For several years, I’ve been playing with a list of key episodes that would serve as an introduction to the show for people who’ve wondered about watching it, or who used to watch it and want to catch up.
Some of this is because occasionally people will ask me, ‘I want to introduce my mother/brother/best friend to the show – where do you think I should start?’ and some of it’s because the structure of the story fascinates me. It’s both episodic, designed for viewers to be able to jump in most of the time without any background, and also serial, with the majority of episodes building on what’s come before. Tracing that out interests me.
Granted, as someone who loves the show, it’s difficult to pick and choose and, on some level, I just want to say, ‘watch the entire damned thing. In order.’ Plus, I know that what seems essential to me won’t to someone else, and vice versa.
But as someone who also has a lot of shows I might get around to watching ‘some day’ I get how a series like Bones, currently getting attention for making it to twelve seasons, might be both appealing to, and intimidating (twelve seasons!) to people who’ve always thought they’d give it a try at some point and haven’t, or haven’t kept up with it for whatever reason.
The first problem, of course, is determining the minimum number of episodes to be included. Prior to the X-Files reboot last winter, I saw a couple of lists of ‘ten essential episodes to watch before the show returns.’ Could I do that with Bones? Find just ten episodes that are absolutely essential? Sure. I have, as a matter of fact, and will list them at the end of this post. The problem, though, is that it’s the small moments peppered throughout nearly every episode that gives the show its beauty, and a ‘top ten biggest plot moments’ is thus wholly inadequate as an introduction to the characters and their relationships.
Given all that, my first pass at the list had me howling with laughter as I identified seventy-five ‘musts’ and another twenty or so ‘would be nice’ episodes. Um, yeah. Not. I mean, it’s a great list for tracing through the important beats of a decade long-plus story. Not so much for a primer.
Eventually, I compromised, and came up with a list of sixty* episodes (stop that! stop laughing!) that covers the important turning points in the story while also showing some of those quieter character moments. And then I added another twenty bonus episodes which are important, but not absolutely essential to the story.
*Note that we are 64 days out from the start of season 12. Just saying.
This isn’t merely a list of favorite episodes. In fact, many, many of my favorite episodes aren’t listed here because ‘what I love’ and ‘what I think most essential to the bigger story’ aren’t necessarily the same thing. I was looking more at turning points for various characters and arcs, or episodes that provide a foundation for something that happens later, rather than trying to include every important moment that happened along the way.
So, here we go. Some comments will be longer than others, and I’ve mostly opted for vague rather than detailed so as not to completely spoil someone who hasn’t seen them. ‘Bonus’ means the episode is important, but not essential, to understanding the story, or is significant for some other reason (a guest star, a particularly powerful standalone episode.)
If there are enough comments making a case for episodes that should have been included and weren’t, I’ll do a follow-up post in a couple of weeks highlighting those episodes.
The Pilot: Seeley Booth, FBI agent, and Temperance Brennan, forensic anthropologist, reunite to solve a particularly tricky murder involving a Congressional intern. We also meet the rest of the team: Angela Montenegro, forensic artist and Brennan’s best friend; Jack Hodgins, a scientist specializing in ‘bugs and slime,’ Zack Addy, Brennan’s intern/assistant, and Dr. Goodman, their boss. We’re not told what happened the last time this group worked together, but it’s clear it didn’t end well.
Bonus: The Man in the SUV – Fleshes out Booth’s history as a sniper, and shows the trust he and Brennan are coming to have in each other.
The Man in the Fallout Shelter: The team learns a great deal about one another while quarantined together in the lab over Christmas.
Two Bodies in the Lab: A bomb, a betrayal, a rescue, and Booth and Brennan dancing to Hot Blooded combine to show their progression from partners to friends.
Bonus: The Soldier on the Grave: Booth shares more of his sniper history with Brennan.
The Woman in Limbo: First season finale. Brennan reunites with her brother as they learn more about their long-missing parents.
The Titan on the Tracks: Dr. Goodman is replaced by Camille Saroyan, a pathologist who has history with Booth.
Aliens in a Spaceship: Brennan and Hodgins are buried alive by a serial killer.
Judas on a Pole: The team as family idea is made explicit by the brief, complicated appearance of Brennan’s father and brother.
Bonus: The Girl in the Gator: Booth has a stress reaction that gets him sent to a FBI psychiatrist (guest star Stephen Fry); Brennan is attracted to the agent she’s temporarily assigned to work with.
The Killer in the Concrete: Booth’s kidnapped, and Brennan turns to an unlikely source – her mostly-still-estranged father – for help in rescuing him.
Stargazer in a Puddle: Season two finale. Hodgins and Angela’s wedding does not go as planned; Booth arrests Brennan’s father; and Zack makes an announcement.
The Widow’s Son in the Windshield: The team goes up against a serial killer who eats his victims.
The Secret in the Soil: The FBI, concerned about the effects of Booth arresting her father on their partnership, sends Booth and Brennan to couple’s therapy with Dr. Sweets.
The Knight on the Grid: The cannibalistic serial killer returns; Brennan continues to navigate her complicated family circumstances as her brother faces a parole violation.
The Verdict in the Story: Brennan’s father is tried for murder.
The Pain in the Heart: The serial killer takes a toll on the team in a devastating way.
The Perfect Pieces in the Purple Pond: When Zack returns to help the team solve a murder, he reveals a secret to Sweets about his own situation.
Bonus: The Con Man in the Meth Lab: Not everything is as it appears with Booth’s brother, a naval officer.
Bonus The Hero in the Hold – Booth is taken by the Gravedigger.
Mayhem on a Cross: Booth and Brennan learn more about Sweets – and each other.
The Critic in the Cabernet: A medical crisis for Booth has him hallucinating Stewie from The Family Guy.
The End in the Beginning: Season four finale. Is it a dream Booth has while in a coma? Or a story Brennan writes and reads to him while waiting for him to wake up? Or both?
Harbingers in a Fountain: The aftermath of Booth’s coma; Cyndi Lauper guest stars as Harmonia Avalon, a psychic friend of Angela’s.
The Dwarf in the Dirt: Booth faces FBI re-certification for his weapon while struggling with his feelings for Brennan. Stephen Fry guests.
Bonus: The Proof in the Pudding – Don’t separate Booth from his team; don’t underestimate what Brennan will do for him.
The Parts in the Sum of the Whole: The series’ 100th episode goes back to Booth and Brennan’s first case – a year before the events of the pilot – and sets the stage for a crisis in their relationship.
The Witch in the Wardrobe: Angela and Hodgins reconcile; Booth and Brennan continue to struggle with the fallout from the events in the 100th episode.
Bonus: The Boy with the Answer The Gravedigger goes to trial, and we see the toll the events of the past years have taken on Brennan.
The Beginning in the End: Season finale. The team splits up, with Brennan going to a dig in Indonesia, Booth going to Afghanistan with the Army, and Angela and Hodgins going to Paris.
The Mastodon in the Room: The team reunites to save Cam’s career, but things have changed in the seven months they’ve been apart.
The Couple in the Cave: The journalist Booth began a relationship with while in Afghanistan follows him back to DC.
The Maggots in the Meathead: Brennan and Booth struggle to find new footing for their partnership in light of his relationship with Hannah.
The Doctor in the Photo: After over-identifying with a victim, Brennan comes to regret choices she’s made in the past.
Bonus: The Bullet in the Brain: A vigilante serial killer turns out to have ties to Booth’s past.
The Daredevil in the Mold: Booth reaches a turning point in his relationship with Hannah.
Bonus: The Killer in the Crosshairs: the vigilante serial killer returns; Booth and Brennan’s relationship continues to evolve
The Blackout in the Blizzard: While trapped in an elevator during a blizzard, Booth and Brennan have a candid conversation about their feelings for each other.
The Hole in the Heart: The serial killer arc ends with a devastating loss for the team.
The Change in the Game: Angela gives birth; Brennan has a surprise for Booth.
The Memories in the Shallow Grave: Booth and Brennan navigate a new relationship.
The Crack in the Code: A new serial killer emerges as Booth and Brennan seek a place to live that will suit them both.
The Prisoner in the Pipe: Booth and Brennan become parents.
The Past in the Present: Christopher Pelant, the killer from The Crack in the Code, targets Brennan.
The Future in the Past: The team works to bring Brennan and Christine home.
Bonus: The Partners in the Divorce: A case hits close to home for Booth and Brennan as they navigate the fallout from her flight from Pelant.
Bonus: The Patriot in Purgatory: Part tribute to veterans, part 9/11 story, this superb episode was recognized by the LA City Council for its focus on issues facing veterans.
The Corpse on the Canopy: Pelant is back, and this time, strikes at Hodgins and Angela.
Bonus: The Pathos in the Pathogens: Cam and Arastoo’s relationship is front and center when a deadly poison is unleashed in the lab.
The Secret in the Siege: Season finale. When Booth and Brennan take another step forward with their relationship, serial killer Pelant objects to not being their focus.
The Secrets in the Proposal – Booth and Brennan deal with the fallout of Pelant’s actions on their relationship.
Bonus: The Cheat in the Retreat: Still struggling with their own relationship, Booth and Brennan go undercover to a couple’s retreat.
The Sense in the Sacrifice: Determined to take him down, the team goes after Pelant; Brennan learns the truth about Booth’s actions at the end of The Secret in the Siege.
The Woman in White: There’s a wedding. And a murder. And cameos.
The Ghost in the Killer: Brennan’s having nightmares about a taunt Pelant made before he died.
Bonus: Big in the Philippines: In a superbly written, acted and directed episode, cancer strikes close to home for someone on the team.
Bonus: The Heiress in the Hill: Hodgins has more family than he realized.
The Nail in the Coffin: More victims of the Ghostkiller come to light.
The Recluse in the Recliner: The Ghostkiller conspiracy takes a toll on Booth, Brennan, and their house.
The Conspiracy in the Corpse: Brennan’s not above using blackmail to free the wrongly imprisoned Booth, but their efforts to break the conspiracy cost the team dearly. FBI agent James Aubrey joins the team.
The Lance to the Heart: The team says goodbye to Sweets.
Bonus: The Lost Love in a Foreign Land – beautifully written standalone episode about the consequences of human trafficking
The Moneymaker on the Merry-Go-Round: A case hits uncomfortably close to home for Aubrey.
Bonus: The Puzzler in the Pit: Sweets and Daisy’s baby is born
Bonus: The 200th in the 10th: The 200th episode on the show re-imagined the characters as if they were in a 1950’s era Hitchcock film.
The Psychic in the Soup: Sweets has one last message for Booth and Brennan; Cyndi Lauper guest stars.
The Eye in the Sky: Against pretty much everyone’s better judgement, reformed-gambler Booth goes undercover as a poker player to catch a killer.
The Murder in the Middle East: Booth and Cam go to Iran to rescue Arastoo; meanwhile, Brennan learns that Booth is gambling.
The Woman in the Whirlpool: Booth and Brennan live apart while he struggles with his gambling addiction.
The Life in the Light: As Booth begins going to Gambler’s Anonymous; he and Brennan struggle to find their way back from his relapse.
The Next in the Last: Booth and Brennan retire from crime fighting.
The Loyalty in the Lie – The quiet post-retirement life isn’t so quiet: Booth goes missing, remains are found that might be his, and the FBI questions his both his loyalty and integrity.
The Brother in the Basement: Captured and gravely injured, Booth faces the loss of his brother.
Bonus: The Carpals in the Coywolves; Betty White guest stars.
The Doom in the Boom: An explosion at a crime scene has tragic consequences for a member of the team.
The Monster in the Closet: The team goes up against a killer who turns his victims into puppets.
The Last Shot at a Second Chance: A turning point for Hodgins as he deals with the aftermath of the bomb.
The Movie in the Making: The team is the subject of a documentary.
The Nightmare in the Nightmare: Season eleven finale. The Puppet killer from The Monster in the Closet returns, and may be someone close to the team.
And if I had to choose just ten episodes to prepare someone for watching season 12? I think I’d go with The Man in the Fallout Shelter, Aliens in a Spaceship, The Parts in the Sum of the Whole, The Blackout in the Blizzard, The Change in the Game, The Prisoner in the Pipe, The Woman in White, The Doom in the Boom, The Monster in the Closet, and The Nightmare in the Nightmare. (Wait, ‘Fallout Shelter’ instead of the pilot? Yeah, pal Frankie made a pretty compelling argument for why the first Christmas episode is actually a better introduction to the characters, and the show in general, than the pilot. Since Fallout Shelter was actually my first episode, it didn’t take much to sell me on it.)
As to a single episode to hook a potential viewer? I’ve got nothing on that. I suggested Aliens in a Spaceship, but pal Lynn countered that it’s a rather dark episode (true) and, as such, doesn’t convey the full range of tone covered by the show. What do you think? If you had to pick a single episode to convince someone to give the show a go, which one would it be?