The 100 (2014-) is a dystopian TV series set in a world 97 years after a global nuclear war devastated Earth. The story follows the Sky People, a group of survivors on board a gigantic space station orbiting Earth, as they venture down onto Earth to determine whether the planet has become habitable again. Led by the protagonist Clarke Griffens, the group comes to realise that they are not alone and there are survivors from the nuclear Armageddon almost a century ago. After one century of living in isolation, the tribes have developed very differently, each with their own cultures and rules. With the introduction of the Sky People into the equation, the balance is shaken up, leading to tensions and conflicts between the different groups.
Clarke, an 18-year-old girl who comes from a society with strict laws and regulations, is now thrown into an environment where she was never prepared for, an environment where everything she knew is invalidated. The ordered yet peaceful way of life is gone, and respective tribes do as they please with no consideration for the interests of the others.
On the surface, viewers of The 100 may view this narrative arc as similar to many other dystopian films, where the protagonist is morally righteous, constantly putting himself in extreme danger as they go around eliminating ‘evil’ and saving the world from certain destruction. However, in this case, there is one key difference. Throughout most of the series, there is no obvious ‘evil’. There are no external threats such as zombies, aliens or rogue artificial intelligence whose one and only goal is to eliminate all mankind and seek world domination. In The 100, almost all the conflicts are between humans, who make complex decisions based on a plethora of conscious and unconscious factors. As a result, the decisions made by Clarke are scrutinised more closely as viewers understand the rationale behind the actions of every character in the TV series and will not just solely think from the perspective of Clarke.
The TV series, in contrast to other apocalyptic film or TV series, dwells with complex moral pictures – that we cannot find morally absolute. Moral absolutism is what apocalyptic texts do best as they provide a sense of conclusion when the protagonist, the hero in the show, triumphs over villains and emerge victorious. By not dabbling with the moral extreme, the moral picture is revealed to be more complex and not simply black and white. In this article, I am going to argue that Clarke cannot be seen as a moral protagonist or antagonist because morality is complex when seen through the Machiavellian principle.
Morality is “a set of personal or social standards for good or bad behaviour and character” (Cambridge Dictionary, 2018). While “there may be universal moral principles”, the influence of culture seems to play a more significant role on “various aspects of morality” (Krettenauer & Jia, 2017). Cultural psychologists have suggested that “people both within and across cultures have different self-concepts, cognitive processes, emotional expectations, and value orientations” (Krettenauer & Jia, 2017). Hence, what seemed to be morally right to Clarke and her people may be morally wrong to the other tribes.
Machiavellian principle refers to the “employment of cunning and duplicity in statecraft or in general conduct” (Oxford English Dictionary, 2018) and is a term derived from Niccolò Machiavelli, a statesman and a political thinker from the era of the Italian Renaissance. In his book The Prince, Machiavelli asserted that a leader should be “guided exclusively by considerations of expediency, which uses all means, fair or foul, for achieving its ends” of stability and governance for his subjects (Leo & Cropsey, 1987). The leader does not necessarily have to be liked by his people, and while moral considerations should be considered when making decisions, they are to be seen as less important than the effective truth.
Clarke starts off with the belief of wanting to live in peace and harmony. She negotiates fervently and attempts to find compromise solutions that will best serve the interests of everyone. However, she soon realises that it is not possible to reconcile the differences because of the vastly different beliefs as well as mutually exclusive interests. In the end, she has to resort to unscrupulous methods and morally questionable decisions in order to protect the interests of certain groups of people. The line between doing what is morally right and being expedient is blurred as society no longer follows a universal set of similar rules. The best outcome may not be achieved by making morally right decisions but by employing underhanded methods in the face of challenges. In the TV series, Clarke’s character development through the different seasons portrays a slow deterioration of conventional moral values, eventually making her indistinguishable from the enemies she seeks to destroy.
Morality as the Main Consideration
The tension between Clarke and one of the tribes, Mountain Men, is a recurring theme throughout the entirety of season 2. Both parties interpreted the intention of the other party from their own perspective and felt that their respective actions are immoral. However, the manner in which both parties act is based on a similar need for survival and liberation even though their actions directly oppose each other. This implies a relative notion of right and wrong as interpretation is based on the respective view of each party.
At the start of season 2, the Mountain Men discover that the blood of Sky People can metabolise radiation much more quickly as compared to their own blood. This allows the Sky People to roam freely without worry of the high dosage of radiation in the atmosphere. Knowing that the blood of the Sky People is the solution to their problem, they seize this opportunity and capture members of the Sky People to draw their bone marrow. Clarke, in a bid to save her people, declares war on the Mountain Men, leading to a series of increasingly violent skirmishes. In the finale of season 2, Clarke and her team manage to infiltrate into the Mount Weather Complex and are trapped in the control room of the complex. With her mother being held hostage by the Mountain Men, Clarke made the decision to irradiate the entire complex, killing all the residents of Mount Weather, including hundreds of innocent residents, countless children and elderlies who have no idea of the experiment which is kept highly confidential. Clarke’s decision helps save many of her people, who would have otherwise been brutally killed by having their bone marrow drilled out. From the perspective of Clarke, she sees her decision as the only way to protect her own people and that those sacrifices are necessary.
From the perspective of the Mountain Men’s government, it is merely trying to protect its citizens and improve their quality of living, the primary responsibility of the government. As descendants of the US government, the rightful owner of the land, the citizens are now trapped in an underground bunker and have been unable to venture out for the last 97 years. A rare opportunity comes in the form of Sky People, whose bone marrow will allow their own people to metabolise radiation much more quickly. The government simply seizes this valuable opportunity to liberate and free themselves from the underground complex where they have been trapped.
We can understand their behaviours using the Machiavellian principles. In The Prince, Machiavelli mentioned that “For a man who wants to practice goodness in all situations is inevitably destroyed, among so many men who are not good” (Machiavelli, 1532). He believed that philosophy must be judged by its practical considerations and is not an effective political strategy. Machiavelli does not value virtue for its inherent goodness but as a characteristic that one can receive respect for. He believed that certain ‘evils’ are necessary and that a leader “who wishes to retain his power must learn not to be good, and to use, or not to use, that ability according to necessity” (Machiavelli, 1532). Machiavelli is not concerned with the process and will resort to any possible means to achieve the end goal of protecting the state. Deplorable acts, if necessary to safeguard the interest of the state, are justified. This explains the actions of both Clarke and the Mountain Men, who resort to unscrupulous tactics to save their own people. In Clarke’s case, she targets civilians indiscriminately, sabotages essential civilian services and even conducts radiological warfare to save her own people. The Mountain Men, on the other hand, conduct human experimentation and forcefully remove their bone marrows through inhumane methods. Hence, there is a false portrayal of good and evil as both parties are simply protecting their own interests with no considerations for others.
Morality as the Last Consideration
Clarke’s progression through the seasons is one where she starts off using unethical techniques defensively as a form of protecting her own interests, to one where unethical methods are used aggressively by her as a convenient solution to achieve her goal more easily. The use of unethical methods is also a way for Clarke to enforce her authority and helps create an image as someone who will do whatever it takes to protect the interests of her people, even if that means sacrificing some of her people. This will help earn the respect of her followers who will be loyal to her and scare off detractors as they know that she will sacrifice them with no hesitation. This highlights the complex intricacy between morality and practicality and the challenges Clarke faces when trying to find a balance between these two aspects.
In season 4, Clarke learns that a second nuclear apocalypse is occurring due to the failure of nuclear power plants around the world which will result in deadly waves of nuclear radiation spreading that will make Earth uninhabitable to everyone except for Nightbloods, Grounders with a hereditary condition that allows radiation to be metabolised at a much higher rate, even higher than the Sky People. Knowing that the only way to save her people is to create a serum using the blood of the Nightbloods, Clarke starts drawing blood from a Nightblood and forcefully restrains her after she protested. In order to further test the effectiveness of her serum, she goes on to capture a Grounder and conducts inhumane experimentation on him, resulting in his death. Following his death and the lack of available people to experiment on, Clarke even considered to experiment on her friend and went as far as capturing her friend and setting up the equipment for the test.Is there no line you won’t cross in order to survive? – A fellow ally to Clarke
In the end, her actions match those done by the Mountain Men in season 2. Just as the Mountain Men wanted to save their people and allowed them to roam the world freely, Clarke wanted to protect her people from the impending radiation waves and allow them to continue with their daily activities. The Mountain Men forcefully captured outsiders and willingly sacrificed them for their pursuits, just as how Clarke was willing to go the extent of sacrificing her own close friend. When confronted by those around them, both justified their actions with the need to save their own people. With the full circle completed, it seems now that Clarke has become the very “evil” she fights so hard to destroy in the first place.
This behaviour can be similarly explained by Machiavelli’s The Prince which asserts the idea that “it is much safer to be feared than loved” (Machiavelli, 1532) as humans are untrustworthy and will betray at the first instance of genuine danger. This is shown through numerous examples in the series where alliance members betray each other for the slightest benefits or over the smallest paranoia. By instilling fear, there is a “dread of retribution which can always be counted on” (Machiavelli, 1532). This helps to maintain an image of Clarke being a serious leader who will do everything it takes to protect the group’s interest and will spare no effort to sacrifice anyone who impedes her progress. Furthermore, Machiavelli also argued that a leader “need not worry about incurring opprobrium because of those vices” (Machiavelli, 1532) and should always act for the best practical interest since people will eventually reap the benefits of the leader’s practical decision.
At the start, she still has her set of pre-apocalyptic belief of rights and wrongs which are determined by the peaceful society around her. After facing multiple challenges and gaining familiarity in this new environment, she has come to realise that there is no perfect solution and that the best result requires certain compromises. In the post-apocalyptic world, these compromises are likely to be someone else’s life.Clarke’s Mother: “Maybe there are no good guys.“
The use of the terms good and evil is relative and depends on the perspective of the character it is viewed from. This is determined by their own interests and view of the world. Each of the antagonists definitely did not see himself as morally evil, even if they understood that their actions are wrong. In reality, every one of them sees themselves as saviours to their people, as someone who has weighed all possible options and as someone who has made the best decisions for their people given the circumstances. Or Clarke’s mother was right when she pointed out to her, “Maybe there are no good guys”.
Jia, F., & Krettenauer, T. (2017, March). Recognizing moral Identity as a cultural construct. Frontiers in Psychology, 8, article 412.
Leo, S., & Cropsey, J. (1987). History of Political Philosophy (3rd ed.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Machiavelli, N. (1532 ). The Prince (J. B. Atkinson, Trans.). Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company.
Machiavellian (n.d.). English Oxford Living Dictionaries. Retrieved 2018, from https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/machiavellian
Morality (n.d.). Cambridge Dictionary. Retrieved 2018, from https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/morality
Rothenberg, J., Morgenstein, L., Miller, M., Girolamo, G., Nalluri, B., Craft, E., & Fain, S. (Producers). (2014-). The 100 [Television series]. Vancouver: The CW.