No procedural lasts as long as Bones has by being good at surprising the audience. NCIS, Law & Order, and the like are all excellent at providing variations on a pretty simple formula. Even the off-format episodes of these shows are usually just weirder variations on a theme of the “Brennan is trapped in a capsule in the desert” variety. At a certain point, shows that have been around for almost a decade can’t, and probably shouldn’t, pull off anything that really does buck the formula. That’s part of why “The Shot In The Dark,” which tries hard to be something truly off-format for Bones, feels so weird.
In a very special episode, Brennan gets shot and sees visions of her mother, Christine (Brooke Langton), which could either be hallucinations or an honest to God trip to heaven. That premise sounds pretty hokey, but could at least provide some interesting character work for Brennan—if there wasn’t so much else going on. More of the episode is given over to the hunt for Brennan’s shooter than her adventures in “heaven.” The episode also somehow takes time to check in on the aftermath of Sweets and recent addition Olivia Sparling sleeping together.
Booth and Brennan begin “The Shot In The Dark” with a textbook argument playing off the core elements of their relationship. Booth wants to take Brennan and baby Christine on a fishing trip, while Brennan is mystified at the idea since baby Christine won’t remember the trip when she’s older and should prefer the comforts of home. Brennan storms off thinking Booth has called her a bad mother (in a fit of passion the character might not have had in the first few seasons) and is mysteriously shot, leaving the team to investigate while Brennan’s father Max returns for moral support. The hunt for Brennan’s shooter is pared down to make room for the Christine scenes, to the point where it makes even less sense than a normal Bones case (there’s a blood bullet!).
The clutter of “The Shot In The Dark” is most evident in the awful special effects used to create the heaven-like place where Brennan meets her mother. The gold light in the transitions between heaven and Earth is silly and frequent, as is Brennan’s magical dissolution from the house when she’s revived. Worst of all, Brennan floats out of the Heaven House when she tries to escape, and is completely coincidentally revived during her surgery. Calling attention to the artifice of Brennan’s visions makes any sort of emotional investment in Brennan’s conversation with her mother that much harder.
Of course, those scenes are difficult to swallow because they boil down to the use of pop psychology in Brennan’s relationship with her mother to “explain” why she is the way she is. Shows can attempt this sort of Rosetta Stone moment early in their run (see: New Girl’s introduction of Nick’s family), but giving pat reasons for characters’ personalities becomes much more appealing with longer-running characters. Answering the “Why?” of a character can be one of the only meaningful questions once every other line of inquiry been answered. So when Christine reminds Brennan of one time she sort of told her daughter—who was apparently an emotional wild child who smoked cigarettes with boys—to use her head and stop being so careless, it smacks of Bones trying too hard for its “A-ha!” moment and falling flat.
Part of the problem is the pacing of the actual exchange where Christine tells Brennan to be more emotional, which takes up maybe a minute of screen time. That’s far too little to allow the moment to land with viewers. Langton’s performance tries to suggest the tranquility you see in some depictions of heaven, but it just comes across as limp. Almost any attempt to explain away the entire disposition and personality of a character (particularly one as eccentric as Brennan) as the product of a singular event is doomed to fail. Personalities just don’t work that way. Certainly, part of Brennan’s coldness comes from the way she was abandoned by her parents, but linking that completely to her rational disposition and suggesting she would have been otherwise had she not been abandoned just rings hollow.
So was Brennan actually in heaven? Knowing network TV’s reluctance to make definitive statements on religion even within fictional universe—as well as the history of “skeptic versus believer” dynamics of the X-Files variety—it should be obvious that the answer to that question will be left ambiguous. Except it isn’t really.
“The Shot In The Dark” comes down tentatively on the side of religion, positing that Brennan indeed visited the afterlife. Sure, it’s possible to explain away Christine’s apparently correct message for Max—maybe Brennan knew Max had stolen the first thing he gave Christine, maybe Brennan guessed subconsciously, maybe Max just wanted her to believe. “The first thing he ever gave me” is certainly vague enough to allow for some referential wiggle room. But “The Shot In The Dark” goes out of its way to suggest that maybe, likely, Brennan was with the spirit of her mother.
Unfortunately, that probably doesn’t mean anything for the show. Though Bones has finally tipped the balance in the faith/science debate that fueled much of Brennan and Booth’s early rivalry, it’s hard to think of anything that would really change the Bones status quo. Not even the introduction of baby Christine did that, since she just provides another object for her parents to bicker over (in what turns out to have been one of the writers’ best late-game decisions). And it’s equally hard to imagine what the show would look like if there were a serious character arc for Brennan now.
On the other hand, Emily Deschanel (who turns in pretty good work this episode) claimed in a recent interview that (spoilers I guess?) the events of “The Shot In The Dark” would have reverberations across the rest of the season, albeit slowly. There’s a clear worst-case scenario here in the way the later seasons of House tried and failed to change the title character. Like House, if Brennan loses what makes her interesting, so will the show. Bones has never let itself slip into out-and-out horribleness, so if it actually decides to make some changes in its twilight years, here’s hoping they go down as smooth as the comfort TV we’ve grown accustomed to these past eight seasons.
- Even though the bulk of the episode was closer to a “C-” it gets a lot points for being ballsy enough to basically assert the existence of God.
- Did anyone who still watches the show actually care about the resolution of the case once it was clear the shooter wasn’t Pelant? I have nothing at all to say about it. Except for the blood bullet, because man is that silly.
- So what does a Bones where Brennan eventually comes to believe in an afterlife look like? I am open to any and all suggestions.