EP Jason Rothenberg talks writing the seasons, Netflix's impact, and interacting with fans online
As a first-time showrunner, The 100 executive producer Jason Rothenberg has met his fair share of, well, first-time showrunning challenges, from the series’ shaky debut to the pressures of a growing fandom. By navigating darker storytelling over the years, he tackled them all, allowing the show to find a passionate audience — enough to make Twitter chatter about #The100 increase tenfold from its first season to its third.
Not bad for a midseason genre series on The CW. Rothenberg spoke to EW a few days after filming for the current season ended — and before its third episode aired — about The 100‘s remarkable trajectory, its fans, and eventual ending.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When the series was picked up and you got started, did you ever anticipate how dark it would become?
JASON ROTHENBERG: When you sell a show, you’re trying to do what you think the network is going to like and want, and so I think partially that’s why the pilot episode had more of a teen drama feel to it. My sensibility for it has always been dark, and the pilot itself had a very dark twist. Jasper’s character gets speared at the end and dies, actually, in the script. The only reason he didn’t end up dying was because [actor] Devon Bostick was so phenomenal that I was afraid to lose such a talented actor so soon, and so I wimped out on the choice.
But I think we very quickly thereafter established the tone that nobody was safe, that people could actually die. We were also lucky in that [The CW president] Mark Pedowitz was saying, “We want you to go dark.” I kept pushing it darker and darker, like, at the end of episode 5 [in which 300 people are sacrificed ultimately for no reason], he called and was like, “Amazing episode! You can go darker.” [Laughs] I said, “Mark! How much darker can you get?” He’s a good number one fan to have.
What was the key to that transition? You had the support, but you needed the story to mold itself into your vision without feeling like it was pulling the rug out from under viewers.
We don’t set up and say, “How much darker can we get?” We like to set up impossible choices for our characters. That’s sort of our secret ingredient. … How far can you go to save your people and still be heroic? At what point does the good guy become the bad guy in attempting to achieve a positive outcome for themselves and their people?
When did you realize that was the secret ingredient?
Episode 4 of season 1 [when a 12-year-old girl threw herself off of a cliff] was when I feel like we found the show in many different ways. Tonally, for sure, there were choices our characters faced in that episode that were impossible.
So with that said, when do you think the show really hit its storytelling stride? Was it toward the end of season 1, or do you think it came with the story of season 2 in Mount Weather?
First of all, frankly, I think that our worst episodes are the pilot and episode 2. I feel like, if not for those two episodes, our audience would be so much bigger. Lots of people turned the show off based on those two and never came back. I loved season 1, but I think season 2 took it even further and upped the stakes even more. One of the things I liked the most is that we’re expanding the playing field and we’re building the universe out. The Mount Weather story grew out of that. … That’s my favorite part about this show. It’s an endless canvas to keep building and playing with.
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Aside from the storytelling moves, what are your thoughts on Netflix’s involvement in helping viewers find the show? It went through something Breaking Bad went through, with people catching up on the show after it aired a few seasons, and then deciding to watch live once they did.
Well, my understanding of Breaking Bad was that [its popularity] went into the stratosphere, and we’re definitely experiencing that kind of surge, but it’s not yet to the degree that the Breaking Bad phenomenon had. But that said, I do think our show is an incredible binge show. One of the things we like to do is almost every episode ends with a big cliff-hangers. When you [do that], you drive people to want to keep going. … And so I do see it online. It’s anecdotal, but I’ve seen it enough times that people love the show and get in [through streaming]. On Twitter every day, I see dozens and dozens of tweets saying, “I binged the whole thing in a weekend.”
Did that knowledge affect how you were writing the third season at all? Once you knew people were bingeing, were you thinking, “Oh, I need to come up with more cliffhangers for my characters!”
No, we’re not telling the story any differently to cater to the binge of it. I just think it’s a natural marriage for the sensibility of the show and the way we construct stories for people watching.
How about the fans? You’re active on Twitter, and you’ve seen people arguing about ships. Does that affect how you write the show?
Not at all, actually. I never think about, “Well, I really need to service people that want to see these two people together.” That’s just not the way my mind works. We’re telling the story that we think is the best story, and that said, we’re aware that we’re going to piss certain people off once we make certain decisions for sure. Unfortunately, the shipping phenomenon is kind of a double-edged sword in that people are really passionate, and it drives them to watch the show, [but] I don’t like what it does when it pits various groups against each other. I find that to be difficult to listen to and watch. Frankly, it’s lame when people are arguing and saying negative things to people about whether or not a ship has sailed, you know?
And by the way, the people who are getting what they want are obnoxious to the people who aren’t getting what they want, so I’m not faulting any one side. I just think the whole phenomenon, it’s unusual. It’s a new thing for me to be observing. … [As a midseason show], if anybody doesn’t like the story, there’s nothing we can do about it anyway, [because] we wrote and shot the whole thing before anybody saw anything. On a production level, we’re not racing against an air date.
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Looking ahead, you’ve talked a bit about how you have an idea for the ending of the show. Can you elaborate on what this means? Do you have a final line in mind, or a final scene, or even a final list of characters who are going to die by the end?
All of the above. I have a good idea of where I think the story should end. I don’t think this is the kind of show that goes forever and stays interesting. Now, other choices may come into play, and maybe I’ll come up with something that feels like, “Wow, this needs three whole more seasons to play out!” … There will certainly be other considerations beyond my pay grade that go into that decision-making, but for me, as a storyteller, I like things that have a definitive end.
I remember when Lost got the approval from the powers that be to end their show after season 6. It must have been creatively liberating to be on that writing staff, knowing that they were writing for a specific end point. … It’s all about sticking the landing, you know? We build every season as if it’s its own movie. All of our stories are about trying to build toward that finale, toward that ending.
When you’re writing and outlining a season, then, do you always start with the ending?
It’s funny, the first season, when I came onto the show, I had never done this before. I had never been on a television writing staff, so I was learning on the job. I don’t think I came in to season 1 with an ending. I did know that we were going to go to Mount Weather at the end of the season, [but] I didn’t know what we were going to find there. I didn’t know that we were going to bring the Ark down. That was another writer, Bruce Miller, who had that idea in the middle of the season, which I thought was incredible. At first I was like, “Are you crazy, we spent millions of dollars on those Ark sets!” But then, I figured out a way that we would still live on those Ark sets, just on the ground.
Season 2, I knew the ending. I knew I was thematically trying to tell a story about, you know, at what point does the good guy become the bad guy? I was trying to push Clarke [played by Eliza Taylor] over that line. She was going to be broken and not going to be able to return with her people. I knew that going in.
You mentioned Lost as a series that had a strategy you admired. What other shows inspired your writing for The 100?
When I sold the show originally to The CW, “Battlestar Galactica in space, and Lost on the ground” was how I put it… Game of Thrones, I love, The Walking Dead, I love, and I don’t know what the budgets of those two shows are, but I can guarantee that we get way less and yet we’re compared to those by people. To me, that’s the biggest compliment. That’s thanks to our crew in Vancouver.
The 100 airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. ET on The CW.
A version of this story originally appeared in Entertainment Weekly issue #1403-1404, on newsstands now or available digitally here.