With the premiere of the final episode of Facebook Watch’s SACRED LIES: THE SINGING BONES mere days away, the end of this modern-day true-crime inspired fairy tale is within our grasp. With that in mind, let’s take a spoiler-filled look back at Chapter 9. Written by Molly Nussbaum, and directed by Cheryl Dunye, “Bloodlines” is an exploration of both family and identity, of the search to find out who we truly are.
The theme of family is a common and complex one in fairy tales – just look at the relationship between the brothers in ‘The Singing Bone’ which ultimately led to a nasty case of fratricide. The princess’ relationship with her father, the deceased mother, the evil stepmother (or in this case foster mother), the, albeit unconventional, fairy godmother – all these fairy tale tropes are constantly being examined in The Singing Bones. But this is a fairy tale set in modern times, and there is one aspect of family that we have a deeper understanding of thanks to advancements in science. What the Brothers Grimm or Charles Perrault, what our ancestors, may have called our bloodline, we now know as genetics, our DNA.
In 2018, the prolific murderer and rapist known as the ‘Golden State Killer’ (AKA the ‘East Area Rapist’) was caught decades after committing his crimes. Joseph DeAngelo was 72 when his DNA, which had been collected from crime scenes in the 1970s and 80s, was matched with a relative through a genealogy website. Genealogy services have led to breaks in other cold cases as well as reuniting people with lost or previously unknown family members. And this is the breakthrough that opens episode 9.
When Lily (Kimiko Glenn) receives a notification that Elsie’s DNA has been matched, Harper (Juliette Lewis) heads to meet with the Reed family in the hope of reuniting the orphaned teen with long lost relatives. What Harper finds, however, is a small-minded, gun-toting, racist, conspiracy theorist – a spellbinding performance by Canadian actress, Jessica Steen (Armageddon, “NCIS”) – who denies that there is any chance that she could be related to anyone of another race. DNA doesn’t lie, but prejudice can convince us to believe whatever suits us best.
This could be a dead end, but the ever-ingenious Harper utilizes another tool at the disposal of every armchair detective – social networking. With a few clicks, Harper has tracked down Wendy (Antonique Smith), her mother and her sister. It is immediately clear that Wendy’s mother Dalia (L. Scott Caldwell – “Lost”, “The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina“), and her sister Roberta (Aisha Kabia – “How I Met Your Mother”, “The Russian Spy”), are the family that Elsie deserves. Though the Spellman’s were not the picture-perfect family, estranged from Wendy due to her alcoholism, they have never stopped hoping or loving. It is understandable then that it was this family that Wendy was trying to return to after five years when Peter stumbled into her story. She wanted her daughter to have a family. This was their fresh start, her second chance.
In episode 8, “Dark Nights”, we looked at second chances and this is definitely a theme that continues here. In “Bloodlines”, Peter (Ryan Kwanten) tells little Elsie a bedtime story, of a monster that terrorized the forest but was enchanted by a princess with a beautiful voice whose kiss turned him into a prince. While Peter’s version of a fairy tale gives us an insight into how he sees himself, the victim of circumstance who doesn’t want to hurt anyone, it also shows us how he sees Elsie. The princess who tames the beast, who saves him and turns him into a man, giving him that second chance at a happily ever after. Peter lost his chance to have a family on that fateful day at Cherry Falls, but then little Elsie walked into his life. “You weren’t my kid, but I felt you could be,” he tells teenage Elsie in the motel room where he took her mother’s life. When she came back into his life, he really wanted to be her dad. And she wanted that too.
In The Singing Bones searching for family mirrors the search for a second chance. Family IS that second chance. This is also true, in a slightly different way, for Harper. It was her search for her missing sister, Roan (Avery Konrad – “The Killing”, “Van Helsing”), that began her obsession with identifying Jane Does. If she can’t find her sister and put her ever-present ghost to rest, she can search for answers for the families of the unknown victims that may otherwise be forgotten.
The important question here is: is family your blood or a choice? Reed chose to refuse to accept Elsie as part of her family despite being blood-related, while Peter chose to be a father to her, at least for a short time. These days we can have an “urban family”; our friends can become our family as much, if not more, than our bloodline. Phrases like “sister from another mister” and “brother from another mother” are common parlance. A connection can be as important and valuable as what runs in our veins, like our DNA. Family is as much of a choice as our identity can be.
Identity is yet another common theme in fairy tales, often explored through the characters’ names. These names are descriptive – consider Snow White and Cinderella as examples. Names can also hold great power as in the tale of Rumpelstiltskin. The three main characters of The Singing Bones all live under assumed names, whether chosen or bestowed upon them. While Elsie was renamed by Peter after his mother, and Harper goes by her surname rather than her given name, Amelia, in a symbolic act of the rejection of her upbringing, Peter’s real name, as we learned in “The Hunt”, is Hunter Kingston.
As the pair drive out to the Dark Knights motel, Peter tells Elsie that her real name is Maya. While she processes this new information, she notes that Maya “sounds like a completely different person.”
“A name isn’t who you are,” replies Peter. “It’s an expectation your parents put on you.”
This is certainly true of Peter, whose father named him Hunter because he wanted “a macho hunting buddy” – an expectation he could never live up to. He explains to Elsie that the real Peter Wolf was a dead schoolteacher; Hunter just bought his ID from a man on the street. But Wolf seems a fitting choice, bringing to mind the wolf in Red Riding Hood who disguises himself as the harmless grandmother. Having two names reflects the split personality that Peter/Hunter exhibits: “I thought having a different name could make me a different man.”
“Names don’t matter,” he concludes. “We are who we are.”
But if names don’t matter, and family isn’t necessarily in your blood, why name Elsie after his mother? Peter explains that he thought it would maybe mean his mother would be with Elsie in spirit, to protect her, a common belief in many traditions, a guardian angel if you will.
“You just made me a character in your story,” points out the ever-astute Elsie, “just like your dad did to you.”
As we head towards the final chapter of SACRED LIES: The Singing Bones, we are still grappling with the narratives of our key characters, how their differing searches will reach a mutual conclusion. If family and identity are choices, what choices will our characters make and how will that determine who they are moving forward? Will they find the answers they each seek? And can they, and by extension we, achieve the “happily ever after” promised to us by the fairy tale authors of times past?
The season finale of SACRED LIES: The Singing Bones, “With the Dancing Lions”, airs Thursday, April 9 on Facebook Watch, at 12 PM PT/3 PM ET.