Saturday, March 5, 2016

About That Thing That Just Happened on The 100

SPOILERS below for the most recent episode of The 100.

There's a saying that I've heard from time to time: "Writing is not performance art." What it means is that writing is something that one does privately, and over a great deal of time--that writing mistakes are not the end of the world, because they can always be corrected before publication.

But television writing, in many ways, is performance art. Television writers are hemmed in by what they've written before, and they are at the mercy of totally unforeseeable real-world events. They may start a plotline early in a season, and only discover after seven episodes have been filmed that viewers hate it. They may have to quickly wrap up a planned four-season arc when their show gets canceled in season two. They may invest a great deal of characterization and worldbuilding into a character, only for the actor to get another show.

Fans of The 100 are reeling, at the moment, from the death of Lexa. Some people feel particularly betrayed, because Lexa was a lesbian (presumably--people tend not to mention sexualities on The 100) and her death therefore follows an unfortunate pattern, in television, of lesbians being killed off. The pattern is more complex than that, honestly, and is deeply tied into the way lesbians were most frequently represented in mainstream television until very recently, and into the fact that until quite recently, lesbians were represented very rarely in mainstream television. The past few years have been very good, for representation, but it was not so long ago that the mere fact of having a recurring gay character was a huge risk for a TV show to take. The 100 is, after all, the first network drama ever to have a central non-straight lead.

So these feelings of betrayal are understandable. But Lexa's death is not a shock. Astute viewers have known that Lexa would die this season more-or-less since it was announced she would be in this season. Not because Lexa is a lesbian, but because Lexa's actress is a series regular on another, better-rated, higher-paying show. The moment Alycia Debnam-Carey was cast on Fear the Walking Dead, the writers of The 100 were faced with a hard choice: How do they deal with the fact that Lexa can't be around much longer?

They could have simply not brought her back for season three. But doing so would mean abandoning any hope of expanding the world of The 100; you cannot tell a political story in this world without including Lexa. A third season without Lexa would have meant a third season spent entirely in Arkadia. And The 100 has quite simply exhausted the stories that it can tell in that setting.

They could have killed her off-screen, in between seasons, and written season three with another character as commander. I call that option the "worst of both worlds" choice.

Finally, I suppose, they could have found a way to remove Lexa as commander--and from Clarke's life--without killing her. This would likely have necessitated some major rewrites of the season's plot, but it wouldn't have been the momentum-killer that not bringing her back at all would have been. It would have allowed Polis and the Twelve Clans and the AI to remain as worldbuilding and story engines, it would have allowed Lexa and Clarke a reunion, and it would have allowed Lexa to escape with her life.

The problem is, I can't think of any way to actually do that. Or, well, I can think of ways--it's fiction, there's literally always a way--but they're all really stupid. They all require breaking the worldbuilding or the characterization in some way. I want to stress that: Every idea I can think of to remove Lexa from the story without killing her utterly defies her characterization. Lexa considers her duty to her people to be her utmost responsibility. She is a forward-thinking, ever-burdened leader who is attempting to secure not just a better present, but a better future for her people--and she's doing so while knowing it will likely cost her her life. We've known this about Lexa since season two: She takes her responsibilities seriously, and she puts her people first. Any writing decision that removes Lexa from her position as commander while she lives necessarily contradicts that central aspect of her character.

So, faced with a lot of imperfect options, the writers chose to give Lexa half a season of character development; a love story; a moment of great joy; a death that fundamentally shifts the future of the show; and five final, dying minutes, in which she was surrounded by the two people who loved her most in the world. In a world of great violence and small mercy, Lexa was given the kindest death imaginable.

I love Lexa. She and Clarke mean a lot to me. I believe that Lexa could've brought more to The 100 alive than she did with her death.

But the writers love Lexa. They couldn't have made it more clear that she and Clarke mean a lot to them. It's obvious that they would have loved to have Lexa alive and on their show for years to come. Nobody on the The 100 thinks or thought that Lexa was more valuable dead than alive. I'm not sure of much in this world. But one thing I am sure of is that if there had been any way to bring Debnam-Carey on full time, she would have been a series regular. But that wasn't an option.

The 100 is not a perfect show. It doesn't have a perfect narrative--whatever that is--or perfect representation--whatever that is, either. I'm happy to complain about the rapid villainification of Bellamy, or the unfortunate fridging of Gina. (I think it's inaccurate and weirdly misses the point to say that Gina was killed for Bellamy's "manpain"--she was killed to make him evil, not to make him sad--but it's hard to deny that Gina was a classic fridging. The best thing that can be said about that particular narrative choice is that Gina wasn't even really a character, so they didn't, at least, kill off someone with their own interesting narrative in order to further Bellamy's. But that really only speaks to the way the entire Bellamy storyline this season has been an exercise in really aggravating narrative shortcuts. They could've avoided the fridging aspect of Gina's story entirely by making Gina a male character with whom Bellamy had a very close nonromantic relationship--but a romantic relationship is much easier to establish with very little screentime, because viewers can fill in the background for themselves.) Okay, that was a long aside. The point is, The 100: Not perfect.

And Lexa's death was not perfect. It was rushed in its set-up; I understand why Lexa died in private, rather than in battle--the writers wanted time to both give her and Clarke a long goodbye, and to establish the AI twist--but there were probably ways to pull that off that didn't come quite so out of nowhere. And the details of Lexa's death--killed by a stray bullet in an assassination attempt on someone else--unfortunately recall the death of Tara on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which is still a sore subject for many 15 years on. (It's not a particular problem for me, but it understandably raises hackles.) And the timing of Lexa's death--immediately after she and Clarke finally consummate their relationship--further recalls a really unfortunate tendency in lesbian television deaths. In a season as rushed as this one has been, Clarke and Lexa's relationship is perhaps the only story that has unfolded gradually and naturally--it's hard for me to fault the writers for that, since I think it ultimately showed a great deal of respect for both characters, but it did lead rather inevitably to this unfortunate juxtaposition.

But the fact of Lexa's death, I can't bring myself to be angry about. Because as heartbroken as I am to see Lexa go, I far prefer this option to any of the others that were on the table.

Representation is vital. But it's not enough to just have representation; we need good representation. That's why the lesbian death trope is so painful and tiring. It's not enough to have lesbians on TV; we need to have lesbians who live on TV. But we also need lesbians on TV whose characters are so important that their absence throws the show into a tailspin. We need lesbians on TV who are written consistently, right to the very end. Sometimes, all of those needs push up against each other, and leave us with nothing but bad choices.

In the best of all possible worlds, Lexa would be alive and raising hell on The 100 for years to come. But we don't live in the best of all possible worlds. And in the world we have, I'd rather see Lexa go out as herself, and leave a lasting mark, than fade into a character I don't recognize.

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