Bones Aren’t Impervious
Brennan, Empathy, Imperviousness, and Strength
Angela: “Honey, you ever think you come off a little distant because you connect too much?”
Brennan: “I hate psychology, it’s a soft science.”
Angela: “I know, but people are mostly soft.”
Brennan: “Except for their bones.”
The first time I ever watched the Bones Pilot (which was also my very first episode) I remember my reaction to the conversation between Brennan and Angela about Brennan’s emotional connections. That idea of a character being distant because she’s too emotional was refreshing, and very real. The conversation said a lot about the two characters without having them say much at all. Brennan connects with the people through their bones, in a way that nobody else does, but nobody can see that she does, while Angela connects with the images of the people, visibly so, in that first season. Both of them have a strong sense of empathy for the victim, but they deal with it in different ways. To me, this it is one of my favorite moments in the entire series, and it tells us the one thing that is very important about Brennan – although she acts like what she does doesn’t affect her, it does. The pilot commentary has a great comment on this – they chose Brennan’s affinity for martial arts and guns because her work shakes her – she does not want to become a victim. This can be seen in Booth’s comment a few scenes later in the shooting range and in his office. She saw that real world – she knew exactly what Cleo Eller’s parents felt like.
Four episodes later, in Boy in a Bush, Brennan tells Shawn, a young suspect, a story– a mixture of her past, and of his. Here she is showing empathy for the boy. In other cases, she shows empathy for the victim, where she gives long speeches about things that they have been through. We see her technical jargon, which we learned in Boy in a Bush is her way of detaching herself, broken down in Girl in the Fridge on the court stand when she is asked to reveal a bit more of herself.
According to Brennan, at this time, she was an impervious substance, keeping things out, and not allowing herself to feel pain in relation to other, living, people. For her, it is the bones that she shares the pain with. She does not want what happened to them to happen to anyone else, and she prevents this by working with Booth. The only way she feels that she can keep a firm handle on those emotions is by focusing on the details and putting her heart in a box.
Every episode through the beginning of season 2, Brennan showed her empathy for the victim, or the victim’s family. Her heart came out of the box, just for a bit, for her to tell someone why it was so important that they stop the criminal.
Then came the man that changed everything. Howard Epps.
Epps entered the scene in the first season. He played with the characters, using them to give him a stay of execution. It is in Blonde in the Game, when his friend starts playing the game as well (so Epps can eventually get his friend killed), that something is changed about Brennan’s objectivity and empathy.
In one of the many great scenes of the episode, Brennan goes to Angela for advice. Epps is making her feel like she’s being manipulated, and she knows that Angela has dealt with manipulative men before. Brennan, in a moment of emotional transparency, reveals to Angela that she is concerned for the recently kidnapped girl that they fear could be Epps’ friend’s next victim. It is in this moment that I believe everything changed for Brennan – she was told to be objective and ignore everything else. She was basically told to be that impervious substance, by both Angela and Booth.
Angela: “He’s messing with your objectivity.”
Brennan: “There’s nothing I can do about that.”
Angela: “You have to step back, OK? Let the rest of us deal with the families. You find Helen.”
What if Brennan, our ever-literal scientist, took this to mean that she had to be this way all the time? In the following scene, this is backed up, by Booth.
“Look, time out, you’ve got to detach from this. If we let Epps get under our skin, it’s exactly what he wants.”
At the time, Brennan was commenting on how frustrating Epps’ mother was. She was getting emotionally drawn in. Booth stops it, right there. This would have supported what Angela said. Brennan’s reaction to killing Epps’ compatriot is subdued in the end. She almost seems… normal. We can see that sag of the shoulders, the look on her face, but in a way, you can almost see her tuck it back, away from the surface where someone could poke at it, making her impervious substance a bit more porous.
After this episode, Brennan never gives one of her impassioned speeches about the victim, or their family, again, for seasons. For at least through season 3 and most of season 4, Brennan remained impervious.
Something started to bother Brennan in season 4, though. Sometime around The Bones that Foam, Brennan realizes that she’s “different,” that she has a hard time connecting to people. Then there’s that awkward session with Sweets, where she is trying to learn how to reciprocate emotions – in his words, showing empathy. She wants to be able to do what she feels she cannot. In Girl in the Mask, she tells Booth’s friend Ken Nakamura that she is jealous of his love of his sister, but can’t understand why someone would want to have that much love for someone when they will be hurt in the end. He tells her that if he was willing to give up his life for his sister, how could he not be willing to experience the pain of her life and loss? This idea is repeated in the end of End in the Beginning, in the closing scene as Brennan writes about how the possibility of pain, when loving someone, is a burden that allows us to fly.
While I watched Critic in the Cabernet again, I found a moment that I had never remembered, but I think is the most significant. Brennan sort of reveals exactly why she wants a child to Booth – she wants to prove that she has empathy (she even lists empathy as one of his good traits to Sweets). The way she sees that she can do this (based on what she has seen with Cam) is by having a child. Angela and Brennan then have a conversation that, to me, shows both something about what their relationship had become, and also a bit about how Angela sees Brennan, and vice versa.
Angela: “You said you wanted to do this alone because feelings are ephemeral. So is life, Brennan. We’re here one minute and then gone the next. You should know that better than anybody. If you keep living trying to protect yourself, nothing is ever going to touch you.”
Brennan: “Sweets said it’s not his job to tell somebody what they’re feeling or how they should live their life.”
Angela: “Good thing I’m not Sweets.”
This scene tells us two things: 1. Brennan’s still trying to protect herself from pain. In essence, she is still an impervious substance (or at least trying to be). 2. Brennan feels that Angela is trying to tell her what she’s supposed to feel and do (which she actually is doing, and has continued to do through season 6, which is starting to drive me a bit crazy). Through this, Brennan believes that Angela thinks that she has no emotion/empathy. I may be totally reading into this too much, but it feels right, given the context of the entire episode and season.
I think this is when Brennan started to think about being impervious versus being strong. I believe that she started losing her imperviousness when she decided to adopt Sweets by opening herself up to the pain of remembering part of her past in Mayhem (although one could argue that this started with her partnership with Booth, when she told him about her parents’ disappearance). She wants him to see that she actually can relate to people.
There is one more moment that must be highlighted – in Harbingers, Avalon tells Brennan that Booth knows the truth of her. What if the truth of her, to Brennan at that point in time, is that she actually has empathy for people, and that she actually wants to connect? That she wants to be able to open herself up to the pain of loving, as she mentioned in previous episodes, even when the stakes are so high, so she can accept that burden… and fly? I know this sounds strange, but I think that this is the central conflict of Temperance Brennan – understanding who she is through other people (Booth), and she can only do that if she can openly react to what other people are feeling about her (with Booth as her guide).
This leads to the 100th episode. What if Brennan is protecting Booth from herself because she isn’t ready to stop being impermeable, because she feels like the risks – hurting him and changing how she sees herself (“Maybe they’ll break your heart, maybe you’ll break their heart and never be able to look at yourself the same way.” – from End in the Beginning), are too great?
Then what if this is the breaking point? The stability of being impermeable protected Brennan, but her concern for others, especially Booth, seems to have brought it down. As mentioned in the great post about Brennan’s dream in Boy with the Answer , we see how much she worries not just about herself, but Booth and Hodgins. She loses a bit more of her imperviousness during the Gravedigger trial with her admission of her nightmares to Booth and her fears from her experience while being on the stand. With the loss of this imperviousness, her objectivity, the objectivity that she had to put in place when her friends urged her to pull back, is slipping. She admits to Angela in Beginning in the End that she’s worried all the time. We’re finally starting to see what Brennan is feeling start to slip into her work. She can’t concentrate on the case, by her own admission, because she’s distracted by the finds in Maluku. Maybe she saw it as an opportunity that she had to take. We see her go back and forth about it until Daisy talks to her. And although Daisy says the absolute wrong thing, maybe what Daisy said made Brennan think about what was holding her back – not academically, or work wise, like Daisy was saying, but emotionally? That’s when she decides to leave for Maluku. She went to think, rebuild walls, and come back… impervious again, or stronger? I think that she came back stronger, a bit more open to what is going on with others around her.
In Doctor in the Photo, Brennan’s imperviousness is broken. She can’t be impervious during the case, and even for a while afterwards. She takes the risk of telling Booth that she made a mistake, and opens herself up to the pain of his rejection. She is losing her imperviousness, and is replacing it with strength as the episodes continue. Her candid discussion of the future with Booth, and even mentioning that idea of “together” shows that she is losing her imperviousness and replacing it with strength.
What does this have to do with empathy, though?
I believe that with Brennan’s change from expressing her empathy through words, to burying it after Blonde in the Game, to her attempts to prove that she actually does have the capacity to show empathy, she built a guideline for building up, then breaking down her imperviousness.
I think that with time, we will begin to see a tiny bit of the Brennan that we saw in season 1 – the Brennan that showed her empathy, but stronger. She will become more willing to share personal information (remember, for her, revealing something personal relating to her past is associated with pain, therefore, she must be strong, not impervious, to accept this pain). Her relationship with her father will get better. With his arrival into her life, I think she also became more impervious (see season 3 for more details). Now she is moving towards strength with him, per her admission about what happened in Doctor in the Photo in the Bullet in the Brain (think about it… we’ve never, ever seen Brennan candidly tell her father anything like that before).
Over all, Brennan is still a human being, as Angela described in the Pilot – soft, with an impervious core that is gradually getting stronger. She has always been mostly soft, but now, instead of having an exoskeleton of an insect, her core is getting stronger, and the exoskeleton is being shed. You see, unlike some insect exoskeletons, bones aren’t really impervious, just strong.
What do you think? Do you think Brennan will become strong in other areas? What episodes haven’t I mentioned do you think are a part of this journey?