Character Study: Clarke Griffin from TV’s The 100 (& the curse of the Mary Sue made better)

Clarke Griffin

It’s a rare thing for me to start liking a character after I’ve already committed to hating them.

Then again, it’s even rarer for me to start liking a TV show after I’ve initially decided that I don’t.

And yet both of these things are exactly what happened with the hit TV show The 100.

At the expense of sounding like a hipster, not only did I like The 100 before it grew so popular, it’s since become MY SHOW in which its idealized lead female character has become my favourite.

I’m talking, of course, about Clarke Griffin.

I’ve written bits and pieces about The 100 before, mainly how I initially scoffed at its far-fetched premise.

Set in the future following the nuclear annihilation of most of humanity, what few people remain live on a series of interconnected space stations called the Ark orbiting Earth, which isn’t predicted to be habitable again for another 75 years.

Unfortunately, the space stations are running out of oxygen and other essential resources. To combat this, the decision is made to send 100 juvenile delinquents (whose crimes range from petty theft to rape and murder) down to the planet’s surface to determine if it’s survivable.

Upon arriving (with neither a scientist nor even scientific equipment among them), the 100 discover that not only is Earth livable again, it’s not uninhabited.

Rather, several groups of people survived the nuclear holocaust and have gone on the build very different – and in some cases very dangerous – societies that the 100 and the rest of their people will need to deal with in one way or another in order to stay alive.

Clarke and her mother, Abby

Clarke and her mother, Abby

Clarke is one of the original 100 juvies sent to the ground.  Her crime was for treason for possessing the knowledge that got her father executed for the same offence (it was her father who first discovered the Ark’s life support system was failing and exposed the truth to the people behind the back of the Chancellor, who meant to keep it secret).

Clarke is also the daughter and apprentice of Abby Griffin, the Ark’s Chief Medical Officer, who also has a seat on the Ark’s ruling council.

This exposure to authority, responsibility, and the ethics of the practice of medicine her whole life is likely the reason that Clarke possesses such a strong bent for following the rules and doing the right thing.

So Sue me

Once on the ground, Clarke assumes leadership of the faction within the 100 dedicated to doing what they were told: salvaging supplies from an old military facility, setting up shelter, and not removing their biometric bracelets that will allow the adults to monitor their vital signs and the effects of the regenerating Earth thereupon.

Her main opponent in this pursuit leads the faction more interested in punishing the adults for sending them down, namely by removing and burn their bracelets in order to make the Ark think the planet is still deadly.

They also brew and drink moonshine, having lots of sex, settle old scores among each other, and otherwise do, in the words of their ringleader, “whatever the hell we want”.

In the early part of season one, Clarke is an irritating do-gooder.  She excels at everything, is fearlessly brave, always knows what do, and holds herself and everyone else to a high moral standard.

Her nickname, almost deservedly so, is Princess.  She is blonde and blue-eyed, dimpled and beautiful.  She has at least two boys in love with her – one of whom, naturally, is her best friend that she never realized had feelings for her.

Total Mary Sue.

But then something interesting started to happen with her character.

As the season progressed, and even more so in season 2 and the current season, her Mary Sue-ness became a source of conflict in the show rather than the constant solution to it.

Her first downfall so perfectly mirrored that of her father, it was almost poetic.  The 100 had finally started coming together in their battle against the tribal, warlike “Grounders”, who they believed had killed a key character.
Clarke insisted upon revealing the truth about this character’s death to everyone despite warnings that she shouldn’t, because she believed people deserved to know the truth.

This resulted in an angry mob, a disliked but ultimately innocent person being accused of the murder and nearly hanged, the rupture of the group’s fragile cohesion, and the true killer – a tormented young girl – committing suicide.

Clarke and the 100

Twice, Clarke’s belief in redemption caused her to advocate for the banishment of criminals where others support execution. Both times, this led to the exiles coming back, causing even greater harm in their thirst for vengeance, and in one case, for the person ending up dead anyway (by her own hand).

In season 2, she entered into an alliance with a Grounder leader she believed to be honourable.  This more or less was true, but it still led to her people being betrayed at a key moment against a common enemy.

This resulted in Clarke having to neutralize the enemy herself, with killed a massive number of innocent bystanders in the process.

And in the current season, Clarke strongly opposed the Grounders’ “eye for an eye” warrior code of retaliation, and at a key moment dissuaded them from acting in that way.

I don’t want to give away spoilers, but this had huge, cascading repercussions for both the Grounders and her own people that will likely continue to play out for the rest of the current season.

The perfect solution

Clarke, ultimately, is a character in conflict with herself.  When she does her Mary Sue right and moral reasoning, people end up hurt, killed, and entire societies and ways of life come to harm.

Clarke Griffin - Wanheda

Clarke Griffin, aka “Wanheda”

Meanwhile, when she follows the influence of other, more cunning leaders and makes the tough choices – determining that the ends do indeed justify the means – she’s hailed a hero to both her own people and others.

So much so that she’s given a reverential title – she comes to be known as Wanheda, “the commander of death” – and is raised to even greater leadership role – more so even than most of the adults from the Ark.

And at the same time hates herself for what she’s done and wonders if she can ever truly be forgiven.  She still usually ends up hurting the people she cares for most, even as she’s doing all that she can to save their lives.

At one point, when it all becomes too much, she runs away from her responsibilities and doesn’t look back.  But of course she comes back.  That is, after all, the right thing to do.

Her appearance has changed noticeably since the beginning seasons: her hair is scruffier and considerably less like the Pantene Pro-V commercial it used to resemble.

She’s dirtier, looking much more like she’s been living rough in the woods for the past six month and every day fighting for her life.  She dresses more like the Grounders – like a warrior; like her sins are indelibly marked upon her exterior – than a do-gooding Princess.

She’s still a Mary Sue, but one who is by no means is perfect.  Which itself is perfect.

Have you watched The 100?  What are your thoughts on “Mary Sue” (or “Gary Stu”) characters?  What other characters of this type are you familiar with?  Let me know in the comments.

(Image source #1, #2, #3, and #4)

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