This post contains spoilers for this season of the FOX series Bones, it also discusses plot points from past seasons.
In the last episode of Bones before the series went on an extended midseason (The Doom in the Boom) hiatus Dr. Jack Hodgins and FBI Special Agent James Aubrey were caught in an explosion leaving Aubrey (who shielded Hodgins from the explosion) seriously wounded and Hodgins apparently unscathed.
In what I’m sure the writers saw as a twist but I saw coming immediately Aubrey makes a full recovery, to the point of fulfilling that overdone macho trope of returning to work well before anyone who had actually survive an explosion and hours of life saving surgery would have been able to. As the episode appeared to be winding down Hodgins collapses and is hospitalized in critical condition from an unnoticed complication from the explosion. It is left unclear whether he will die or be left paralyzed.
I saw this coming a mile off and was left hoping that Jack Hodgins would die. Not because I dislike the character but because I knew that the alternative would inevitably lead to cripicature. Where nondisabled actors (like Hodgins actor TJ Thyne) pretend to be disabled. This tends to come along with deeply inaccurate portrayals of disability and a reliance on tired and harmful media stereotypes about disability. Better he die than live and perpetuate those stereotypes.
Fast forward to a couple weeks ago when the season finally resurfaced and as I feared, Jack Hodgins survived but is now paralyzed from the waist down, necessitating the use of a wheelchair. The series which is winding down (it will finish with one more shortened final season) and this development can end one of three ways; Hodgins, who is currently angry and pushing people away will use his anger as an excuse to exit the show, he will be miraculously cured (most likely by Dr. Temperance Brennan who will discover something anomalous that led to a misdiagnosis), or there will be a tale of overcoming where Hodgins stays disabled but somehow everything end up heartwarming.
The first option seems unlikely because they could have simply used the explosion to kill him off, though shows have avoided doing this to beloved exiting characters to spare the fans (though the show hasn’t shied away from this before, killing off both squintern Vincent Nigel Murray and FBI psychiatrist Lance Sweets). The other two are more likely, in both cases they are problematic.
The disabling of a previously nondisabled character is problematic generally and the case of Jack Hodgins is no different. It is clearly a plot device, originally to create a cliffhanger and now to create tension between Hodgins and basically everyone else. He started out in denial and has graduated to full on hostility. I’m not going to comment on the accuracy of the characterization of acquired disability, it’s not an experience that I share. I am going to say that it just feels horribly contrived and makes for a less than pleasant viewing experience (the fact that the latest episode had a generally cringeworthy plot didn’t help to offset this). The whole things play like unnecessarily fabricated drama. Which for disability representation is just harmful. Disability, when used solely as a plot device to ad tension is inevitably going to do nothing but play on old tropes and have nothing authentic to share.
So we are left with the two overly sentimental stereotypes, the miraculous cure and overcoming disability. The former is problematic for its complete lack of realism and subtle reinforcement of the idea that people who haven’t been cured just haven’t tried hard enough or explored enough options. Now, I will be the first to say that particularly in the realm of disability that doctors get prognoses wrong. People exceed medical expectations all the time. The problem with media miracle cures is not that they don’t happen in real life, it’s that they are almost inevitable. The disability disappears as soon as the tension it was scripted to create is no longer needed or because a cure will create more tension (consider the disablement and almost immediate cure of Felicity Smoak on CW’s Arrow). Cures on TV don’t resemble the medical improvements of everyday disability and are frequently just as much a plot device as the disablement was. Disability in television is never something that just is, in the same way that nondisability is. It always exists to further the plot or character development. Its presence or removal are never inconsequential.
Removal of disability in media is also almost always complete, it is rare to have a television character sustain longterm effects of an injury. Just look at how quickly Aubrey bounced back from being nearly killed in an explosion not to mention how often Boothe is injured on the job. At most you get the occasional offhand comment about back pain or a twinge but it ultimately never stops the character from getting into the next harrowing situation. Even nondisabled characters have an unrealistic level of able-bodiedness, free of the wear and tear of aging and physically demanding jobs.
The final option is that Hodgins will eventually have an epiphany and overcome his bitterness about being paralyzed. You know that is will be sudden because there aren’t enough episodes left in the season much less the series for a more natural and realistic coming to terms with/acceptance to take place.
If they go for the overcoming bitterness angle, my money’s on Hodgins realizing that life has value following something nearly killing either his wife Angela Montenegro or their son Michael Vincent because if you can’t use miracle cure as a plot device, nothing beats a newfound joy for life following a near tragic loss.
There is of course a fourth, though very unlikely option for Hodgins. He might simply remain bitter for the remainder of the series and we’ll watch his relationship with Angela implode. That however would make for horrible television so I don’t see it happening.
Bones is in its eleventh season now, so it’s hardly surprising that they are scraping the bottom of the barrel to inject tension into the show. So it is unsurprising that they’ve pulled the put someone in a wheelchair move but this is hardly the show’s first foray into problematic disability storylines. This even the first time it’s affected Angela and Hodgins.
First though, let’s talk about Seeley Boothe, a man so perfect that the show had to contrive a flaw for him or he would just be a good looking, deeply principled, crack shot with unbelievable physical stamina. In order to balance that out he was given a gambling addiction. It is only mentioned to either counterbalance his otherwise flawless perfection. Even on the rare instances that it is relevant like during a relapse, it is at most a short few episode plot arc to offer short term tension between him and Bones. After this has served its purpose it is shelved. Unless he is in the midst of a relapse it has no affect on him except to remind the audience that he’s not perfect.
Of course there is Bones herself whose character is heavily coded as autistic, though there is some suggestion that her difficulties in social situations may stem from the trauma of her childhood of being abandoned by her parents and her subsequent abuse in the foster care system. The biggest issue here is less that these questions are never directly dealt with but rather the fact that her behaviours whether stemming from autism or trauma are simply used to set Boothe up as her social saviour.
Then there is squintern, Colin Fisher whose clinical depression exists as comic relief. Actually far to many of the squinterns have either autistic coding (Zach, Vincent Nigel Murray, etc.) or other not so subtle characteristic which seem designed to make the viewers question whether they are neurotypical (Daisy Wick). Basically, the behavioural coding is used to reinforce the scientific nerd stereotype and they always appear like caricatures next to characters with actual developed personalities (Finn Abernathy, Wendell Bray, etc.)
Finally, let us return to Hodgins and Angela. In season six when Angela was pregnant both she and Hodgins discovered that they were carriers of a genetic mutation giving them a one in four chance their baby would be blind. It was just another disability as tension plot device though as the couple struggled to come to terms with this possibility, which they of course did only to have their child born with sight. This erased the possibility of having an actually disabled character on the show and saved the writers from actually having to figure out whether Angela and Hodgins’ prebirth coming to terms with the possibility of a blind child would translate to the reality of one (excuse me while I vomit over this entire plotline).
Oddly, right before Hodgins’ paralysis, the couple was discussing trying for more children. This had me wondering if the writers had forgotten about that season six subplot. Hodgins’ paralysis neatly avoided that rehashing though as even if he’s still able to father children, I doubt the conversation will resurface for the rest of the series unless it’s to suggest that the paralysis made him sterile.
While all the plotlines to do with disability in Bones are problematic it is the ones associated with Hodgins and Angela that I find the most infuriating because they so clearly depend on disability being feared and overcome (or possibly in the case of Hodgins’ paralysis, the source to continued unending bitterness). They, more than any other storyline that touches on disability in bones either directly or through suggestion, says that disability is a tragedy and one that is best avoided. There was no exploration of the idea that Michael Vincent might have had a fulfilling life if he were blind. They payed lip service to the idea but ultimately undercut the sentiment with the joyous moment when he was revealed to be sighted. I also have no faith that they will do better with the paralysis of Hodgins even if they eventually bring him out of the bitterness he is currently in. With so few episodes left to deal with the issue and the lack of actual disabled people in the show, I have no doubt they will fall back on empty feel good stereotypes.