When I last left The 100, it seemed like religion was a crutch for those who don’t have the right technology, and spirituality is for everyone (but you get more out of it if you’re from an “advanced” society, of course). Now that we’ve finished the season, I’m both impressed and horrified by the ways in which religion is used this season. Religious symbolism moves beyond suggestion into a strong motif, to great effect. While I’m disappointed that religion remains a tool for our characters to use, the writers thoughtfully employ religious imagery and actions in ways that give us a better, more disturbing story… particularly if you’re an adherent to the religions they draw from.
Spoilers for Season 3 of The 100 below.
In the second half of the season, we explore the City of Light as ALIE, a cutting-edge artificial intelligence program (think Cortana from Halo, on steriods) reaches her metaphorical tendrils into the minds of Skaikru and Grounders alike. We find out the apocalypse that created all of our problems was caused by ALIE going rogue. She’s programmed to improve humanity and the earth, but instead is bent on destroying humanity. The brilliant scientist who created the first program, in her space station, had nearly completed a second A.I., one that was sure to work. The space government decided it was too risky to give the second A.I. a shot, as ALIE plunged humanity into nuclear war below.
Our scientist took matters into her own hands by grabbing her second A.I. (contained in a computer chip), locking herself in an escape pod, and blasting off to Earth, hoping to find a way to use the second program to defeat ALIE on the ground below. The people left in the space station became the citizens of the Arc, and the people left behind on Earth flocked to the scientist as their leader. They called her “the Commander” because of the name on her space suit, and her blood was black due to injections that allow her bio-compatibility with her second A.I.
Fast forward a hundred or so years and we have our current predicament. Jaha unleashes ALIE on the world once again, under the guise of promoting a world without pain and suffering; a Matrix-like City of Light. The Grounders built up a cult around the Commander and her “night blood”, through what I assume to be part generational telephone and part brilliant scientist not giving everyone the whole story. It’s hard to blame her, though. After all, she created the monster that destroyed the world. The second A.I. is christened “the flame” in Grounder culture, and is given to the “Commander”, the leader of all Grounder clans. Only Grounders with night blood are eligible to become Commander, and only the strongest night-blooded Grounder (the winner of a Battle Royale, of course) has the flame surgically implanted in their brain stem. The second A.I. better integrates with its human host, magnifying the host’s innate characteristics and giving them access to extra knowledge from the previous hosts. Now our heroes are trying to use the flame to destroy ALIE before ALIE assimilates all of humanity into her Borg-Matrix.
The tech is a bit hand-wavy toward plot holes, but basically we have a complete and thoroughly scientific explanation for the Grounder religion. All the religious ceremony surrounding the Commander in Grounder culture is really just a way of ensuring the second A.I. has a compatible host. The flame contains the “spirit” of each past commander because it contains a computerized copy of their brains. It’s a bit disappointing, because it says that something must be scientific to be real. Grounder religion is true because there’s a scientific explanation of it. That’s not how religion works. Real experience of religion is an experience of faith: experiencing and believing in things that can’t be proven in a lab. People are religious in part because they think that religion is true. God is real, the afterlife is real, Jesus or Joseph Smith or L. Ron Hubbard or whomever you follow is right. On the other hand, spirituality doesn’t necessarily need to mess with rightness or correctness; it can touch truths that are more fundamental. This might be why writers are more apt to promote spiritual themes over religious ones, and manhandle religious themes. I could write all day about all the shows and movies and stories that just totally butcher my own Catholic faith, but that’s neither here nor there. However, while the writers of The 100 play into the “religion is real only because science is real”, they deftly use religion to increase the horror factor in their plots. Anyone familiar with high-church or mainline Christian faiths will recognize the symbolism.
The “City of Light” is an image in the Book of Revelation, the book in the Bible with the most mystical and apocalyptic symbolism. It’s a symbol of Heaven, a city of the righteous living in eternal union with God. Heaven is supposed to be the place of ultimate fulfillment, where we with resurrected and perfected bodies and souls live in happiness eternal. Instead, ALIE’s City of Light is a computer-generated alternate reality. Pain doesn’t exist, because painful memories are erased. Scars and malformations don’t exist, because you can recreate yourself however you wish. It’s basically a pseudo-religious version of Second Life. Heaven is supposed to be the ultimate reality. The City of Light could hardly be farther from that. How does one join the City of Light? You eat a computer chip. When we see characters consuming the chip, they’re either in long single-file lines or bound up and are fed the chip on their tongues. It’s basically a perverted homage to communion, one of the most important rituals to many Christians. The more traditional way of receiving it, on the tongue, is the way most of our main characters eat the chip. When ALIE infiltrates the Grounder clans, they crucify their dissenters until they submit to joining the City of Light.
In the end, Clarke gets a transfusion of night blood, has the flame implanted in her, and eats the communion-chip to infiltrate the City of Light and destroy it from the inside. And, of course, that’s what she does. Clarke insists that the problem with ALIE is that she doesn’t let people choose to join her, she forces them through torture and manipulation. ALIE doesn’t understand; improving human life is her core programming, and giving people a way to opt out just doesn’t compute. Could there be a subtle message here about religion forcing people to join? Maybe, but I think the better interpretation is that ALIE represents a false, dangerous religion, first and foremost because she compels submission through force. Have real religions compelled people to join or die? Definitely. ISIS often demands that people join or die, and Muslims all over the globe decry it as a perversion of their faith. Free will may be the most essential value of humanity, one of the things that truly makes us human. Anything that takes that will away is dangerous. Choices have consequences, and dealing with those consequences (even if it’s not your choice) is a huge theme throughout these last three seasons of The 100.
What’s also interesting about ALIE’s religion is that it lacks God. ALIE is godlike, for sure, but she’s also a limited entity created by humans. Instead, her religion is motivated by escaping pain through moving into a pleasant afterlife (the fact that one can be both in the City of Light and in the real world has awesome Christian eschatological implications that we just don’t have time for today). The idea that religion is meant to take away your pain is a bit of a straw man. This is Clarke’s second problem with ALIE: she takes away pain and its sources, but, as she puts it, “you don’t erase pain, you overcome it.” It’s another sign that ALIE offers a false religion. True religions help you contextualize suffering. Religions that don’t bring meaning to suffering or help you overcome suffering are a waste of time. I know I’ve met Christians who believe that if they aren’t happy, they don’t have a good relationship with God. It’s a version of the prosperity gospel that is just totally foreign to my own Catholic-flavored sensibilities (offer it up!). Humans are survivors, and we survive by overcoming our pain. Suffering is evil, but we also know that suffering can help us grow stronger, both physically and morally. Clarke’s right to destroy ALIE. While the writers of The 100 didn’t do a perfect job of handling religion tropes, they impressively navigated the tension inherent in using real religious symbols and ideas in an evil made-up religion, without making it seem like they were taking cheap shots at those real religions. I’m looking forward to what vestiges of religion and spirituality make their way into Season 4.