As the second season of The 100 slows down its narrative, specifically the central storyline revolving around the mystery that is Mount Weather, it necessarily relies more and more on the chemistry of its cast and the depth of its characters. The questions about Mount Weather are certainly intriguing, and it looks like we’re headed toward a major showdown later this season; but what’s even better about this show is that the mystery doesn’t need to drive the narrative. As tonight’s episode, “Many Happy Returns,” proves, The 100 can create compelling drama when focused strictly on character interactions. This was an episode that didn’t raise a ton of questions or introduce a bunch of new narrative threads, instead letting everything, from relationships to themes, simmer. “Many Happy Returns” is a nice change of pace, reminding us that the show isn’t all about moving from one cliffhanger to the next.

Still, sometimes simmering looks a lot more like a storyline spinning its wheels. If there’s an underwhelming storyline in this episode, it’s the continued adventures of Clarke and Anya. The two are great characters, but this episode fails to give us any further insight into their relationship or their internal struggles. Part of that is narrative necessity; Anya and Clarke have to get back to the camp, and that takes times. The trouble is that the journey to the Ark, then on to Camp Jaha, feels like a retread of last week’s jailbreak, with every scene boiling down to an argument between Anya and Clarke about how best to move forward and fight the Mountain Men. The constant bickering does lead to a tense, beautifully shot fight scene though. There’s a real physicality to the fist fight, something that many shows struggle to portray on television. The trick here is that the fight is given room to breathe; the camera continually pulls back from the closeups and gives us a shot of the two characters standing apart, panting, or gearing up for another attack, as the light pokes through the trees. The beauty of this scene is contrasted by the episode’s end, when Anya is shot (and presumably killed) in the dark, covered in mud, while Clarke stares on helplessly. The cliffhanger in terms of storytelling is great, but as an audience, we should feel something more than just disappointment that we might be losing one of the show’s best characters.

Bellamy, Finn, and Murphy share a similar style storyline, one that also spins its wheels while providing a few moments that enhance our understanding of this world. The group stumbles upon some Ark wreckage and a woman trapped on the side of a cliff. Like Inigo Montoya before them, they fashion a rope to lower someone down to get her. That someone is Charlie (I think that’s what they called him), and it doesn’t end well for him. The rope breaks and he falls to his death. This rescuse scene doesn’t work as dramatic tension because Charlie is a minor character that we have no real investment in, but it does work to define what this show, and its world, is about. People can die here, at any moment, and that heightens the stakes for the rest of the season.

Even though Charlie dies, and the group is attacked by Groudners, everyone manages to pull the girl to safety…thanks to Octavia, who blows the horn that warns of toxic fog to get rid of the Grounders. Introducing Octavia back into the group is refreshing, and immediately her character feels the benefits. It’s as if she’s empowered and determined all over again, and motivated by something other than a vague lust for Lincoln. Here, she cares about her friends and family and will do everything she can to help them. It’s character motivation we can get behind, enhanced by an actual backstory from season one.

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Speaking of characters getting their mojo back, Raven gets a brief win this week as she designs a balloon that will elevate the radio beacon enough to send out a signal. It’s a brief win because militaristic guard lady shoots it down and lambasts her for essentially giving away their position to the Grounders. It’s a deflating (sorry) end to the storyline, but the earned emotional moment is there. Raven has always confused stubbornness for bravery, but here she learns to trust and rely on others.

The episode’s finest moments are contained within Jaha’s storyline, as we check in with him after his crash from two weeks ago. The opening scene boasts some gorgeous cinematography, the harsh desert and washed-out color palette contrasted nicely against Jaha’s red parachute. It signals to us that he’s alone, removed from his people and marked because of it. Eventually, Jaha finds out that he’s in what’s called the Dead Zone, and a family has reluctantly taken him in after a maimed young boy named Zoran (played with touching sincerity by–and this handle is ridiculously awesome–Finn Wolfhard) makes a connection with him. Isaiah Washington turns in a wonderful performance in this episode, his eyes conveying years of grief, tough decisions, and fatherly triumphs as he interacts with Zoran. We know from his actions that Jaha is a man of principle, the moral center of The 100; Washington conveys those characteristics through body language, and it adds significant depth to his character. When he’s later bartered away by the family, given up in exchange for a horse that will get them to the City of Light, Washington’s face runs through every emotion; betrayal, fear, empathy, and understanding.

“Many Happy Returns” isn’t the most exciting episode of The 100, but it does a good job of checking in on storylines absent from last week while continuing to challenge and strengthen the central character relationships that drive the narrative forward. “Many Happy Returns” gives us a better understanding of the Earth that the people from the Ark are dealing with, and a better understanding of the various people that populate the planet.

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Stray observations:

  • Clarke tells Anya she can remove the tracking device from her arm with something sharp. Anya bites it out. Anya is (was) awesome.
  • Easy way to get the audience to care about a character: beat them up just to build them back up again. Seeing Raven walk, then stumble upon the helium idea, was rewarding after the hell we’ve watched her go through lately.
  • “We fell from space in a football stadium” should be the show’s new tagline.
  • I’m jonesing for the big blowoff that will be the shootout between Clarke and her merry band of space bandits versus the Mountain Men. The 100 is taking its time revealing how truly evil Mount Weather is, and I’m totally roped in.

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