Why the Controversial Death on ‘The 100’ Matters

'The 100': Lexa Dead After Sex With Clarke; Why Her Death Matters
Courtesy CW

Don’t read on unless you’ve seen “13,” the March 3 episode of “The 100,” which showrunner Jason Rothenberg discussed with Variety. MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD

I’m still processing the events of this week’s tumultuous episode of “The 100,” as appears to be the case with many fellow viewers. I’ve thought about little else since the episode aired, and I’m sure I’ll be pondering it for some time to come. Please don’t regard what follows as a fixed, absolute reaction. My feelings about “13” are likely to evolve as I think about it more, and much of this post will consist of me working through my thoughts and feelings as I go, so bear with me.

There’s one thing I’m sure of: I loved all the Polaris stuff. Everything to do with Becca and the doomed space station and the technology that continues to have an effect on certain residents of Earth worked like gangbusters. That’s not the story line that everyone was reacting to last night, I know, but I wanted to get that out of the way before discussing anything else. Erica Cerra did a fine job of communicating Becca’s devastation, determination and frustration, and all my nerd tendencies were activated by the clues, hints and developments, which were laid out in a clear, energetic fashion. 

Did Becca’s experiments with that black liquid lead directly to the existence of Nightbloods? How is the AI in the Commander’s neck linked to the happy pills that Jaha’s minions are taking? How deep do the links between Polaris tech and Grounder culture go? What will the new Commander be like and how many past Commander memories will she or he have? There are a lot of intriguing questions to chew on. 

The show has always openly acknowledged its debts to “Battlestar Galactica,” and there were a lot of nicely handled “BSG” references in “13,” but there was also some “2001” and “Space: 1999” bits and pieces thrown in for good measure. As a major sci-fi nerd, I really enjoyed how “13” riffed on some classic outer-space ideas but customized them for the desperate world of “The 100.” I tend to love anything set on space stations (I’m a massive fan of “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine”), so “13” was a real treat in that regard.

I laid out my bigger problems with the current season in two recent posts, which covered Episodes 1 through 4. All that criticism comes in the context of having been a fan since Season 1 (sidebar: It was mighty irritating to read a recent story about the show in a major publication that asserted that “critics” only discovered the show last fall and everyone who covers TV blew it off when it premiered. Arghhh.)

In any event, I continued to have problems with the show in episodes 5 and 6, and I don’t want to get too deeply into them here or this essay will get too bogged down. Suffice to say, many of those who weren’t taking Jaha’s happy pills appeared to be secretly taking stupid pills, and the contrived conflicts and belabored elements in recent installments frequently irritated me. By the end of 306, the only people I wasn’t annoyed with on some level were Jasper and Abby, and the Pike/Bellamy storyline continued to be about as enjoyable as a root canal.

So the flashbacks to Polaris and John Murphy’s adventures in Titus’ torture cave were bracing changes from all of that, and everything that went down in “13” supplied a lot of fodder for future developments that may work really well to kickstart the second half of the season. I found much of “13” enjoyable on a number of character and story levels, and overall, it stopped me from mentally drifting away from “The 100,” which I had been doing in recent weeks.

Before I begin talking about Lexa, I want to say that if you were hurt or deeply dismayed by her death — or if you had another reaction of another flavor — I respect your position. It should go without saying that I don’t think sending death threats or other kinds of ugly messages to TV writers is ever a good thing, and the fraction of viewers who were doing that Thursday night — well, their actions were deeply dismaying. In the main, however, what I saw Thursday night were varying levels of pain and appreciation, sometimes mixed with feelings of betrayal, all of which was expressed in passionate but civil ways.

Like many of you, I have complicated feelings about some aspects of the episode. Many viewers who communicated with me appear to be having complex and difficult reactions as well, and the ones who tweeted to me did so in respectful ways. But it was clear from reading #The100 that some fans were angry. While I don’t share that particular emotion, I respect it.

I’m going to dig into the whole Lexa situation, but before I do, let me just say this: One of my main critiques of the season as a whole could be summed up with the word “compression.”

Bellamy’s girlfriend was on screen for all of a minute before she died. Pike’s arrival and installation was too fast. Bellamy’s conversion to Pike’s faction was too speedy and underdeveloped. We might theoretically understand why Monty would side with his mom, but even that character got short shrift (Monty and Jasper getting less screen time than Pike this season really gets my teeth grinding, and I always want more Raven).

All in all, the writing this season has regularly skipped over key moments, left important developments off-screen and missed opportunities to develop character motivations and elaborate on important themes. Speed seems to be the be-all and end-all in Season 3, for reasons I don’t quite understand, and that imperative has led to the cutting of corners, some hollow bombast and a number of messy, unsatisfying developments.

As much as I appreciate the performances and the production design and many other elements, I’ve been mystified as to why, from time to time, “The 100” has appeared to view more deliberate storytelling as something to be avoided this season. It’s what helped set the show apart in the first place. It’s not enough to say that there’s some kind of theoretical story logic to what characters do. When “The 100” works, pacing is rarely a problem and situations and decisions are undergirded by emotional logic, not just intellectual justifications.

So Lexa’s death following right on the heels of her sleeping with Clarke — that was another case of the show compressing a timeline to an unfortunate degree. That does stray dangerously close to the pop-culture trope of lesbians on TV frequently dying, especially if they’ve had some kind of personal epiphany or moment of happiness. For some viewers, Lexa’s death at that moment did indeed cross the line and became another instance of that trope playing itself out, and for many, it hurt all the more because the show had held itself out as a beacon of positive LGBTQ representation.

Whether or not you agree with any of the above, “The 100” has been playing fast and loose with various story elements this season — but this one has special resonance. And this is what happens when a show drives off the road again and again and doesn’t properly use the brakes: At some point, in the eyes of some viewers, it drives right into a ditch.

I expected Lexa to die this season, especially given that Alycia Debnam-Carey is a series regular on a hit show on another network. I expected her and Clarke to sleep together at some point, and to me it made sense that they would do so when they were both feeling quite vulnerable because they might never see each other again. Their love scenes and the deathbed scene were, considered on their own, spectacular. Debnam-Carey and Eliza Taylor did such a magnificent job of performing Clarke and Lexa’s goodbyes and imbuing them with such profound love that it was hard for me to process anything else in that moment. My tears made that difficult.

I had expected Lexa to die at the head of her army or in some other sacrificial circumstance, so for her to die at the hands of Titus was a surprise (and she was surprisingly chill about her chief of staff accidentally murdering her; she really didn’t chastise him about that, which was more forgiving than I’d be in those circumstances). The fact that Murphy was standing around as all this played out was just so Murphy-esque — Murphy’s Law on “The 100” dictates that he is always in the wrong place at the wrong time, hanging around awkwardly or getting a beatdown. Oh, Murphy. 

But back to Clarke and Lexa. Two people in a vulnerable, stressful situation gave in to their longstanding attraction and had sex. Soon after, political machinations led to the death of one of them. Both knew their relationship was never going to work on a long-term basis, which gave their brief time together extra sweetness and pathos. Would it have hurt less if Lexa had died three episodes from now, or if they had begun sleeping together four episodes ago? I don’t know. But it was always going to hurt, given these characters and the actors bringing them to life.

Given the presence of ALIE on “The 100,” perhaps its appropriate that I’ve spent the last 16 hours war-gaming various scenarios in my head, all to do with Heda. Because while I understand the regret over the compression of the Lexa story line, I’m not sure if a different story progression would have made it any less painful. Let’s look at various scenarios briefly.

  • No Lexa in Season 3. Pro: Fans wouldn’t have gotten their hopes up about a Clarke-Lexa relationship and maybe that would have been the kindest scenario. No Heda in Polis or anywhere else would have meant no Clexa pain. Con: Debnam-Carey has always been an incredibly important part of the show, and not being able to draw on Lexa’s history and leadership, and not having her on the throne in Polis would have forced the season in different directions. It’s hard not to conclude that those other plots could well have been less fruitful. Much of the Polis storyline has been quite good (though I am not sure I believe that Lexa would have agreed to zero response to Pike’s Grounder slaughter).
  • Lexa is in Season 3, but she and Clarke never become intimate. Pro: Perhaps less heartbreak when Lexa dies. Con: The chemistry between the actors is so potent and the relationship had been generally written so well that it would have been deeply frustrating had they never hooked up. This is not a show that revolves around relationships, but this connection felt as though it was written in the stars. Also, it would have been odd and sketchy for them not to act like normal, sexual adults.
  • Lexa is in Season 3, but she and Clarke are intimate for some time before Lexa dies. Pro: We get to see more of their happiness and even a touch of domesticity as their relationship develops. Even their pillow talk in “13” was a treat, and part of the painful rupture of Lexa’s death arises from the fact that we won’t get to see more of that. Con: I’ll be honest, I don’t know that I would have bought them sleeping together before the events of “13.” From the beginning, Lexa has been very guarded about her emotions, especially where Clarke is concerned. The more she loved Clarke, the more she was afraid that would lead her away from her primary goal, which is keeping her people alive. I don’t know that I would buy that she’d have sex with Clarke except in an extreme circumstance, i.e., she thought she might not ever get the chance to do so again.
  • Lexa and Clarke have sex in “13,” but then Lexa dies later. Pro: This is a reasonable and defensible desire, and this is where the compression of the season causes problems. Having Lexa die in a battle or court struggle down the road would have made sense to me, and I can see several scenarios in which that might have worked in ways that would have been additive to character journeys, to the show’s themes and to the emotional richness of the world. This option would have been worth considering, in my view (though it would have taken some scheduling magic, given Debnam-Carey’s limited availability). Con: It’s even harder if she dies down the road, because the more aware we are of the growing depth of their bond, the harder it is to watch Clarke lose Lexa. It was hard enough in “13.”

I don’t know what I would have done, but I do know it’s not my show and those are choices that showrunner and executive producer Jason Rothenberg gets to make, not me. And having run scenarios all day and night, I’m not sure I completely disagree with how things went down in “13,” though there are enough slivers of doubt in various corners of my mind to help me understand why others might feel differently.

At the end of the day, I’m a sucker for great performances, and the writing and acting in Lexa’s death scene were so tremendous that it blots out a lot of other factors for me. If it doesn’t for you, I get it.

“I get it” is a thing that Dean says a lot on “Supernatural,” and let me tell you a little story about that show before I go (“Supernatural” spoilers in the next two paragraphs, and you should jump back in after that, whether or not you watch the show).

I watched “Supernatural” for 10 years before finally giving up, and I didn’t give up immediately after the show killed off Charlie (Felicia Day’s character). But it never sat right with me, never, in part because it was one of the worst-written episodes in the history of the show (and this is a show that once featured a demonically possessed truck). A great character — who is also a lesbian — got a stupid death in a crappy, astoundingly tin-eared episode for no reason. Truly, there was no defensible reason, and it really bothered me in a number of ways. But I finished out the season, even though the show had done other really dumb stuff in the past (do not start me on the pointless death of Rufus).

Various patterns had finally gotten to me, I realized the summer after Season 10 ended. Charlie’s death wasn’t just dumb, sloppily handled and pointless, it fit part of a pattern within the show of women dying in questionable ways so that men can feel (transitory) pain.

I just haven’t been able to bring myself to watch the show this season, because it’s let me down too many times and in too many ways when it should have known better. There was no excuse for the show going down that road the way it did; it was simply lazy, bad writing. “Supernatural” had just shown me, one too many times, that it didn’t care about things that matter to me. That’s OK — it doesn’t have to care! I also don’t have to watch.

There were only so many examples of sexism, large and small, that I could be expected to take, and I found after Season 10 ended that I had reached my limit. I was done, for the foreseeable future. I’m not ruling out the possibility of going back to the show again — I might! I hear the show has tried to correct and change some elements that bothered me. But after a decade of trying to digest, ignore and forgive slights, dumb patterns and problems, I just couldn’t justify the use of that mental energy for that purpose anymore.

I’m not there with “The 100.” I will continue to watch, because I still think the show has a lot of good elements and at the moment, boasts quite a bit of potential. I still think the first two seasons were generally terrific and after a strong start to Season 3 followed by a lot of inconsistency and variability, I hope it’s possible for this scrappy drama to get back to that state of fairly consistent excellence again.

But I will certainly never sit in judgment of anyone who feels that a development on a show fits into part of a larger pattern that is painful to not just them but a group they are part of. The Clarke-Lexa story line was one that engaged many gay, lesbian and bisexual viewers on a number of deep levels. For people to say last night or today, “Just get over it, they had to kill her off, the actress had another job” — please don’t rush to minimize others’ objections (as long as those objections are stated in ways that do not wish violence on other human beings, of course).

The point is, these angry and disappointed reactions are rooted in reality. The way a character leaves a show is important. If you choose not to see the larger context of how gay and lesbian characters are treated on TV — just be aware that your lack of awareness is a choice. Not all of us have the luxury of being able to ignore or wave away a larger context. This is one of those cases in which it’s helpful to listen to others extensively and not start in immediately with recommendations on how they should think and feel. That rarely helps in general, and it certainly won’t help viewers of this show now. 

I liked “13,” and in fact, I thought certain parts of it worked very well. But as I said, the tendency to compress and elide continues to be a problem this season, and that undoubtedly affected Clarke-Lexa. But the last thing I’d ever want to do is tell anyone else how to feel about this situation. If you’re angry, if you’re hurt, I understand.

I know what it’s like to look for representation in popular culture, find it and then have an example of that representation ripped away for reasons that just don’t sit right. I know what it’s like to see that happen again and again. “Supernatural” was far from the only show to make lazy, oblivious mistakes in its treatment of women, people of color and LGBTQ characters. It happens a lot, but repeated exposure doesn’t make the disappointments less irritating and painful.

So if some fans feel that “The 100” played into the “dead lesbian” trope, well, I’m not going to tell you to think differently. This episode did not cross that line for me; it walked right up to it. But I would never dream of telling other people where to draw their lines.