It should be apparent from the title that there are going to be some spoilers. Here’s my SPOILER ALERT warning. Also apparent from the title—I use the term “disabled.” That’s what works for me. You do you.
The eleventh season of Bones recently came to Netflix, and I was surprised by the show’s decision to severely injure one of the main characters—and even more so by how it was handled. To quote the Netflix description: “A forensic anthropologist teams up with an FBI agent to investigate crimes that have left scant evidence behind: namely the bones of the deceased.” I’ve also heard it called forensics porn because the show doesn’t shy away from showing gross-out, grisly bits. Not particularly violent, but it does like to show dead bodies, bugs, all that goodness.
I love this show. It has a decently diverse ensemble cast (I freaking love Camille Saroyan), has great humor given the subject matter, and generally has good singular/episodic plots interwoven with a season-long problem. My thoughts on the disabled character and that arc only pertain to what happens during season 11.
To give the spoiler-free crowd a chance to depart, I’ll go into a little bit of a background bio to shed some light on why I’m blogging about this. Near the end of 2012, my family was involved in a car accident that resulted in the death of my parents and left myself, my husband, and my older sister with a varying degree of disabling injuries. My younger brother escaped with minor physical injuries. I’m being deliberately short here, but I presume readers can imagine the emotional trauma involved.
It’s usually easiest to sum up that I broke most of my lower half from the ribs down: multiple ribs, pelvis (I think in two spots), both femurs, right knee, right ankle, left wrist, surface abrasions, plus internal injuries. I was fortunate in that of the three of us, my injuries had the largest margin for recovery. Today I can walk without an aid, though I still keep my cane in my car. To the casual observer I probably don’t “look disabled,” because I can walk unassisted and usually without a limp. My husband and I had eerily similar breaks, though he had several in addition to mine. He lives with chronic nerve pain that will most likely be a continuous battle to manage, and he walks with a forearm crutch. My sister is a quadriplegic, and blogs about her experiences at Jessie Thinks.
Almost hallway through season 11 of Bones, the character Dr. Jack Hodgins is injured at a crime scene and ends up a paraplegic. When we find out at the end of episode 10 that he’s paralyzed, I inwardly cringed. I adore this show and was not optimistic about how it would handle disability in a primary character. Were they going to turn him into this morose recluse who can’t possibly have a meaningful life? Have him magically cured after one episode?
Neither. For the next 5 episodes, we see Hodgins’ arc of dealing with becoming disabled. Based on my experience, on so many levels the show nailed it. Not perfectly; I have some qualms with where the season ends that I’ll address in a bit. The grieving process is sped up a bit more than I think is realistic, but honestly I was amazed at how much time the character and his injury received.
I related so hard to some of the things Hodgins goes through/does/feels. The first episode after we find out he’s been paralyzed, he’s actually really upbeat. But, we find out it’s because he thought his nerves were re-growing, and at the end of that episode he finds out that he was experiencing phantom pain and that in fact his MRI shows nerve decay. The next 3 episodes show him going through an intense grieving process, and the rest of the season follows his journey to come to terms with where he’s at.
What Hodgins goes through—that was my family’s life. I’ve never related to a show so much; where I watched and could say “that was me,” or “that was us.” The scenes where Hodgins is looking around his workplace and noting all the ways it isn’t ADA-friendly. How he enviously stares at people as they trot up and down the stairs. Easily. Carelessly.
I’ve been there. I remember sitting in the ambulance, then the cabulance, then finally a regular car while at the James Street exit, watching people rushing up or down Capitol Hill to catch a bus. Glaring at strangers as they hurried along, blindly trusting their knees to hold them. I remember staring at people as they ran down the road, or jumped over a puddle, thinking to myself, “yea, don’t take that for granted, motherf*cker. You don’t know what you have.” I remember being so jealous and angry and knowing that it wasn’t logical but I DON’T CARE BECAUSE I’M BROKEN. I rode horses and played recreational soccer for 10+ years. I ran on my high school cross country team. I played IM flag football in undergrad, and screw modesty: I was pretty damned good at it. So that sense of loss, and the anger, and the desperation/desire to find a way to be unbroken again—I get that.
I went from able to disabled to now somewhere in between. I can’t run anymore. I can’t jump. Kneeling and crouching are slow, painful, and usually inconvenient. I can climb stairs but can’t remember what it felt like to do it with ease even though I know I used to be able to take them three at a time. It wasn’t even that long ago, but I’ve no memory of what effortlessness feels like. But, I can walk. I’m no longer stuck in a bed, ticking off the days, weeks, months until my doctor removes the “non-weight bearing” restriction from my whiteboard. As freeing as the wheelchair was, I’ve graduated from it, the walker, the crutches, and even the cane. For now, anyway. It took a long time, but I don’t stare, green with envy, when runners go by.
The arc Hodgins goes through rang true to me. The desperate hope that he was getting better; the anger and jealousy and grief over his loss—and how that affects everyone around him; how he tries to get into experimental programs, something, anything that will bring his legs back. And, eventually to how he grows to accept that being disabled is who he now is, but also how he’s more than just a guy in a wheelchair. He has to find what the “new normal” is for him, and thankfully the show does that well too. We get to see a once able-bodied man now in a wheelchair, and his life ultimately doesn’t change. He’s able to continue at his job, and though there are certain limitations due to being in the chair, for the most part he’s able to do everything he did before—AND the show doesn’t make a huge deal of it. Yes, he gets a motorized lift so he can join the team on the examination platform, but the last quarter of the season he just zips around and goes about his business. We see how he gets to keep his normal life—wheelchair and all. I love this.
Now, there’s a bit at the end that I don’t like, because after all that time showing the realistic struggle (to me) of an able-bodied person becoming disabled and still managing to figure out their life, the show decides to hint that Hodgins might “get better.” He starts to get nerve flares and muscle spasms in his legs in the second-to-last episode. I have problems with this. It looks dangerously like the show’s going to fall into the whole “disability is bad” deal by making Hodgins able-bodied again, because omg we can’t have someone disabled on the show. It also doesn’t really make sense since we were told that his nerve ends had already begun decaying, and he didn’t end up putting himself into any experimental programs—they claim it’s just the result of all that PT. That’s also a bit of a slap in the face to spinal cord injured people who know that not all the PT in the world can undo their damage. Whatever. It’s unclear by the finale if he’ll fully regain his legs or not. I’m hoping not. I know, it’s a TV show. The Hodgins character is also very wealthy and has access to therapy and aids that most people don’t. Overall, I think the process of able to disabled and coming to terms with life are handled well.
I have serious misgivings about the finale unrelated to Hodgins, but that has nothing to do with disability.