May 172021
 

“Death in the Saddle”, Aired Oct 9, 2007

Some films and TV episodes at least play lip service to the idea of BDSM being a consensual and healthy sexual variation. Others, like this one, don’t even bother. 

This time the deceased is a man found buried in the woods, his feet cut off and buried separately as is done with dead champion racehorses. (The forensics techs refer to him as “Mister Ed”.) This and other evidence lead Booth and Brennan to a ponyplay convention at a ranch near the body site. 

As is standard for this type of episode in an investigative procedural, there’s some resistance from the venue’s owner, followed by a scene of the investigators gazing at the members of the subculture in full swing. While the pony players eat (riders at a table, ponies at a trough), Booth and Brennan talk about them, in earshot, like 19th century European explorers studying the primitive natives. 

Brennan: “This isn’t about horses, it’s about a dominant versus submissive balance of power. A variation on sadomasochism.” 

Booth: “Those people are eating from troughs. Do you think that’s sexy?”

Brennan: “Fetishism is a way of indulging in sexual activity without engaging emotionally with the other person as a fully formed human being.”

[…]

Booth: “Sex is all about engaging. You don’t want to engage, you stay home and… you know.” 

Brennan: “They have masturbation fetishes. Often involving women’s shoes or–”

They meet with Mister Ed’s rider, nicknamed “Annie Oakley” (who was famous for her skill in shooting, not riding, but whatever). 

Brennan: “Sexual fetishes are about role-playing. She probably never knew his real name.”

Annie: “We met online over a year ago. We were a match. I mean, compatible in every way. You have no idea how hard it is to find the perfect pony.”

[…]

Annie: “I fell in love with him.”

Booth: “Meaning what? A little light whipping?”

Annie: “When I say love, I don’t mean romantically. I mean the way a young girl feels about her first pony.”

[…]

Annie: “You know, I’m speaking to you willingingly, without a lawyer present. You could at least pretend to show me some respect.” 

Booth: (flippant) “Yeah, I’ll try.”

This encounter shows how the mainstream deals with deviant sexuality: Brennan intellectualizes it, while Booth laughs it off. Neither allows Annie to speak for herself. 

On their way back, Brennan and Booth keep talking. 

Brennan: “Aristotle extolled the joys being ridden like a horse.” [A garbled reference to the “Mounted Aristotle” myth?]

[…]

Brennan: “Why are you being so judgmental?”

Booth: “When you turn someone into an object of sexual pleasure, it’s wrong.”

Brennan: “How do you know?”

Booth: “It says in the Bible.”

Brennan: “It does not.”

Booth: “Then it got left out by mistake.”

Brennan: “We are all hard-wired differently. If someone needs to shout ‘giddy up’ to heighten arousal, what’s wrong with that?”

Booth: “Maybe if Ed lived like a man, he wouldn’t have died like a horse. That’s all.” 

While questioning the victim’s wife (who never knew about her husband’s other life), Brennan draws a sharp divide between ponyplay and love. 

Wife: “Why would Ed do that? We had a good sex life.”

Brennan: “More likely, a part of him could never have been satisfied by love alone.” 

Back at the ponyplay ranch convention, Brennan and Booth continue their investigation.

Booth: “Okay, what is this? A sicko rodeo?”

Brennan: “Stylized movements. Posturing as a kind of sexual signal.”

Booth: “Who are these people?”

Brennan: “In real life they tend to be very orthodox.”

Brennan says she has done sexual roleplay in the past.

Brennan: “We all indulge in role-playing in sexual situations.”

Booth: “Not me. Completely normal here.”

Brennan: “Booth, any time you look at a woman and make the judgment that she’s beautiful, you’re objectifying her. Any time I put on lipstick and nice clothes, I’m objectifying myself. It’s more subtle than what these people are doing, but otherwise it’s the same dynamic.”

Booth: “You wearing lipstick, Bones, it’s not like this.”

There’s a red herring or two, but the evidence leads to Annie as the culprit who murdered Mr. Ed out of jealousy for not leaving his wife. 

Annie: “I left my husband for him. I left Thor for him. And he was gonna leave me? What was I supposed to do?”

The outro of the episode is Booth and Brennan having dinner at a restaurant. 

Booth: “I lost my appetite because you made me think about all those people parading around pretending to be something they aren’t just so they could have crappy sex?”

Brennan: “How do you know it’s crappy?”

Booth makes a bold assumption without ever asking of the people involved. 

Booth: “Here we are, all of us, basically alone, separate creatures just circling each other, all searching for that slightest hint of a real connection. Some look in the wrong places. Some they just give up hope because they’re thinking in their mind, ‘Oh, there’s nobody out there for me.’ But all of us, we keep trying over and over again. Why? Because every once in a while, every once in a while, two people meet and there’s that spark. And yes, Bones, he’s handsome and she’s beautiful, and maybe that’s all they see at first. But making love? Making love, that’s when two people become one.”

Booth’s definition of good sex is extremely narrow: monogamy-normative, romantic-normative, even implicitly hetero-normative.

Booth: “Those people, role-playing and their fetishes and their little sex games, it’s crappy sex. Well, at least compared to the real thing.” 

Brennan: “You’re right.”

Booth: “Yeah, but… Wait a second. I just won that argument?”

Brennan: “Yup.”

This conversation comes at the end of an episode full of infidelity and jealousy culminating in a brutal murder, which upholds Booth’s ideology of vanilla-normativity. And even Brennan is made to agree with it. 

This episode epitomizes Vito Russo’s theory from The Celluloid Closet that queer sexuality exists in film to be ridiculed, even demonized and thus instructive about what is good and bad sexuality. Booth, the voice of moral authority, categorizes ponyplay as “crappy sex”, and therefore categorizes heterosexual, monogamous, romance-oriented sex as “good sex”. 

It’s not enough to show BDSM, there has to be a moral judgment attached to it. And even if it leads to infidelity, jealousy and murder, that’s not enough. It has to be less pleasurable than it appears. Better the viewer emulate the heteronormative, vanilla-normative relationship between Booth and Brennan. 

This episode was written by Josh Berman, who was executive producer on CSI, and consulting producer on Bones. He also has a story credit for one of the BDSM-focused episodes of CSI, “Lady Heather’s Box” (S03E15).

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