Pop Culture Osteology: The Blacklist

The Blacklist

I left the U.S. just before a number of the TV shows that I watch (e.g., anything that streams for free on Hulu) concluded their first seasons, meaning that I departed the country while at least three different plot lines had reached maximum cliffhanger saturation. NBC’s The Blacklist was one such show: the heroine’s marriage was in peril, her professional life was skirting the edge of disaster, and the antihero/hero/sometime villain was beset by nefarious and powerful foes.

Like Once, another one of my favorites, The Blacklist is ridiculous and nonsensical, although instead of applying the panacea of true love to untangle convoluted narratives, it relies far more heavily on a (likely misplaced) conviction in the omnipotence and omniscience of both the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation and the higher-end criminal underworld. It’s the sort of show where  helicopters arrive just in the nick of time, surprise gunshots ring out from behind the villain holding the protagonist hostage, and an apparently ubiquitous array of long-distance, high powered cameras manage to capture every illicit personal and professional interaction that could possibly be relevant to the current story arc.


“Magnify. Enhance. Can we move the helicopter two feet to the left?”

This all becomes osteologically relevant because during the final episode of season one, our dogged FBI task force is on the hunt for an escaped convict named “Berlin”, who is purported to be one of the deadliest and more powerful criminals in the world. While interviewing a prison guard who had interacted with the convict in the past, Agents Ressler and Keen are treated to an in-depth, if slightly mythologized, account of Berlin’s rise through the ranks of the criminal underworld. The hospitalized guard (played by the fantastic Peter Stormare, who you will likely recognize from Fargo), indicates that it all began when the criminal mastermind was imprisoned in Siberia.

A former higher-ranking colonel in the Soviet army, Berlin had previously taken a brutal approach to individuals who did not toe the party line, and after his imprisonment his many enemies began to send him pieces of his daughter. Yes, that’s right, not missives from his daughter, but pieces of her. They started with an ear:

The first delivery...and then moved on to some packages that packed a more visceral punch (excuse the pun). Below we can see a few oddly shaped ribs – which I assume are lower ribs, given their size, relative lack of curvature, and the absence of clearly delineated heads – as well as what appears to be half a brain and a liver:


before finally progressing to the dentition. Here, at least, I understand Berlin’s horror. Not only is the Soviet Siberian postal service jaw-droppingly lax about shipping regulations, but now he has to deal with LOOSE HUMAN TEETH? Having just analyzed some 3,869 human teeth, I feel his pain.

Teeth - the horror!These gory gifts understandably piqued our imprisoned colonel’s wrath, and he was able to transform his rage into a single-minded focus on escaping his imprisonment. As Peter Stormare explains “No one knows how he did it, but he did. Some say that he carved a knife from one of his daughter’s bones, and slaughtered all the men that had held him captive for so many years”.

Well that certainly seems like poetic justice. However, I do wonder, as a bioarchaeologist, which bone would be most appropriate for such an endeavour. Let’s see what Berlin used:

Judging by the width of the shaft and the size of the bone, this must be some sort of long bone. Considering that Berlin’s daughter was a young woman who grew up in the U.S.S.R (not a socio-historical context notorious for abundant access to subsistence goods), had been incarcerated at least once before (again, a context in which she likely would not have received adequate nutritional resources), and had likely been tortured before she died, I’m assuming that she would not have been a particularly robust individual.

[As an aside, while this line of reasoning no doubt seems terribly callous and glib, let us remember that this woman is a fictional character, invented solely to provide a plausible motive and backstory for an antagonist who was no doubt created largely to drive viewership in Season Two by creating a rivalry between criminal masterminds.]

Anyhow, let’s see if we can find a close-up of the bone. Based on its size in the screenshot above, it has to be one of the larger long bones, right? A humerus, tibia or femur? Let’s take a closer look:

Screen Shot 2014-10-03 at 8.52.07 PM

The show was gracious enough to give us a clear shot of the cross-section of the shaft while we witness Berlin sharpening his clever osteo-knife, and I must say, this curvature is troubling. I paused the episode when this first came up, because while the sharp, steep crest shown in the top of this photo could be an anterior tibial crest, the mediolateral dimensions of the rest of the shaft, and what would be the posterior border of the bone, are so narrow that I don’t think it can be a tibia. As you can see, tibial cross-sections, even mid-shaft, tend to be much broader posteriorly:

Tibial shaft cross sections

That sort of torquing and angular curvature that we see on Berlin’s bone knife is more characteristic of fibular shafts, but the bone in his hand is clearly too robust to be a fibula, and is particularly too robust to be a fibula if we’re talking about a young woman who has likely witnessed all sorts of nutritional setbacks and should be relatively gracile. Here’s another shot of the crest portion:

Screen Shot 2014-10-03 at 8.45.47 PM

And here, as Berlin merrily begins his first killing spree, we get a better sense of the dimensions of the entire shaft – too broad to be fibular, unless we’re talking a very large, very robust individual.

The only thing I could think of was that the long bone Berlin received might be faunal. Some of the larger ungulates, e.g. a large deer or elk, might have tibiae in this size class, and the anterior tibial crests for these sorts of animals does tend to be steeper and more pronounced than the crests on human tibiae (see below), though I’ve never seen one in cross-section.

Fossil Deer Tibia

However, it’s a difficult call based solely on the portion of bone observable during the prison break. Osteology readers, do any of you think this could be an oddly-shaped human tibial shaft? Or am I right in thinking there must be something strange going on? Either way, that Berlin may have begun his murderous rampage and life of crime after his enemies sent him faunal bones that were intended to look like the remains of his daughter is unfortunate.

Agent Keen is troubled
I agree Agent Keen, I too am troubled.

Image Credits:
 The Blacklist header photo was found at deadline.com here, the second image of crack team members clustered around a computer was found at the Blacklist Wiki here, while the sketches of tibial cross-sections come from a University of Tokyo report, here. The deer tibia was pulled from fossilsonline here, and the image of Agent Keen looking troubled is from razorfine, here. All other photos are screenshots taken from S1.E22 of The Blacklist, which is the sometimes gory property of NBC, etc., etc.

This entry was posted in Long Bones, Osteology, Pop Osteology and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Pop Culture Osteology: The Blacklist

  1. Pingback: Around the Archaeology Blog-o-sphere Digest #5 | Doug's Archaeology

  2. Pingback: Bone Broke Year in Review | Bone Broke

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