REVIEW | The 100 - Episode 3.13 - "Join or Die"
All I have is a voice To undo the folded lie, The romantic lie in the brain Of the sensual man-in-the-street And the lie of Authority Whose buildings grope the sky: There is no such thing as the State And no one exists alone; Hunger allows no choice To the citizen or the police; We must love one another or die.
W.H. Auden, an excerpt from his poem Another Time
In some places - where the stones dip and curve against the buried skin of the earth below - it pools. Rain-thinned streams of crimson wash over wet stone, through the cracks, seeking out lower ground until they meet in the middle to form small seas. A line of them, of vivid red polluted with mud. As a new day breaks over this next chapter of The 100 - entitled Join or Die - the streets of Polis run hot in a river of the crucified blood, shed by those who have refused ALIE's chip. If ever there were a valley the shadow of death, this is it.
True justice has fled the Capital, and in its place ALIE waits with an ever expanding flock of captured minds - and leaders - at her disposal, all set on helping her achieve her goal for global domination. But while she has four Chancellors in her possession now, only three matter, and of those three only two are in her control. Pushed by her desire to conquer the mind of the last remaining cognisant Chancellor - Kane - the AI goes to a new level of cruelty as she sees to manipulate him too into taking the chip she offers.
That said, despite his current lack of use to ALIE, Chancellor Pike is anything but out of the firing line. While those Grounders who have been chipped have - for now - forgotten about Pike's massacre, the Grounders who refused remain as aware as ever of the atrocity the Sky people enacted on their kin. And no-one remembers it in bloodier detail than the one person Pike left alive to tell the tale.
But as we come to this new and dark chapter of the future, we find ourselves staring back into the past too. Back to a time when the earth was still a blue, green ball in the distance; when kids were still kids, and a life skills teacher was just a man trying to give them tools for the terrifying and potentially deadly experience they unknowingly had ahead of them. And make no mistake: death now claws at the door of all humanity. Here on the threshold of the end, there are no grounders, no sky people. Only a species a hairsbreadth from extinction, whose only hope is a band of shattered but defiant rebels all out to sea, and a woman: bright, brave, strong, and wholly determined to ignore her calling as the last hope of her kind.
NON SUM QUALIS ERAM
I am not as I was.
If you are anything like me, you were eager to see Pike meet a true measure of justice for the atrocities he's committed this season. His being led in chains into the city of his enemy, after being betrayed by his former right hand man no less, was a fate deserved many times over. And I wanted him to feel the weight of his cruelty. That said, in that moment I found myself feeling like I should have been more careful what I wished for; every second of that opening was steeped in a horror and darkness that stuck with me for a long time afterwards. The procession of Pike - and Kane for that matter - half staring at the way their thick boots shattered the slick ruby face of each puddle; the rest of their senses consumed by the sights that loomed either side of their path. Tortured souls nailed to makeshift racks and crosses. Screams puncturing the atmosphere overhead like rusty nails. It is a preview that for Pike in particular leaves little to the imagination, as he is brought into the heart of the nation whose people he massacred with scant - if any - remorse, not too long ago.
But this really was an episode built to turn the world of The 100 - as we have come to understand it - back and forth on its head, taking us as the audience right along it for the ride. It was akin to the experience of watching someone with a giant hourglass in their hand, rolling it over and over again: changing the measure constantly, until you, as you watch, lose your hold on whatever certainty you might have felt about where you were in the scheme of things.
Pike was the cornerstone of that experience in this episode. We learn that he was secretly tasked six months ago by Jaha, Abby and Kane to begin teaching the 100 prisoners the necessary skills to survive in the wild of the ground below; we find the Pike of old not as much a tyrant-in-training, as much as an average guy with a strong moral compass, stuck in a bad spot. He's brutally aware of the young lives at stake before him, and agonizing over the fact that he's holding back from them the truth about the almost certain death that will await them in a few short hours.
It's particularly highlighted in the examination of Murphy and Pike's history, when they meet in both past and present contexts. Before the fall, Pike is visibly distressed as he tries to address the attitude of a kid who has no idea that he is possibly about to die a very grizzly death. And even if Murphy survive, Pike knows he'll still have a hellish fight for life in front of him. He's straining at his emotional seams to help these kids prepare for that reality, but he is muzzled. And just like that, suddenly the presence of Pike onscreen - where it had brought nothing but bile to the back of your throat of late - started to lead us to a place where we feel almost sorry for him. In this moment, he seems to care about these people as much as we do. But the fact that Pike also made his point to Murphy in the flashbacks by beating him up, as a way of telling him that it wouldn't matter how much it hurt, that there would be no-one coming to save them, we got a glimpse into who the school teacher would become. However difficult his former predicament, it's not anywhere enough to make us feel sorry enough for him to absolve him.
It's worth noting too, that echoes of Pike's varied influence extended throughout this entire episode. We see his former self represented in Octavia's demonstrated skills as she starts fires using the natural resources around her, just as he taught her to do on the Ark. In those flashbacks, we saw him empower an otherwise powerless kid, through the provision of knowledge about using what was around her to survive. Unlike Murphy, he didn't teach her how to fight, but rather how to be smart and live. In contrast, we saw the effect of current-day Pike's violence and fear-mongering, in Bellamy: a man now plagued day and night with self-hatred, self-doubt, and memories of the betrayals and atrocities he was inspired by Pike to be a part of.
For additional contrast, we saw again the slick power player Kane used to be before the fall. There was a coldness to him; I'd forgotten how much of a clinically-minded, self-centered pragmatist he used to be. For good measure, we were reminded not only of who Pike was before the fall, but also of the fact that Kane once had all the makings of the kind of man Pike was to become, and vice versa. It was a viscerally brilliant reminder of how all of this - every action and reaction - is not about nature or nurture as much as it's about choice. How who we are in any given moment is who we decide to be. And that whatever decision we make, at some point we will be accountable for that choice.
And we see that with present day Pike: trapped now on the very same ground he tried to prepare the hundred for, and face to face with the fathers, daughters, wives, sons, friends and lovers of the hundreds of some of the hundreds of Grounders he massacred. As we were being reminded afresh of who Pike has become - a tyrant whose every move is exactly informed by fear of that which he hates, and hate of that which he fears - we copped the second level of the above theme. The idea that just as who we are in any given moment is who we decide to be, we are also accountable for the actions we take in those mindsets, at any given time.
In Pike's case, we know absolutely that it was not love for his own people that served as his sole purpose for murdering people in 'Hakeldama'. He was not driven by care or a desire to protect. When he wielded that gun on the families of those with whom he is now sharing a cell, he was calculated, aware and lacked remorse of any kind for the blood he shed, never once imagining that somehow he'd end up imprisoned beside their kin.
Indeed, this is a man whose heart and mind has turned well and truly from survival, and completely towards domination. For my part, no amount of flashing back to who he was before on the Ark could make me forget what he's done on the ground, enough to care what happens to him now. When Indra makes her move to kill him, I'm wasn't piqued. I wasn't full of pity. I doubt anybody was. He's a messier, meaner, more emotional embodiment of the basest elements of ALIE 1's humanity. A monster, of the worst kind: self aware, unrepentant, and greedy.
Which is why I think that whole scene with him and Indra - as she begins the ritual: death by three hundred cuts, courtesy of an iron spike pulled from the wall of the shared cell - is hugely important. There are two massive things being weighed up here. Firstly, the concept of justice. No-one can argue that Pike deserves what's coming to him, and we wouldn't begrudge Indra her revenge if she took it now. And yet. The other side of the scale. Hate, arrogance and fear have made Pike what he is, and Indra arguably stands now on that same cliff because of him. She is the step before the point of no return; her actions here, no matter how justified they are, will leave a deep and violent scar in her that will never heal. The kind of scar that I think Lexa understood well enough to do what she needed to do to avoid it, doing so by agreeing with Clarke when she declared blood would no longer have blood. Indra stands on the brink of a spiral that must be stopped if they are to have any hope of surviving, and I loved here that of all characters, the writers chose Murphy to be the person that talks her back off that ledge. Even if it's only for now.
GREATER LOVE HATH NO MAN
If the idea that the world of The 100 could one day be a reality seems a bit over the top to you, I'd suggest you turn on the news and ask yourself this. Is what we're experiencing now, the kind of world you imagined when you were a kid, that you'd inherit today? Did you not imagine we'd be better? Smarter? Further along? The truth examined by shows like The 100 in that sense, is pretty profound. In the various and nuanced journeys of these characters, we're made to consider - each and every week - the idea that it doesn't matter how separated generations are by technology or time or distance or language or culture: in the end, a human being is a human being, with choices to make. Regardless of where we've been, what we look like, what we believe, what our station is, or where we come from, blood is still blood. Life is still life. And no matter what we face, it will still all always comes back to the same two questions each of us must answer in the actions we take and those we don't, every moment of every day.
Who am I? And who do I want to be?
To me, those questions always seem to be at the heart of Kane's actions in this new world, even when he can see clearly that making the right choice in such situations have the real potential to cause him a significant amount of pain. But what he has now that he's never had before (at least that we know of) is a particular relationship - with Abby, whom he has clearly fallen in love with - that will become a pressure point, where suddenly it's bigger than a simple right or wrong. Bigger than him.
And honestly, it was a moment that made me hate ALIE and the concept of ALIE more than ever before. I hated that she took something as good and beautiful and human as the connection Abby and Kane have now, and used it to manipulate him into making a horrific choice to save her life. This is already such a cruel world. Finding the good in it is hard enough, and I hate that it's those good things that ALIE uses above all else to bend humans to her whim. She did it to Abby when she made Raven slash her wrists. And now she's doing it to Kane, by using Abby's love for him.
It's hard to know in some ways what was worse. It was horrific watching him not give in, and letting himself be nailed to the cross rather than give up Clarke, knowing that if Abby were in control of herself she'd be doing the same thing. Knowing that even at the cost of steel spikes being driven through his flesh, he is committed to being Clarke's parent when her own mother - the woman he loves - can't be. All with a smug, self-righteous Jaha looking up at him. It's hideous watching ALIE dangle Abby in front of his eyes like a puppet with invisible strings, in those few minutes in the Polis tower before Kane realises what's been done to her. Finding out that ALIE is willing even to put a gun to her head if it makes him take the chip. Watching him give in.
In one sense, it seems then like ALIE is the strong one. When in reality, when you think about it, nothing could be further from the truth. That Kane chose to take that punishment - that Abby did the same - is proof that the strength of humanity is extraordinary and its depth unpredictable, especially when it acts out of love and in the spirit of self sacrifice. It's that that makes me think, no matter how dire the odds may seem in this hour, it's not that ALIE won't win. It's that in the face of the unpredictable, a system limited by rules ultimately can't win.
That said, how much blood will be shed along the way - and how many of those characters we love might be lost in the process - remains to be seen.
After this episode - and having seen that it was Murphy who became Pike's class whipping boy that final day before their fall - the pathos in which this character is steeped was made all the more potent. At some point, the angry child became the wizened teacher, telling those before him that is a better, smarter way forward, if only they learned to put aside their differences. Much of that growth could be laid at Emori's feet, it's true. So much of who John is now is driven by the change wrought in him by the experience of loving and being loved by another human being. She is his first experience of what 'for better or worse' looks like. It's why I am desperately hoping we don't lose her after all this is over.
As for Indra, she has grown and changed because of her interaction with characters like Octavia: characters that have taught her that relationship and care can spring up even between two people whose natural inclination is to hate or fear the other for being different. Almost despite herself, Indra has become one of the biggest symbols of hope in this entire story; the idea of all that progress being lost now, because of Pike no less...if she did take this step backward then it would make you feel like Pike had been victorious over her anyway, despite her continued life. It would be as though he'd won, over an enemy he did not deserve to vanquish. You'd pity her, and we already know that if there's one thing Indra despises it's pity.
Whether Indra's journey continues beyond this season is unclear. I think it will...I hope it will. But if she gives in to the hate she feels for Pike, even if she keeps on living, will she ever be able to move past what's happened? Will she ever know the peace borne of letting go, and leaving Pike to the end that waits for him, whatever that may be?
But she's not the only one living out that same journey.
Elsewhere, Octavia is a firestorm of grief, rage and bitterness. She has lost the one person she loved the most in the world; she has cut her heart off from the last family she has in the universe. One one hand, like Indra, you cannot begrudge Octavia a single piece of her grief. The life she has lived has been steeped in tragedy, none of which she is responsible for. The one person she should have been able to trust with her well being and her heart - Bellamy, her own brother - has betrayed her, at the collateral cost of Lincoln's life. She has fought for her life, her whole life. Now she seems to desire only to use her life to fight. She wants to escape. She wants to kill the pain that's killing her. And above all, like Indra, she wants revenge. You can see that it feels to her like it's all she has left. She must have blood, or else what is there to live for anymore?
But also like Indra, nothing could be further from the truth. She is surrounded by people who care for her, as their adopted sister, their comrade, their friend. She is part of a people who somewhere along the way were reforged into a new bond: no longer just allies, but family. They need each other - all of them, together - to survive. And for that to happen, Octavia - a key player, with all her skills, knowledge, strength and capability - is going to have to see those people of higher importance than the bloody justice she desires so much. Like her former mentor, now friend, it's going to take a massive amount of courage, character and strength to do that.
And you get the feeling that whether or not she's successful will hinge particularly on her ability to come back alongside her brother. This particular story line will resonate for all of us on some level I think, but I know for me it's been a massive part of what's made this season as necessary and beautiful to review, as it has been hard. It's hit me in the middle of my own life experience, in a very specific place, and in that sense - hard as it's been to watch - I've taken comfort in the fact that I've felt that I've benefited from so much writing that's shown an understanding of the way the human heart and mind, works. I think that's why I keep coming back, even though I know it's going to be hard to watch at times; it's a rare and beautiful thing, in my experience, to feel understood.
All of which leads me to what was probably my favourite scene of this episode: Bellamy and Clarke on the beach in the dark. Two people who've known utter isolation, and yet with each other - only with each other - find the two things they seem to never be able to find anywhere else: grace and forgiveness.
It's true that I've never been shy about how much I love these two together. I love the way that they are at once each others safe place when everywhere else offers nothing but judgement and anger, but at the same time, that safe place is also a place of honesty. I love that they seem to be the only two characters at the moment who consistently lay the truth on each other, but never with the intent to condemn or wound. There's something so beautiful in that, and to be honest, after the last two seasons I've felt a bit starved of those moments when it comes to this relationship.
On one hand it's understandable: their journeys had to diverge at some point, and neither story lost even an ounce of worth or importance by their not sharing time together. Clarke's destiny was to meet Lexa; to know her and to love her with the kind of great love I think we all hope we know at least once in our lives. A love that continues even now Lexa is gone. Bellamy's journey took him in the opposite direction: towards fear, pain, darkness and manipulation by a man who found his weak point and pressed it until he lost who he was, just long enough to do an inordinate amount of damage. In both cases, both people are aware that there is no option to go back. Nothing - good or bad - can be changed. All they have now is the choice to move forward, and the chance to know forgiveness from the one person who gets what they've been through. And the one who hasn't given up on the good they know is still inside the person standing in front of them.
These two spend so much time and energy trying to look strong as much as be strong, and yet feel safe enough to be both totally vulnerable and honest with each other. There is something so profound in that. But what I think is important here is not to confuse that with something romantic. Such a bond goes deeper: far deeper than something as transient as attraction, or being in love, or even the basic human need to be wanted. Forget the hope or idea romance for a moment. This is deeper than that. What you call such a connection, I don't quite know. But even without a name, it's still what makes me believe that these two are the things that soul mates are made of. There are a lot of people I know who won't agree with that idea, but I ask you, even for a moment, consider the extraordinary thing you witness here. On that beach, in the painful quiet and darkness, hope seems so far away. Clarke and Bellamy stand walled in by the sharp, bitter edges of the horrible things they've had to do. But they also stand together. They do not leave the other behind. They stay exactly where they are, finding rest and strength in the knowledge that they're not alone; knowing that they're precious as a last breath to another person, and that they haven't been completely abandoned despite everything they've done.
Truly. This is what grace looks like. Love that wades into the mud where a friend stands, grabs a hand and regardless of how deep they're in, begins to pull. And keeps pulling, no matter how tiring or painful or frightening it is, or how long it takes. It's why I believe these two are not only worth the effort, or the hope: they're absolutely worth the wait.
After all. Aren't all the great things?
THE LIGHT OF THINGS HOPED FOR
And indeed, when it comes to waiting for greatness, we anticipated no less from the famous Luna, who we finally got to meet in this episode after more than two seasons of hints and waiting. I must say, I was so pumped leading up to meeting this character finally. And - although I know in this episode, our introduction was only brief - I was glad to see another powerful, mysterious woman be added to the mix. It was a reminder of just how committed the writers are to creating a show driven by the fortitude, intelligence and strength of women as human beings: something that was sorely lacking in television for so long.
Despite the fact that she said no to the chip, it was a response that immediately indicated that there is a fascinating story behind this woman - one of incredible strength: the kind that enabled a young woman to defy even the leaders of her own people, and leave a conclave built to decide who would be Commander over the known peoples of the earth. You get the feeling that behind Luna, there is the same deep mystery, wisdom and autonomy that gave Lexa not only the position of a Commander, but also the temperament.
And yet. How different their stories ended up being. How incredible that they would intersect like this, here at the edge of all things.
THE STORY OF US
When 'Join or Die' aired, our world was still enthralled by an election for the highest seat in the West. A race nobody thought a vitriolic madman with a toupee, a fake tan and a tar pit for a heart, could possibly win. And yet. Somehow, here we are. Here I am, writing things I never thought I would write in my lifetime, because somehow a TV show - a clever, dystopian story, airing in a foreign country, watched somewhere in my week between work, study, the gym and a grocery run for milk and detergent...somehow it moved away from fiction, and closer to the truth of my world. My news, my newsfeed, the things affecting my friends, the things that made me afraid or angry or bewildered.
One day I'd sat down at my desk and started a review of an imaginary world on the brink of death; the next it felt like I was writing something closer to a metaphysical eulogy about my own.
I typed this, wanting to only have to express what I thought about a TV show and why. I wrote, only wanting to say how thankful for and proud of the people who made it, and why it matters. I wrote, feeling hollowed out by the desire to write about anything else but what I saw. Anything else but despair, loss, injustice, lies, betrayal, bloodshed and a mass manipulation of the world's mind. The thought alone of reviewing it made me weary. If you're wondering why these have all taken till now to be posted, that's why.
I felt tired, small and useless. I wondered why, in 2017, writing this kind of stuff mattered.
And then I remembered two things. Firstly? How we are not so very different from these characters at all in many ways. Our real world like their imaginary one is a cracked glass, barely standing and full to the brim of its own hopes and failings. Threatening to break. Ready to shatter. Waiting to overflow. But also waiting for us, just as their world waits for them, to step up and play our part in trying to stop that break from happening. Waiting for them, just as our world waits for us, to own the resulting decisions they make, and move on, driven by the hope of a tomorrow worth waking up for.
Secondly I remembered that a storyteller's job, a writer's job, is always to challenge the world to somehow think about that tomorrow in a new way. Hopefully a better, more useful way. Otherwise we're wasting our time and our voice. No. When the fire of belief grows weak, stories like The 100 - the tales and life lessons and dreams and fears and hopes of each generation...they're the sign posts, the flint stones we leave behind for others to find. We leave them in the hope that our embers will help them light their own fires, and do extraordinary things with their heat. We leave them in the hope that one day, our sparks might help light the way forward, far enough for our ancestors to behold wonders we cannot even imagine.
With that in mind, I fist have to commend the writing here, because it took my breath away. Shawna and Julie Benson tipped us so utterly off balance by the flashbacks we got of Pike in his former life on the Ark. It's a curious thing to loathe a character down to the ground, and I did exactly that with Pike. I hated him, I hated what he did, and I hated how he took characters I love down with him. I hated that he was a predatory leader who preyed on the fear of others in order to gain power, and then used that power to slaughter people he didn’t understand. And yet. Even then, the Bensons crafted a script that still wrought emotional conflict about him in me where I thought there would be none. And that takes skill.
The script also played enormously to the strengths of the various actors who had core roles in this episode, which was no small ask given that there were a lot of key players this week. Particular mention needs to go to Henry Ian Cusick, who was utterly brilliant in this episode. He simultaneously broke my heart and gave me hope, and to be honest I don't think it will be the last time. Additional kudos to Mike Beach, who continues to be viscerally compelling in his role as Pike - he's been a magnificent villain so far - and Marie Avgeropoulos, who for me cements herself week in week out as one of the most gifted actors working in TV at the moment. Also, hello and welcome Nadia Hilker as Luna! Cannot wait to see more of this character as the tail end of this season picks up.
Speaking of picking up the pace, it was another stellar turn in the director's chair for Dean White (honestly, every week for him in that chair has been good - I've not been able to fault him once in three seasons of his work on this show). As is par for the course, White is phenomenal at capturing the powerful moments that have gone on to define not just particular episodes but also at times, entire seasons. The image of Kane on the cross will not soon be forgotten, yet nor will that beautifully set moment on the beach between Bellamy and Clarke.
Additional creative kudos here to, to what was by far my favourite music selection of the entire season, composed and selected by the truly wonderful Tree Adams. His anthem - co-written with Lauren Muir, who it's worth noting penned one half of next week's episode - has been on my favourite playlist for the best part of a year now, but this took it to a whole other place. That haunting cover of the Imagine Dragons song 'Radioactive' - played over the flashback to the fall of the Ark pod containing the 100, to earth - was one of the stand out images I will take away from Season Three, and so much of that had to do with that phenomenal and pathos laden score. A+ work, sir. I loved it.
All in all, 'Join or Die' was an episode of many cruel but also master strokes. A kind of eloquent nightmare that teetered somewhere between a place too close for comfort - a skate dancing in phenomenal patterns over the thin ice of reality - and that awful feeling you get in the middle of the night when you wake up in a cold sweat, possessed by the sensation of falling. And uncomfortable as I am, I cannot help but want more.
All stands on a knife edge. A huge number of phenomenally hard choices lie ahead, and they're only going to get harder. Luna must be convinced to make the one choice she swore she would never make. Should her answer remain a no, Clarke will have to decide just how far she's willing to go to save not just the people she cares about, but this time the entire world. And on top of all that, somehow more than one set of enemies will find themselves needing to become allies if either are to make it through the night.
There is no doubt that the sun will rise. The question is - with ALIE's ever vigilant eye presiding over all - will it be a dawn worth waking up to?
FINAL THOUGHTS AND QUESTIONS
I'm sorry this is so, so, so, so late in the game. I hope someone out there is still reading this. If so, hey there. And thank you. I have four more coming in the next few days assuming I sleep less and write more, including my review of the season four premiere.
HOLY CRAP, IT'S REALLY FEBRUARY 2017 ISN'T IT.
There was a really subtle, unexpected connection between past and present in this episode when someone during a flashback (I forget who) tells Kane that now he'll have his additional air. Having that be said in a episode where Kane gets crucified - an execution that often results in death by asphyxiation - was a cruel and blistering moment of pathos.
That whole Pike flashback where he tells the kids - in desperation no less - that they must keep fighting at all costs, no matter the odds, is a bitter irony. It's for that exact reason that he murdered Lincoln.
I loved how this whole episode was like a giant echo chamber - you were constantly trying to work out what the new sounds were and what was a reminder of something we've heard before.
Jaha is still a smug, pretentious douchebag. Honestly I spent most of 2016 dreaming about kicking him in the nuts. #HorriblePersonAlert
Dear lord, but I do love Richard Harmon.
Day 3,000,000 without a shower for everybody, and yet Jackson and Kane's hair game is still totally on point. If that's not what true hope looks like then DAMMIT I DON'T KNOW WHAT IS.
BELLARKE FEELS. BELLARKE FEELS EVERYWHERE.
The above photo of Clarke is my absolute favourite episode still of the entire season. To me it sums up the predicament of the world they're in so beautifully.
Luna looks 500% cooler than I imagined she would be. Perfect casting.
I love that the oil rig clue has been in the credits THIS WHOLE TIME.