The Moral Universe of Bones

Bones: Not just another police procedural.

Every work of fiction has an implicit moral universe: all writers and authors create a fictional world, and that world works according to their own notions of causality. How people act, why they act, and what happens to them as a result, all these are determined by the author and they proceed according to his beliefs and assumptions about reality.

The Game of Thrones, for example, depicts a far different moral universe than The Lord of the Rings. Anita Blake inhabits a very different moral universe than Harry Dresden. And the moral universe of Battlestar Galactica is drastically different from Star Trek’s, despite both being relatively soft science-fiction. (Also illustrative: James Bond’s movies, as compared to Killer Elite.)

A large part of the appeal of fiction comes from the values illustrated by a work’s moral universe; we tend to like works that are compatible with our own views of morality and reality. When a work has a weakly defined or conflicting moral universe, it can seem confused and ill-focused, and hence put off the audience.

This isn’t the same as theme, mind. The moral precepts of a fictional reality are more fundamental than theme, indeed these moral laws are what allows the theme to be illustrated. If the theme is “family secrets coming to light” (very Gothic), it’s the workings of the moral universe that demand or allow it to happen.

(They’re also what allow character arcs to happen. How does a character change? Why do they change? What do they start out as, and what do they become? The moral universe is what defines the causality that character arcs obey.)

A genre describes works that share common tropes and similar moral precepts. The Comics Code gave us “four color morality”, Western sagas depict vigilantism as necessary on the frontier, and the pulps shared a “two-fisted” ethos, in which bad guys were stopped by personal violence. Deconstructionist fiction attempts to subvert the moral framework of a genre (witness Unforgiven), presenting it as unrealistic or simply false.

[Ob. gaming reference: For a game, moral precepts are often explicit, witness Alignment rules. When defining the genre for your game, it pays to consider the moral framework the game occurs within, even if that framework isn’t codified mechanically.]

The moral framework of Bones is odd, to say the least. It’s not conflicting or confused, it’s just very different than that of most similar shows, typically labeled Police Procedurals (but which I refer to as mysteries).

Many Police Procedurals are strongly oriented towards justice: the killer is identified and  caught, nearly every episode. Detective work and evidence collection leads to victory over lawbreakers. The moral universe: Lawbreakers will usually be caught and punished, due to the efforts of the police.

The moral universe of Criminal Minds is very different, despite being (superficially) the same genre. According to Elizabeth Bear, Criminal Minds is “conducting [a] very high-level argument about nature versus nurture and good versus evil, with side trips into the existence of free will.” The moral universe of the show is arbitrary, cruel, and cold (though not so much as in other serial killer-centric media).

Bones’s moral universe is different yet again. Superficially similar to CSI (with a shared focus on scientific evidence gathering and analysis) and Criminal Minds (Bones also featuring serial killers who sometimes escape), Bones occupies a space I can best describe as magical realism.

Not that this is obvious. I, myself didn’t begin to piece it together until this season (it’s eighth). But three pieces of evidence make it apparent.

[Spoilers follow.]

The first clue came during Season 4’s “The Hero in the Hold”. FBI Agent Seeley Booth (David Boreanz, of Buffy: The Vampire Slayer and Angel fame) is trapped alone and has to escape, braving sealed chambers, the threat of drowning, and a massive bomb along the way. During his ordeal he is accompanied by the ghost of a dead friend, who alternately encourages and disagrees with him.

So far, nothing that can’t be explained away as a hallucination caused by exhaustion and great duress. Save that at the end of the episode Temperance “Bones” Brennan (the title character, played by Emily Deschanel) sees and greets the ghost, in a manner that cannot be explained away as a hallucination.

Supernatural event #1.

This season, “The Ghost in the Machine” was an entire episode filmed from the point of view of the skull of a slain boy. Avalon, a psychic (played by Cindi Lauper), insists that the boy’s spirit resides in his bones, and will until his unfinished business is laid to rest.

We see, perhaps through the eyes of the boy’s ghost, as the team gradually pieces together the cause of his death, but even solving the case doesn’t end the episode. It’s only when the team discovers hidden evidence, and ensures that this final message is delivered, that the show ends and, perhaps, the boy’s spirit has been freed.

Supernatural event #2.

“Once is happenstance, twice coincidence, thrice enemy action.” And “The Shot in the Dark”, broadcast just over a week ago, marks the third occurrence of the supernatural, proving supernatural action.

During the episode Bones nearly dies, several times, after being shot. Each time she does, she finds herself talking to her dead mother, in a place that’s strongly hinted to be Heaven. Again, nothing that couldn’t be explained as a hallucination, until the last, when her mother reveals a secret. When she reawakens, her father tells her “No one knew that except me.”

In all three cases, the supernatural element is light, even explicable. Unlike, for instance, Supernatural (which has its own very strongly depicted moral universe). Bones has never struck me as strongly charactered (unlike the thematic coherence displayed by Breaking Bad). Yet the trend and conclusion is clear: for all its reliance on science, and in stark defiance of Brennan’s strongly avowed atheism, Bones has a touch of the supernatural.

I have no idea where the writers are going with this, or indeed if they have any destination in mind at all. But the supernatural elements are an oddity, in a genre otherwise bound up with deductive reasoning, evidence, and an indifferent universe. Bones’ moral universe stands out all the more starkly because of that.

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One thought on “The Moral Universe of Bones

  1. On the other hand, the supernatural elements are in thematic support of the series’ contrast of logical empiricism versus intuitive emotion. Unlike a lot of shows with this contrast, neither side is treated as superior or inferior. In fact, especially in recent seasons, the message seems to be the need for a balance between the two.

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