I currently pay for a full cable subscription. I also subscribe to Netflix and Hulu. My dad pays for HBO Go, and, well. I have access to so many miniseries, event series, reboots, prestige adaptations, and critical darlings that I sometimes feel dizzy with television responsibility. And for the last 12 weeks or so, I ignored all of those trending programs in favor of catching up with one of basic cable’s longest-running procedurals before its final season. From the PILOT. No, I did not lose a bet. I didn’t mean to hand my life over to Bones. It just happened.
Kim often calls herself a Bones “lifer.” And Kelly at The TV Mouse is probably the show’s most passionate advocate. The crime dramedy has been recommended to me, and by people whose opinions I really respect. But it seemed to me to be too late to get on board. What value could be squeezed out of embarking on a show with 234 episodes already in the can, especially when the central ship had already set sail and a few of the major twists had already been spoiled for me? During a kind-of TV potluck party we had a couple of years ago, Kelly and Kim had me watch the season 2 episode “Aliens in a Spaceship.” And though I found it to be a harrowing and masterfully acted episode of TV, I enjoyed it as a one-off. That was that.
By the time I joined a new gym in my neighborhood, I had only seen two episodes of Bones ever. “Aliens” and the Bones half of the Sleepy Hollow crossover. I’d graduated from a community rec center located somewhere in the Dark Ages to a gym with actual TELEVISIONS on the machines. It was the middle of the day, and I’m not a talk show kind of person. I settled on a random syndicated episode of Bones, already in progress. I figured a murder case and the pretty people would distract me from the physical activity. Little did I know that this was a season finale I stumbled on. The season 5 finale, to be exact. Painfully aware of how little time I’d spent with Seeley Booth and Temperance Brennan by that point, I was still inconsolable when they said goodbye to each other at the airport and promised to meet on “their” bench in one year. Snotty sobs are not ideal for a cardio workout, I can tell you that.
I knew – though OUR time together had been short – theirs had definitely not been. Five years of context was not necessary to read the regret and affection on their faces. (Though HOO BOY, that context does make it 1000x worse.) I quickly alerted Team Bones on Twitter to my accidental emotional attachment, and I was done for. An immersion night was scheduled and a hit list was put together. No, I did not watch ALL 235 episodes of Bones this fall. But I watched the good ones, thanks to my savvy friends.
It wasn’t just the romantic farewell in that episode that caught my attention. All good Bones finales are Jeffersonian family affairs, and “The Beginning in the End” was no different. All of her colleagues come to see Dr. Brennan off. And I don’t know about you, but I’ve never worked anywhere that included a Bon Voyage committee. Anyway, the following exchange really got me, possibly because my only other pure Bones episode experience featured Hodgins and Brennan facing death side-by-side.
Hodgins: Okay, I made you this chart of all the poisonous reptiles and insects, what they look like, how to avoid them, and what to do if you get stung or bitten, so…
Brennan: Thank you, Dr. Hodgins. I love you, too.
Brennan: Booth informed me that proffering of overly solicitous advice is indicative of love.
Brennan can’t interpret the meaning of such gestures as easily as her friends. She needs Booth to tell her what it means if someone shows that they’ve put time and effort into something that will make her comfortable or keep her safe. That would make a lesser person feel unsure or self-conscious about showing affection. But Brennan doesn’t hesitate to return the sentiment. I stuck with Bones till the end for many reasons. But, let’s be honest, reason #1 was Dr. Temperance Brennan, a character who deserves as many tributes and thinkpieces as her premium cable counterparts. If she even HAS any premium cable counterparts.
I’m getting super ahead of myself. So, Bones is about the world’s most foremost forensic anthropologist and bestselling crime novel writer, Dr. Temperance Brennan (Emily Deschanel) and her FBI partner, Special Agent Seeley Booth (David Boreanaz). Brennan and her colleagues at the Jeffersonian Institute are whizzes with desiccated and often extremely gross remains. (Brennan is based loosely on IRL writer/anthropologist Kathy Reichs, a producer on the show.) Through their work in the lab, they can provide Booth with the identity of the victim, cause of death, and other physical evidence, all ideally leading to the killer. Bad guys get caught. Booth calls Brennan “Bones.” She pretends to hate it. The sexual tension is insane.
Sounds like a nice, cozy mom-show, doesn’t it? A couple of longing gazes, a solved case, and in bed before the 11 o’clock news? But what this brief synopsis of Bones doesn’t convey are the details that make the show exceptional. For me, it starts at the Jeffersonian, where LADIES are doing SCIENCE. In addition to Brennan, we have Dr. Camille Saroyan, the head of the institute’s forensic division and unflappable boss bitch. And then there’s Angela Montenegro, the artist and tech wizard who can pull actionable evidence out of almost thin air. The women on the team outnumber the male professionals at this world-renowned institution for ten of 11 seasons. They are freakishly intelligent and capable. Their authority is never questioned, because they are the best in their field. And they know it.
It’s not as if the men are sitting around picking ticks off of each other. They’re busy being the show’s nurturers. Booth and Brennan are complex individuals – no less so because they’re both so extraordinary. But if you must break it down the basics: Brennan is the head, Booth is the heart. I don’t understand how Booth subverts so many Alpha Male/TV cop stereotypes while simultaneously being a hot Alpha Male TV cop. (“Booth is a big, strong, hot guy who wants to save your life. I mean, you actually have a knight in shining FBI standard-issue body armor, so cut him some slack.”) Booth believes in everything that tired archetype does: that the system works; that America is the greatest country in the world; and that his role in it is to be a protector. But his nobility runs DEEP. Booth wants to hold onto things that he sees slipping away, but he won’t sacrifice his soul to keep them.
He’s already sacrificed enough already. Booth isn’t an FBI agent because he wants to run around with a gun. He does what he does because he’s literally trying to make up for the lives he took as a sniper in the Armed Forces. He’ll threaten a gang leader to protect her and still be damn proud of the way that Brennan can handle herself in a fight. And sure, Booth will puff his chest out at an ornery witness, but he’s a wreck any time he’s driven to exercise lethal force. Brennan understands how much that hurts him, and it’s a strong part of their bond.
I held my breath when I met Booth’s sexy girlfriend in the first season and hoped REALLY hard that I wouldn’t be put through a string of random hook-ups. Again, the show surprised me. BRENNAN is the show’s player, because she’s able to enjoy the pleasurable aspects of casual sex minus the emotional fallout. Booth is a soft marshmallow, who just wants to love and be loved. I could barely deal mid-series when the poor guy couldn’t even GIVE it away. Not to Parker’s mom, not to Hannah, and not – fuck everything – to Brennan. It left him broken for a while. Bones showed me a man experiencing real heartbreak and insisting on being allowed time to heal. “A good man” is a phrase applied over and over again to Booth by several characters. And I love that it recurs, because that’s what he is. Bones won me over first with these incredible, brilliant, varied, and DIVERSE women. Factor in that Booth is everything that is loving and positive about masculinity, and they’ve got me for life.
Perhaps the workplace romance isn’t as prevalent in real life as it is on the show. But if Bones is going to give the fans what they want by coupling up coworkers, then it’s going to do so in a way that challenges traditional gendered dynamics. Brennan, Angela, and Cam aren’t on the hunt for husbands by any stretch of the imagination. Brennan has anthropological reason to distrust monogamy, (canonically bisexual!) Angela would like the option to fly off to Paris at any moment, and Cam knows she’s a full person on her own. In the opposite corner, we’ve got Seeley “I’m that guy, Bones” Booth; Jack “I’m nuts about Angela” Hodgins; and Arastoo “I always wanted to be a husband and a father” Vaziri. There is wish fulfillment in the success of these relationships, even though they are troubled by outside circumstances. But I’ll take it, because it’s the kind of fantasy that treats both male and female characters with respect. A desire to be alone does not make a woman frigid. And men are fully capable of being professionally motivated and emotionally open at the same time.
I’m going to try very hard not to go overboard here, because we’ve got a Temperance Brennan appreciation post queued up for the final season. But I can’t fully explain myself without discussing her. I am STUNNED by how well written this woman is, and the fact that she’s not on every best character list that’s been created since 2005 is shocking to me. Also, Emily Deschanel should have shelves full of awards. I can only guess that it’s the stigma of a network genre show in a post-X-Files age that’s prevented it. I give Fox credit too, for greenlighting a show that revolves around a female character who has difficulty relating to people because of her brilliance without worrying over her “likability.” Once as I was gushing to her about it, Kim said to me, “I feel like Temperance Brennan is the character you’ve been waiting for your entire life.” “SHE IS,” I answered. “And she’s been here THE WHOLE TIME.”
I can’t relate to Brennan’s staggering intellect, but I can appreciate that she’s in a class by herself. I also went into Bones worried that Brennan’s experiences with Booth and rest would “fix” her – make her more palatable to the outside world and thus, a “better” heroine. Though she becomes more confident with her emotions over the course of the series – i.e., she stops announcing her hugs to Angie before she gives them – Brennan remains herself, because she was just fine to begin with. Extraordinary, as she would tell you. Women are conditioned to alter their behavior for the comfort of others. Brennan thinks that’s a waste of time. The world adjusts to her. Her friends respect her boundaries. They take her awkward shows of support, comfort, and love in the spirit in which they are given. The only appearance she cares about is her reputation as a scientist – and that’s not artifice, it’s fact. Let the whole world think she’s cold. Brennan isn’t bothered, as long as the people she loves know that she loves them.
It’s important to me too that Brennan’s left-of-center personality isn’t blamed on her upbringing. In “The Death of the Queen Bee,” she and Booth investigate a murder at her high school reunion. Average kids reacted to her as you’d expect; she was the morbid girl who preferred dissecting road kill with the creepy groundskeeper (played by Robert Englund aka Freddy Krueger) to attending pep rallies. And it’s funny because we can imagine what she was like and how much she confused her classmates. But it’s also sad that Brennan was so alone – for her, but also for the people who lost out on really knowing her. We shun people who have strange interests, and yet every society needs people who are willing to sit in a room with death. Brennan’s respect for the end point of all life IS her humanity; they are one and the same.
Anyway, Bones‘ entire Duck Family is made up abused children who refused to be hardened by their mistreatment at the hands of the adults who were meant to protect them. Shit is very real for Booth, Brennan, and their baby duck, Dr. Lance Sweets. Lance and Brennan find common ground in being victims of the system. It’s why Brennan is so intent on finding the lost, on giving these victims back their names. It’s why Sweets venerates Booth and Brennan’s relationship and can’t help but immortalize his friends – the parents and allies he wished every kid like him had had – in a book. Booth is who he is because he makes a decision every day not to be the father who was so weak he let his addiction and his cruelty turn him into a hateful person. Brennan claims to put no stock in psychology. But when Booth gets in his head about a case or his children, she’s the first to remind him that he is not that man.
These people – they don’t lean on the unfairness of life and expect it to hold their weight. They move forward, constantly. Because that’s what science does. You can find some great toys at the Jeffersonian; Hodgins and Zack performing “King of the Lab” experiments at the risk of Cam’s disapproving glare; and body parts stuck/floating/mashed-up in all manner of circumstances. But that’s just the practical. Unlike a certain long-running sitcom, Bones has a philosophy about its science. And Dr. Brennan underscores it in everything she does.
Hodgins: Up and forward are only two directions. Science should look in all directions. You taught me that.
Brennan: I did?
Brennan: Thank you.
We get a lot of mileage out of Brennan exasperating Uber-Catholic Booth with her habit of calling the Bible “a myth.” Her atheistic views don’t change. She’s studied world religions and will never be inclined to look at a god as anything other than a reflection of the people who created it. This isn’t a point of major contention between them, nor is it a plot point designed to make Brennan out to be spiritually bankrupt. Her faith is in reason. (And eventually, in Booth.) And as far as Bones is concerned, as long as you can hang your hat on SOMETHING, you’re good.
Booth: You know what it feels like to get your faith back?
Brennan: When I see effects and I’m unable to discern the cause, my faith in reason and consequence is shaken.
Booth: And then what happens?
Brennan: Two plus two equals four; I put sugar in my coffee and it tastes sweet; the sun comes up because the world turns. These things are beautiful to me. There are mysteries I will never understand. But, everywhere I look, I see proof that for every effect, there is a corresponding cause, even if I can’t see it. I find that reassuring.
Booth: And life is good again.
Brennan: *laughs* Life is very good.
There’s dignity and courage in putting stock solely in the facts and leaving your own bias aside. Brennan and her colleagues are determined to follow every lead to its end point, even if they’re afraid of what they might find. (They’ve even thoroughly investigated each other, on occasion.) Next to Booth and Brennan’s What Kind Of Soulmate Bullshit, their integrity is the heart of the show. And though the Squints do sometimes wonder what kind of long-term effect it will have on them to be surrounded by murder and decay on a daily basis, they’re just dismantling the aura of mystery and discomfort that usually accompanies death. We’re all the same in death. And if I ever bite it under strange circumstances, I want a team like this leaving no cervical vertebrae un-turned.
Here’s the problem though: When you require evidence to support every choice, how do you ever take a chance? I love a slow burn, but the wait for Booth and Brennan to figure themselves out was painful at times. I somewhat begrudgingly admit that it’s earned. And it is REVOLUTIONARY that none of their dancing around each other resulted in any girl-on-girl crime. When Cam arrives at the Jeffersonian, it’s known that she and Booth have a history. She and Brennan butt heads only about who has the authority in the lab. After Brennan rejects Booth and he falls in love with someone else, Brennan doesn’t let her regret for her choice poison her against Hannah. And Hannah doesn’t do the jealous girlfriend routine, despite what she knows. She and Brennan develop a genuine friendship, because they both exist separately from their relationship to Booth.
It all comes together eventually, because Booth and Brennan allow each other space and agency. (And because they’re both so damn pretty, but that’s beside the point.) We don’t find out until the 100th that Booth and Brennan have NEVER had plausible deniability. Their mutual attraction is out in the open on their very first case, and that actually explains a lot. But it’s a process to get to where they can trust themselves to take this risk again. It’s all connected: Brennan finding and rescuing the family she lost; Booth getting the closure he needs from his estranged parents and the mother of his child; losing Zack to his mental illness and Vincent to a senseless act of violence, even. Long before they sleep together, Booth and Brennan are prepared to die for each other. And never forget that Booth and Brennan owe so much to the people who believed they were more than the sum of their differences that they invited the psychic who predicted their union to their wedding. Nobody undergoes a personality transplant. They simply expand their lives to account for each other.
I’ve barely scratched the surface of my Bones feelings here, and Kim has a lot to say too. Consider this a preview of a very special Bones week, which we’re planning for the final season. In the meantime, why don’t you tell us why YOU love the show in the comments.