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Why the best episode of The 100's third season has also thrown its fandom into chaos

The CW drama's latest death makes sense — but so does the furious reaction to it.

Lexa (Alicia Debnam-Carey) and Clarke (Eliza Taylor) have circled each other since the beginning.
Lexa (Alicia Debnam-Carey) and Clarke (Eliza Taylor) have circled each other since the beginning.
The CW

Every Sunday, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episode of the week for February 29 through March 5 is "Thirteen," the seventh episode of the third season of The CW's The 100. (And yes, there will be spoilers.)

As its first two seasons exploded shocking revelation after bloody atrocity after jaw-dropping decision, The CW's post-apocalyptic drama The 100 gained a reputation for its ruthlessness.

It threw 100 delinquent teens out of a dying space station back down to Earth — now a nuclear wasteland — where they fended for themselves against the elements and the "Grounders," those who managed to survive the nuclear apocalypse three generations ago and who weren't too thrilled about anyone trying to take their land.

"Sexy teens run the nuclear apocalypse" sounds like a joke logline, but The 100 made it viscerally real. Even now in its third season, it pushes its characters to the edge, then sends them free-falling right over. People die — often by the dozen — thanks to excruciating decisions made in the heat of battle.

The 100 has no mercy. But with "Thirteen," the show made a decision that sent shockwaves through its audience — and may have alienated part of it for good. After teasing an attraction between space station expat Clarke (Eliza Taylor) and Grounder Commander Lexa (Alycia Debnam-Carey), "Thirteen" finally let them have sex and a happy moment — only to immediately kill Lexa with a stray bullet meant for Clarke.

The uproar over the death of Lexa was — and remains — messy. On the one hand, her death was gut wrenching, and it unexpectedly brought together several disparate story strands in The 100's floundering third season. On the other, Lexa was an openly queer woman leading 12 armies, a rare sight for LGBTQ representation on television. Less rare, unfortunately, is the trope of television and movies killing gay women off for shock value.

There is plenty to discuss with "Thirteen" — whether that means the actual episode itself or the ensuing conversations amongst fans and The 100 writers alike — but here are the major takeaways.

"Thirteen" is the best episode of The 100's third season, and none of the others even come close

The third season of The 100 has been, to put it mildly, a disappointment. The first two seasons seemed to propel themselves forward thanks to forceful, momentous stories, careening towards destruction in a way that still managed to feel tightly controlled. But season three has stumbled in several seemingly disparate directions.

It introduced new characters and expected us to sympathize with them like we did the characters we've known all along — even when these new characters decided to slaughter villages for the sake of slaughtering them. Even characters that are reliably awesome — like Clarke — didn't seem to sound or act anything like themselves.

But "Thirteen" (with a script from Lost veteran Javier Grillo-Marxuach) finally brought the confusing ride of season three all together in a way that made some kind of sense.

The episode took a break from the increasingly convoluted drama of the internal politics among the space station survivors to crystallize storylines that have been wandering aimlessly. A plot about artificial intelligence finally crystallized, with a flashback to the moment said AI went rogue and destroyed the world in the aforementioned nuclear apocalypse — complete with a surprising link to the Grounders' own backstory.

"Thirteen," in other words, is focused in a way that the rest of the third season has not been. Grillo-Marxuach had a huge task in trying to right The 100's rapidly tipping ship. And not only did he do so, but he reignited the show's drive in a way that's actually made me excited for the rest of the season.

But "Thirteen" faltered when it tried to juggle that refocusing with Lexa's death.

The way "Thirteen" killed off Lexa was confusing, at best.

To understand why Lexa's death set off alarm bells in its audience, there are a few things to know:

  • Outside of its unapologetic brutality, The 100 has also made a name for itself as a show that prizes being inclusive and diverse. When Clarke was revealed to be bisexual, it wasn't treated as a big deal on the show — nuclear survivors have more things to worry about than policing sexuality — but offscreen, it was a huge moment for The 100's fan base.
  • Lexa was an incredibly powerful leader, and a casually queer woman. These two things rarely go together onscreen, so her character became very important to a community of viewers that is generally starved for non-token representation.
  • One of the most toxic tropes for gay women on television and film is that they die. They die of cancer, gunshots, suicide — you name it, a lesbian character has died of it. They die so often that "Dead Lesbian Syndrome" has become the saddest of jokes for the queer community. (For more, see the Tumblr "Another Dead Lesbian.")
  • The sequence of events leading to Lexa's death went as such, without interruptions from the episode's other storylines: Clarke and Lexa had sex for the first time, then enjoyed some loving pillow talk. The second Clarke left the room, she was attacked by Lexa's second-in-command — and as soon as Lexa came out to see what was going on, a stray bullet caught her in the gut.

In short: Sex, love, death.

Needless to say, the optics of seeing two women happy in bed together one second and then crying and/or dying the next are not great. Seeing some version of that sequence play out over and over again can send the message to frustrated, angry fans that two women who find happiness together should immediately distrust it, lest something catastrophic happen.

Those optics were also, unfortunately, familiar. Many have pointed to Tara's death in the sixth season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer as eerily analogous. She died because of a stray bullet meant for someone else, right after she had a long-awaited happy reunion with her partner, Willow. (They had broken up earlier in the season.) In both instances, some argue, the timing and structure of the deaths made it seem like Lexa and Tara died because of their love for Clarke and Willow, women with powerful enemies.

With all this in mind, the massive sorrow and anger over Lexa's death might make more sense, even if The 100 has been incredibly liberal about killing off characters before.

While showrunner Jason Rothenberg opted not to get involved with fans on Twitter and Tumblr, Grillo-Marxuach spent all night responding to accusations of playing into a toxic trope, and retweeted furious, hurt, confused reactions.

Threats of doxxing The 100 writers — meaning releasing their personal information online — flew around the internet. Writers production assistant Layne Morgan fielded hundreds of Tumblr messages, many expressing horror with how the show turned yet another gay love story into a tragedy. Some fans even expressed suicidal thoughts, which Morgan swiftly responded to with a heartfelt plea to keep their faith alive.

The writers' main defenses of Lexa's death are that people die on the show all the time, and that Debnam-Carey had to be written off somehow, since she has a starring role on AMC's Fear the Walking Dead.

These are logical counterpoints. But no matter how well Lexa's death scenes were done — and they were written and performed beautifully — the rush to get Lexa and Clarke together, only to immediately kill Lexa off, was jarring.

Clarke and Lexa having sex was a long time coming, but when it finally happened, it barely registered. And the death itself was a jumbled mess. Even if the intent was to show that random, unfair deaths happen, the structure of the episode didn't give this massive development the room it needed to make the impact it could have.

But the tricky thing about this is that, in the grand scheme of The 100, killing the Grounder commander might finally give this season the focus and drive it's been sorely lacking.

The negative fan reaction to Lexa's death makes sense — but so does Lexa's death

Lexa's death will motivate Clarke even harder to negotiate peace between her space station people and the Grounders she's come to know. It's seamlessly brought a seemingly disparate AI plot into the main fabric of the show. It just may spur an irreversible fracture amongst the Grounders' 12 clans, to possibly devastating effect. In short, it gives the season a center it desperately needs.

But, as vocal critics of the decision have pointed out, this still makes Lexa yet another example of a queer woman dying to further the plot.

I don't believe that The 100 killed Lexa off because she's a queer woman. Even aside from Debnam-Carey's other obligations, the show's track record points to a pattern of killing people to motivate those left behind, and it doesn't care if fans like it.

And as Grounder commander, Lexa has always been a target. She's had so many brushes with death that it's frankly stunning she's made it this far. In the context of The 100, it would be unrealistic to expect that the show would keep her alive to appease fans.

But the deep hurt Lexa's death has caused in some of the show's audience makes perfect sense in the grander context of gay, bisexual, and otherwise queer women dying onscreen. As AfterEllen said when introducing "The 35 Most Horrifying Lesbian/Bi Character Deaths on Television":

These deaths, whether they are violent murders or inconceivable cancer diagnoses, continue to pain us years after we’ve had to endure them on TV. ... Sometimes it feels like we’re getting thrown a bone and being appeased until the powers that be are no longer interested in entertaining our very specific fanbase.

It will be fascinating to see how the show responds to its own decision in the coming weeks, and whether or not it will be the catalyst for significant growth that I think it is. But if The 100 is smart — and it usually is — Lexa's death will be the defining moment of the season.

The 100 airs at 9 pm on Thursdays on The CW. Previous episodes are available on Hulu.

Corrected to reflect that the bullet that killed Buffy's Tara wasn't originally meant for her partner, Willow.