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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Bad Execution: How Lexa's Death on The 100 Fails on its Own Terms

The 100 is a show on CW, but it’s pretty ok despite that. It’s actually deep as opposed to weirdly pseudo-deep like you get on a show like The Flash, it has some cool things going on narratively, a pretty diverse cast… good stuff, really.


Until recently, when the showrunners managed to piss away a lot of the good will they gained over the last few years in truly spectacular fashion by manipulating their queer fanbase in the name of hyping up a storyline that only sort of works on its own terms. I want to set aside, at least until next week when I’ll be roasting some people on a spit, the question of the wider social media interactions that have led to fans of The 100 and queer fans in general proclaiming that we deserve better. That’s important stuff, but not what I want to talk about this week.

Pictured: a symbolic representation of the iceberg that this particular titanic smashed into at full fucking speed


No, this week I want to come at the issue of The 100 and its missteps from the perspective of story structure. I’m particularly interested in that approach because as recently as nine days ago head writer Jason Rothenberg was still informing a sycophantic pop press that while he may have misjudged the social media dynamics at play here, ultimately he “stands by the story.” What I want to really dig into is how the writers of The 100 could have misjudged their story so badly, and why, despite their hopes that they could transcend a lengthy history of homophobic tropes, the story fails purely on its own terms.


Before we get to any of that, we need to explore just what a “Clexa” is.









The 100 is set a couple centuries in the future, after a devastating nuclear war that’s knocked the Earth back to the stone age. After the catastrophe, 12 space stations in orbit above earth merged together, combining their resources in order to form a new civilization. On this “ark,” named, evocatively, “The Ark,” resources are limited, and any crime is punishable… by death.


Unless you’re under 18. Lucky break, Hot Teens!


You just get locked up! Until you’re old enough to be punished… by death.


Not so lucky for the Hot Teens in lockup at the beginning of the series, though, because the leaders of the Ark have decided (because whoops secretly the air is running out don’t tell anyone!) to send the 100 kids in lock up to Earth to see if the ground is habitable.


It turns out that it is, and moreover some people have, despite periodic horrible mutations, survived on the ground. They are called, evocatively, “The Grounders.”


And they don’t like the Hot Teens much.


Now, over time, the whole rest of the Ark plummets to Earth for Reasons, and these people who fell from the sky, evocatively named “Skaikru” (try saying it out loud…), manage to make a tentative peace agreement with the Grounders. This peace is currently in jeopardy for various further Reasons, but all that isn’t important, what’s important is where this is all leading:


Gay Shit.


Specifically gay shit between Clarke, who was the defacto leader of the 100 when they first arrived, and Lexa, who is the de jure leader of the Grounders by virtue of the fact that she fused the 12 tribes into a coalition through force of sheer badassery. There were some frustrating starts and stops to this relationship and a pivotal military betrayal where Lexa abandoned Clarke’s forces to the mercy of their, at the time, mutual enemy--a bunch of survivors of the American government hidden in a bunker in Mount Weather, evocatively named “The Mountain Men.” (They’re all dead now, they got melted by radiation poisoning, it’s a long story.) Eventually, though, they finally got together, to rejoicing from queer fans, fans who had been given a strong impression that they could trust The 100’s writers.


So what we’ve got here is a dynamic, engrossing narrative, that’s aimed pretty strongly at an underserved population, and the writers seem to be giving that population what they want.


It’s that “seem” that’s the really critical word in the last sentence.


The long and short of it is that the various conflicts of this season have gradually led up to a point where Clarke and Lexa finally have sex...


Then Lexa’s second in command tries to assassinate Clarke, and accidentally shoots Lexa instead.


People were not pleased for a variety of reasons, but at its core the issue is that the show embraced a bunch of very old, very stale tropes with this narrative. These tropes are best summarized as “Bury Your Gays,” a term which I think has become fairly popular in fandom spaces. Basically, queer characters can never quite seem to end up happy; rather, they seem to end up frequently dead, often killed in shitty and demeaning ways. I’m not going to try to rehash the whole history of this trope, but suffice to say that when it comes to queer characters, love is not enough--love conquers all only if you’re straight.


Given the support the show drummed up for its “excellent representation,” this is pretty shitty. I mean, I don’t think it’s particularly controversial to say that--when one of the major writers at Variety calls you out for your bullshit it doesn’t seem like I need to belabor the idea that this is a bad way of doing things.


What we’ve got here then is a perfect storm of exploitative practices in marketing paired with suboptimal writing and tired tropes to ultimately push the plot along in a direction that could only be seen as a betrayal.


Now I do have some issues with even how the popular press has handled this--I think the Variety article is important, for example, but has some issues that need to be examined more closely--but this week, as I noted in the introduction, I want to talk about the way that, in the abstract, the events that lead to Lexa’s death do make a kind of narrative sense… but that they ultimately fall apart anyway.


If you storyboard out these events, I think they fit together coherently.


But it doesn’t end up working in a practical sense.


I’m really interested in why that’s the case and what that can say about the analytical frameworks we use to discuss stuff like this.


I’m interested in part because to me, the death wasn’t shocking. I seem to have been just isolated enough from the fandom, and just knowledgeable enough in analyzing narrative structures, that this death to me seemed loudly telegraphed in the same way that, presumably, the writers intended it to be.


Did it work? Well, not really, not for me at least. I felt frustrated, if anything, that they seemed to have built up the relationship over the course of that episode, in particular, only to kill Lexa off. I wasn’t angry, just disappointed. But I could see, intellectually, what they were going for.


Like, it’s notable to me that the writers were apparently aware of the tropes but believed they could TRANSCEND them. I think it’s worth analyzing how they convinced themselves of that because it was apparently not enough to look at the trope and see its problems. Just saying “don’t use this trope” apparently wasn’t sufficient (though hey, maybe after all this backlash it will be and this article will be redundant!). And maybe my particular reaction, my sense that this was where they were going and it wasn’t surprising when we ended up there, can help us to understand just how exactly it’s possible for writers in this day and age to fool themselves into thinking that their story structure can lift them up on angel wings above a history of exploitative practices.


To understand this, I think we can look at this season, and maybe even the series as a whole, and see how it’s largely about failed leadership. To a large extent I think that’s what they were trying for here. It’s a popular theme right now--certainly Game of Thrones is popular despite itself, probably in part because the source text, A Song of Ice and Fire, explores these ideas quite effectively on the scale of a kind of vast historical tragedy. It may or may not be notable as well that the popularity of quite a few Good or Bad Leader shows comes after the presidencies of Barack Obama and George W Bush. This theme seems to be in the air.


Regardless of the cause, though, we see lots of focus in The 100 on characters as leaders--their successes and failures. It’s central to Clarke as a main character, and to Bellamy Blake her sometime companion, sometime antagonist. It seems to be one of the primary interests of the show, one of the major, if not the major, idea they want to explore.


This season I think they’ve really been exploring with Lexa in particular how attempts to be a better, more peaceful leader have ended in failure for a variety of reasons. The season starts with Lexa in conflict with one of the tribes, a tribe from the frozen north, evocatively named “The Ice Nation.” Due to her decisions with respect to the Ark’s new town, named, if you can believe this, “Arkadia,” and the conflict at the end of last season, the various tribes are starting to get rather restless.


This comes to a head this season because of, first, the outright rebellion of the Ice Nation, which tries to overthrow her leadership, and then because Arkadia gets its own leadership change to a more hawkish military leader, who immediately orders his band of soldiers with automatic weapons to go out and massacre a peacekeeping army sent to protect them from the Ice Nation.


Fairly understandably, the united tribes respond to all this by going “What the fuck, Lexa, we gonna kick some ass?” And Lexa responds with, “The Magic Clarke says no.” This is treated broadly as the morally correct choice, but it’s not a choice that Lexa really does much to explain and justify to her people. Lexa seems to be pulling the House Stark trick--assuming everyone is just gonna go along with your decisions because you’re noble, and honorable, and your decisions make sense TO YOU and are ultimately the best thing in the long term.


Lexa seems to think that if she can just be a strong enough leader, things will work out. But she doesn’t seem to be thinking in the brutally calculating way that she did previously, and to an extent what follows is a result of that.


Now, it’s a little more complicated than that, there’s a whole thing with an evil AI, it’s not that important for this article. But, importantly, Grounder culture was in part built around and shepherded by someone who fell to earth after the atomic cataclysm from one of the orbital station, a 13th station that never joined the other 12. Now, Lexa’s second in command and mentor, Titus, is a priest, effectively, of the religious traditions of the grounders, based around this ancient event. And he’s freaking out already because of Lexa’s decisions, which seem to be driven more by her love for Clarke than any long term strategy. But in the context of all this he finds and captures another character, John Murphy, who’s a real asshole but who provides Titus with a whole lot of information about the historical reality of the 13th station, the evil AI, the incomplete maybe-not-evil AI that’s embedded inside all the successive Commanders, and so on, major lore dump that totally overturns Titus’s worldview yadda yadda.


Titus, really freaking out now, cooks up a plan: He’s going to assassinate Clarke, and then blame smug asshole John Murphy. It’s not a great plan but the dude’s had his whole world overturned and he’s watching Lexa’s alliance fall apart so yeah, not in the best of mental states.


Anyway, he attempts to pull off his supremely shitty plan, ends up shooting Lexa because he’s never shot a gun before, she dies, and the fans all did an acrobatic fucking pirouette off the fucking handle.


When put in those terms, I think we can see how one plot point leads logically to the next. If we’re talking about the strict mechanics of the narrative, everything really does fit together here, on like a purely structural level, and it even works thematically from the standpoint of the overarching ideas about leadership. I think we can start to see how they fooled themselves into thinking this would work: within the bottle world of their writing room, sure, this all seemed very sensible. In the wider context of a history of dead lesbians, though, all of this careful logic kind of falls apart, because it’s overshadowed by the much stronger reaction prompted by that context, and ultimately it simply isn’t executed all that well on its own terms.


What this seems to be doing is setting up the same kind of hyped up shocked response that we’ve seen to stuff like The Walking Dead or Game of Thrones, but with an element more in keeping with A Song of Ice and Fire: the death may be shocking but in retrospect it’s supposed to make sense. Critically, though, in ASOIAF the shocking deaths are telegraphed strongly and upon a re-read become quite apparent: Ned Stark’s death is largely shocking because you read ASOIAF assuming that he is the main character, when really the novels are more like sprawling histories and he’s simply one actor within that history. When you know his death is coming, you can see all the mistakes and misjudgments he makes, far more easily.


One of the things that goes wrong with Lexa’s death on a purely structural level is that there wasn’t enough done to telegraph it. I mean I see where they were going from the perspective of Lexa’s narrative but it would have made significantly MORE sense with time spent on Titus’s character, for example. Or fleshing out the other tribes outside of the basically only two big ones that we ever really see prominently or know much of anything about.


It seems like they want to have this epic overarching narrative but they needed to express more about the way Lexa’s choices were leading to a confrontation of some sort in order to sell that narrative. I spend my time doing this stuff. It’s not surprising that I could get a sense of what they’re going for. But that’s not good enough, it doesn’t cut it if one literary structure dork picks up on things, that’s not a mass audience.


In practice, judging by the fan response, it seems to have come off as a totally arbitrary decision.


On top of that, I think the particular way in which this was constructed actually made that choice seem even more egregious, because by failing to sell the idea that Lexa was losing her grip on power, they took away Lexa’s agency. On top of that, in the absence of a clear narrative causality and immediately following a steamy sex scene, they made it seem like Lexa was being punished for being a lesbian.


I’ve seen people express anger at the fact that she wasn’t even allowed to die defending Clarke. This was, apparently, “not the story they wanted to tell,” which is… ok, fine, but as many fans pointed out, this is a type of story that Buffy the Vampire Slayer already covered, but better. Regardless of what story they wanted to tell, for the vast majority of viewers it simply did NOT come through.


Instead, having Lexa die after sex with Clarke, in the absence of a strong narrative throughline, makes it seem like a kind of cosmic judgment, a kind of moral punishment for her gay transgression.


These decisions made sense, I think, in the abstract. I think it’s possible to backtrace what they were going for, what they were attempting to do with this. But I think it’s just as clear that what they were attempting to achieve here was at war with itself. Like I argued with Supergirl, ultimately they made a bunch of choices that made sense individually but ultimately boxed them into a narrative conveying a message totally alien to the one they presumably wanted to impart. If they wanted to tell this narrative about Lexa’s mistakes as a leader, they needed to differentiate between her political existence and her romantic existence. It ratchets up the drama to have them both going on at once, but it just doesn’t work because facing political consequences and facing consequences of romantic choices become so tightly linked that ultimately it ends up seeming like being gay was, itself, the capital crime the Lexa committed.


Now, apparently Jroth is aware of some of his missteps at this point, even if just a little while ago he was loudly proclaiming that the story was solid even if the social media PR was bad. And interestingly, and tellingly, they are largely the same criticisms I came up with a couple weeks ago when I first wrote the audio draft of this article. I mean, I’m not THRILLED that apparently Jroth and I think quite similarly from a narrative standpoint. But I think it’s quite revealing: it suggests to me that ultimately even being aware of these tropes isn’t enough to overcome the belief that if you just understand narrative structures in and out, if you really see all the pieces coming together, everyone else will too and you can transcend your social and historical context.


Unfortunately, even if this had been pulled off perfectly, even if the writing team hadn’t screwed up any of the structural things that made this narrative fail on its own terms, I think this still would have been driven by arrogance, and if anything I think it would have made things even WORSE. In a way I’m thankful for the narrative problems here, because a well plotted out but still ethically reprehensible storyline would’ve received, potentially, a more muddled response from pop reporters.


I mean, we live in a world where Game of Thrones can continually be praised as daring and bold for doing shit that makes jack fuck sense. Complicating any issue too much seems to lose most pop reporters entirely; best to not confuse them.


There’s a lesson here, though, and it’s that if something is almost certainly dubious ethically and of dubious merits narratively don’t assume that you’re such an amazing master of narrative structure that you can just power through it and turn out a transcendental masterpiece that won’t be subject to critique. Because first of all, what exactly is your motivation here for playing god? Are you really trying to tell the best story you can, or are you just trying to show off your godlike writing chops? And second of all, do you REALLY think you can do it? REALLY?


Because the writers of The 100 thought they could, too.


Ultimately, the writers of the 100 made exactly the same mistake that Lexa was meant to have made:


They assumed that their good intentions would shine through, simply because they had a lofty goal to aspire to. They believed that because their intentions were noble and their plans made sense in their own heads, everyone would be able to perceive the righteousness of their cause without them having to explain or consider the positions of the people who depended on them. They thought that because they had power, and acclaim, and a long term wisdom, they would ultimately fly over the pitfalls that others stumbled into.

They were wrong.

If you want to read the scribbles and scraps that are going to be next week's continuation of this topic, you can read them on my Patreon as a $1 backer. If you want to listen to the audio version of this post as a big double-length podcast, you can as a $3 backer. Yes, this was supposed to be a Homestuck article. Due to the surprise return of weekly Homestuck updates, that plan has changed. If you're a Patreon backer you can currently vote on just what I have to say about Homestuck now TWO weeks from now, and also soon will be able to listen to the podcast versions of the last three articles.


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COMING SOON: NEIGHQUIEM FOR A DREAM! A COLLECTION OF ESSAYS ON MY LITTLE PONY

2 comments:

  1. I've only watched some of The 100 (couldn't get into it after the first few episdes .'. decided against continued reading) but this analysis was interesting and the explanation solid enough that I think I grasped the plot points you were explaining. That it was peppered with expletives I think only shows just how much this decision as affected watchers, because whatever the writers intended... it didn't work. At all. They hecked up.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Wasn't it also to show that Lexa had the IA implanted in her? That's a pretty large plot point. I was disappointed with her death, but I could understand it, it made sense, sad as it was.

    ReplyDelete

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