There aren’t many shows on television anymore that I enjoy as much as CW’s The 100. Ace has been following the series here since it began, and I’m only just getting caught up. The 100 offers a kind of teenage/YA dystopian escapism that my preteen self would have obsessed over, plus an imaginary boyfriend to boot (Hello,
Nurse Bellamy!). Who cares if we never figure out how the characters maintain their never-ending supply of mascara when we have issues to tackle like turf wars and privilege and racism and sexuality? Among these, I had hoped that religion would be handled thoughtfully, but the result is pretty meh. Nevertheless, The 100 gives us a pretty good example of some typical science fiction religion tropes, and how religion can function in ways that help (and hurt) the quality of the story.
Spoilers for The 100 through Season 3 Episode 8, “Thirteen.”
Generally speaking, The 100 indulges in some religion tropes that are well-worn in the world of sci-fi. Essentially, the show is about a civilized society clashing with an uncivilized society. Usually the “civilized” society is technologically advanced to the point where they should soon approach utopian standards, or at least a post-scarcity world. There’s also the understanding that the civilized people have become morally advanced to the point where they’ve moved “beyond” religion. After all, there’s no need to pray for rain when you can make as much food as you want. The “uncivilized” society is usually pre-industrial (think agrarian or hunter/gatherer) and embraces a very brutal ethic. Religion is a major pillar of this society, as necessary as procuring food or defending your people from rival groups. Without it, not only does the society no longer function, but many of its members lose their sense of identity. The problem with the trope’s dynamic, in regards to religion, is that it diminishes all religion to a tool or crutch belonging to the past. It says that religion functions in two ways: as a stand in for science as a means for making sense of the natural world and as a way to control people, keeping them in line so that the status quo can be maintained. The 100 embraces some of the dimensions of this trope, but subverts others.
In The 100, the Skaikru people of the space station are our “civilized” society and the Grounder clans are our “uncivilized” society (societies, really). These people are intimidating; they look scary with their patchwork clothing and war paint. They have more explicit religious overtones to their culture than Skaikru. Overall, we don’t learn much about Grounder spirituality, but we do see many external trappings of religion through ritual and ceremony. Their leader, the Commander, is thought to possess the same soul or spirit passed down from leader to leader. It’s a bit like the Avatar from Avatar: The Last Airbender without the new leader needing to be born after the old one dies. It’s a kind of pseudo-reincarnation in which the spirit transfers to a new host upon the Commander’s death. Most important events in the society have rituals with religious overtones tied to them. When Lexa dies, special prayers are said and the Keeper of the Flame performs sacred rituals. The “spirit” of the Commander is ceremoniously removed from the dead Commander’s body and placed in a special box, until it can be transferred to the new Commander.
Blood and blood sacrifice play an important role in Grounder culture. In many religions, blood is sacred, intrinsically tied to a person’s sacred life force. “Blood must have blood” is probably the most important pillar of Grounder ethics. If someone spills blood, their blood must be spilled. If a clan attacks another, the other must go on the attack and spill blood for revenge (and so on, in a near-endless cycle of retribution). Commanders are people with black blood, called “Nightbloods”. Young Nightbloods come together in a class for training. When the Commander dies, Nightbloods gather in a conclave and fight to the death. The victor is the new Commander, and is ceremoniously tattooed and imparted with the spirit of the Commander.
With our Skaikru protagonists, we don’t see any strong overtones of truly ritualized religion in the way that we do with the Grounders, but we do encounter some elements of spiritual hope. When people say goodbye, the convention is to say “May we meet again”. This comes from the funeral prayer/poem of the space station crew.
In peace, may you leave the shore. In love, may you find the next. Safe passage on your travels until our final journey to the ground. May we meet again.
In this post-apocalyptic world, the people are waiting for the radiation levels on the planet Earth to subside enough for them to return to the ground. It’s a lot like the people of Israel in the Bible. In the Old Testament, after Moses gets Pharaoh to free the Hebrews (“Let my people go!”), the people wander the desert for forty years until they reach the sacred Promised Land, a place of plenty and prosperity set aside for them by God. For Skaikru, the “ground” was the Promised Land, and life on the space station is their time wandering and waiting in the desert. In Judaism and Christianity the “Promised Land” has eschatological meaning, in that it’s also a metaphor for Heaven. The same applies to Skaikru. However, it’s unclear if any of the members of Skaikru actually believed in any kind of heaven. When they still lived on the station (called the Ark, as in Noah’s), we briefly see a small religious sect caring for a tree, to be planted on the ground. But we don’t learn much about it beyond general good spiritual feelings toward the future. It’s more likely that there’s a general hope that there’s some kind of pleasant afterlife, but there’s little in the way of doctrine or ritual that we see (beyond the short funeral prayer) attached to it. Later, when Jaha of Skaikru discovers the “City of Light”, most people are skeptical of its existence. Not because they have their own ideas, but because they aren’t sure if something like that could really, truly exist at all. So while Skaikru still maintains a general sense of spirituality when it’s tied to death, there really isn’t the sense of religion tied to it.
Initially it seems like one society is civil and the other barbaric, but The 100 subverts the usual distinctions between the two societies. Skaikru is meant to be the “advanced” and civilized society, and believed to be so by some of its members. But when they still lived on the Ark, almost the very first thing we learn about their society is that they have a brutal sense of justice. Anyone found breaking virtually any rule is sentenced to death. Treason, stealing medicine, and giving birth to a second child are all crimes deserving capital punishment. Death sentences are carried out by “floating” a person: sealing them alone in an airlock and venting them out into space, alive. Minors are basically placed in juvenile detention, until they come of age, and then go to trial. When oxygen runs low on the Ark, one hundred minors in juvenile detention are sent to the ground to see if it’s habitable. Essentially the leaders on the Ark were willing to sacrifice one hundred of their children, many of whom could have been acquitted of their crimes, on the offhand chance that the Earth had returned to livable conditions. This is actually more brutal than life as a Grounder, where death is demanded only when one has committed a serious offense, usually taking life, and where there is a struggle for power.
When Skaikru lived on the Ark, their technology may have been advanced, but resources were incredibly scarce. This scarcity made them more brutal than the Grounders, they’re just cleaner about it. With basically no new resources, the people have to ration and make do with what they have to wait out their journey through the “desert” of space and time, until their “promised land” of Earth is ready. They don’t need to keep the gods happy in order to produce more food because there is no way to get more, beyond using the tools they already have. They don’t need religion in that sense, because they have science. On the other hand, religion can also act as a coping mechanism to make sense of death. This is something that The 100 allows the Skaikru to embrace in a limited sense, through their funerary prayer. The Grounders embrace it much more fervently, with pomp and circumstance. But once the Skaikru hits the ground, their Promised Land turns out to be not so heavenly. Some people still cling to the old prayer, but it’s lost a lot of its meaning. More often we see Skaikru exchanged the shortened “may we meet again” as a goodbye. Now, the meaning is much more mortal; people are literally hoping to see their loved ones again. So while we see that spiritual and religious things can bring people comfort, unfortunately that’s the intended limit of their purpose.
All this means that although The 100 does do some great work subverting some of the usual tropes, we’re still left with the impression that ritual and religion really only have a place in societies that are more “ancient” and less technologically advanced. Grounder religious rituals are always accompanied by a sense of duty and obligation. Nightblood children are discovered and supposed to be shipped off for a special purpose. When Lexa is dying, she survives long enough to demand that the Keeper of the Flame perform his ritual. She tells a tearful Clarke that this is what must happen. Knowing the ritual will take place brings Lexa a sense of peace, but Clarke has a hard time connecting with the ritual. Instead, she offers Lexa her people’s funerary prayer, as a way to cope with losing the woman she loves. So we’re still left with the idea that religion is meant for societies who haven’t advanced beyond it, and spirituality is for those who have crossed the technological divide. But this doesn’t line up with our lived reality. Modern audiences more quickly identify with Skaikru, and plenty of modern people identify as religious, not “only” spiritual.
How then could we expand the role of religion in The 100 in more meaningful ways? We can tie it more explicitly to morality, which I’ll cover in a future post. While in the real world it’s often possible to be a moral person without religion (everyone, not just the theists, has a morality), those who have a religion more often than not cannot totally separate it from their morality. Nor should they, and connecting the two more directly would add an extra dimension to the storylines in The 100.