Friday, July 10, 2015

Strong Female Character Friday: Octavia Blake (The 100)


It's really no secret at this point that I adore The 100 and all of its various spectacular female characters. I feel like I've made that abundantly clear by now with my loving and only a little bit sycophantic articles on Clarke Griffin, the human nuclear winter, and Raven Reyes, girl who makes MacGyver look untalented. Well, the time has now come to talk about Octavia Blake, or as she comes later to be known, Okteivia kom Skaikru.

See, Octavia is badass, but what makes her such a cool character isn't the fact that she comes out of the gate strong and amazing. It's actually that she grows and changes - a lot - in these two seasons, and turns into a completely different person, albeit one whose foundation is laid well before the story of the show actually starts. Okay, that was a little wordy. 

What I mean is that Octavia is awesome because in the space of two seasons we see her grow into the person she was always meant to be. She doesn't come to us fully formed like Clarke and Raven and Anya and Lexa and Indra and Abby do. Octavia is the character who most clearly grows and changes throughout the course of the show, becoming more herself but also really really different. And that's super cool.

When we first meet Octavia she's not the stone-cold warrior queen she becomes later on, but rather a sweet, sheltered girl tasting freedom for the first time. It's actually pretty hard to like or get Octavia in those first few episodes because she just feels so much younger than everyone else. While Clarke is desperately trying to get medicine or food or shelter or keep everyone alive, and while Raven is rebuilding a centuries old space shuttle with spare parts, Octavia is pretty much flirting and bouncing from guy to guy, irritating her brother and getting into trouble.

She's flighty and unreliable and while she really wants to prove herself, she seems to have no idea how to do it. All the other characters rely on their "Earth skills" classes or the trades they knew up on the Ark to contribute, but Octavia never took those classes. She has no occupation or trade. All she really knows is how to sew, since her mother was a seamstress, but there's not much call for that here, or really any materials to work with. After it's discovered that she "consorted with the enemy" and had a friendly relationship with a Grounder, she's put to work in the most base and unpleasant of tasks: working in the smokehouse preserving meat.

And the thing is, it's kind of hard to like her for a while there, because she is so young and immature compared to everyone else. You've got Bellamy and Clarke and Wells and even freaking Finn trying to be mature, but Octavia is a major character who keeps stomping off in a fit because her brother is being mean.

It's not until much later in the season that we come to find out exactly why Octavia feels so young and why she's so wild and out of control. And, to be fair, it's a pretty good reason.

Octavia Blake is the second child of Aurora Blake, younger sister of Bellamy and father unknown. This is a big deal because in the rationed, reasoned world of the Ark, no one is supposed to have more than one child. Population control is a huge deal. For Aurora Blake to have a second child, that means she almost certainly made an intentional choice to get pregnant again, knowing that she was creating a life that could never be publicly acknowledged. 

Which is really the reality of Octavia's life for sixteen years. She is the child who must never be seen. Bellamy and her mother hide Octavia under the floorboards every time inspection comes through, they steal food for her and make her clothes and try to give her a life, but her entire existence is a crime. And, eventually, inevitably, she's caught. Bellamy tries to sneak her out to a party, a kind effort to give his sister a normal adolescence, and they're caught. Their mother is executed. Bellamy is demoted to cleaning up garbage. And Octavia, whose only crime was being born, is sent to prison.

That's the situation she comes out of in the very first episode. A girl whose entire life was lived in a single room and then whose one night of freedom cost her everything, only to be thrown back in a cage. When that girl tastes complete freedom for the first time? Yeah, okay, she goes a little nuts.

What makes Octavia a really compelling character, though, is how she doesn't stay nuts. She grows and learns and changes. She gets her crazy out of her system early on, then she uses the skills she gained living a life in hiding and becomes basically a spy. She falls in love with Lincoln, a Grounder, and through him cultivates a budding peace between the Grounders and her people.* Octavia learns and listens and develops a maturity that actually quickly outstrips everyone else.

The second season sees her lost and taken from everyone she knows, with even Lincoln being captured and dragged away from her. Her first instinct isn't to cry or beg for help, though, it's to find some allies and take back what was stolen from her by force. She doesn't ask people to like her, she demands respect. She finds her brother, finds her man, helps heal him from something everyone assumed was a life sentence, and eventually manages to get herself adopted into a warrior clan of Grounders as the chief's apprentice.

Seriously.

It would be easy to dismiss this as bad writing, saying that Octavia's character arcs too quickly and too much, but I don't think it is. By the end of the second season, Octavia is a fearsome warrior, but it's not that surprising. She always was. She's the girl who lived sixteen years under the floorboards and came out mostly sane - I think that's good grounds for saying that she's probably capable of a lot more than anyone thought.

Octavia's transformation into hardcore badass queen works because it doesn't change anything fundamental about her, it just gives her new outlets with which to express the person she already was. She already was intense and focussed and protective and fierce, now she has the battle training to back it up. She already was clever and sly and good at lying, now she just has a reason to spy. She was a lot of things before, and we saw them. Now all we're seeing is those traits put to a different use.

And this is something I think more shows ought to get comfortable with: the idea that a female character doesn't have to come out of the gate as a strong, badass, fully grown woman. She can, instead, come out as a beta version of herself. A pupa. A caterpillar. She doesn't have to be done to be interesting. In fact, watching the transformation is usually the most interesting part of a story like this. Seeing how Octavia changes is a huge part of what makes her a compelling character. If she appeared fully formed, she wouldn't be half as worth talking about.

There's a temptation, I feel, to make every female character a role model. And there's a temptation to make every female character deeply morally complex and dark and broody. Octavia is neither of those things, and I appreciate that. She's not really that morally complex - she has a very strong sense of right and wrong and those don't change over the seasons. But neither could we call her a good role model - she straight up kills people. A lot.

No, instead of either of those things, what we get with Octavia is a person. A woman who feels like a real person we could actually know. Admittedly not a person we would probably want to know (she's scary), but definitely the sort of woman who exists and can be found and should probably be avoided.

And we got to see her get there.

Now, a huge debt of gratitude must be given to her actress, Marie Avgeropoulos, for so fully inhabiting the character. She does an amazing job. She has fantastic chemistry with everyone, particularly with Bob Morley who plays her brother, and she just generally really pops off the screen. Plus, lots of credit goes to her for making those first few episodes of frustrating flightiness actually watchable with her epic and subtle performance. It's very impressive.

But a lot of credit also has to go to the writers, who saw in Octavia a really interesting story worth telling. I mean, it would have been easy to have the story she goes through - that of the person from the Ark who befriends the Grounders and becomes an honorary Grounder - be told as the story of a white guy becoming "one of the natives" and pulling a full on Dances with Wolves. I could totally have seen them going there with Finn, and I'm super grateful they didn't.

Rather, we got to see Octavia be pulled into that world and we got to see how she wasn't magically amazing at it. It took work and time and she screwed up, but she did it because she kept trying. She respected their culture and traditions, didn't try to imply that she knew better, and they respect her for it. It's pretty much exactly how that kind of storyline should go.

And really that's my point about all of this. Octavia is an example of how this storyline should go. How we go from adorable wild child looking at butterflies to scary fierce warrior bathed in the blood of her enemies without it feeling forced or rushed. Octavia changes but she also stays the same, and that's really impressive.

Women grow and change. I'm not the same person I was three years ago. I'm not even the same person I was three months ago. And yet, I'm still the same core me. Arguably, I'm more me than I used to be (heh). Octavia's arc reflects that. How we can change so much and still be exactly ourselves. The female characters I love best are the ones who represent something strong and true about reality, and Octavia is nothing if not that.

So thank you writers of The 100 and thank you Marie Avgeropoulos for giving us Octavia Blake/Okteivia kom Skaikru. I can't wait to see where you take her next.


*Which, admittedly, everyone else seems hellbent on destroying.

No comments:

Post a Comment