The 100 let down a great character and a vulnerable queer audience

Season three of The 100 has aired seven episodes of a 16-episode season so far, and has spent much of those episodes rebuilding the relationship between Clarke and Lexa. And until now, it’s done a beautiful job exploring how Clarke could overcome her animosity towards Lexa and heal from their major rift in season two. It presented Clarke and Lexa as true equals, the only two people who truly understand each other and the burdens of leadership they carry despite being so young and who share a rare vision for a peaceful future.

The pair circled each other for several episodes, spiraling inevitably together and finally consummating their relationship in the seventh episode of the season — especially touching given that they were about to be separated by the needs of their respective peoples and were unsure when they would see each other again.

Then, minutes later, one of Lexa’s advisors attempted to assassinate Clarke with a handgun — and accidentally hit Lexa instead as she came to investigate what was happening. That’s right, immediately after two queer female characters reunite and become physically intimate, one of them is shot by a stray bullet.

Where have I heard this before? This exact scene played out in season 6 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer in 2002, 14 years ago. It’s been 14 years and we’re still killing off lesbian characters, specifically when they’re at their happiest, and in thoughtless, needless ways to maximize the impact of their death on the audience. The slow, careful buildup towards Clarke and Lexa’s reunion — a buildup that had very few equals on television — was purposefully erased in an instant. Just to twist the knife, immediately after Lexa dies, her dead body is shown being cut open in order to retrieve an item hidden inside the back of her neck. Another dead lesbian, with the added wound of seeing her body mutilated while her lover looks on with tears in her eyes.

It’s all compounded by the comments from various show writers and showrunner Jason Rothenberg that demonstrate they are aware of the lack of representation for queer women on television. Some of them even seem to understand just how much queer women want happy stories for themselves, stories that don’t end with one or more queer women brutalized and killed. Then again, based on the repeated tweets and interview bites that winked at fans that this episode would be a huge gamechanger, perhaps they actually didn’t understand that it would end up being so hurtful as to make the hype seem like a mean trick.

Rothenberg did an interview with AfterEllen in which he said, “It doesn’t matter that she’s straight or gay or bi. It just matters who she loves, to her. And is she a good character or a bad character, is she weak or is she strong? That’s a little simplistic because I realize that we live in the real world, and in the real world people are fighting for equal rights, and it’s really important. And I’m part of that fight, just by helping to portray gay and lesbian and bisexual characters like that, and I’m proud of that for sure.”

Writer Kim Shumway posted a response on her tumblr addressing fears from queer female fans that Lexa would die. “I hear you. I understand. It sucks that you can’t enjoy a storyline because the history of popular media dictates that it will end in tragedy. I wish that were different. Maybe someday it will be. That’s little comfort, I know. All I can offer is my understanding and sympathy. And hope for a better future.”

The writer of the episode in which Lexa dies, Javier Grillo-Marxuach (you might have heard he’s in charge of the new Xena reboot), took to twitter after the episode aired and retweeted numerous complaints that directly called out the dead lesbian trope and explained just how traumatizing it is for queer women to see storylines about queer women constantly ending in tragedy.

Who knows if they actually took any of this onboard. Best case scenario, Rothenberg wasn’t really aware of what this character would mean to queer audiences. Worst case scenario, he knew and killed her anyway. What we’re actually left with is another dead lesbian, and it’s disingenuous to claim that you’re “part of that fight” when your portrayal of a lesbian falls squarely within a stereotype that has actively contributed to the anxiety, depression, and isolation of queer women for decades.

What throws a slight wrench in the works is that Lexa’s actress, Alycia Debnam-Carey, was limited in her availability due to being a main cast member on AMC’s Fear the Walking Dead. Rothenberg negotiated with FTWD for Debnam-Carey to film as many episodes of The 100 as possible. He also didn’t know if she would be available again for season 4, should The 100 get renewed, which realistically would mean they would have to tie up her plotline in season 3 just in case. So they decided to kill her off.

However, as Rothenberg himself pointed out, stories don’t exist in a vaccuum. The reality of the world we live in is that queer people are struggling not just for acceptance, but often for their very lives, for the right to exist and find happiness just like anyone else. And another reality is that for decades now, queer women have seen themselves portrayed on television as expendable, dying over and over and over again. Television is one of the mediums our culture uses to express itself, and for people who may have very little hope in their lives, they look to that storytelling to see a reflection of themselves in a different or better world. The reflection they’ve gotten has been one of constant, often violent, rejection.

Add to that that there just aren’t that many queer women on television, and almost certainly none like Lexa. She was young, queer, and powerful, and her queerness was not sexualized or used for the male gaze. She was never depowered to make a man look stronger and her plot never revolved around a man. Her personal romantic desires informed her actions, but didn’t totally dictate them. It’s not exactly easy to find the combination of all of those elements on television or in movies or books.

Lexa’s intricate slow-burning relationship with Clarke was something that queer viewers — many of them young and seeing a queer relationship of this magnitude for the first time — latched onto as hope that maybe they had finally found the well-written, well-developed representation they were looking for. Maybe Clarke and Lexa, who were set up as two people destined to come together, would be one of a very small handful of engaging queer stories that didn’t end in tragedy. The more the writers discussed in interviews themes of love, hope, and forgiveness around Clarke and Lexa, the more it seemed a female/female couple would actually be the most prominent pairing on a show, and that it would receive the attention, care, and promotion that popular heterosexual couples regularly receive.

So much for that.

It’s exhausting, latching on to every queer character who comes along because we as a community are so eager for representation, so desiring to see ourselves reflected in the stories of mainstream culture, and then to get let down almost every time. Just look at Kim Shumway’s tumblr entry — it’s gotten so bad that we expect queer women to die. The happier Lexa appeared throughout the season and the more hope there was for her relationship with Clarke, the more anxious fans got. Isn’t that messed up? Fans of queer characters and storylines have been trained to react to happiness with fear. When a lesbian on TV is happy, something awful must be close behind.

The “Bury Your Gays” page at TV Tropes has a non-exhaustive list of examples that demonstrate just how often this happens. AfterEllen also helpfully compiled a list of 35 of the worst bisexual and lesbian deaths, which is by no means comprehensive. Maybe just one TV show you could ask someone to get over — but when your story ends in separation, in suffering, in death over and over and over, that is traumatizing. It tells queer audiences that their stories are not worth telling unless they are tragic; that they do not deserve happy endings.

Is it fair to place this in the Dead Lesbian tropes column when the actress’ availability was limited? It most certainly is fair. The plot is not a beast that directs itself; it’s based on decisions made by the showrunner. Needing to tie up a character’s plot does not automatically mean they must die, and in a show that has expanded its purview as much as The 100, the possibilities for keeping Lexa alive were there. Exploring the world that Lexa lives in, building up Clarke and Lexa’s relationship, yanking it away in a brutal moment — those were all decisions. Focusing on Lexa and letting her finally experience a moment of personal happiness only to kill her a few scenes later was a deliberate choice.

Rothenberg says as much in post-episode interviews. “Had I always planned on killing Lexa? No,” he told TV Guide.

Then there’s this quote from The Wrap: “I had to tell a story that had an end point. That didn’t necessarily mean it had to end in the death of that character, she could have walked off into the wild blue yonder, she could have … who knows what she could have done.”

Because he wanted to tie together certain plot threads, he chose to integrate Lexa in a way that had to end in her death. He had an explicit choice to let this unique queer character live, and he chose to kill her off.

If Rothenberg wanted Lexa to die, he also could have chosen a different manner of death. But instead episode writer Grillo-Marxuach came up with something that not only used Lexa’s happiness to contrast to the utter devastation of her death, but also made it random and senseless. Lexa did not die in service of her people or her vision for the future. It was a terrible accident, another way to make the fall from the giddy heights of seeing her finally find a measure of peace hurt even more.

On tumblr, Grillo-Marxuach characterized his script as “a story about someone who makes a stand for peace and dies at the hands of a patriarchal character who cannot expand his own vision of a terrible world,” but as a commenter almost immediately pointed out, lesbians suffering at the hands of the patriarchy or its representatives is hardly a new idea.

There were plenty of other facets of this world to explore. Much of the show’s main cast remain in Arkadia, where the show is developing another storyline about the dangers of fearmongering, colonialism, and xenophobia. In fact, the episode was already shifting its attention back to the Arkadia plotlines before Lexa was shot — that was the impetus behind Clarke’s decision to leave Lexa. There were ways to shift attention to other characters or plotlines for numerous episodes, but Rothenberg deliberately chose to kill off Lexa despite having the option not to. And so, (SPOILER ALERT) Lexa may technically have a few more appearances left after The 100 airs its eighth episode then goes on a two-week hiatus, but that’s it for her. Unless Rothenberg is playing a truly long game and intends to find a way to resurrect Lexa, she’s dead, and we’re stuck with another reminder that our representation is still something to be mined for tragedy.

And if the long game is the plan, what a cruel thing to do to a community that is already starved for happy endings. The 100 is sometimes by its nature a cruel show, since it explores so many themes of death and survival, and other characters have been killed off before. But there are many, many straight characters remaining on the show. Without Lexa, there is Clarke — the series lead, to be sure, but now once again emotionally traumatized and in mourning — and there is Nathan Miller, a tertiary character. If one of the heterosexual romances among main cast members falls apart, there are others still developing. No queer female romances remain.

After the episode aired, Rothenberg told IGN, “I totally relate [to LGBT fans having emotional reactions]. I hate the idea that anybody would be devastated to the point of not wanting to watch where the story went going forward, not only for my own ratings, but for the fact that I feel like the story, going forward doesn’t forget her and she doesn’t go away as a character, necessarily, in terms of… I’m not saying whether we’re seeing her again but she lives on inside the flame and she lives on in Clarke’s heart.”

I think plenty of queer fans would much rather see a living queer character than a dead one. Just because the show memorializes the character doesn’t mean it’s done right by her, or their fans. Remembering a character exists is poor compensation for actually getting to see that character grow and develop and interact with others and get to have real human experiences. “It’s just a world where bad things happen,” said Rothenberg in the IGN interview. Except in television, bad things happen disproportionately to queer female characters, of which there aren’t many in the first place.

Lexa was a character of hope. Throughout season three, fans were shown over and over again her noble desire for a lasting peace so her people could be safe and prosperous. She was someone who had endured countless personal tragedies (among them the torture and murder of her former lover — yes, another dead lesbian, but at least we weren’t asked to get attached to her) and even more losses to her as a leader, but was still attempting to build a better world. Lexa’s character arc started with her personal conviction that “love is weakness” and then changed as she learned to open her heart again to Clarke, who believes that love is strength. What a betrayal of her character arc and the fans’ investment in her to have her killed in a senseless accident just as she was able to connect with the person she loved.

For myself, I probably won’t continue on with The 100. Even though Clarke Griffin remains an extraordinary character in her own right — she too is young, queer, and powerful — watching this show and knowing what it chose to make of one of the few great lesbian characters to exist is simply too painful to think about. It’s not just that Lexa is yet another dead lesbian — it’s also that there really isn’t another character like her on TV, which makes it doubly cutting to lose her and the joy I felt in connecting to her story. This show had a choice, and it chose to deliberately build the idea that a female/female romance would be explored as a main relationship on the show, only to cheaply destroy it in a few minutes. That’s not something I feel like watching.