Fighting with the Sky

Bones: The Devil in the Details

Posted on: February 6, 2010

This week’s episodes of Bones made me feel a little uneasy.  There are sometimes that I can’t quite get a handle on the intentions of the writers.  In this episode, the team is investigating the death of man with horns who is found on fire on an altar in a church.  Don’t worry, the horns were coral implants, not real horns.  It turns out that the victim was the patient at a mental hospital where he as being treated for schizophrenia.  Brennan, Booth, and Sweets spend a lot of time at the mental hospital interviewing patients, staff, and doctors.

The intern on this case is Mr. Vaziri, the Muslim intern whose story lines always center around him being Muslim, and this episode was no exception.  While Mr. Vaziri is explaining his belief in Satan, he makes a comment about looking at the Devil everyday.  Of course, Cam takes this to mean “The Great Satan,” as in how some Muslims refer to America.  But, as you can imagine, he is just talking about how he has to wrestle with a past decision that haunts him everyday and that he sees evil/the Devil in himself because of this.

So, where to start with this episode.  It seemed like they just wanted to have a bunch of things that Dr. Brennan doesn’t agree with and doesn’t see reason in in one episode: religion and psychology.  Let’s start with religion.  Now, I’m not a religious person.  There are a lot of things that I don’t understand about religion.  But I always feel uncomfortable when Booth, the faithful Catholic, and Brennan argue about religious beliefs, which happened a number of times throughout this episode.  I did like at the end, however, when Booth and Brennan were talking about faith and Dr. Brennan talked about her faith in reason in much the same way as Booth talked about his faith in God and church.  I think this put Dr. Brennan’s beliefs in a light that Booth could understand and also helped Dr. Brennan understand Booth’s beliefs a tiny bit better.

And then there’s the portrayal of Islam on the show.  How many episodes has there been an instance where one of the team members, usually Cam, thinks that Mr. Vaziri hates Americans and Christians because he is Muslim.  There are at least two that I can think of off the top of my head and that already seems a little unnecessary.  One I can understand: Cam has to learn her lesson about assuming things about Islam and Muslims.  But two.  Really?  And there have probably been smaller situations that I can’t think of off the top of my head right now.

One thing that frustrates me about Bones is that I can sometimes not tell when the writers are trying to make some sort of social commentary by playing into stereotypes or if the writers are just writing these stereotypes without thinking much about it.  I like to think that they are trying to make a social commentary, but I’m not always sure.  And not everybody would see it as social commentary.  Some people would agree with the assumption that Cam jumped to during this episode, where as I just assumed that he had some sort of dark past that he regretted (which is what the case was) and that’s why Cam was freaking out.  I just can’t tell sometimes what the writers are intending for people to get out of their story lines.

Now, onto psychology.  When it comes to the psychology vs. sociology debate, I would probably fall far onto the side of sociology.  But that doesn’t mean that I don’t have respect for psychology and the work that psychologists/psychiatrists do on a daily basis.  Dr. Brennan, on the other hand, has very little respect for the field or the people that work in the field.  I liked what Dr. Copeland (the head of the mental hospital) said to Dr. Brennan: that he helps people on a daily basis who are living in hell and that is probably a more noble profession than finding out what happened to dead people who are already past pain and suffering.  I think it really put Dr. Brennan in her place and made her realize that there could be some value in the work of psychiatry.

And speaking of mental hospitals, can we talk about the portrayal of mental illness in this episode.  Booth kept referring to the mental hospital as the “loony bin,” which is already insulting, and then asked why people weren’t in straight jackets when they got there.  I think that the writers were trying to break down some of the assumptions about mental illness and mental hospitals with Booth making remarks like this and how they differed from their portrayal of the mental hospital, but they didn’t do a great job.  They really didn’t do a good job at showing how people with mental illness can function on their own.  All the people in the background were usually just shown with a blank stare on their face doing absolutely nothing or fighting nurses.  I know that this is the case for some people and for some mental institutions, but I didn’t really think it was necessary for the show.  Especially watching this episode with my mom, who is a psychologist and has worked in a mental hospital, she pointed out all the things that wouldn’t really be done in a mental hospital and how the portrayal was largely inaccurate.

All in all, I was really disappointed with the stereotypes that this episode perpetrated, even if they were intended for social commentary.  They weren’t always read as social commentary and I think that they were subtle enough that not everyone would realize that they were trying to be social commentary.  In the end, they just ended up being stereotypes.

Also check out meloukhia’s review up at this ain’t livin’.


5 Responses to "Bones: The Devil in the Details"

I think you make a good point here about the intent of the creators; this show sometimes embeds problematic thoughts/attitudes/language into the characterization, because it’s appropriate for the characters, while the episode itself isn’t necessarily problemtic. However, as you point out, for some viewers that might be a difficult distinction to see.

In this episode, we had Booth being ignorant, which I didn’t mind because that’s how he is, but the surrounding episode was ALSO ignorant, which showed me that Booth’s attitudes were not necessarily a commentary on the treatment of people with mental illness.

This episode definitely left me with a bitter taste in my mouth.

I think Bones suffers from a disconnect between the intention and the execution. I think the intent (not just this episode, but over the entire show), especially with Booth’s observations, is to present a common misconception or stereotype and then have the more scientific characters smack them down and explain why what the average person thinks isn’t correct. But it’s not done with a particularly graceful pen, so it comes off clunky and awkward. I appreciate that they at least make an effort, but I don’t think it does any good due to limitations on the writing staff.

To clarify, my last sentence would be more accurate if I said “due to limitations OF the writing staff” as the limitations exist within their abilities, not from an outside force as my original sentence suggests.

I think a lot of the mess in this episode came from Critical Research Failure, too. Brennan in particular has always drawn a distinction between psychology (the factors that influence people regardless of neuroatypicality or mental illness or what have you) and psychiatry. She always accepts brain chemistry as existing and having a wide variation, to the point where we’ve heard her recommend antidepressants to people. If she’d been confounded by the way that the two kinds of treatments often work best together, that would have been in character, but this was just a choice not to understand that was not like her at all, and deprived the show and the audience of alternative viewpoints to “look at the mentally ill folks, aren’t they wacky!

(here via meloukhia)

I am often extremely frustrated with the conservative moral values that the writers of Bones try to push, often masked in a simplistic discussion of “both sides.” I was rather surprised in this episode though that they seemed to have somewhat subverted two rather egregious stereotypes. I only give the show credit for this in the context of how much I think Bones generally has very conservative politics. The first as you mentioned was Vaziri when he humanized an Iraqi insurgent (I found this surprising since the show is generally very pro war) and the second was with the Black drug dealer, who wasn’t doing it for money but to actually help patients. I’m not sure if I’m reading more into this out of hopefulness or if it is was actually subverting racist stereotypes.

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