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“Red Sun Rising” begins with a smart storytelling choice. We become witness to the first swarm, or at least the first one to annihilate human life in the way only partially understood by Emori’s infection in the premiere. A young girl named Josephine is on Planet Alpha as part of the crew sent to create a sanctuary for humankind, and things are idyllic. She’s flirting with a sexy geneticist, and cataloguing species for her father. Everything is looking great, until the swarm hits. That’s when the episode immediately turns violent and shocking. Infected by the mysterious airborne illness, Josephine’s father kills her and everyone else in camp, in brutal fashion too, while screaming “Sanctum is mine!” It’s not only a jarring start to the episode, and one that’s more than welcome, it’s also a great way to get us thinking about what could happen to Emori, Clarke, Murphy, or any of the others on Alpha right now.

That’s the start to what amounts to a pretty thrilling episode, one that doesn’t rectify all of the problems with the premiere, but does shift the focus enough to make for something more compelling. There’s essentially two plots here: the inhabitants of Alpha storming the mothership and working against Raven and the newly-awoken Diyoza, and the ground crew trying to survive and hash out their personal problems in the face of an unknown disease. What works here is that there’s a lot of action, the pace never really letting up even in the more conversational moments, but nothing feels particularly rushed. Each plot is given room to breathe, so that we can see Clarke and Murphy arguing morality and survival in a way that feels more meaningful than last week, all before the threat in their immediate path hits them with full force.

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The stuff contained within the house on the ground occasionally runs into problems of repetition, much like last week’s constant evocation of “we just had to survive” in order to excuse any wrongdoing. Some of the banter between Murphy and Clarke feels stale, and there’s plenty of times where the characters act like, as I stated in my premiere review, “dumb horror movie characters.”

The plus side though is that “Red Sun Rising” completely leans into its horror movie elements. There’s shades of Bug here, as Miller and Jackson start to hallucinate, and things turn gory quickly. I appreciate that the episode doesn’t shy away from the nastiness of the situation, instead reveling in the terror of being on an unknown planet and facing an unknown threat. “We have no idea how to survive down here,” says Clarke, and while I’m not convinced these character will ever be cured of their hubris, it’s an effective bit of reckoning in the moment. Clarke and the rest all feel like true strangers here, outmatched not by another crew of people for once, but by their environment. That feels different and exciting, even if it only lasts for this one episode.

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The infection ends up being a storytelling tool that injects life into the episode. It allows everyone to get creative, both in front of and behind the camera. We get off-putting, jagged camera angles when Echo and Emori hallucinate, and on a grander scale the show gets to play around with these characters not being themselves. They’re freed from the constraints of character motivation and instead can act in an isolated nature. It’s not a bottle episode by definition, but it feels like one because it changes the pace of the season and forces the characters into this brutal situation that confines them to specific physical and emotional space.

It’s a nifty way to play with the otherwise tired tensions between Murphy and Clarke, or any other pairing you care to mention. By moving away from their core issues just a bit, the show finds renewed fervor in the interactions, as Murphy goes rogue, and everyone starts losing their minds. Because of that cold open we know how this goes, and it’s dreadful to watch as the ground crew fights against the inevitable. That kind of suspense has been absent from The 100 for a bit. If it takes a total tonal shift to get some of it back, so be it.

The flip side of the coin is the simmering anger on the mothership. While the action on the ground represents a nice change of pace, everything on the mothership feels like it’s stuck in last season. That makes some sense, as these people have just woken up after 125 years frozen in space, but the familiarity of the interactions feels even more pronounced when you have Clarke, Bellamy, and the others going full 28 Days Later in the same episode.

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The two tones just don’t work as a cohesive whole. There are moments on the mothership that work, like everything involving Raven and Diyoza hunting down the people from the ground, but the rest feels like a retread of last season, which at some point needs to be left behind. The actions of last season should influence how these characters act in this moment, but there’s no need to keep rehashing the same arguments over and over again.

With that said, this is still a fun, terrifying, violent hour of The 100, and it’s a necessary jolt after a rather sluggish premiere. There’s no telling how the rest of the season will play out, or if “Red Sun Rising” will end up being a one-off that we think back on fondly, but for now it’s an early season episode that makes me want to see more of what Planet Alpha, in all its dangerous glory, has to offer.


Stray observations

  • The 100 is really getting back to the somewhat-steamy sex scenes, huh? Haven’t had much of that since the first few episodes of the first season, when the show was leaning into the vibe of The CW real hard.
  • Joint hallucinations. That’s a fun development.
  • Welcome back, Madi. Thanks for saving some lives.
  • Speaking of saving lives, I think Murphy has saved more than any, and yet he’s always perceived as the villainous one of the group. There’s a heart of gold in there.
  • So, no real follow through with Raven losing Shaw, huh? We’re just moving past that with a quick bit of emotion? Interesting.
  • The terrifying children at the end of the episode definitely add to the horror film vibe. Sanctum/Alpha has become a lot more interesting, and “Red Sun Rising” deserves credit for that.

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