The MacGuffin storytelling trope, in which characters chase an object whose sole purpose is to drive the plot, is usually worthy of an eye roll. The object’s unimportance is painfully obvious to the audience, and this device has been overused in countless superhero movies. Think the tesseract in The Avengers movies, the Microwave Emitter in Batman Begins, or the Kryptonite in Batman v Superman. But in the second episode of its fourth season, “Heavy Lies the Crown,” The CW’s The 100 used the plot device in the right way, showing its occasional merits.
In the episode, Bellamy leads a team on an expedition to retrieve an object that Raven can use to make the Ark a sustainable shelter during the impending nuclear apocalypse. Right off the bat, it’s clear it’s a MacGuffin: Although it’s supposedly important, it’s only just now being mentioned, it’s function is rather vague, and it’s providing an incentive for the plot to send Bellamy, Monty, and their team into the Ice Nation.
But rather than venturing down a tiresome path, The 100 then proceeds to demonstrate the right way to use a MacGuffin, because the object immediately becomes secondary to the episode’s inherent moral conflict. Because it can conveniently explode, when Bellamy discovers Arkers the Ice Nation is holding as a prisoner, he must choose between saving lives in the short-term versus sacrificing them to save more people long-term.
If he triggers an explosion, he saves the prisoners in the immediate future, but then Raven can’t use the object to save more people. On the other hand, if he takes the object to Raven, he condemns the prisoners to death.
The fact that he chooses the former option is immensely telling about his character. Although it sometimes makes him short-sighted, he primarily thinks with his heart. His decision making is one of impulse, which makes him ideal for missions that require him to think on his feet — like his infiltration of Mount Weather in Season 2 — and less ideal for long-term planning. “We save who we can save today,” he says in “Heavy Lies The Crown.”
When he returns to Clarke and Raven at the episode’s end, they’re exasperated with his decision. Their reaction is equally telling about their personalities. Both are willing to sacrifice lives on their path to save as many people as possible.
To nobody’s surprise, the object vanishes after this episode. It was the ultimate MacGuffin, only important in the short term, and yet its place in the story enabled the show to double-down on how it showcases its characters psychologies. When MacGuffins are used poorly — as they are all too often — they underscore the flimsiness of a plot and condescend to the viewer’s assumed intelligence. But as The 100 exemplifies, when the storytelling device is used well, it seamlessly underscores deeper truths about characters.
The 100 airs Wednesdays on The CW at 9 p.m. Eastern.