The 100 is a remarkable piece of reactionary TV propaganda. Within it, one sees an on-going apology for violence, of American imperialism wrestling with its conscience and always returning to find justification for its heinous acts under the banner of necessity.
“I’m so, so very sorry, but I just had no choice, I did what I had to do to protect my own”
While this reactionary justification for violence is common to most violent regimes, The 100’s version of it specifically American for a number of reasons I will examine in in this post. The narrative premise of The 100 begins with the story of a few thousand survivors of a global nuclear apocalypse living in a cobbled together space station. The nuclear conflagration event has supposedly made the earth uninhabitable for 100 years, and story begins just a few years shy of this date. The space station is not able to support the survivors for much longer. For almost 100 years the survivors have lived under a disciplinarian regime – in the name of necessity – where the only punishment, for even minor offences, is ‘getting spaced’.
The space station has a number of imprisoned juveniles (100 of them, to be precise), who thanks to their minor age are spared the capital punishment that would otherwise await them. The space station leadership decides to use them as human lab rats by sending them down to earth, thus delaying the immediate problem of too many mouths to feed, and also exploring the survival of Earth. Once on the ground, the youths discover two things. Firstly, the surface of the earth is survivable. Second, they are not the sole survivors. The other surviving humans have reverted to a hunter-gatherer state, with various warring tribes. They come to be known as ‘grounders’. With thoughtless ease, the photogenic youths enter into conflict with the grounders. Although hugely outnumbered, their superior weaponry and technical knowledge allows the space youths to just manage to survive.
One key narrative element that makes this dystopian SF specifically American is its conflicted relationship to history. The notion of a clean break with the decadence of the past, here portrayed by the global nuclear event, is a key part of the premise. The ‘clean’ future that awaits is one in which youth, full of vigorous good intentions, is bound by tribal loyalty to protect their own against the Other. They have no choice but to make decisions which result in the deaths of dozens of grounders. Moderate characters on both sides attempt to find alternatives to violent conflict, but the writers continuously place even these moderates in situations where it is necessary to kill a few hostiles for the good of the many.
In true puritanical vein, violence is purifying and the erasure of history necessary for the western frontiersman fantasy to continue. The global nuclear event purified and liberated the 100 from history, and the violent acts they commit are necessary to expunge the evil in the Other. This conception of evil is also distinctly a feature of the protestant American subconscious: evil as something real and external, which is not only possible to expunge, but morally necessary. This insight is not new and has long been noted as a key feature of American culture, but it is interesting to see this notion of evil justifying war and violence continue so prominently in contemporary SF given the important place that SF has in speculating about possible futures.
While the characters in The 100 are torn by guilt and remorse, yet continue to be forced by necessity into further violent actions, Bruce Willis represents the remorseless avatar for American violence in film. Nowhere is this this better characterized and problematized than in Looper (2015). The Bruce Willis character does what we all expect him to do – kill bad scores of bad guys – but in Looper the violence is never redemptive. His character’s narrative, taken on its own, could easily have been the story for a typical Bruce Willis action film: tough, violent guy redeemed by the heteronormative love of a beautiful woman, who ekes out revenge on the bad guys who take him from her. As with all action films, the bad guys never have children, lovers or parents who are affected by their deaths. At the forefront are the heroic actions of redemptive violence of the protagonist, all the rest is mere backdrop to the hero’s quest. The hero and his woman, of course, who is also nothing more than the nurturing female support to the master signifier of the narrative.
Looper problematizes this by making us aware of the consequences of violence, regardless of who is performing these actions. Actions have consequences, we are affected by history. There can be no clean break with history, and there is no such thing as clean violence. Every drone strike creates more ‘extremists’, every violent action has devastating consequences on the survivors. There is no walking off into the sunset, Looper reminds us.
You want me to shoot some bad guys?
Bruce Willis does just as we expect him to, for the love of his woman, his property, he kills a bunch of bad guys and then goes into the past to continue the cleaning operation. But in Looper, the bad guys are never portrayed as simple gun fodder. They are themselves the traumatised victims of violence, and the violence they mete out creates more lost, traumatised kids, who in turn commit more violent actions. The redemptive violence is shown in Looper as either the cause of future problems, or it is portrayed as completely ridiculous. The ridiculousness of justice, Bruce Willis style, is clearly shown in the scenes where he escapes capture and imminent execution by killing the entire gang and its leader. There is no moment of glory, no granting of satisfaction to the audience that the nemesis has been vanquished, no gloating over the corpse of the boss, what remains is the protagonist and his personal trauma, still unresolved through the inflicting of yet more violence on others.