Narrative Tension, or: ‘The 100’ Needs to Slow Down

Narrative tension. It’s critical to good storytelling. The right kind of tension, at its peak, will have you on the edge of your seat no matter the medium.

Problems arise, however, when the tension continues to build. And continues to build. And continues to build. Stakes start out high, and climb ever higher. Characters are never given a chance to breathe. The viewer is never given a chance to breathe. That doesn’t just wear on your audience—it wears on your story and its impact.

Season 5 of The 100 was a textbook example of this problem.

This past season of The 100 can best be described as a rubber band pulled to its limit. When a rubber band is stretched to the point of almost snapping, any one thing could make it break. More importantly, it’s pulled so tight that when you strike it there’s no room for it to vibrate significantly.

When the stakes are always sky-high on a TV show, as they were on this season of The 100, the decisions characters make don’t have room to resonate with either the audience or the characters themselves. One of the most prominent examples of this? Bellamy and Clarke’s relationship.

Whether Bellamy and Clarke are ever “canon” in love or not, the show has made one thing very clear: they’re two halves of a whole. During our last glimpse of Bellamy in season 4, it was obvious he was grieving for her and beating himself up over leaving her behind. Despite the six-year time jump and his relationship with Echo, that grief and blame was still present when we saw him again in season 5.

So why, then, did Bellamy get no time to sit with the knowledge that Clarke survived?

He wasn’t allowed to process or really even absorb Madi’s revelation that Clarke was alive; he was immediately thrown into rescuing her from Diyoza. Rather than feeling whatever emotional reaction he experienced, he snapped into leader mode (using his head along with his heart, something that up until then he’d likely considered Clarke’s last wish for him or her last instructions to him), negotiating not only Clarke’s freedom but a deal to open the bunker and free his sister.

We got the two brief hugs when they were reunited, sure; tearfully clutching at one another, Bellamy reassuring Clarke everyone is alive and yes, they’re home. But that was a moment of sheer relief and disbelief. Neither of them had processed anything yet.

And then, almost immediately, Bellamy and Clarke had to jump right back into being Bellamy-and-Clarke, saviors of Earth and all who live on it. And then the bunker’s open and Bellamy’s sister is a violent cannibal queen from her mythical bedtime stories and everything goes to hell in a handbasket.

Give the boy some time to sit with his thoughts. Give the audience some time to sit with this.

Simply put: The 100 and its writers have forgotten about the power of micro-tensions. Conflicts between characters that aren’t predicated on whether one character is going to murder another (or hundreds of others), or whether the bad guy really is going to bomb the only livable land on Earth. You can’t rely on putting characters in constant life-threatening situations to make your audience feel something. Complex emotional reactions from characters are how you provoke the strongest emotional response from viewers, and we got almost none of that from The 100 this season.

Even in the finale, the most resolution we got between Bellamy and Octavia was a fraught look prior to the bridge meeting and a brief conversation before she went into cryo. Don’t get me wrong—it was a good conversation, and set up their relationship dynamic for next season well. But Octavia’s decision to completely change course and sacrifice herself for her brother, Indra, and Gaia, barely had any room to sink in. The weight of “my brother, my responsibility” wasn’t internalized or discussed. She had her blaze-of-glory moment and then it got cut off by the arrival of the rover and the rest of Spacekru et al saving the day, undercutting the weight of Octavia’s intended sacrifice.

Throughout the process of writing this piece, I had to rewatch scenes and read recaps more than once to remember this season’s series of events. Everything bled together that intensely. That’s a problem.

Your audience should know your season’s pivotal moments. Those moments should have time and space to punch your viewer in the gut, or make them yell triumphantly. The end of Season 5’s finale, when Bellamy and Clarke awaken from their 125-year slumber, gave both the characters and the audience time to sit with the weight of Monty and Harper’s decisions. We saw Bellamy and Clarke begin to process the loss of their friends, the presence of their son, and the opportunities their new planet could provide.

We can only hope this signals a new direction for season 6—a return to character-driven story where the action doesn’t rush at the viewer like a freight train, but is allowed to make an impact.

The 100 just finished airing it’s Season 5 on the CW. No date has been set for Season 6.