Bones is Buried Alive
I posted a question on social media this week about recurring TV villains. Are they good or bad? Does it depend on the show itself? These questions sparked an interesting discussion, so I decided to expand on the topic with this week’s Tea V Talk.
Police procedurals by design feature mainly stand-alone cases. When there’s a recurring villain, the formula changes. The overarching mystery often puts the hero or someone they love in harm’s way, ramping up the danger. Personally, I love these character-driven episodes. Some of my favorite examples are…
The Mentalist – Red John
Castle – 3X Killer
Murdoch Mysteries – James Gillies
CSI – Miniature Killer
Each of these killers is worthy of a blog post, but today I want to start with the first mystery show I watched as a kid. Before I was totally obsessed with the genre.
Bones ran for twelve seasons (2005-2017) and featured several interesting villains – Howard Epps, Christopher Pelant, the Ghost Killer… and who can forget Gormogon? I still have nightmares about him. But my favorite villain from Bones is the Gravedigger.
You can make the argument that other villains were more menacing but the first appearance of this character led to the single best episode of Bones.
Aliens in a Spaceship (Season 2 Episode 9)
The episode opens with Dr. Temperance Brennan in her car with the radio blaring. She’s disoriented, sore, and stuck. When she rolls down the window, the car fills with dirt. She finds her colleague, Dr. Hodgins injured in the backseat. They’ve been buried alive by the Gravedigger!
At this point, the audience has no idea what happened to Bones or Hodgins. The screen flickers with a “48-hours earlier” message.
As a rule, I hate when shows start with an action scene and flashback to how the characters found themselves in such a pickle. The technique is an overused cheap trick to get the audience invested while the remainder drags along until you catch up.
But in this episode, Bones does it perfectly. The opening sets the stakes, introduces the villain, and makes us want to know not only what happened but what happens next.
The flashback portion of the episode begins with the normal pattern – Booth and Bones investigating a crime scene in the woods. But this one is different. Twin boys were buried alive in a spaceship, the victims of an infamous kidnapper called the Gravedigger.
The Gravedigger kidnaps his victims, demands a ransom, and never negotiates. If you pay before his time limit expires, you get your loved ones back and if you don’t, they die. Despite taking seven people, the FBI has no leads on his identity. But with Bones and the Squints on the case, his perfect crime starts to unravel.
For the first time, he’s making mistakes. To halt the investigation, the Gravedigger abducts Dr. Brennan and Dr. Hodgins in the parking garage of the Jeffersonian. They’re buried inside Dr. Brennan’s car with twelve hours to live. And an impossible ransom demand of eight-million dollars. Meanwhile back at the lab Booth and the Squints will stop at nothing to find their friends.
The best part of this episode is the resourcefulness of the team and how they keep fighting when all hope is lost. Bones and Hodgins do amazing things with their meager supplies – they identify their location, send a coded message, and even manage to increase their air supply.
Booth refuses to give up even after their time expires and pushes the Squints to continue the search. This leads to one of the most memorable shots from the show – Booth running through the sand to dig out Bones. Against all odds, they won.
Or did they? Dr. Brennan and Dr. Hodgins survived but the Gravedigger is still out there and no one knows his identity.
What’s interesting about this episode is the recurring villain is never identified and yet it is one of the show’s best episodes. How is that possible? The villain wasn’t in the episode. The good guys didn’t catch him and frankly, they weren’t even close.
Because Aliens in a Spaceship was about characters. The tense opening sets an urgent pace that crescendos into a heartfelt ending. The team is bonded together in a way they never were before.
It’s not often characters go through so much in a 45-minute show. But this episode marks several evolutions. The Angela/Hodgins relationship moves forward. Zack makes an intuitive leap! And Bones has faith… even though she says “faith is an irrational belief in something that is logically impossible”.
The Gravedigger didn’t appear again until The Hero in the Hold (Season 4 Episode 14). In this episode Booth is kidnapped by the Gravedigger, leaving Dr. Brennan to play the role of rescuer. While I enjoyed this follow-up it doesn’t hold a candle to the original (which was practically perfect).
My gripe of part two starts and stops with the ghost. It made no sense and was a lazy plot device.
Booth is trapped on a ship set to explode in twenty-four hours. Unlike in the first episode, he’s kidnapped alone. But the writers didn’t want the scenes with Booth to be dialogue-free. They needed someone for him to interact with so they invented the ghost of a soldier from his past.
Bones is a mystery crime show about a forensic anthropologist and an FBI Agent. There is nothing supernatural about it and randomly adding a ghost takes the viewer out of the story. I’m a big fan of Ghost Whisperer. I accept that Melinda Gordon talks to the dead because the show is built on the premise. But Bones is based in science (with a few TV investigative leaps) and the ghost storyline makes me groan every time I watch.
If I can get past the unbelievable nature, Booth’s interactions with the ghost weren’t half bad. It gave insight into his character and showed a comradery with his Army pal. I even found myself hoping Booth could save the dead guy in the climax.
But I firmly believe the ghost was unnecessary. Doing his scenes without dialogue would make for an interesting challenge (and perhaps a unique episode). Or they could kidnap someone with him. I’d even accept that a bump on his head made Booth a little loopy and to avoid passing out he talks to Bones as if his partner were there with him. But a ghost was too much.
The rest of the episode moves along at a great pace with all the characters working together to find Booth. But without their FBI agent, they’re left in the dark and forced to work in the shadows.
As her character is prone to do, Dr. Brennan battles her emotions and buries her feelings. But she pulls out all the stops to find her partner. A clue finally leads them to the Gravedigger’s identity and a wonderful “interrogation” climax.
My favorite scene is when Dr. Brennan smacks the Gravedigger with a briefcase before flying off in a helicopter to rescue Booth.
This is the episode where we learn the identity of the Gravedigger is (spoiler alert) state attorney Heather Taffet. She’s smug, sinister, creepy, and has the makings of a great recurring villain.