This post contains spoilers for episode 9.11, “The Spark in the Park,” of FOX’s Bones.
I didn’t watch every episode of every season of House, M.D., but I watched enough to appreciate the running ‘joke’ about a patient’s diagnosis never being lupus. It was one of those unwritten rules in TV in the naughts: 1) It’s never lupus; 2) The best known guest star is the killer; and 3) If there is no recognizable guest star, then the killer is the parent, spouse or equivalent figure of authority.
In tonight’s episode of Bones, a young woman’s body is found in a park by a couple taking a walk at night in the rain. (Presumably, they are a couple who wandered out of a horror film and were actually meant to die in the first five minutes.) They attempt to document the scene as they found it using a cell phone camera (including a crass decision on their part to take a selfie with the corpse to prove it to their kids), then place their massive umbrella over the corpse to “protect” it, which of course means the umbrella is struck by lightning, causing the body to explode.
Shortly after the forensics team from the Jeffersonian Institute arrive and begin investigating the corpse, which leads to a discovery that the young woman’s bones show signs of repeat fractures. The team jumps to the conclusion she was likely a victim of domestic abuse. Dr. Brennan and Agent Booth confront the woman’s father, a physicist played with a wonderful understated focus by Richard Schiff, with allegations of abuse and murder.
Further investigation leads them to accusing the young woman’s gymnastics coach, her gymnastics teammate, her drug dealer, a friend, that friend’s father, and her father again, for good measure. In the end, the killer was the young woman’s friend who was angry with her about – well, about something.
Truthfully, this week’s case wasn’t terribly memorable. Sure, the lightning strike-induced explosion was new, and the drug dealer’s attempt to argue his innocence was perhaps the funniest scene of the hour. For once, it wasn’t the parent or the significant other or the vaguely creepy/smarmy coach; for once, it could’ve been lupus.
But what the case lacked in unique elements, the episode made up for in its emotional thrust. A huge art of the characterization of Tempe Brennan depends on the audience accepting her genius as a forensic anthropologist going hand-in-hand with her inability to relate easily to other people.
As much as Brennan is now, nine seasons in, a wife and mother, she has not become a cuddly, softer forensic genius. Case in point: She still managed to annoy her best friend earlier this season by focusing on solving a murder rather than preparing for her wedding.
Despite this character trait, Emily Deschanel manages to give Brennan a vulnerability that cuts through the lack of emotion: Unlike other TV characters who are similarly unable to connect with other people (Abed Nadir, Sheldon Cooper), Brennan learns to recognize how her unflinching rationalism can put people off and has developed strategies for dealing with people who doubt the authenticity of her inner life. But this week’s episode highlighted that, while the rest of her team may wear their feelings on their sleeves, Brennan is not an anomaly.
As the grieving father of the young woman, Schiff (who will forever be Toby Ziegler to me) portrayed a physics professor who is every bit as emotionally absent as Brennan. In his first scene, where Brennan and Booth visit him to ask about his daughter, Booth questions whether his reaction is genuine as he doesn’t cry, shout or otherwise overtly react.
In a role reversal, Booth is increasingly belligerent in trying to provoke a response, while Brennan urges him to reign in his temper. Later, Brennan scolds Booth for not recognizing how the professor has buried himself in his work in response to both his wife’s death and now his daughter’s.
Brennan even visits the professor on her own, where she rightly concludes he is planning to kill himself now that he is alone; but she urges him, in her usual stilted way, to abstain from suicide as his death would cause the FBI to assume he had killed his daughter and stop investigating the murder.
Not until the final scene, when Brennan returns for a final time to the professor’s office, does either character display an emotional response. (Full Disclosure: I don’t normally cry over TV shows, unless it’s late at night during the holiday season, and I’ve stumbled across the Hallmark channel. But I cried at the end of “The Spark in the Park,” and I’m tearing up again now writing about it.)
Brennan finds the professor at work on a new series of equations, which she interprets with a little help: The young woman was born. She crawl. She was carried on her father’s shoulders. She learned to ice skate, to run, to jump on a trampoline. She started gymnastics, where she swung and twisted and flew in perfect arcs through space – perhaps like an angel, as Brennan says. The professor finishes the final equation – an object coming to rest – with the mathematical symbol for infinity. Brennan tells him his tribute to his daughter is the most beautiful thing she’s ever seen, and the look on his face makes it clear his equations pale in comparison to his daughter’s life.
I don’t know how often people actually are killed by a parent or a spouse or an authority figure they trust. If all I paid attention to were TV shows and movies, I’d probably be more afraid of my own family than anything else. And in an era where people seem all too eager to throw around words like sociopath, people who experience emotions in a non-traditional way seem to be given short shrift by our pop culture. This is true even of Brennan, whose stoicism and reliance on logic have often been the butt of a joke or the origin of conflict on Bones. Moreover, police procedurals often seem to focus on the villain and his or her motivation, not the hole that’s left in the lives of others when someone dies.
But as far as tributes go, a father chronicling his daughter’s joie de vivre in the language of the only thing he loved as much as his family is one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen.