December 2, 2010

Bones - Season 6, Episode 8 (Review)

The Twisted Bones in the Melted Truck

Episode Summary

Apparently one of the Bones writers had to kick around a bunch of science project ideas with his kid, since that's the theme running through tonight's astoundingly boring (but interestingly scored) episode. We open with a blue sky, a rainbow, and the strains of Grant-Lee Phillips' Good Morning Happiness playing as we zero in on a truck with a seemingly asleep driver. Suddenly, the truck catches on fire and explodes. Bones and Booth are called to the scene, where the arson investigator can't find a point of ignition. Bones bags some mysterious white powder to bring back to the lab, and the mangled truck is opened to reveal a melted and twisted skeleton.

Back at the Jeffersonian, Dr. Saroyan notes that the skeleton is so warped that they "haven't been able to determine gender." A bullet is found lodged in the sternum, leading the team to conclude that was cause of death. The state of the bones means that it is impossible to do a facial reconstruction or get a dental match. Hodgins identifies the white powder as magnesium oxide, produced from the combustion of the magnesium that was apparently in the truck. Magnesium burns hot and fast, Daisy explains, so if the skeleton had been exposed to a magnesium fire for between 15-45 minutes at 500 degrees Celsius, the biogenic composition and structure of the bone mineral would crystallize and the bone would appear to be melted.

Based on the partial VIN and the make and model of the truck, Booth traces the vehicle to a body shop, where the owner, Jesse Wilson, says that one of his employees/friends George Liferd was hauling magnesium scraps to the recycling center. Wilson also owns a German luger, the type of gun that uses the 9mm bullet found in the victim. However, the team soon realizes that the bullet was not the cause of death, it only looked that way because of the warped bone. The bullet also was not shot at the victim; the striations on the bullet indicate it had never been fired, so Daisy and Hodgins set out to show how the magnesium fire could have caused the bullet to become lodged in the victim's sternum. Meanwhile, Booth starts to suspect the victim's wife, Kathy, a high school teacher. Kathy has been buying Star Wars trading cards on eBay at an outrageous markup. She eventually admits to having an affair with a student, Randy Seminoff, which was witnessed by another student, Paul Lennato, who then blackmailed Kathy through the eBay trading card markup.

Back at the Jeffersonian, Angela decides to use a series of equations from 16th century Italian mathematician and anatomist Girolamo Cardano to virtually reconstruct the mangled skeleton into something more resembling a person. This technique shows that there are marks on the ilium and a nick to the mandible. If the nick represents the severing of the carotid artery, Bones muses, that could be the cause of death. She has Hodgins check the bone for residue, and his SEM analysis found that the knife used to make the cut was forged from steel prior to 1964, as it was made from carbon steel that was laminated in silver. This was a special knife, a Damascus blade that had been hand-forged and commissioned by Hitler as presents for his top men. During WWII, Patton's 3rd Army came into their possession, and one fell to Jesse Wilson, whose grandfather was in the German theater of WWII. His collection of Nazi memorabilia, however, had been stolen six months prior.

Bones and Daisy reexamine the skeleton carefully for any additional evidence (to what I think is Blakroc's What You Do To Me). Bones notes that there are markings on the right ilium, a faint sequence of dash marks. Daisy identifies them as the impressions from a zipper that has been ripped open, bending the teeth. This finding leads the team to suspect Randy's girlfriend, Amber. She stole Jesse Wilson's memorabilia when he cut Randy's pay. When she found out that Randy was sleeping with Kathy Liferd, she decided to tell her husband George. And then suggested they get back at their respective cheating significant others by sleeping together. When George rejected Amber, she killed him.

In the B and C plot lines, Hannah is worried about whether Parker will like her. He eventually comes around, after telling her about his volcano science project, and they become BFFs by the end of the episode. Daisy asks Sweets for answers to the FBI's psychological evaluation so that she can pass and be allowed to work unsupervised at the Jeffersonian.

Forensic Comments
  • If the truck fire in the opening scene was magnesium-related, it should have had white flames rather than yellow-orange like a normal fire.
  • Dr. Saroyan notes that they haven't been able to tell "gender" when in actuality they haven't been able to estimate sex of the victim.
  • There was no chance for facial reconstruction or dental ID (but see below), and the remains were so mangled that they couldn't even figure out sex (even, apparently, given some rather large sections of ilium and skull) - how did they confirm the ID of the skeleton? Sure, Liferd supposedly was driving the truck; but the forensic team got absolutely NO basic demographic information from the skeleton that could prove it was that of George Liferd. This would not stand up in court.
  • Bones and dental enamel are not the same. Teeth survive much longer in the archaeological record and with fewer taphonomic changes than bone because of their chemical composition. They are much more likely to survive a fire intact than bones are. There was insufficient explanation for why the teeth couldn't be used for an ID.
  • The writers forced me to do some (admittedly curt) research on magnesium and how it could cause the bones to "melt," but I still have no idea. I watched this part of the episode twice to make sure I hadn't missed the explanation for how this could happen, but I did not miss it. Daisy and Hodgins determine that a magnesium fire would alter the "biogenic composition and structure" of the bone; the mineral would crystallize and the bone would appear to be melted. I don't pretend to be a chemist, so I'm not sure how this works. OK, so a mild acid could dissolve the calcium in a bone, which makes it rather bendy, and some sort of re-crystallization through the introduction of calcium (or something that substitutes for calcium) could harden the bendy bones into strange shapes. But magnesium is an alkaline earth metal, not an acid, although it does react with acids. Seriously, if anyone knows more about chemistry than I do, please tell me whether the writers came even close to a possible scenario here. It's bugging me.
  • I tried to look up Girolamo Cardano but found no clear references to equations or algorithms for reconstructing a human body. And even if this were true, even a magical 3D imaging machine couldn't accurately reconstruct small nicks on bone (as there would be lots of artifacts in the reconstruction from standard errors in the equations, I would imagine).
  • As usual, the FreeDictionary agrees with Bones' pronunciation of "ischial." I'm beginning to rethink whether I deserve my higher degrees in classics now.
  • Why would Daisy need psychological clearance from the FBI to work in the Jeffersonian? Or is it on FBI-related cases? And in what world are there "right" answers to a psychological profile such that she'd want Sweets to give her the answers?
  • The writers have been consistent this season in their ability to discuss both sharp and projectile trauma. Maybe it's time to hire a consultant who has other expertise, though?
  • A random aside: I once worked a forensic vehicle fire case. He was half-flesh, half-bone and there were tons of pieces of burned seat cushion bagged with his bones (as they really did look like calcined carpals or phalanges). The guy was not melted to the dashboard, but the fire didn't involve magnesium, just normal old accelerant.
Dialogue

Brennan had some great lines tonight, like "teenagers are dull-witted and very difficult to talk to" and "you've probably been menstruating for several years." I do not buy, however, that she wouldn't catch the "big brother" reference. Temperance Brennan has undoubtedly read 1984. At the end of the episode, Brennan affirms her belief in the structure of our society, saying that the teacher should be prosecuted because, even if a 17-year-old would be considered able to consent to sexual relations in another culture, he's not in ours. I was thinking this week about how Brennan is actually one of the best representations of an anthropologist in the mainstream media, and her dialogue tonight cemented that for me. But I'll have to save a more thorough analysis for another blog post.

Sweets similarly got in some cute but groan-worthy puns, first in giving an impression of Anthony Daniels' C-3PO: "Don't call me a mindless philosopher, you overweight glob of grease." And "What are you driving at, Miss Daisy?" Sweets is quickly becoming my favorite character. He's consistently nerdy and earnest, he's got an interesting yet not fully told back story, and his relationship with Daisy is believable.

Hannah, on the other hand, has got to go. Weird affectation/speech issue aside, she is a decent actress. Today's episode, though, highlighted one of my least favorite tropes of all time: the clueless single woman who has no idea how to talk to a child, but when she finally attempts a conversation, she realizes that she had mothering instincts all along. I'm sure there's a name for this ridiculous portrayal of a woman and I'm sure it's pretty anti-feminist, but I am too tired to look it up right now. (It came up on last week's episode of House [also on Fox] where Wilson's ex-wife did the exact same thing, but with a kid cancer patient.)

Ratings

Forensic Mystery - D. The majority of the plot points were telegraphed early. Did anyone really not suspect that Kathy was sleeping with a student? Or that the student wouldn't have committed the murder? There were kind of a lot of people and a lot of weapons as well (knife, bullet/gun, magnesium, etc.), and considering how much extraneous dialogue/plot points were in this episode (not to mention the songs), it all seemed a bit confused and curt.

Forensic Solution - D-. I can't get over the magnesium solution. I just don't understand what the writers think happened or if it is even possible. Plus, the murderer was too many degrees removed from the victim to believe that it was a crime of passion. On the whole, the forensics in this episode were sorely lacking. I mean, come on, no age/sex/ancestry for a positive ID, even with the aid of the 3D reconstruction?

Drama - F. Nothing was compelling about this episode. The victim's wife was trying to have a baby, so that part was supposed to be sad, I guess. But she was clearly having an affair, and the students were all just warm bodies, not integral to the plot at all. I cared more about the melted bones, which weren't sufficiently explained. The B plot of Hannah and Parker was eye-rollingly terrible. Between the magnesium fire (who didn't watch their chem teacher in high school set Mg on fire?), the talk of the potato clock and the volcano, and Hodgins' botched ballistics experiment (Daisy: "We didn't take into consideration Newton's third law of motion"), one of the writers clearly had to help a kid with a science project recently. I hate Hannah more and more each week, especially now that she's the clueless-about-kids-until-her-maternal-instincts-kick-in woman on the show. The C plot of Daisy and Sweets was sweetly benign.

NEXT WEEK: We get some navel-gazing and possible Booth-Brennan developments as the team has to deal with a victim who was very similar to Brennan.

9 comments:

MaryT said...

Great review of a fairly dull episode.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed the reference to Girolamo Cardano. I've only ever heard the name once when we learned about the 3rd degree polynomial formula. The writers obviously have done some research.
I agree that this episode of Bones was not as interesting as episodes prior but I disagree with the Forensic solution grade of D.
I am only early in my undergrad degree in Forensic Anthropology but knowing what I do from my core Biology classes that proteins denature at temperatures not ideal. Bones are made of proteins so the extreme heat of a Magnesium fire may be able to change the shape of the bones and then renature when the temperature decreases. I don't understand the crystalization but I do think that bones could appear melted.

But besides that, Kathy Reichs in the author of the Temperance Brennan series, a professor (in my state) and the producer of Bones the television series. I may not know a lot about the science (yet!) but I believe that Reichs at least verifies or agrees that the information is plausible before airing the show.

Bone Girl said...

Thanks for the comment, Anonymous Forensic Undergrad. :) Bones are of course made from proteins, but only about half. The other half is inorganic (hydroxyapatite). When most of the inorganic part (which gives bone its rigidity) is removed, the bone becomes kind of floppy - so I assumed that's what the writers were referring to. But you raise an interesting point that it may be the protein component that was affected by the Mg fire. I'm with you that calling it "crystallization" is probably wrong (as I think that would refer to the inorganic part rather than the collagen part). I still wish I fully understood the science behind this plot point!

And while Reichs is a producer on the show, I'm almost certain she's not a consultant for every episode. The show undoubtedly has other consultants, and it's written by professional scriptwriters. (I could argue about whether she's still a professor - as she's moved away from academic publishing and, by all reports, hasn't taught at UNC-C in years - but I've never met her in person, so I don't know.)

Just curious, are you at Western Carolina? My UNC students often ask me where they can get BA/MA classes/degrees in bioarch forensics, but I usually suggest NCSU or ECU. I don't know much about the rest of our state university system. :)

Anonymous said...

Oh I was certain she was a professor at UNCC. Her "About the Author" section in her "Devil Bones" book said she is a professor but that book was written in 2005 (I think).

And yes, Western Carolina. I originally applied to UNC Charlotte but decided that I preferred the setting of Western.

Heather Turner said...

Totally agree, Hannah must go!
Plus, the beauty of Brennan's character was watching her social skills grow along with her relationship with Booth. This episode did better with her dialogue, but she still comes off as more robotic than in previous seasons.
The last couple of episodes, Bones has had a running gag that neither develops her character, nor makes her endearing.
I'm referring to the "yowza" gag, and the mentions in this episode of her needed to have irony spelled out for her in several instances.

Well, there's always next week's episode to look forward to!

Thanks for the excellent analysis once again!

onix said...

just a guess, i think writers might have this from warstories. i am not sure but i think they mention that whitephosphorous makes the bones seem melted.
that suggests that in a closed environment (like a car) sth like magnesium might have a similar effect. (because both burn at similarly high temperatures)also i vaguely recall there has been at least one case that someone(s body) had been burned with magnesium in a car, so perhaps they used an original report as the base for the story. i am not so sure dna analyses was available at the time, and indeed i would guess you need rather some firemaking skill to destroy the teeth. however i guess it depends how long it stays hot as well. in wich case a pickup full of magnesium appears a decent way to have that effect. otoh it is far from unique in crimeseries methods that would destroy dna but by no means achieve that are introduced. i think to facilitate the investigations. i dont even have a tv and i have seen it.

Anonymous said...

I definitely agree with the D for forensics! Well for general science at least. They would need glasses because of the "fluorescence" of Mg not the "fluorescence spectrometry." They sounded ridiculous. But the worst one was using the SEM to get metal information. Other instruments may be combined with the SEM (like EDS), but a "Microscope" isn't going to tell you what element you're looking at. Seeing as how this instrument is mass used in the computer industry and has been around for 80 years. I thought that was a disappointment

ths1104 said...

Seen somewhere else

"A truck is incinerated and bones melted in a magnesium fire. Yet, somehow, a fully intact lead bullet is found in the skeleton. Lead melts at 621F. Why didn't it melt?"

ths1104 said...

Post concerning the series of mathematical equations written by Cardano to describe the skeleton system mentioned in this episode of Bones : http://wp.me/pEKqy-6x

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