and for judging our actions accordingly.
Season Four’s wave of nuclear radiation provides a good example. Thinking Octavia would lose the Battle Royale, Jaha (Isaiah Washington) and Clarke (Eliza Taylor) seized the bunker and locked themselves in it, along with everyone who’d survived from the Ark. They didn’t care about anyone’s survival except their own group’s (and their own). In Swinburne’s take, this decision is significant because they knew everyone outside the bunker would die a horrible death. In other words, their decision was evil. It may seem morally justified to Jaha and Clarke (and everyone inside) but it’s not because they had knowledge. In other words, if Jaha and Clarke had been unaware of the nuclear wave and just happened to find an open bunker or, if they knew of the nuclear wave but were unaware that anyone else on the planet existed, then we could say they lacked knowledge and their actions were morally justified (through luck or ignorance).
In turn, this is what makes Octavia’s decision to share the bunker with all the grounder clans not evil. But, her decision to remove several hundred people from the Ark to make room for the grounders does seem evil – because, again, it’s made knowing that everyone expelled from the bunker will be horribly consumed by an intense nuclear fire. It’s also what makes Madi’s choice to not kill her enemies after they’ve been defeated a significant turning point in the narrative. Rather than kick anyone out, Madi makes sure everyone makes it to the spacecraft. It’s a subtle difference but one that resonates, not just with the problem of evil but with the trajectory of the show, signifying that perhaps this time they’ll get it right.
So, Swinburne’s observation resonates insofar as it reveals how the decisions we make become more significant when they’re made with knowledge. And, on The 100, everyone (like Thanos) is plagued with knowledge, of the present and of the past. It’s why the cycle of violence and vengeance seems not just perpetual but perpetually tragic – we know what’ll happen, we know humanity’s story (we betray, we kill, we swear revenge) and yet we persist. Is it foolishness? Vanity? Are we naïve?
What The 100 shows is that the only way to stop the cycle, the only way to tell a different story of the human race, is to make a different choice, to not choose evil. Luckily, the prison spaceship had cryonic pods for everyone to survive in and thanks to Monty’s (Christopher Larkin) and Harper’s (Chelsea Reist) selfless decision to stay awake and find a new home for everyone (and have a child in the process, whom they froze in order to save), Clarke and Bellamy awaken 125 years later to see a new planet waiting for them. It’s as if Madi’s choice to show goodness rather than evil started a new cycle for humanity to follow.
Indeed, Monty and Harper spent decades living a full life while finding a way to save humanity – this was their choice and it worked, as they found the new planet and plotted a seventy-five-year course for the spaceship to arrive at the new planet, knowing they’d never be alive to see it. But they had hope, as Monty told Clarke and Bellamy in a taped message, his wish was for humanity “to do better” by being “the good guys.” Monty didn’t want to believe that humanity was the problem, that we’re inherently evil. He wanted to believe that our capacity for goodness far outweighed any other inclination. Is he right?
It remains to be seen how everyone will arrive on this new world and how they’ll be received if the planet happens to be occupied. Will they find their humanity again, as Abby hopes? If so, how will this be defined? Will evil remain part of the definition, a last-resort-necessity one can appeal to when one has to commit unthinkable acts in the name of survival? Or, will Monty’s hope be realized, seeing goodness prevail?
It’s also significant that the fifth season’s ending – with Clarke and Bellamy looking at the new planet through a window from their spaceship – mirrors Raven (Lindsey Morgan) and Bellamy looking at a nuclear-ravished Earth at the end of season four. Both scenes seem to offer hope (that a ravaged Earth can thrive again in season four, and that a new world can give humanity a real second chance in season five). The difference seems to be that Earth’s demise symbolized the problem of evil (evil begets evil) while the new planet’s Eden-like appearance reflects the innocence humanity lost long ago (evil only begets evil if we choose evil).
In the end, The 100 seems to suggest that the problem of evil can be solved by not choosing evil. Perhaps this is too simplistic and maybe it really doesn’t solve the problem of evil at all. Still, if we look back on human history, on the story we’ve written thus far, maybe it’s time for a new plot. As the text accompanying the final shot of season five’s finale read, “End Book One.” Indeed, if a new book needs to be written, perhaps it’s the children who are best equipped to write it.
Edwardo Pérez is an Associate Professor of English at Tarrant County College in Hurst, Texas. He also manages his philosophical website lightsabertoss.com.
The 100, Seasons 4 and 5.
Hume, David. Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion.
Swinburne, Richard. Is There A God?