I'm well-accustomed to seeing atheists not being presented well in fiction. If there is an atheist on a crime drama, there's 10 to 1 odds that atheist is your man, responsible for the death or mayhem that has occurred. For example, Law & Order: Criminal Intent had an episode that I had hoped would show an actually ethical and intelligent atheist, but instead it turned out he killed the preacher's wife because she outed him as having mentally disabled son. So, not only was he responsible for death, he was also responsible for not being able to love or care for his kid because he thought the boy defective. Even House (whom I love dearly and whose reason for being an atheist mirrors my own), probably the best known atheist on television, isn't really the best in terms of ingratiating atheists with the community at large. And so, one of the joys of Bones was watching a character - in this case a woman - who had a firm moral code, who had friends, who was considered not only a good guy but one of the best of the good guys and who was also an atheist. I even loved her conversations with Booth regarding his Catholicism and her atheism. I loved her reading of certain scripture, like her interpretation of Abraham's willingness to sacrifice Isaac and being stopped by God's messenger when she said, "when it comes to your children, your love has to be absolute. The messenger represents goodness, what you know to be right. Ergo, you have to remain open to what you know is true". I liked that Brennan's atheism was absolute, and that she didn't look foolish or wrong for not believing. I liked that Booth's Catholicism was never put into question either, that he never looked foolish or wrong for believing.
But in "Hero in the Hold", the dynamic in the handling of religion changed. Sure, there had been other unsavory examples. "The Man in the Morgue" had an assertion that Brennan really had been under the power of some voodoo; "The Skull in the Desert" had Angela experiencing some kind of vision that led the team to a missing woman in the desert, and Booth and Angela gently mocked Brennan's belief that Angela subconsciously sifted through the logistics and processed "the most likely scenario". However, never before did I feel like the show was showing that Brennan was just out and out wrong in her atheism. Those other times, it was the characters believing in something more and disbelieving that the explanation could be of the mundane. In "Hero in the Hold", though, Brennan comes face to face with a spirit, and doesn't recognize him as such. In "Hero in the Hold", the spirit is actually able to help Booth escape a deadly situation. "Hero in the Hold" validated the belief in some form of afterlife and invalidated the belief that there was none. And what was almost worse than that was the fact that having the mystical and spiritual an actual part of the show made the show over all less. This was a show about science, even when the actual science was somewhat questionable. It was a show about logic, and how science and logic - along with the more slippery elements of human interaction and good old fashioned FBI work, could make cases and solve murders and mysteries. Add in some helpful spirits, and the actual spirit of the show takes a bit of a hiatus.
Take "Aliens in a Spaceship", where Hodgins and Brennan escape from the same serial killer that captures Booth in "Hero in the Hold". They don't have a ghost; they have their knowledge and a bit of luck. They escape because they are the premiere minds in their fields, and have working back at the lab a team that was heads and shoulders above the rest. They created electrical currents to send a short text message to their colleagues, they popped the spare tire, they made oxygen out of lithium scraped from batteries and soda ash, and they used the explosives contained in the air bags to blast their way to freedom - freedom they obtained partially because the people on the other end were able to put together what their text message and were able to narrow down their possible locations from it. Science, and faith in themselves, each other, and their friends pulled them through it. That episode was brilliant because it contained the best of what Bones could offer. It had both the science and the interpersonal relationships; it had both character growth and a meaty mystery. It was a classic. "Hero in the Hold" didn't, and it was the weaker for it. It would have probably been weaker no matter what, because "Aliens in the Spaceship" is one of the best episodes the series has to offer; but contrasting an episode that utilizes Brennan's intellect and skill with one that makes a mockery of one of the core tenets of the show, and that second episode is bound to be at the bottom of the pack. Plus, it had the added benefit of making me feel just a little bit alienated from the show as a whole. And so even though I'm going to watch Thursday's episode via Hulu and I'm going to try to not be sensitive over this gaffe and just throw it into the pile containing that whole Zack-Gormogon plot, at some point that pile is going to be larger than my enjoyment of the show. And that will be too bad.