The 100 — a CW show about humanity's struggle to survive after a nuclear apocalypse — is known for its high body count. The series' ruthless approach to the dystopian genre is exactly what set it apart from the network's traditionally lighter fare and helped it gain traction among its younger demographic and TV critics alike.
But when The 100 decided to kill off one of its most beloved characters seven episodes into its third season, the uproar was swift, punishing, and furious.
In "Thirteen," which aired March 3, Lexa (Alycia Debnam-Carey) — a feared and respected teenage warrior — died from a stray bullet moments after she and Clarke (Eliza Taylor), The 100's main protagonist, finally gave in to the sexual tension they'd been feeling for seasons and slept together for the first time. It was messy, heartbreaking, and for many fans of the show, infuriating.
The fan response to Lexa's death was so massive, in fact, that it inspired several attempts to deconstruct it in trade publications like Variety and the Hollywood Reporter, as well as my own take here at Vox. Then on March 24 — three weeks after the episode aired — The 100 creator Jason Rothenberg wrote his own letter to the fans, titled "The Life and Death of Lexa," in which he admitted that "knowing everything I know now, Lexa’s death would have played out differently."
Killing Lexa was a far more complicated choice than Rothenberg or the show realized. In fact, to kill Lexa was to kill one of the most powerful gay women on television — and to participate in an unfortunate, long-running trope.
Queer women are all too used to seeing themselves killed off on television. For decades, gay and bisexual characters have met a series of unfortunate ends, usually in service of moving the plot forward, crushing the spirits of the partners they leave behind, or just making a straight person feel bad. In the past month alone, three gay female TV characters in addition to Lexa met messy ends on their respective shows. The Walking Dead's Denise (Merritt Wever) and Jane the Virgin's Rose (Bridget Regan) were both part of recurring storylines that ended with them getting shot. On The Magicians, a lesbian character of color was introduced, only to die just a couple scenes later.
The fact that gay character deaths are so common is crucial to understanding why they provoke such huge responses. Even in cases where a gay woman's death might serve the story, the greater history of gay and bisexual women dying onscreen is so damning that it casts any situation in which a gay woman dies as a loaded — and sadly typical — choice.
What's the history of lesbians dying on TV?
I mean ... how much time do we have?
In all seriousness: When you consider the greater history of lesbian characters onscreen, a disturbing trend emerges. It's known as the "Bury Your Gays" trope, and it's more extensive than you might expect.
If you're thinking, "There aren't even that many lesbian characters on television, so how could that many of them have died?" allow me to provide some helpful links, courtesy of a few websites that serve queer female fans — and have been cataloguing lesbian characters' onscreen deaths for years.
In 2014 AfterEllen released a list of "The 35 Most Horrifying Lesbian/Bi Deaths on TV," and has been pointing out subsequent contenders for that dubious distinction ever since. There's also Autostraddle's more comprehensive list of lesbian deaths, which dates back to 1976 and currently contains 147 deaths.
Queer women on TV die of gunshot wounds, like The 100's Lexa, Buffy the Vampire Slayer's Tara, Northern Exposure's Cicely, The Walking Dead's Alisha, Orphan Black's Delphine, and two different Boardwalk Empire characters, Angela and Louise. They die of cancer, like The L Word's Dana, Private Practice's Susan, or Skins' Naomi. They get murdered by jealous men, like Pretty Little Liars' Maya, Spartacus's Gaia, or House of Cards' Rachel.
Meanwhile, lesbian viewers who long for representation that won't make them sick to their stomachs are sick to death.
Honestly is there smth like a conspiracy which says that lesbians in tv shows need to suffer,die and not end up together? ??? What is this?— Agent Delphora Corft (@ichliebebro) March 4, 2016
"I'm not like other lesbians! I'm ALIVE!" - dialogue from a future hit network tv show I write in which no lesbians die ever— KKU (@KaylaKumari) March 20, 2016
lesbian representation in the media has given me so much hope for the future! an early death— chianne (@pressmorgan) March 4, 2016
Adding insult to fatal injury is the fact that many lesbian character deaths seem to happen for no other reason than to further a show's plot. This might mean a show focuses on how a gay woman's death affects her straight co-stars instead of focusing on the dead woman herself, or it might mean a show uses a gay woman's death to give the partner she left behind an extra boost of motivation. In fact, many lesbian deaths echo Lexa's, wherein a moment of romantic happiness between two women is almost immediately followed by one of them dying a horrible death.
And when there are so many queer women dying on television, it becomes harder and harder to justify their deaths by saying they serve the story, or to deny the existence of the "bury your gays" trope. No matter the intention, when a show kills a gay character, it can often feel like the show views its gay characters as more disposable than its straight ones.
Why was the fan response to The 100's queer death so incredibly strong?
To understand the overwhelmingly negative reaction to Lexa's death on The 100, you have to understand the perfect storm the show created for fans to revolt against.
If you're unfamiliar with The 100 — and it's likely you are, given its relatively low ratings — you might be confused as to how this one death set an entire fandom ablaze with resentment. So let's break it down:
- In season two of The 100, Lexa talking about being in love with women before and Clarke being bisexual were revelations, but those revelations were never treated as Big Events. Not only were their respective sexualities just a normal part of their lives, but The 100 centers on the fallout of a nuclear meltdown; people have bigger things to worry about than fluid sexuality.
- Lexa and Clarke are arguably The 100's two most powerful characters. Lexa was a fierce warrior and commander; Clarke is a determined leader, making excruciating choices in every episode. Together, they made for one of the show's best relationships — and, yes, their casual queerness only added to their appeal.
- As a result, The 100 gained a reputation for being a casually inclusive show, a fact that series creator Rothenberg, his writers, and the stars all proudly touted and encouraged. Rothenberg even tweeted a picture of Debnam-Carey and Taylor eating candy on set during the filming of the season three finale; this not only seemed to indicate that Lexa would live to see the finale, but Rothenberg gleefully pointed out that they chose rainbow candy. (They had big, gay feelings for each other, you see. Rainbows!)
- The CW's audience already skews heavily young and female; since The 100 featured young, queer female teens, it was therefore primed to attract young, queer female teen fans, who latched onto Lexa and Clarke as particularly strong depictions of women they weren't used to seeing most anywhere else.
- Leading up the episode in which Lexa died, Rothenberg and other 100 writers were ramping up expectations online, urging fans to watch live and to be ready for something extraordinary.
- That "something"? Clarke and Lexa finally acknowledged their feelings for each other, taking a break from war to sleep together and indulge in some pillow talk. Then, in the very next scene, a man tried to assassinate Clarke — only to hit passerby Lexa with a bullet to the stomach, killing her.
The combination of The 100 touting Lexa and Clarke's fluid sexualities, fan involvement and expectations, and the way Lexa died set off a firestorm of criticism. Queer fans of the show were furious that Lexa and Clarke's much-anticipated moment of happiness was so quickly shattered. They were furious that The 100 had not only fueled their expectations but also played on their desire for decent representation on television.
They were furious that Lexa became yet another addition to the long list of queer women TV characters who've died premature deaths on television.
The 100's response to its own fan revolt has been fascinating. Until he published his letter to fans, Rothenberg largely talked his way around Lexa's death. Meanwhile, Javi Grillo-Marxuach, who wrote the episode in which Lexa died, was unusually interactive with fans who were upset by the death, on both Twitter and his personal Tumblr. And out of dozens of his replies, the most telling is one in which Grillo-Marxuach responds not just to concerns over his episode of The 100, but to a question about his upcoming reboot of Xena: Warrior Princess.
Q: Do you think the fan's reaction to Lexa's death will a) influence the writers or Jason [Rothenberg]'s decisions for the series as it continues and b) have effect on your writing for future projects like Xena?
A: i am a very different person with a very different world view than my employer on the 100 - and my work on the 100 was to use my skills to bring that vision to life.
Xena will be a very different show made for very different reasons. there is no reason to bring back Xena if it is not there for the purpose of fully exploring a relationship that could only be shown subtextually in first-run syndication in the 1990s. it will also express my view of the world - which is only further informed by what is happening right now - and is not too difficult to know what that is if you do some digging.
Here, Grillo-Marxuach assures fans that he will be making the oft-speculated subtext of Xena's relationship with her comrade Gabrielle — which many fans read as romantic — more explicit. But he also straight up distances himself from Rothenberg, the decision to kill Lexa at all, and the idea that he would ever pull a similar move in his Xena reboot.
Clearly, The 100 fans made an impression on him.
Does the "Bury Your Gays" trope mean that a show should never kill off a gay character?
Well ... it's complicated.
When outrage over Lexa's death began to ripple throughout the internet, the main argument justifying it — which notably began with showrunner Rothenberg himself — was something along the lines of, "The 100 kills people all the time! Her death had nothing to do with the fact that she was gay!" That same point resurfaced just a couple weeks later, when The Walking Dead offed Denise, a lesbian who died in a manner that was apparently saved for a straight, white male in The Walking Dead's original comics.
Taken out of context, Lexa and Denise's deaths seem like natural developments for their shows. The 100 and The Walking Dead are both post-apocalyptic series that make a point of letting their audiences know no character is safe. Lexa's death even managed to connect several disparate story threads in a way that focused The 100's entire third season, which to that point had been a plain mess.
And outside of that, there will always be situations where a character death isn't motivated by story at all, but by behind-the-scenes negotiations — The 100's Debnam-Carey, The Walking Dead's Wever, and Jane the Virgin's Regan were all being written out of their respective shows largely for contractual reasons. (Debnam-Carey is now a series regular on Fear the Walking Dead, the Emmy-winning Wever was unlikely to ever be a regular cast member on The Walking Dead, and Regan's increasingly busy schedule had left her unable to return to Jane the Virgin as regularly as her storyline probably would have required.)
So, yes, it's difficult to mandate that a show keep all of its gay characters safe, especially if that show operates in a world where death is omnipresent. But since the history of lesbian and otherwise queer women on television is riddled with death, the act of killing a gay female character extends beyond the context of any single show. When you do it, you'd better be sure you're not playing into the trope that has already killed so many others — or maybe, just maybe, find a way to say goodbye to a queer woman other than condemning her to die.