Saturday, March 28, 2015

On the Big Screen: TIMBUKTU (2014)

Here is a film that might make you want to punch a Muslim, except that its subject is the oppression by Muslims of Muslims, and the director, Abderrahman Sissako, is Muslim himself. What we have instead is what Islamophobes have clamored for: a denunciation by a Muslim of the excesses of Islamism. Timbuktu might end up disappointing hard-core Islamophobes, however, since Sissako makes it fairly clear that those excesses are fueled by selective, self-serving readings of Islamic scripture rather than by something essential to Islam itself. Sissako is also wise enough to remember that Islamism is not an intrusion on otherwise peaceful, innocent communities, since one of the central conflicts in his story has nothing to do with religion or anyone's interpretation of it. Most importantly, he's enough of an artist as a director to make his story pictorially memorable, assuring it of a lasting impact.

Sissako is Mauritanian but his subject is Mali, where the title city is located. In Timbuktu the 21st century exists alongside timeless folkways. Satellite dishes crown the roofs of mud-brick buildings of perhaps incalculable age; nomads communicate with cellphones; a favorite cow is named GPS. To this place the jihadis came with all their absurd chickenshit laws, announced with megaphones in as many languages as the intruders know. Many of the occupiers don't know the local languages, making interpreters essential while highlighting a mutual incomprehension that a common faith can't overcome. In one case a commander requires an underling to inform him in English of what he sees at a crime scene. Yet these strangers claim a religious entitlement to tell the natives how to live. Women have to wear socks and gloves in the marketplace. The idea is so ridiculous and insulting to one of the female fishmongers ("We were brought up in honor and didn't have to wear gloves!") that she's willing to be arrested because she's sick and tired of the jihadi bullshit. Soccer and all sports are banned, even though some of the jihadis are football fans. One moment of comic relief comes when we overhear them talking about how many times somebody won or lost in the last few years. Almost certainly an unspoiled audience will assume they're talking about armies in war, but they're really debating the superiority of French and Spanish soccer teams. A fan of Spain accuses the French of bribing Brazil to throw the 1998 World Cup final; I wonder how he'd explain last year's semifinal. In any event, after a ball is confiscated, local sportsmen console themselves with a pantomime game, though when the hardcore jihadis ride by they revert to innocent calisthenics. Music is also forbidden by these totalitarian puritans, though one of them questions whether they should break in on someone singing praises to God. There's less hesitation when they find a mixed gathering with a woman singing secular lyrics while a man plays guitar. For this they're flogged, the woman defiantly singing the same song until the pain is too great. At least they didn't commit adultery. The penalty for that is stoning, and the jihadis ain't playing. No ducking or dodging for the guilty here; they're buried up to their necks and the rest is just target practice.

From a distance, from his tent, the herdsman Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed dit Pinto) watches with concern as his nomad neighbors start to move away. He wants to stay, however, even though a jihadi commander is making suspicious visits to his wife and daughter when he's away. He's more concerned with Amadou, a cranky fisherman (who wears western clothes, for what that's worth) who begrudges Kidane's cattle drinking at the lake because he's afraid they'll foul his nets. His fears aren't unfounded, and when the beloved GPS wanders into his nets he kills the cow with a spear. Little does Amadou realize that he's brought a spear to a gunfight, though from all appearances the weapon Kidane brings to their confrontation goes off accidentally during their damp scuffle. Their conflict has had nothing to do with jihad until now, when the jihadis have to act as judges in the case. They set a blood money fine (in kind) that's more than Kidane is able or willing to pay. All that leaves to be decided is whether he'll see his family one more time....

Timbuktu is a photogenic location -- some of the architecture will remind movie buffs of Ousmane Sembene's classic Moolaade -- and Sissako films his story is a classically artful style. He makes brilliant use of the widescreen frame in a way that can only be appreciated on the big screen. Kidane has crossed a shallow lake to confront Amadou. After the gun goes off, he lays in the water awhile in shock, then springs back to life to assure himself that he is alive. Sissako cuts to a wide shot that encompasses both shores as Kidane staggers back to his side. We might almost miss Amadou stirring and lurching upright in the other direction. From this godlike distance we see Amadou struggle for the shore and fail as Kidane plows ahead without a look back. The moment has some of the same cold grandeur of the drowning scene in Under the Skin. At other points you wonder whether Sissako is quoting other filmmakers. The opening scene of jihadis in a jeep chasing a deer, opening with the deer, might remind you of Ran or Hatari!, while genre fans, at least, are tempted to see any shot of a ball bouncing ominously as an homage to Mario Bava's Kill Baby Kill. The director is enough his own man, however, that none of this looks fannish or blatant.

During that opening scene, one of the jihadi deer hunters tells the others not to shoot, but to tire the animal. If there's anything blatant about the scene, it's not any embedded homage but the thematic premonition. Apart from Kidane's storyline, Timbuktu is mainly about the wearing down of resistance through relentless petty regulation. That angry fishmonger ends up wearing gloves after all, and no one really scores a victory over the jihadis except the local madwoman, whose apparent immunity to the new dress code seems to confirm the old pulp chestnut about Muslims fearing to harm the insane.Then again, selectivity and hypocrisy characterize these jihadis. Practically the first order we hear is that smoking is forbidden, yet one of the leaders, the man paying suspicious attention to Kidane's wife, while needing an interpreter to talk to her, goes into the desert to sneak a few drags, only to be told by his driver that everyone knows of his habit, but no one apparently cares. The most damning case of selective rules involves an Anglophone jihadi (Nigerian, I presume?) courting a local girl. The girl's mother turns him down because she barely knows the man, despite his warning that he'll take the girl "in a bad way." The next day, we learn that he grabbed the girl and had his commander marry them. When a local qadi (for want of a more accurate term) protests, the commander first asks why anyone would complain about getting the guy for a son-in-law ("He's perfect!"), then quotes scripture commanding that righteous fighters like this guy should be given brides. One gets a feeling the qadi knows Islam better than the commander does, but the man with the power decides what religion requires. These jihadis claim to be all about religion, but Sissako seems to know better. People who wonder what's the matter with Islam probably should take his word for it. Timbuktu may not be the best of last year's Oscar nominees for Best Foreign Film -- it lost to Ida here while sweeping the year's French film awards -- but it would have deserved to win if a win meant more Americans would see it. If any 2014 film needs to be seen by more people, this may be it.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

MARDAANI (2014): "This is India!"

Female empowerment, Indian style. Here's a 2014 release that has a Seventiesish vibe in its pulp action and righteous indignation. Rani Mukerji stars as a Mumbai supercop for whom the war against human trafficking gets personal when a street urchin she'd befriended gets swept into the vile trade. Officer Shivani plows through official inertia to wage war on "Walt" (Tahir Raj Bhasin), the trafficking kingpin. With Shivani Indian heroines catch up to their western counterparts. She can outrun a motorcycle, though admittedly it's going slow on a sidewalk. She can get out of seemingly unbreakable bonds. Her adventures remind me of American pulp fiction or "golden age" comics. Some of the plot devices are so old that even within the film characters comment on how unlikely it is in the 21st century for a street criminal to have all his clothes hand-tailored, so that Shivani can track him by checking the tag on his shirt. There's even a climactic fight scene in which she throws her gun away so she can prove a point to Walt's erstwhile captives by beating the crap out of him with her bare hands. It's all quite corny and the plight of Shivani's involuntarily tarted up little protege (Priyanka Sharma) is milked for all its melodramatic pathos, but director Pradeep Sarkar plows ahead with such guileless enthusiasm that much can be forgiven. You can't help enjoying an early scene in which Shivani bitch-slaps some jerk whom I take to be a Hindu nationalist for vandalizing a shop that dared hold a Valentine's Day sale. He's India's answer to the Klan or the Daesh, though only a vandal, and he deserves what he gets from our heroine.

While bigots get beaten down for comedy relief, Mardaani taps something darker in Indian society at its climax. Shivani has defeated Walt and in the process has exposed a powerful politician whose kink is raping prostitutes. She has challenged Walt to hand-to-hand combat, as mentioned above, and humiliated him. But he doesn't care and isn't worried. "This is India," he reminds her, and that means his political and business connections will see to it that he serves little if any time. Her answer? Yes, this is India, but that means she doesn't necessarily have to arrest him to get him off the streets. Is she going to murder him, then? No, but they are: the girls he's tortured and exploited. Technically it won't be murder. Since this is India, the law there says it isn't murder is someone is killed in a demonstration involving a certain number of people or more. There just happens to be a quorum present, so as Shivani discreetly walks away the film's upbeat girl-power theme song plays over a lynching, the death of a thousand kicks from high-heeled shoes.

Mardaani's over-the-top final act alone makes the film worth seeing for fans of global pop cinema. Mukerji brings badass authority to her lead performance, and that's all the film really needs. I haven't watched as much Indian cinema as I probably should have by now, so I don't know how extraordinary or transgressive such a female role would be there. But it certainly can't hurt anywhere for people to see women kicking ass on the big screen. Just maybe it might make some men think twice before acting out their fantasies.

Monday, March 23, 2015

That's all I'm taking from you....

Gregory Walcott died last weekend at the age of 87. He reached the height of his career in the 1970s with a solid run of character-actor parts, particularly in films by Clint Eastwood but also in Steven Spielberg's Sugarland Express. As far as I know Walcott was the only man to be directed by both Spielberg and Ed Wood -- and he acted in Tim Burton's Ed Wood biopic as well -- but we all know what he'll be remembered for. He was the rare actor who crossed paths with Wood on his way up and that early work for the World's Worst Director might have been forgotten amid a solid Seventies filmography had not Wood and Plan 9 From Outer Space been elevated from obscurity at the end of the decade, after Wood's own death. Anyway, here's that blast from the past as uploaded to YouTube by docretro9000, and it really is a special moment.

Sometimes you feel like Dudley Manlove's Eros is speaking for you, as only he could, and sometimes you want to answer the whole smug judgmental world the way Walcott does. Maybe it is true that because of his stupidity, all must be destroyed, but if Plan 9 teaches us anything, it's that everyone is stupid, including those who judge us, and that those who judge will be judged in turn. Manlove and Walcott are two sides of the same coin, and all you can buy with it is self-destruction. Whatever side he's on, Gregory Walcott will keep on fighting.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

DVR Diary: LADY WITH A SWORD (Feng Fei Fei, 1971)

Kao Pao Shu was a veteran Shaw Bros. actress who moved behind the camera to make her directorial debut with Feng Fei Fei. So is it because she was a woman that this is one of the more tearjerking martial arts pictures? Hard to say, since a man, the prolific I Kuang, wrote the screenplay. But I still wonder whether the prevailing unhappiness of the picture reflects a feminine touch. Lots of martial arts films end unhappily, but usually that's because all the characters are dead. There are plenty of survivors at the end of Lady With a Sword, by comparison, but they're all very unhappy. It's hard to blame them, though.

I wonder whether writer or director saw the American western Last Train From Gun Hill. In that picture Kirk Douglas destroys his old friendship with Anthony Quinn because he, a lawman, has to take Quinn's son to prison. Feng Fei Fei escalates the emotional stakes of the basic situation to an almost unbearable level. The title character (Lily Ho) goes into action when her young nephew staggers into the family compound to report that his mother, Fei Fei's sister, has been raped and murdered. She learns that the culprit (James Nam) is the scion of a family, the Jins, who've long been friends with hers. Worse, he is her childhood friend and the man everyone considers her destined husband. He's fallen under bad influences, egged on by his retainers, one of whom calls in his brother, a formidable bandit with a small arsenal of weapons, to protect his master. The brother is a bigger villain than anyone; he murdered Fei Fei's brother-in-law and seeks to exploit the deteriorating situation, with his younger brother's help, to destroy both families. Meanwhile, the Jin family is coming apart at the seams. Dad (Li Peng-Fei) is ready to wash his hands of his wayward boy or hand him to Fei Fei, but Mom (Ching Lin), whom Dad blames for spoiling the boy, is protective to a fault. She's the Anthony Quinn character in this story, and pretty much the woman who wears the sword in the Jin household. When Fei Fei manages to strongarm Jin Lian Bai out of the compound to deliver him to the magistrate, the mother pursues with the untrustworthy retainers in tow, and they see a golden opportunity to escalate the feud between Jin and Feng....

Novice director Kao makes impressive use of a small town set in early fight scenes when Fei Fei and her nephew (Yuen Man Meng) are a team. Fighting with Lian Bai's buddies, Fei Fei fends off several attackers at one end of town while the kid struggles to escape another in a restaurant and stable. Commanding overhead shots sweep across town establishing the good guys' relative positions as they battle for their lives. The nephew has a story arc that might trouble western viewers. There's almost always an element of slapstick to the little guy with the silly tuft of hair on top as he falls on his face repeatedly trying to dismount his horse. Some of his escapes in the fight scene I mentioned are silly, including teeter-totter gags that were old before talkies. He meets cute with a young girl on a caravan, but any hope of a happy future is dashed when Lian Bai kills him during an escape attempt. Some people may be uncomfortable with such a traumatized child being used for comedy relief only to get brutally killed -- the film ends with Fei Fei weeping over his corpse -- but I suspect most people around the world are more ready to laugh or weep on short notice over the vicissitudes of life. The overall sadness of the picture may well reflect a more humane spirit in this particular director; Kuang wrote so much that it's hard to credit him with any singluar sensibility. Another director might have ended the picture with the deaths of the evil brothers; in a charming touch Fei Fei's mom and dad both ride to her rescue, while Lian Bai's dad doesn't buy the brothers' attempt to blame everything on the Fengs. Many martial arts films end with that sort of violent catharsis (see Lady Assassin in particular). Kao seems more interested in the emotional consequences for the survivors. If that's a personal touch then more power to her.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Pre-Code Capsules: CENTRAL PARK (1932)

Audiences today would almost certainly feel gypped by a feature film that ran under an hour, but Warner Bros. actually boasted of how much action they crammed into 57 minutes directed by John G. Adolfi, who usually directed George Arliss vehicles and died the year following Central Park's release. This is a Depression picture so our hero and heroine are poor. Rick (Wallace Ford) and Dot (Joan Blondell) bond while eyeballing lunch wagon cuisine they can't afford. When Rick gets into an unprovoked fight with the lunch man, Dot steals a sandwich and later shares it with her new friend. Rick later lands a temporary job washing police motorcycles while Dot gets embroiled in a criminal scheme to hijack the proceeds of a charity beauty contest. More of a dummy than Blondell usually plays, Dot is persuaded that the crooks are actually detectives carrying out a sting operation. Meanwhile, Officer Charlie (Guy Kibbee), who steered Rick to that job, struggles to conceal his failing eyesight from his superiors. It shouldn't be that big of a deal since his beat is little more than the Central Park Zoo, but when an escaped lunatic with a lion fixation sneaks in, he's too far away for Charlie to make him out clearly. Instead, the old man waves him through, mistaking him for a buddy, and the loon lets a lion out of his cage and gets the keeper mauled. The lion has an adventure of his own, getting locked inside a taxi cab for a good chunk of the picture, then let loose to run amok at a high-society party. It looks like bad comedy when he comes in through the kitchen and frightens a room full of acrobatic Negro cooks, but the white folks on the dance floor are just as terrified for what that's worth. Meanwhile, poor Charlie is suspended for his negligence and incapacity, but redeems himself in the pursuit of those beauty-contest bandits. He and Nick join forces to stop Nick Sarno (the reliably sinister Harold Huber), but it costs Charlie a rock to the head and a bullet in the vitals, and those things add up when you're an old man. So Charlie gets a sentimental exit as a reinstated officer in good standing and the poor boy gets the poor girl and you wish them luck. It's a studio film of course but it opens with an impressive aerial shot of the actual park that conveys its vastness quite nicely. Bookend montages of joggers, horseback riders, etc. tell us all this mayhem was just another day or so in the park. Like Big City Blues it portrays the big city as the land of exhilarating chaos where the possibility of anything happening nearly makes up for the lack of steady opportunity in those dark days. It's brevity helps put across the whirlwind nature of events and keeps you from thinking too long about how corny much of it is. And most likely you got a second feature wherever you saw it (if not at the Fox) or at least a cartoon and a newsreel. Central Park is a trifling item in the Warner Bros. canon but unlike many trifles today it has a proper sense of proportion.

Monday, March 16, 2015

REAL PULP FICTION: Arthur Leo Zagat's "Thunder Tomorrow," ARGOSY, March 16, 1940

We resume our survey of pulp magazine fiction with a sequel to one of the most popular and controversial stories of 1939. Arthur Leo Zagat's "Tomorrow" imagined the coming of age of an isolated band of American refugee children who had survived a devastating invasion of the country, but had reverted to primitive simplicity and virtue. Sequels that year made clear that America had fallen to the "Asafrics," an unholy coalition of black and yellow men, in an apocalyptic race war. At least one Argosy letter writer called Zagat out for the racism of his premise, his heroic "Bunch" being lily-white. "Thunder Tomorrow," the first sequel to appear in several months, hints that Zagat took that criticism to heart. His effort to duck the racism charge is fascinating for an apparent sincerity that's partially undermined by a racism of less malignant but perhaps more intractable sort.

By the time of this newest story, the Bunch, led by Dikar (born Dick Carr) has joined forces with some of the underground resistance that had developed despite all odds, and with colonies of "beast men" who are, for all intents and purposes, white trash. The Asafrics announce that all Americans must make a fresh loyalty pledge of face deportation to the wastelands of Africa and Asia. To boost American morale, the resistance decides that the small army coalescing near the Bunch's mountain in downstate New York must score some sort of symbolic victory. Their target is the old military academy at West Point, now used as an Afrasic base. Dikar's early attempt to scout the site goes bad quickly and he's imprisoned inside the fortress. Captured by two black soldiers, presumably native Africans (described by the resistance as "the best soldiers in the world"), Dikar is turned over to a jailer. He notices that the jailer "was brown-faced, not black like the other Asafrics." Readers familiar with pulp dialects would quickly notice that the "brown" jailer talks differently from the "black" soldiers.

'Washton,' the Asafric with Dikar said, 'this one fellah special prisoner for Colonel Wangsing. Something happen to him, all our skin get flogged off. Unstan?'
'Yassuh, Sahgent,' Washton answered, his eyes gleaming white in the dimness as he goggled at Dikar, 'Ah unnerstands. You wan' him put in a cell by hisself?'

The Asafrics talk in something like standard pulp pidgin English, while Washton talks in something pulp readers would recognize as American negro dialect. Zagat is ready to answer a question at least some readers must have asked since his series started: what happened to the American blacks? His answer, in this case at least, is that African Americans are among the resistance's most effective inside men. Washton -- born Benjamin Franklin George Washington -- surprises Dikar by arranging for his escape from West Point. He surprises our hero even more by identifying himself as Agent X-18 of the resistance's Secret Net of operatives. Dikar either doesn't remember seeing, or has never seen, an authentic African American. He can't comprehend why an "Asafric soldier" would help the Americans. Washton explains:

'Dat's the beauty paht of it. See, w'en de Asafrics fust came, dey figgered us cullud people would want to jine up wid dem against de whites, and dey sent out word we'd be welcom. Dey foun' out dey figgered wrong.

'Dey foun' out we wuz Americans fust an' cullud after. But dah wuz some of us got de notion dat we cud mebbe fight 'em better from de inside, so we did jine up.

'But suppose they found you out?' [Dikar asks]

'Dem what dey fin's out,' Washton said, 'takes a long time to die, but dem what dey don't jus' keep on wukkin. Lots uh de sabotage dat's been happenin is de wuk of cullud men.'

Washton has accumulated detailed knowledge of the West Point defenses in the forlorn hope that it would be of use to a real resistance army. Learning that a real army is actually on the way, his response is "Glory be to the Lawd!" To our eyes, Zagat is working at cross purposes. Washton is clearly meant to prove that neither Zagat nor his story is racist, yet this resistance hero talks like Amos or Andy. Dialect is more problematic now than it was 75 years ago. Today we perceive a stigma of inferiority when Zagat may simply have felt an artistic imperative to write black speech as he thought he'd heard it. There's no excuse, however, when Dikar temporarily leaves Washton alone in the forest on their way to the resistance camp, and our black patriot says, "It's awful dahk, heah, an' it's just come to me dat dey says dese heah woods is ha'nted." Really, Arthur Leo Zagat? Washton has been risking his life spying in the belly of the beast, not to mention breaking Dikar out, but because he's a Negro he's skeered of ghosts?

The point Zagat wants to make with Washton is a welcome one, but the way he writes this black hero (who predictably enough sacrifices his life for Dikar before this installment ends) tends to remind me that even D. W. Griffith had good blacks in The Birth of a Nation. They were the ones who stayed loyal to their old massas and defended them from the depredations of the carpetbaggers and the more vicious blacks. Zagat actually deserves more credit for emphasizing that infiltration was African Americans' own idea, but he'd deserve more still if he could imagine free blacks as ongoing protagonists in his epic rather than the faithful retainer type that Washton unfortunately resembles. Washton's heroic intervention alone doesn't change the essentially racial nature of the Asafric war against the U.S., but to be fair Zagat has several more episodes of the "Tomorrow" series to go in which to refine if not redeem his vision of American resistance.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Too Much TV: THE 100 (2014-present)

Superhero fans who tuned into the CW network, first to watch Smallville and now to watch Arrow and Flash, learned over time that for their favorite shows to survive, apparently they had to conform to a so-called CW formula and become stereotypical CW shows. This entailed catering to the female gaze with shots of shirtless men and to the (presumably) female sensibility with soap-operaesque elements like romantic triangles and an unforgiving attitude toward keeping secrets. These had to be permanent parts of the program, comic book fans conceded with different degrees of grudging, if the superhero shows were to survive. What, then, to make of The 100, which flips this assumption on its head? The CW's postapocalyptic drama established its network bona fides early on but quickly went on to become almost the antithesis of a CW show. It remains one in the formulaic sense only insofar as the protagonists are young people who would be deemed pretty when they aren't covered in mud, blood or war paint. It has gone so far from the formula or stereotype that when we did get a sex scene near the end of the second season -- the finale aired March 11 -- it was jarring because that sort of thing hadn't happened on The 100 for a long time. Meanwhile, the show's growing fandom deemed it The CW's answer to Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead. The most fanatical dare compare it favorably to those pantheon shows. I can't judge, but there's certainly a similarity in tone that makes 100 an outlier on the CW schedule and most likely --since I don't watch the entire schedule -- its best show.

The 100 (fwiw, it's pronounced "the hundred," not "the one hundred") is historically part of the YA-dystopia trend for which The Hunger Games set the tone. Jason Rothenberg based the show with progressive looseness on a novel by Kass Morgan, who has written a sequel since the show debuted in which at least one character appears whom the show has killed. The situation is that a cluster of space stations has preserved human civilization for almost a century since a nuclear war on the surface of Earth. The "Ark's" oxygen systems are beginning to fail; soon there won't be enough air for all the people on board. While some of the political leadership considers drastic steps to save oxygen by killing people, an alternative plan develops to test whether the surface is once more habitable. Since no one's that certain about it, the idea is to send 100 expendable people -- juvenile offenders who would have been killed under the Ark's draconian justice system -- to Earth as canaries in the proverbial mineshaft. The plan has the virtue of getting 100 sets of lungs off the Ark no matter how the kids' exploration of Earth turns out. Our main character is Clarke Griffin (Eliza Taylor), who becomes a de facto leader of the kids on the ground by virtue of her tie to Abby (Paige Turco), a doctor and political leader who's a true believer in the project. They want to prove that the planet is habitable in order to get everyone on the ground before more are killed in the Ark's hysterical political environment. On the Ark, Abby's main antagonist is Marcus Kane (Henry Ian Cusick), a control freak who sometimes seems overeager to reduce the surplus population. On the ground, Clarke's antagonist proves to be Bellamy Blake (Bob Morley), who was condemned for harboring a secret sister (Octavia, played by Marie Avgeropoulos) in defiance of the Ark's one-child policy. While Clarke and her allies want to establish order, Bellamy sees the situation as an opportunity to break free from adult constraints, the kids becoming a law unto themselves.

Obviously the earth is habitable once more or else there wouldn't be much of a show. In fact, it's been habitable for quite a while, since the kids soon discover people (as well as various mutated monsters) who've been living in a new tribal society for generations. These "grounders" are hostile to the intruders, but an outsider among them, Lincoln (Ricky Whittle) befriends Octavia (after initially kidnapping her) and tries to act as an intermediary between his people and the "Sky people." Many grounders speak fluent 21st century American English but also lapse into their own recently-evolved patois; it's a rare element of comic relief when you can make out the slang origins of the tribal tongue while subtitles make their meaning clear to viewers. But there was little funny about the contacts of grounders and sky people in the first season, which climaxed with a mass attack which the 100 (actually a good deal less by then) repelled by igniting rocket fuel and killing hundreds of grounders.

In the post-battle confusion Clarke and others on both sides were captured by a third force and imprisoned on Mount Weather, where people went underground at the time of the war and preserved as much of civilization and technology as they could. The "mountain men" remain very susceptible to the residual radiation on the surface but dream of walking in the sunlight once more. Their scientists have experimented on grounders, hoping to extract some key to immunity from radiation. The sky people make even more promising subjects. The second season featured (without overstating) parallel generational struggles. In the mountain, President Dante Wallace (Raymond J. Berry) is overthrown by his son Cage (Johnny Whitworth) because he's reluctant to adopt Cage's emergency plan to extract the captive sky-people's bone marrow without their consent and at the likely cost of their lives. Once Clarke escapes from the mountain, she struggles to reassert her hard-won authority against her own mother, who has reached the surface with many other Arkers in escape pods. Discovering that Mt. Weather has many grounders imprisoned for experimentation, while others are turned into drug-addicted Reapers who hunt more grounders, and having escaped with her onetime enemy, the grounder chieftain Anya (Dichen Lachman), Clarke hopes to forge an alliance with the grounders to storm the mountain and liberate all its prisoners. With major complications along the way, the season builds toward an epic siege of Mt. Weather that turns under increasingly desperate circumstances into a war of extermination.

The 100 has earned a reputation, not to mention comparisons with the acclaimed shows mentioned earlier, as a program that goes there, that doesn't find the easy out of bad situations that would let characters keep their consciences clear. Clarke has to get her hands, and often the rest of her, both literally and figuratively dirty as she learns to be a leader in an unliberal world. It's also a show where, if anything can go wrong, it probably will. Clarke's idea of an alliance is almost aborted at the beginning, for instance, when newly placed Ark guards at her old camp shoot down Anya, mistaking both her and Clarke for hostiles. She has to steel herself to be ruthless, most recently under the mentorship of Lexa (Alycia Debnam Carey), the grounder Commander chosen Dalai Lama style to fit the show's pattern of powerful young women. Clarke has had to personally execute the man she loves in order to keep the peace. She has had to join Lexa in a conspiracy of silence that condemned dozens of their peoples to violent death Coventry style rather than betray to Mt. Weather by evacuating them from the target of a missile attack that they have an infiltrator inside the mountain. Most recently she has had to decide whether to kill all the denizens of Mt. Weather, including children, by flooding the complex with surface radiation in order to save her own people from death by bone-marrow extraction. That decision comes after she shot a captive Dante Wallace dead in an attempt to intimidate Cage into surrender, and that decision comes after Lexa taught her a final lesson in ruthless leadership by making a separate peace with the mountain, getting her people back while leaving the sky people to die. And for what it's worth, that comes after Lexa, who had outed herself as lesbian in an earlier episode, seduced Clarke and received no worse rebuff than that Clarke, very understandably, wasn't ready yet. All these experiences weigh heavily on our heroine, but Eliza Taylor bears the burden heroically, making Clarke one of the strongest heroines on TV.

While Clarke has an epic learning curve to climb, what really elevates The 100 is the way the show has let other characters evolve past our first impressions. Remember those antagonistic males from the early episodes? Marcus Kane has grown compassionately self-critical since then, realizing that he'd condemned people who probably didn't have to die, and has emerged as a voice of reason on the series. At the extreme moment of this week's season finale, while a chained captive in the mountain, he promises to get his people to donate bone marrow voluntarily (which was something like Dante Wallace's original idea) if Cage will only free them. Marcus has also stood up for Clarke against Abby, who is too often tempted to see the kids' leader as her little girl gone morally astray. Meanwhile, Bellamy (who is Clarke's love interest in the books) quickly developed a conscience and a sense of responsibility not just for his sister but for the rest of the kids. Most recently he's been the Die Hard style infiltrator inside Mt. Weather and the sky person most hopeful of sparing the mountain's innocent kids come the reckoning. In that time Bob Morley has developed the character impressively into a laconic all-business action hero. Bellamy's sister Octavia has gone native more than any of the original 100, thanks to her love of Lincoln, and has transformed from one of the most helpless characters into a savagely elegant warrior. Jasper Jordan (Devon Bostick), almost comically hapless in the first season, became a heroically wrathful figure as he emerged as the leader of the captives in the mountain after Clarke's escape. Most unexpectedly, perhaps the most-hated character of the first season, the murderous traitor John Murphy (Richard Harmon) has become almost an audience favorite as he flinches from the more unfathomably vicious behavior of supposed good guys but retains a sardonic to-hell-with-everything attitude. He'll figure more prominently next season as the sole surviving companion of Theolonius Jaha (Isiah Washington), the former Ark leader and last man to escape to Earth who led a mostly doomed quest to find a fabled City of Light and most likely met the Season Three big bad instead.

If Jaha has seemed to go mad during his quest, he isn't the worst case of a good guy gone bad. In fact, it's while Murphy watched with perhaps more shock than horror that Finn Collins (Thomas McDonell), Clarke's boyfriend (but also the beloved of the kids' late-arriving tech whiz Raven Reyes [Lindsey Morgan]), believing Clarke a captive of the grounders early in the second season, hysterically massacred a bunch of frightened villagers, including children. Finn had been the voice of peace and reason almost ad nauseum throughout the first season, but his second-season arc (culminating in the execution scene I mentioned above) showed that while the ordeal of survival might mature some people, or even wisen up elders, it can also break good people or drive them mad. Finn's death was also a major milestone for The 100 because it decisively decoupled the series from the sort of teen-drama storylines that supposedly defined  CW programming. Not until Raven took a breather to get it on with a new boyfriend, apparently to cater to shippers who wanted to see more of the latter character, was there anything like romance on the show, unless you count Lexa's kiss of Clarke as something more than a political maneuver or a publicity stunt by the producers. To borrow the spiel from Arrow, The 100 had become something else. It's The CW's most uncompromising genre show, one that genre fans can watch without apology or embarrassment, and with maybe one exception that you'll learn of shortly, it's the best current series I watch, if not one of the best shows running. It'll be back this fall for a third season with its players increasingly scattered across a world full of menaces, as we learned in the latest cliffhanger, still waiting to be discovered.