The Supernatural vs. the Supersensible: ‘Bones’ and “The Pathos in the Pathogens”

No crime scene this week, no body dump … we begin with biohazard containment.

A blogger has been killed by an unknown pathogen and dumped in a pile of veterinary waste. Her fiance, a source in the pharmaceutical industry, and a drug-developing horse owner, Bryan Fuller, are the links and suspects. After it is determined that the pathogen is not airborne everyone relaxes a bit, but upon moving the body Dr. Arastoo Vaziri is pricked by a hidden needle, infected with the same disease that killed the blogger, and it is a race against time to identify the disease, find the killer, and acquire a cure. All the rest is window-dressing, which is, alas, a problem, even though the episode does successfully tug at our heartstrings to the point of moving us like the empathetic little marionettes we are.

This has me thinking less of Kleist and more of Schiller. My thoughts on ‘Bones’, this episode, and Schiller’s “On the Pathetic” as a lens through which to view such television follow.

Further views and reviews:

It’s the penultimate episode of the season. It’s intense. It tries to be “gross”. It also encapsulates so much of what is wrong with ‘Bones’, especially in season 8.

I.

‘Bones’ had already been running several years before I got into it my final or perhaps penultimate year in Madison. In a post-‘BSG’ and end-of-‘LOST’ phase — when post-‘LOST’ fare like ‘Happy Town’ dropped the ball and other high-concept shows never got their narratives together (I’m looking at you, ‘Flash Forward’ and, later, ‘The Event’) — I settled on some comfort-TV … I could power-through the back catalogs and have entertaining but mostly mindless formula to watch several nights a week. Thus: ‘Bones’, ‘House’, even ‘Castle’ … and more.

What ‘Bones’ and ‘House’ share is a bit of that quirky investigator vibe. It steps ‘Monk’ up a notch. It’s what USA was trying to do with ‘Medical Investigation‘ … you have a somewhat antisocial protagonist (they’re either on the spectrum, traumatized, just jerks … something) whose problems with normal social interactions are tied to their brilliance. It’s an interesting dynamic: they’re enough of ‘outsiders’ and ‘others’ that we don’t exactly want to be them; they’re not POV characters. They don’t live a ‘Chuck’ or ‘Castle’-like fantasy. They often but not always seem molded on something Sherlock Holmes-esque, except that that level of eccentricity comes more from later portrayals than from Conan Doyle’s works. The dynamic was reinforced with the superior ‘Sherlock’ and ‘Elementary’: quirky, brilliant, off-putting genius paired with mundane, grounded, smart-in-their-own way POV figure.

Of course ‘Bones’ was not just stamped from a template. It has its origins in Kathy Reichs’ Temperance “Tempe” Brennan novels (beginning with Déjà Dead from 1997), and those then have parallels to Reichs’ life and profession. Yet perhaps ‘Bones’ has more in common with the formula than with its supposed source material: Brennan’s alcoholism in the books is removed, the action is relocated to Washington, D.C. (from Quebec), her previous marriage and her adult daughter are removed, etc. Instead in the television show Brennan has family mystery with a criminal father, death mother, traumatic foster home childhood, and so on. And Brennan in the television show is evidently based more on Reichs than the Brennan of the novels; in the television show Brennan is the author of novels featuring a protagonist named Kathy Reichs.

How meta.

What I — and I suppose many others — liked about it from the beginning was that while it was a crime procedural, it belonged to that breed of “forensics” shows — like the CSIs of the world, ‘House’, and more — that inferred complex stream of events (they like using the expression ‘deduce’ and the logician in me — and others, I’m sure — rebels at this manner of speaking) from bits and pieces of evidence. Unlike the L&Os, these shows were ‘geeky’ … they seemed to love science, the protagonist was a scientist, the sidekicks were scientists, there was an explicitly materialist approach, technology was utilized and not just a backdrop to be abused. By choice of subject matter and approach it came across as ‘smart’.

But I was not and am not opposed to good, ol’ fashioned drama … even melodrama, soap opera, and the like. ‘Bones’ introduced arcs and then something akin to ‘mythology’. The sidekicks were colorful. There’s a ridiculous fantasy element to it all as well, as all the main sidekicks are flawless except for quirks … a rich conspiracy theorist scientist who can do everything, a sensual artist who can be the best friend and who happens to be a world-class hacker, etc. The lesser recurring lab-rats were always brilliant but defined by one or two personality traits. And then one of them went and became apprentice to a serial killer … oh Zack, how we miss you! Ah, the Gormogon.

As with many such shows part of the fun is figuring out who did it, how, and why before the reveal at the end. It becomes relatively easy to do and then it becomes a game for two as you square off and provide random theories as the episode progresses. It could be a drinking game. But if the formula is used too often and it becomes entirely predictable, the joy even in ironic engagement is lost.

But at least there’s the gore …

… and like ‘House’ ‘Bones’ was that rare show with an openly atheist protagonist who had little time for the prayer, ritual, and superstitions of weekly suspects, victims, and the like. Their religion should be treated as anthropological material for study, not as metaphysical reality.

But you’re an episodic show with signs of the serial. There’s no master arc or narrative and you’ll go on as long as your numbers are okay and they renew you. You quickly run out of stories to tell, even if the ways to kill and dump a body, or the number of diseases and syndromes and the like are nearly unlimited. When ‘House’ jumped the shark it first had a slow decline with moments of ‘let’s try something new’ before the writers just seemed to give up, the actors showed up just to collect a paycheck, and the show itself couldn’t even be bothered to crash and burn. High production values hid its inanity. ‘Bones’ was never that great and perhaps never had a real shark-jumping moment, though one could trace it to the resolution of the Gormogon, of Booth and Bones getting together … it’s hard to say.

You’re an episodic show with signs of the serial … you must have the illusion of change in order to maintain a feeling of the dynamic, of tension, that there are stakes, but it must remain an illusion because you need consistency. Viewers tune in for the same thing every week. Or at least twenty-two times a year.

II.

These shows get to flirt with any number of genres. That may be their strength.

When I think of good television I think of the best sit-coms and well-written serialized drama. The latter tends to have arcs, start and stop points, and so on. Real changes can occur. We think of ‘LOST’ but these days especially of ‘Mad Men’. Of ‘Breaking Bad’. Perhaps of the season-long arcs of ‘Veronica Mars’, and more recently mini-series like ‘Top of the Lake’ and ‘Rectify’. But that’s AMC and the Sundance Channel. There’s HBO and Showtime, and we get highest-production-value and high-concept, prestige shows like ‘Game of Thrones’, ‘Walking Dead’, and ‘Boardwalk Empire’, shows that, like ‘Mad Men’, also function as modern day ‘events’ … things people might actually talk about around the water cooler.

If people still have office water coolers. Or talk around them.

Those shows are fixed in their genres. They have specific stories to tell. Of course there is flexibility. And then there are genre shows that operate not infrequently not merely episodically but as anthology shows; there are a few central characters but they function in a sense as a framing an perspective device for the story, which involves the guest stars. Such was ‘The X-Files’ during many of its monster-of-the-week episodes. And so was a show like ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’ (and especially the more episodic ‘Original Series’); these were frequently stories that could have been told in other fictional universes and the ‘truths’ they told were not specific to the Federation or the FBI.

Crime procedurals like ‘Bones’ belong nominally to one genre, but as television shows that’s just their facade. They are ‘hour long’ (42 minutes?) advertising anchors that tell a little bit of a continuing story, contain recurring characters, work most of the time within a formulaic framework, and are mostly episodic and able to tell stories that could occur on almost any other show. They can do musicals. Pure action-oriented chase episodes. Courtroom drama, family drama, suspense, a thriller, and so on. They’re dramatic chimeras and chameleons; their DNA is mixed and they can blend into their narrative surroundings.

This, I think, is a strength.

Or at least can be.

At least if you are telling interesting stories. That’s the advantage of a science-fiction show; you get interesting stories merely by asking “what if?” You can be with “Imagine that …” and explore from there. And even if your stories are inconsequential, you can focus on storytelling. You could focus on world-building. Or on character development.

These shows have nominal genres but can do just about any kind of story. But what they do not frequently do? Actual comedy or tragedy. They do laughs, they do light-hearted laughter and funny situations; they do death and suffering, loss and injustice. But they do not do comedy or tragedy. In the best of each there is a deep intertwining of plot and character so that even with a situation being ‘given’ in a sense, how events unfold depend on what character (decide to) do, how they act, not just react. A problem in these shows is that characters function as plot surrogates; they reveal information and they help the plot move forward, but their actions either help or hinder the plot, they are good decisions or bad decisions … but they are not decisions that structure the world and the story. They do not change anything, and their actions have limited consequences. If the character in important enough what they do can be undone or swept under the rug. These characters do not “get in too deep”, for example.

III.

At the end of season 7 ‘Bones’ sought to inject new momentum and dramatic impetus to the show by bringing back Andrew Leeds as Christopher Pelant, a murderous hacker who can outsmart the team at the Jeffersonian. Bones gets framed for a murder and she and her father, Max, go into hiding. We return to this cliffhanger at the beginning of season 8, resolving most everything but Pelant gets away. Midseason Pelant returns again and he’s scheduled once more for the finale. He’s a villain who taunts our regulars and is tech-savvy enough to frighten them and put them in danger … at least until the plot requires that they beat him.

Beating Pelant midseason meant that Hodgins had to sacrifice his fortune. The whole season, though, has been built around big gestures, about high-concept manipulation. In “The Patriot in Purgatory” (episode 6), for example, the show does its 9/11 episode; it’s mainly about finding the identity of a ‘war hero’ who was injured near the Pentagon on 9/11 and everybody coming together to ‘honor’ him. Tears are jerked. “The Ghost in the Machine” brings back Cyndi Lauper to help figure out what led to the death of a 14-year-old boy; the case is straight-forward, except it focuses on the boy as a ghost of sorts who can’t let go … more tears are jerked. “The Doll in the Derby” gives us Booth being especially ‘good’ but not wanting recognition; it’s a very-special-episode about children with Neurofibromatosis (NF). “The Survivor in the Soap” provides African genocide and war crimes. Messages are conveyed.

On the character front the supernatural intrudes upon Bones’ life. We have the Cyndi Lauper episode, which jettisons both a materialist world to coincide with Bones’ scientific rationality as well as the tension between Bones’s rationalism and Booth’s religious fervor in favor of a hokey New Age spiritualism. Episode later when Bones is shot she meets the ghost of her mother, and while the show pretends that it could be interpreted as a hallucination, the special ‘knowledge’ she brings back from her mother and provides to her father suggests that the spirit-visit was ‘real’.

‘Bones’ has become just another ‘Ghost Whisperer’, ‘Medium’, or ‘Tru Calling’. Call it ‘Highway to Brennan’.

But none of this is about character development, characterization, or pathos. It’s about upping the amp to 11, it’s about Sturm und Drang (and I do love my Sturm und Drang, especially when it’s of the rather radical 1770s variety … not just watered down schmaltz with side of kitsch), it’s about over manipulation of the audience.

Television is illusion and all is surface, so of course it is shallow; but your audience can either be in on the joke, or the joke can be on your audience. Here it has become the latter.

IV.

When I think of the emotion on the screen or stage my mind flows back to Schiller and his essay “Über das Pathetische” (On the Pathetic, 1793). Here I’ll quote from William F. Wertz, Jr.’s translation and I cite a few points.

The text begins, “Representation of suffering — as mere suffering — is never the end of art, but, as means to its end, it is extremely important to the same. The ultimate end of art is the representation of the super sensuous […]” It is not about suffering for the sake of suffering; suffering in art is used for a reason, and in particular it fits with a more widely used motif in Schiller’s aesthetic writings: that of resistance. For Schiller it is in resistance and struggle that the beautiful and the sublime both are found. The beautiful is not freely draped; it must assert and exert itself; the pathetic (which can lead to the sublime) is not about suffering itself, but about a tension between being subject to natural laws and yet being able to assert one’s freedom through will. Likewise it is not the simple or easy dominance of the will over nature; it is only through an engagement and struggle with that it becomes meaningful. The greater the suffering, the greater the forces acting against a person/character, and the greater will required to resist.

Schiller understands that there is no conquering ‘the natural’; in the end death will come to all; all ‘victories’ are but temporary and therefore not of great significance when they are merely matters of will ‘overcoming’ the natural. ‘Will’ is limited in this regard, and as will is what differentiates man from animal, the limitation of will is a limitation of the human, of one’s humanity, so argues Schiller in “Über das Erhabene” (On the Sublime). The recourse Schiller proposes is a kind of dialectical move not dissimilar to that found in Hegel, to dissolve the relationship and move beyond it, and with regard to will and nature he writes:

He ought, however, to be Man without exceptions, therefore, in no case suffer something against his will. Can he therefore no longer oppose to the physical forces a proportional physical force, so nothing else remains left to him, in order to suffer no violence, than: to annul altogether a relation, which is so disadvantageous to him and to annihilate as a concept the violence, which he must in fact suffer. To annihilate violence as a concept, however, is called nothing other, than to voluntarily subject oneself to the same.

The how of subjecting oneself voluntarily to that violence is another matter, and the matter of “On the Sublime“; the subject of “On the Pathetic” is suffering and resistance to it. He continues, in Wertz’ translation:

Pathos is therefore the first and unrelenting demand upon the tragic artist, and it is permitted him, to carry the representation of suffering so far as it can be done, without disadvantage to his intimate end, without oppression of moral freedom.

It is not just permitted but required of him — the tragic artist — to pile on the suffering so as to test the limits of the sufferer, to see whether it is true suffering or something else. That ‘something else’, Schiller argues and complains, was found in the classical French tragedies, where one encountered “only the cold, declamatory poet […] the frigid tone of declamation suffocates all true nature and their worshiped decency makes it altogether completely impossible for the French tragedians to portray humanity in its truth.” Schiller contrasts the French and their decency with the ancient Greeks: “How completely different are the Greeks […] Never is the Greek ashamed of nature, he leaves sensuousness its full rights and is, nevertheless, certain that he will never be subjugated by it.” This ‘deep understanding’ allows the Greek to know the difference between essence and accident and cast off the accidental, such as leaving aside clothes that merely — elsewhere in the name of decency — hide what is necessary, true, and essential. The naked form is no source of shame, and false modesty and insult masquerade as suffering.

Schiller provides rules or laws of tragic art, “The first law of tragic art was representation of suffering nature. The second is representation of the moral resistance to suffering.” Again it is this two-part motif where what he is looking for emerges from the coming together of these forces. And is is suffering and resistance, not mere emotional outpouring, that is of interest; these lead, as Schiller argues, only to the ‘agreeable’; “They merely delight the senses through dissolution or relaxation and merely refer to the outer, not to the inner state of man.” The culprits for Schiller? Romances and tragedies, “especially the so-called dramas […] and of the popular family portraits”. One might suspect that most of our modern television dramas and our soap operas would belong here, too. But Schiller is not interested merely in heavy feelings or such feeling: “all […] are also excluded, which merely torment the sense”.

The essay continues; this all appears in the first few pages. Matters of the natural versus supernatural, instinct and animal nature, freedom, specific examples from art/literature, good taste, and more appear. He analyzes and categorizes, but also synthesizes and evaluated. Yet throughout he returns to the motif of a dual nature: “In all pathos must therefore the sense through suffering, the mind through freedom, be interested.”

V.

It is of course not at all clear that Schiller’s observations, analysis, and program have any bearing on a show like ‘Bones’. Schiller wrote mainly about drama and poetry, to a lesser extent about sculpture, and neither film nor television were media that existed. Even if we posited television dramas as an evolution of stage plays, the stage has changed so much in the two hundred years since Schiller that it’s not at all clear his observations would be of value. And even if we take them of value as applied to the problem domain, in “On the Pathetic” as in “On the Sublime” his main interest is ‘tragic art’, and it’s not at all clear that the tragic has anything to do with ‘Bones’. Or ‘Bones’ with the tragic.

Yet on the other hand it is not that ‘Bones’ is or wishes to be tragic; it’s that it pretends at being more than mere entertainment, and Schiller’s analysis, while specifically focused on the tragic, more generally concerns itself with representations of suffering for the sake of engaging in ideas. At the beginning Schiller cites the presentation of the “super sensuous” as the ultimate end of art. This “super sensuous” — the “Übernatürliche”, that which is above or beyond nature, aka the “supersensible” — is the “supernatural”, but not necessarily in the sense of ghosts, spirits, or the divine. but insofar as it is outside the parameters of the senses of the sensible. It is in danger of being poorly defined or defined only as a negative, as that which is not natural, not defined or constrained by natural, scientific laws. It begs the question and we spend time defining and redefining it, working on the assumption that it is in the first place. But granting that assumption, access to the super sensuous is two-fold: [1] in a Kantian model, just as Nature goes together with concepts and natural laws, the super sensuous goes hand in hand with ideas (“concepts of reason” versus “concepts of understanding”) and in particular with freedom; [2] the super sensuous is accessed indirectly and negatively in any phenomena not explainable by way of reduction to the natural (almost a ‘god of the gaps’ approach against strict reductionism, but that’s neither here nor there). While hoping not to reduce the super sensuous to banality — in this case either the trivial or the kitschy –, we might say that we approach it when we deal with that which is beyond direct, concrete portrayal and when we deal with that which is not derivable from limited axioms. We suggest it when trying to ‘represent the unrepresentable’. It echoes those things that might be reasonable but not easily justified, and those that are unreasonable yet still filled with a sense of meaning.

When Brennan gets a fuzzily focused and shot encounter with her ghost-mom, when Cyndi Lauper sees dead people ‘Bones’ engages the supernatural and reduces it to mere kitsch. When it makes Bones’ ghost encounter ‘real’ it is a slap the face to the audience; it’s changing the rules eight seasons in. When it drapes flags over veterans who were never characters in the first place for the sake of a ratings boost and concludes that a daredevil boy died a stupid death but he was in love with this one girl and now that she knows it he can go happily to his afterlife we see the wheels of manipulation, we might even tear up, but we had better be offended.

And when Dr. Vaziri became infected with a deadly pathogen during this most recent episode the writers took the cheapest and easiest path. It’s just another death that needs to be investigated until he is infected. In fact, all the drama thrust upon us by the biohazard suits dissolves once it’s determined the pathogen is not airborne. There are other potential race-against-the-clock scenarios — after all, this could be a matter of bio-terrorism (and it sort of is … off-screen and foiled) — to keep the tension high, but instead the show takes a weighty matter of science, technology, and our ever-smaller-and-tighter-world and reduces it to the story of losing a recurring character.

A recurring character. Not a lead. If Dr. Vaziri died, it would be a blip at best, a way to write out a character and liberate or eliminate an actor. It would be forgotten next season. That is: this close to the end of the season it would not matter whether or not he died. His death would be uninteresting on its own, though his loss could motivate Cam to leave, traumatized as she would be by the loss of her lover — and with her daughter already college-aged –, so that her character could be written off. Dr. Vaziri would just be a cog in the works. Live or die … what does it matter?

So perhaps not the life or death, but the suffering is of interest, but does he suffer? We have one moment when, given a potential treatment, his heart races and he suffers a kind of seizure; he rolls his eyes and shakes as one does on TV to signify such an event. He turns to his side, Cam gives him an injection, he returns to peacefulness, and his heart rate stabilizes. At other points we are told of his condition, of his fever, of how few hours he has remaining. He is an object of suffering, not a suffering subject. Others around him “suffer”; Cam suffers the potential loss of someone she loves; other characters are his friends, but why is his story any more important than that of other recurring characters? We have little investment in him. It’s a cruel twist — of ‘fate’ if you will — that Dr. Vaziri becomes ill; it was in the performance of his work, it was not due to carelessness … but the responsibility for it lies outside him and his decisions and so while ‘sad’ it’s hard to see it as ‘tragic’. If the story is about Dr. Vaziri becoming ill and the race to treat him lest he die, etc., and if secondarily — or even primarily — it is about Cam dealing with his loss, then the entire plot about about bio-terrorism, about solving a murder and going through suspects is not only extraneous and distracting but also grotesque.

Yet … let us assume the ‘real story’ is about the virus, who developed it and unleashed it and the murder of the blogger — or the murder of the blogger is a catalyst for unraveling a spiraling and terrifying tale of this threat of outbreak and our protagonists’ near-impotence in the face of this threat … then Dr. Vaziris’ tale exists only to make this ‘personal’ … yet ‘personal’ in a way that applies only to an entirely marginal character, and not even one the others had marginalized recently so as to lead them to feeling guilty about their behavior as they are about to lose him. No: he’s a plot device.

Another yet: yet I see other options for engaging and dramatic storytelling when looking at these plot parts. It’s a story that has already been told before but can be told well again … what about when the ‘external’, ‘objective’ job of analysis, threat assessment, and truth finding encounters the world of the ‘personal’, the ‘subjective’, and the ‘valuable’? What happens when ‘nature’ meets ‘will’? And when Dr. Vaziri the subject who studies objects becomes the object of study, when and if he is dehumanized … or whether it is necessary to dehumanize him in order to save him or at least learn the truth? We’ve seen better versions of this story before in similar shows, such as an early-season two-parter in which Foreman becomes infected while investigating a case; most importantly, we see him transition from controlling, supposedly objective researcher into self-observer into mere object that has lost autonomy. In a show that did actually kill or otherwise eliminate significant characters we could convince ourselves that a lead might die or otherwise suffer character-altering effects … the side effects of his illness lasted only an episode or two until they were ignored, though there were callbacks to that story much later.

Moving from suffering at least to the realm of decision making the episode offers another potential direction: what will our rules-minded, rational-world characters do to save one of their own? We start going down this road: Hodgins explores herbal folk remedies, Booth convinces a source of information — later revealed to be the perpetrator (duh-duh …) — to break an oath of confidentiality, and toward the end Brennan bluffs the villain by stabbing him with a syringe and claiming that he is now infected as well and had better provide them with the cure. (Aside: it works) Elsewhere we see Sweets being more manipulative as an interviewer/interrogator than we’ve seen before (a week after seeing him up against someone in therapy who sees through his obvious lines of questioning). Is this revealing the monsters beneath the civilized surfaces of these characters, or is this leading them to compromise sincerely held principles? Either way, especially if there are consequences for them, this is a road to take.

But even in the most extreme case there seems there will be no consequences for Brennan after she stabbed a suspect. She reveals that it was a bluff, which we already knew based upon earlier dialog in the episode, and since she did not kill the villain, we are left with a hollow “I would have” type moment.

That moment, though, echoes back to an earlier stage in the episode that could have tied into this. Angela informs Sweets that the murdered blogger was having an affair with Fuller the horse owner, and that she accidentally sent an email meant for Fuller her fiance. Motive for murder? they wonder. Of course. And if Hodgins had done this to Angela? she’d not only want to kill him but would kill him. We ought to test those convictions. The characters here talk a lot but don’t have to carry through. Bones echoes those sentiments with only a minute to go; she would have used a live, cultured virus if she had had one (“Oh, I know,” Booth chuckles) … for the second time we make light of convictions to kill because it would suit our notions of means-ends or revenge.

Might there be delayed consequences? Might Dr. Vaziri or Cam actually leave? Could Cam face repercussions for the outing of her relationship with Dr. Vaziri (to the extent that it is outed further here)? It’s possible, as I don’t know the casting situation for the next season. Might somehow a murderer bring a lawsuit against Brennan or the FBI for being stabbed and might this play out in the season finale? Stranger things have happened, but it seems unlikely. Evidently the finale brings back Christopher Pelant, perhaps finally to bring his long ‘arc’ to a close … one can only hope.

Then again, for Kant one of the four central questions — besides “what can I know?”, “what must I do?”, “what is the human being?” — was “what may I hope?” That again takes us in the direction of the supersensible.

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