When The 100 premiered last year, it looked a lot like any other science fiction show on The CW: a bunch of pretty people acting out a concept that had a tinge of social awareness. But this season, the show broke out of its post-apocalyptic reenactment of Lord of the Flies and became an interesting, challenging story.

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Top image via Popinsomniacs.

The 100 did come to our TV sets with an interesting premise: a while back, the Earth was scorched by a nuclear war. Some of humanity managed to escape into space, where they’ve survived for a century aboard a space station called the “Ark.” At the start of the show, the Ark’s leadership decides to find out if the Earth has become habitable again, so they send 100 teenage criminals, including main character Clarke Griffin (Eliza Taylor), to the surface.

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That first season goes much the way you might expect: the kids scrabble on the surface, forming love triangles and alliances. They kill each other and get each other killed. They learn that they aren’t the only humans on Earth; the descendants of the war’s survivors are known as “Grounders,” and they’ve formed a brutal civilization in order to survive. There are insane, cannibalistic humans called Reapers (a bit of an obvious grab from Firefly). Clarke emerges as an important leader, one who uses cunning and her friends’ resourcefulness to keep the 100 alive.

The 100 was part of a pack of genre shows that the CW released over the last couple of years, a bit of science fiction spaghetti that the network decided to throw against the wall. Amidst shows like Star-Crossed and The Tomorrow People, The 100 was the one that stuck. And it hasn’t simply clung to life; The 100 has thrived. Last week, it wrapped up its second season, and viewers have been lauding it as the young adult answer to Battlestar Galactica.

So, how did The 100 go from pretty teenagers killing each other to a nuanced story of post-apocalyptic survival? Spoilers ahead.

It Asks Hard Questions About What People Do To Survive

This season, The 100 saw two major changes: First, the Ark was evacuated and its inhabitants joined the remains of the 100 on Earth. And second, Clarke and 47 other kids found themselves inside the confines of Mount Weather, an underground city whose residents would die of radiation poisoning if they stepped outside. Both of these new developments led to some interesting questions, namely: What kind of people deserve to survive?

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Fortunately, The 100 doesn’t try to nail down an answer to that question. It would be easy for The 100 to become a colonial narrative, with the Arkers portrayed as a civilizing force for the savage Grounders. But the show goes to great lengths to show us that the Grounders are, in fact, civilized. Their society is steeped in rules, religion, and tradition. But their lives are harsh and so they have a civilization that matches. And many of the Grounders are both intelligent and morally complex; in Season Two, we saw the Grounder commander Lexa outmaneuver and betray Clarke, even though Lexa was clearly in love with the Arker. The 100 is clear that these aren’t noble savages; these are people.

Similarly, the show doesn’t turn Grounder culture into some idealistic font of brutal wisdom — even if Grounders do get the best makeup and clothes. Life on the Ark could be just as harsh in many ways — because of the limited resources in space, inhabitants were often executed for minor crimes — but that doesn’t mean that the Arkers should give up their identities or their hopes for a peaceful life. We spend a lot of time with the Grounders in Season Two, and yet, by the end of the season, it’s clear that the Ark survivors will have to build their own surface civilization. They don’t have to embrace Grounder values and traditions, even if they should respect how the Grounders have managed to survive.

The 100 is, in many ways, very anti-nationalistic. You don’t root for tribes; you root for individuals. The people under Mount Weather are, effectively, post-apocalyptic vampires. Because their bodies can’t filter out radiation, they steal blood from Grounders to treat incidences of radiation exposure. (It’s a plot conceit. Don’t overthink it.) But even after Mount Weather scientists start harvesting Arker kids for their bone marrow, we understand that many of the Mountain folk are ambivalent about the nature of their survival. It’s satisfying to watch the Grounder Lincoln get his revenge on Mount Weather’s sadistic usurper President Cage Wallce, but it’s heartbreaking to watch the city’s civilians lay down and die due to radiation exposure during the Arker-Mount Weather war.

Image via Hypable.

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In the second season finale, Clarke, shaken by the events under Mount Weather, laments to her mother that she tried to be the good guy. Abby responds, “Maybe there are no good guys.” We’re not left to celebrate the actions of the characters; we’re left to chew over them.

Its Main Characters Get Genuinely Interesting Arcs

I will admit that, during the first season, I was not a huge fan of Clarke. She struck me as self-important and she kept getting caught up in boring love triangles. But in Season Two, we see her genuinely struggle with her values. Clarke needs to decide who and what she is willing to sacrifice to ensure her people’s survival. She needs to decide how much she should emulate the stoic Lexa and how much to listen to her mother’s admonitions. And, in the end, she comes to a rather mature realization: that being leader during these harsh times means being a moral scapegoat.

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She realizes that there is value in being the bad guy, as long as her people don’t have to be bad guys. There is something gratifying about watching a protagonist who recognizes that she can’t just drive her swords into ploughshares when the battle is done, who recognizes that leadership means not just the sacrifice of others, but the sacrifice of self. It’s character growth where a character realizes that she isn’t necessarily better or stronger; she’s just a different person than she was before. (Plus, the revelation that Clarke is bisexual? Pretty cool.)

She’s not the only one struggling with identity. Octavia, a girl whose very existence on the Ark was forbidden (the Ark had a one-child policy and Octavia was a second child) found some acceptance in Season Two among the Grounders. But even as she thrived in her role as a warrior and liaison, the show kept throwing personal choices at her. Octavia has had to decide who she is: Grounder, Arker, or just plain Octavia, and her choices are sure to have consequences for Season Three.

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Another character who is bound to have an interesting third season is Jasper, who went full badass in order to protect his group from the great Mount Weather bone marrow harvest. Jasper became a leader, but he also saw the girl he loved, Mountain lady Maya, die in his arms. Even John Murphy, a character who was simply obnoxious in Season One, found purpose in Season Two as Thelonious Jaha’s surrogate son.

It Keeps Moving The Ball Forward

Sometimes, The 100 still manages to be ridiculous. There are moments of turn-of-your-brain off goofiness (one episode, for example, revolved around a gorilla attack), and sometimes its best not to poke too hard at the show’s plot devices. But this is a show that keeps opening up its world. At the end of the first season, we got our first glimpse under Mount Weather and the second season revealed that survival on Earth has taken many forms. At the end of Season Two, we learned that an AI may have been responsible for starting that apocalyptic nuclear war a century ago, and she may not be done. Yes, we will be watching Season Three, thank you.

We may have been lukewarm on The 100 at the start, but after this season, we’ve added this show to our must-watch list.

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This article was originally published on March 19th, 2015.