List in your head the amount of morally ambiguous, thematically murky, genre-bent TV shows that are on the air right now. Add on top a dollop of teen angst and you’ll come to realise it’s a crowded field, one that’s only grown thanks to the attraction viewers have with every anti-hero at the centre of each show. For these reasons, it’s easy to pass by something that’s worth your time given its vast similarities to everything that’s come before. The 100 could be boiled down to the story of a group of teens who run amok on a post-apocalyptic Earth and eventually must learn how to survive years before adulthood, but that would be a hilarious injustice.
The CW’s sci-fi series is many cobbled-together genre puzzle pieces, but it is no imitator. After two seasons of establishing the show’s world, and reuniting its disparate storylines on the forested ground of Earth, the third season legitimately explodes in scope from the get-go. No longer content to show fans glimpses of the order of the world, creator Jason Rothenberg places everything you’ve ever wanted under a magnifying glass: new clans, new lands, and that mysterious Grounder capital where Lexa rules. The 100 was always a winner for simply being so good in a field so overcrowded, but with the first few episodes of season 3 it isn’t just noteworthy for being good, it’s noteworthy for arguably being the best.
In the wake of Lexa and the Grounders’ betrayal at the attack on Mt. Weather, Clarke (Eliza Taylor) has gone into hiding. She’s left Bellamy (Bob Morley), Monty (Christopher Larkin), Octavia (Marie Avgeropoulos) and the others to protect the surviving members of Arkadia from any new threats that seem to close in on the group daily. Bellamy and the gang aren’t the only ones searching for Clarke, unfortunately, with the big new threat this season coming in the form of the Ice Nation, whose Ice Queen seems willing to do anything to get her hands on the show’s hero.
Removed from the claustrophobic corridors of season two’s Mt. Weather set pieces, The 100 feels like an entirely different show this year. It proves the writers’ deftness of scripting and the show’s quality direction that none of it ever felt dull or languid in the dark cavernous halls of Mt. Weather, but not until the season 3 premiere did I realise how exciting the above-ground world of the show has grown to become. It’s sprawling, and essentially mythical in its depiction of the various clans, tribes, queens, and kings that inhabit the post-nuclear-apocalypse surface of the planet.
It’s a scope that benefits the moral quandaries of the show’s ideas, far more than the first two seasons, which feel like vertical slices in comparison. That’s not a knock against any hour of this show (all of which I’ve loved), but a testament to their importance as a foundation for what Rothenberg and his group have built off from the seeds of Kass Morgan’s original novel series. It’s still awash in pulling apart at the themes of survival, war, and the fight for power, but against a larger backdrop, the darkness intensifies, the action magnifies, and the search for definitive answers amidst all of the various explosions, executions, kidnappings, and genocides only gets more grim – all of which makes The 100 sound like some oppressively bleak slog, but it is about as far from that as possible. This is whiplash-fast television with plot twists of the fiery-death-via-jet-engine variety that repeatedly earns its shocks by way of creating characters – most of which are teenagers, remember – that are impressively un-annoying. The centre of that is Clarke, who has a ton of fun with being feral and on the run in the opening hours of the year. Her confused, steamy relationship with Grounder leader Lexa (Alycia Debnam-Carey) continues to entertain without resorting to obnoxiousness.
The adults orbit the show enough to keep the high stakes of the world alive without providing all of the answers themselves. The new season finds Clarke’s mother, Dr. Abigail (Paige Turco) ready to relinquish her role as Chancellor to Marcus Kane (Henry Ian Cusick). This gets a bit clouded once a group of unexpected newcomers enter the midsts of Arkadia after being discovered as survivors of a separate wreckage of the Ark. They’re led by the morally staunch Commander Pike (Michael Beach), who becomes so comically contrarian to our hero’s viewpoints he may as well walk around with a sign that says “Bad Guy Incoming.” in a season opening so fleet-footed and self-assured, he’s an unfortunate, unsympathetic stick in the mud.
He can’t bring The 100 down, though. The show is too well-realised and worthwhile to be taken that easily, and that’s all without mentioning the heady delights that Jaha (Isaiah Washington) faces following his run in with an artificial intelligence that may have all of humanity’s blood on her hands. He finally finds his City of Light, but Murphy (Richard Harmon) isn’t entirely convinced it’s a trip worth taking. These spiffy side excursions could potentially bring down the show’s feral subject matter, but the scenes and conversations presented in the opening of season 3 revolving around A.L.I.E.’s (Erica Cerra) endgame are essentially as intriguing as anything else discovered in The 100‘s world thus far.
As far as platitudes go, the most infamous and infuriating of modern television has to be the ease with which a show’s creators confirm that a new season will “be darker.” “It’s gonna go there,” they’ll say, or something along those lines. The 100 actually does go there, and it earns its stay thanks to characters that react to the rules of the world with believable fear, and twists that never cease to be I need to sit up for this shocking. It gives fans what they want but creatively challenges what they expect (have fun screaming at your TV in the closing moments of episode three).