For a few weeks now season three of The 100 has been on the upswing, gaining momentum by ignoring the muddled motivations and shaky storytelling from early on and forging ahead with a new vision. That new vision involves a complete A.L.I.E. takeover, aided by Jaha and now Ontari, who are gathering everyone they can find and giving them the Key to the City Of Light. Part of the success of the recent episodes is the fact that the City Of Light storyline embodies a lot of what’s great about The 100. It’s mysterious, fun, and constantly engaging with interesting themes of autonomy and morality. Unfortunately, the goodwill the show had been building comes to an end this week with “Join Or Die,” an episode that at times struggles to define its emotional core while also delving into disingenuous, unearned character work.

The red flags are there right from the beginning. As Kane and a shackled Pike finally find their way to Polis, things are looking a little different. This isn’t the Polis Kane saw when Lexa was the Commander. This one, under the reign of Ontari, is brutal and violent. Blood literally runs through the streets and crucified men linger above the sidewalks. “About what I expected,” mutters Pike, and he’s right. This is exactly what he was worried about, and in that confirmation of his worst beliefs is the seed of a problem that spreads its roots throughout all of “Join Or Die.” The moment doesn’t feel like Pike just happening to have his opinions of the Grounders confirmed, but rather the show itself justifying his actions. It feels like The 100 is forcing Pike’s perceived reality into the mix in order to make him more of a sympathetic character, and that’s a huge problem considering everything he’s done throughout this season.

If “Join Or Die” had left it at that one misstep though, things would have been fine. There’s a lot in this episode to love, from Octavia’s urgent need to give Lincoln’s death purpose and meaning, to Kane’s emotional journey alongside “chipped” Jaha and Abby. The 100 isn’t content with leaving it there though. Instead, the show flashes back six months, to two weeks before the 100 were sent to earth. Now don’t get me wrong, exploring life pre-drop is a great idea. There’s still a lot of backstory to be unearthed, but choosing what to unearth is important. In “Join Or Die,” the flashbacks serve a single purpose: they cast Pike in a more sympathetic and even noble light.

Essentially, when Jaha, Abby, and Kane make the decision to send the teenage prisoners to earth, Pike is commissioned to teach an Earth Skills class to them, involving lessons on making fire, hunting, and farming. The catch is that Pike can’t inform them about their impending departure; so, keeping the kids focused is an issue. They all assume they’ll never need these skills. Plus, Murphy is in the class, so there are plenty of distractions. So, with a reluctant class and probable death on the horizon, Pike is forced to be the only one worried about the lives of these kids, culminating in a “graduation” scene of tough love that teaches the kids to survive at all costs.

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Portraying pre-drop Pike as a man of principle and empathy isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it is when it comes during the 13th episode of the season and after the man has committed countless atrocities and straight-up executed one of the show’s most moral and noble characters. The attempt to slightly redeem Pike, or at least give him another shade of personality beyond “murderous villain” ends up coming across as disingenuous, as a way to correct the shoddy storytelling from earlier this season. It just doesn’t work. “Join Or Die” aims to complicate the character of Pike, which in itself is a worthy goal; in fact, presenting complex characters that have justifications for doing good and bad things is The 100‘s bread and butter. But with Pike the potential complication doesn’t hit the mark. Instead, it feels unearned. Pike has been a caricature up until this point, a monster with very little justification for his actions, so the fact that The 100 spends most of “Join Or Die” painting him as sympathetic is off-putting to say the least.

It’s not just Pike though; unearned emotional developments are peppered throughout the episode. As Bellamy, Clarke, Jasper, and Octavia find their way to the spot in Lincoln’s journal and discover a way to signal for passage to Luna, things continue to boil over between Bellamy and Octavia. Again, The 100 seems to be trying to course-correct the decisions it made in earlier episodes. Here, Bellamy is lashing out at Octavia for not accepting his apology and refusing to let him back into her life emotionally. He even goes so far as to tell her that had she trusted him maybe Lincoln wouldn’t have died. He doesn’t outright say the “Lincoln wouldn’t have died” part, but that’s the implication. I get that both of these characters are experiencing intense emotions and are prone to saying things they’ll regret, but the way in which the show is positioning Bellamy as sympathetic, just like Pike, is disingenuous and removed from his character arc this season.

So much of “Join Or Die” is focused on redeeming characters who either shouldn’t be redeemed or can’t be just yet. The 100 put itself in a tough spot by having Bellamy betray his people and side with Pike, but changing course doesn’t fix that. Instead, it’s simply jarring. When Clarke tells Bellamy that Octavia will eventually forgive him, but that he first needs to learn to forgive himself, it’s hard not to roll your eyes because it’s just not that simple, not after everything that’s happened. “Join or Die” wants to present Bellamy and Pike as complex characters who have made mistakes, but it hasn’t earned the right just yet.

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Stray observations

  • The look of devastation on Kane’s face when he realized that Abby took the Key just killed me. Henry Ian Cusick is doing some strong, subtle work this season.
  • Okay, so because I went long on Pike and Bellamy, I missed mentioning the episode’s final moments: Luna turns down the Flame and it’s revealed they’re on an oil rig in the middle of the ocean. Interesting.
  • I’m enjoying Jasper as a kind of second Murphy right now. Funny, strong, and heartbreaking all in one.
  • Good to know that Imagine Dragons is bad in every context. I know it’s a callback to the series premiere, but still.
  • That crucifixion scene was on-point. Just brutal enough without losing the emotional effect.
  • Raise your hand if you wanted Indra to end Pike right then and there in that cell!

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