I wrote back in May that I thought one of the core problems with Bones is that the show doesn’t know how to do a Big Bad — more specifically, the kind of Big Bad that would require the extended efforts and concentration of a bunch of highly trained and highly paid crime-fightin’ federal scientists who, as we know, actually have other day jobs. So I’m glad to see that the show is at least going to give that sort of effort another shot with a case that is set up to bring out big core emotions in everyone’s favorite ruggedly handsome teddy bear, Seeley Booth.
This season, the main target will be a hacker who, as a form of misguided activism, shuts down Defense Department communications systems, putting American troops deployed overseas in danger. Obviously this will make our good friend Booth apoplectic, particularly at a time when he’s coping with the stresses of being a new dad. But it also seems like a cleverer-than-usual way to strip some of the complications out of the Bradley Manning case so we can debate some of the issues suggested by it in more usefully abstract terms. We can, and should, and are having debates about Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, detention conditions, and speedy trials all inspired by what we’ve learned of Manning and of how he’s been treated since he was caught leaking material to WikiLeaks.
But I think it’s worthwhile for pop culture to do some thinking about the circumstances under which we think it’s OK for people to break or bend the law, and I hope Bones will provide a scenario for discussing that by setting up a villain who is convinced what he’s doing is worth the collateral damage, and has clear malign intent. Our cop shows routinely condone the idea that it’s OK to use violence against suspects as long as the people who are employing violence as a tactic are a) officers of the court, b) have pure intentions, c) will feel bad about it afterwards. Bones spends a lot of time justifying Booth’s use of violence to protect Brennan and other members of the lab, usually when he has to kill a suspect or threaten someone who has made Brennan less safe. Our pop culture also suggests that we’re okay with aberrant and aberrational behavior if it’s in defense or service of family, and that we’re excited to sympathize with anti-heroes who employ violence fairly regularly as long as they’re quirky or relatable in some other way.
But mainstream shows and movies, not surprisingly, tend to treat people who betray the government or employ violence against state actors as if they’re insane, misguided as to the tactics that will be effective, or at minimum, totally deluded in their political beliefs. I’m not saying I sympathize with the decisions that Bill Ayers made when he joined the Weather Underground, or that U.S. should have ended the war in Vietnam on the grounds that Mark Rudd was outraged by it to the point of insensibility (the war was wrong for much sounder reasons) but I do think it’s a little strange that there’s a reluctance to acknowledge that the American government can make decisions can make people feel panicked and powerless and urgent. It would be worthwhile to have slightly more than zero television shows and movies that actually took the time to explore the root motivations of people who do powerfully anti-social things. And more than that, good storytelling should have villains actually test your resolve to side with the hero.