“Unusual Suspects” (season 5, episode 3)
In which The Lone Gunmen get an origin story.
The 100th episode of The X-Files to air (though the 98th to be produced), “Unusual Suspects” is a love letter to the very idea of paranoia, to the idea that believing the absolute worst of the institutions around you is the proper attitude to hold at all times. It’s about a group of men who encounter a femme fatale and find themselves losing all sense of bearing. The foundations they stand on start to slip out from under them, and that’s that. They wake up one day as solid citizens. They go to bed on the next day as men who firmly believe the United States government is out to spy on every single one of its citizens and control them via drugs and other forms of psychological manipulation. It ALSO doubles as an origin myth for three of the show’s most beloved characters (as well as, arguably, one of the show’s main characters), and it’s often very funny, but in a slier way than the show’s humorous episodes usually are.
“Unusual Suspects” was produced under, well, unusual circumstances. In the wake of the production of the feature film that would follow the show’s fifth season, the writers quickly realized they would not have access to David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson for as much time as they might have liked for the first episode filmed in the fifth season. Instead of beginning immediately with “Redux,” an episode that asked plenty of both actors, the writers decided to give the two a reprieve and pursue an idea that had long been kicking around X-Files gossip sites and fan circles: a Lone Gunmen-centric episode. News of the episode’s existence got out before the season premiered, and it ended up being hotly anticipated. The X-Files had done right by Skinner and the Cigarette Smoking Man in their episodes; why wouldn’t it do right by characters so close to the show’s very soul?
As we talked about way back in “Home,” one of the understated themes of The X-Files is the transition of the United States from a collection of smaller entities loosely brought together into a larger body to a world where a national monoculture dominates everything. “Unusual Suspects” is a story that fits roughly into this paradigm as well: It’s an episode about three guys who all have their own little purviews of interest and intrigue and gradually get sucked into something far bigger than any of them, thanks to a chance encounter one of them has with a woman. (Roughly speaking, it’s structured as a conspiracy noir, complete with femme fatale, late night meetings in hotel rooms, and bad guys who let the heroes live because they know there’s no way said hero could make a difference anyway. Also, was it just my eyes, or was Suzanne just riding in that car like it was no big deal at the end? That’d be very noir, if so.) It’s a little too pat here and there, but I love the way that it, like the Lone Gunmen themselves, seems like a kind of tribute to old-school nerdery, to the way that people used to get on the Internet before Web browsers and the like. (Wasn’t there something called Gopher?)
It’s this low-fi, analog vibe that’s always appealed to me about the Gunmen. Their spinoff (which we may cover in this here series when the time comes) never worked as well as I wanted it to, and part of it, I think, was that it just came too late in the show’s run. The Web had become so prevalent that what had made them so geeky cool at one time now felt rather mainstream. They were once outsiders, but now their viewpoint had been directly pumped into the culture at large. For God’s sake, these people started out as a bunch of hardcore computer hackers who had some sort of ‘zine that Mulder apparently read. The longer the show went on, the less that kind of character seemed believable, simply because the world was changing around them. (Yes, yes, I know hackers and ‘zines still exist, but they no longer seem so far outside the mainstream as to seem at all odd.) When detective show Terriers introduced a gaggle of geeks designed to be that series’ version of the Gunmen, they mostly looked like college kids who needed a little cash. The Lone Gunmen looked like that guy you always find in the back of Radio Shack, digging through all the little drawers of fuses, looking for just the right one.
“Unusual Suspects” almost seems to acknowledge this, setting the entirety of its action in 1989. Granted, it does this because it’s an origin story, and origin stories have to go back to the beginning, but it also allows the show to get laughs out of just how much the world had changed between 1989 and 1997. When Mulder pulls out that ridiculously huge cell phone, it’s a sight gag, where it once would have been a sign of how well-connected and technologically with it he was. (And now, when we see Mulder and Scully on their phones, they seem bulky to us. The world marches on.) Frohike and Langly are competing salesmen at an electronics trade show who try and pitch people on a home-grown method to bypass cable TV restrictions, something the cable companies gradually made impossible. (I still remember when my father installed a satellite dish because everything—even HBO!—was unblocked on the raw feeds. But that went away, too.) The computer hacking in the episode mostly involves common passwords used to get around security systems, and government computers are relatively easy to break into. Hell, Byers’ co-worker spends most of the episode playing Dig Dug.
I liked “Unusual Suspects,” which had that low-fi charm I was talking about in spades, but I didn’t LOVE it. It was an episode of the show I hadn’t seen for some reason (until we get to season seven, those are tremendously rare), and I’d been anticipating catching up with it. And while it had the sense of fun I always get from X-Files episodes I’ve never seen (at least from the good seasons), I wasn’t quite sure why I didn’t love it as much as some of Vince Gilligan’s other solo scripts. (Gilligan, who was really in tune with these characters, would go on to be the primary producer on the Lone Gunmen spinoff.) Oddly enough, what didn’t work for me was also one of the episode’s secret strengths.
Let me see if I can lay this out succinctly: Byers, Frohike, and Langly are all apprehended by the police at a warehouse, where a man is endlessly screaming such lunacies as “They’re here!” The cold open here builds nicely to the twin reveals of the Gunmen as, seemingly, the culprits the police are looking for and Mulder being the screaming man. (I sort of knew it was coming and was still taken aback.) I even like the giant “1989” that opens this segment. From there, we cut to Det. Munch (Richard Belzer, tying this show into the Tommy Westphall universe) interrogating Byers about what happened, and we get the full story. Byers bumped into a woman named Holly Modeski, and after he pursued her, she told him she was being stalked by an ex-boyfriend, the father of her child who had taken said child from her. He was a psychopath, she said, so Byers resolved to help her out, recruiting Frohike and Langly for the hacking operations. (Frohike’s disgust with Byers—who works for the FCC!—is a highlight.) And who does that boyfriend/baby daddy turn out to be? Why, Fox Mulder, of course! This is a reveal that most viewers will see coming from a mile away. Doesn’t make it any less effective.
Anyway, as the Gunmen (though they are not called that yet) dig deeper, they learn something alarming: Holly Modeski is really named Suzanne Modeski (the name she gave for her daughter), and she’s wanted for killing a bunch of people. Mulder’s on her trail because he works for the FBI and needs to bring her in for those murders. But once the group runs across Suzanne again (or, more accurately, she runs across them), she lays out an even MORE improbable tale: She was working for the government when she was part of a team that discovered a chemical that would inspire mass paranoia, a chemical the government aims to test on the population at large. As she begins ranting about government surveillance bots in Gideon Bibles (no, really!) and eventually performs a little self-dentistry when the file she’s been trying to decrypt all episode says there’s some sort of tracker that was implanted the last time she went to the dentist. (The moment when she grabs the pliers and heads for the bathroom is a great, great shock.) It all concludes in that warehouse, where the Gunmen come across the men behind the plot—led by the still-alive-in-1989 Mr. X—and Mulder is doused with large quantities of the paranoia drug (which was going to go out in asthma medicine).
If I were to make a chief criticism of this episode, it would be that it’s just all too pat. The Gunmen all start out as believers in the government and its righteousness (it gave us Amtrak, after all!). Hell, Byers works for the government and takes pride in his work. Mulder is just a typical FBI agent, pursuing a woman as a part of his work with the violent crimes division, stopping at a booth about how aliens are among us at the trade show more as a lark than anything else. By the end, they’re all raving paranoiacs, thanks to the events of the episode and (in the case of Mulder, at least) the influence of the drug. In true femme fatale fashion, Suzanne Modeski is the one who pulls the wool from the eyes of Byers and his cohorts, the one who shows them how the world REALLY works. But this seems like too far a fall too quickly, and I really don’t like the implication that Mulder is paranoid because he got dosed with a bunch of neurotoxin. Sure, the episode distances itself from this interpretation, but it still strikes me as one of those “cause/effect” moments that TV is so fond of, the single event that provides the impetus for someone to utterly redefine themselves in some non-trivial way. And I can buy Byers as a resolute government backer, but Frohike and Langly? Please. (Also, the choice to build this episode around Byers, mostly, was a smart one. He’s still the most ostensibly “normal” of the Gunmen and was even more so in 1989.)
But as the episode moved its way to its climax, when Mr. X improbably lets the Gunmen live after seeing as much as they did (then gives the three their name!), it struck me that what we’re seeing here may not entirely be meant to be taken seriously, just as “Memoirs Of A Cigarette Smoking Man” is more about who the CSM wished he might have been than the person he actually was. This isn’t a true story; it’s a manifesto. Sure, there may be elements of the truth in there, but every time the Gunmen tell the story of how they met and got their start in bringing down the government, one conspiracy theory at a time, it probably gets wilder and wilder, until it starts to resemble not so much the truth as it does a story where all of them were firm believers in the government until proved wrong, like recent religious converts or the people who say they NEVER believed in Bigfoot, until… And of course their friend at the FBI was there from the start, and yeah, maybe he got dosed with some of the stuff, and that opened his eyes, man. Taken as a literal part of the story of The X-Files, “Unusual Suspects” leaves a bit to be desired. Taken as a portrayal of how the Gunmen see themselves, however, it’s pretty great and weirdly winning, a great pilot for a funky flashback series that (sadly) never came.
- Back when I was first getting into The X-Files, I bought a bunch of those official companions and read them furiously, so I could be the person who knew the MOST about the show (which wasn’t hard, since none of my friends watched it). As such, I knew about the Lone Gunmen long before I actually saw them in an episode. (It’s amazing how little the show used its side characters, when you come right down to it. And that’s one of its strengths!) Yet even then, I was really intrigued by them, and I think they held the same kind of fascination for much of the show’s fanbase.
- Interesting how every time the show turns an episode over to one of its side characters, the show essentially becomes what a weekly series about that side character would be like, almost certainly. Skinner would get an action-packed tale of working at a conspiracy-ridden FBI, CSM would get an Oliver Stone-style mélange of history and fiction, and the Lone Gunmen would get vaguely comedic conspiracy noir.
- It’s too bad Suzanne Modeski doesn’t really come back. She’s a pretty terrific character, and she’s well-played by Signy Coleman, whose resemblance to Amy Ryan made me wonder if one of the world’s foremost character actresses isn’t some sort of cover identity for Ms. Modeski.
- I kind of like the idea that The X-Files takes place in the same universe as Homicide: Life On The Street (one of the few ‘90s dramas that can beat X-Files in the quality department). Something about X-Files makes it seem like it COULD take place in the same world as all of these other, more realistic shows.
- Another quibble with this episode: It relies a little too heavily on the kinds of “heh, heh, NERDS” humor that were so prevalent in the ‘90s, particularly in regards to Byers’ co-worker, who becomes an afterthought after his arrest.
- "Frohike, you hippie jerk."
- "Before the assassination, my parents were going to call me Bertram."
- "All I did was play Dig Dug. I didn't hack into anybody's computer."
- "I've got tinnitus."
- "Aluminum foil makes a lovely hat, and it keeps out the government's mind control rays."
“Sense And Antisense” (season 2, episode 3)
In which the human genome project is evil, EEEEEVIIILLLLL, I TELLS YA!
If nothing else, season two of Millennium is wildly, wildly ambitious. Check out this interview, conducted by Cinefantastique after production on the second season wrapped. (There are spoilers for the season in there, but you’ll have a pretty good sense of when and where, since it talks about most of season two’s episodes in order.) It sounds like all of the writers on the show came with certain big stories they wanted to tell and Glen Morgan and James Wong gave them the room to experiment. Sometimes, that leads to big, exciting episodes, like some of the ones coming up in a couple of weeks. And sometimes, it leads to episodes that try to do too much and end up like “Sense And Antisense.” Still, like Zack, I’d rather watch something that’s insane, like this, something that’s trying to do too many things, than I would something that just keeps playing the same basic beats over and over. “Sense And Antisense” is a little too full of STUFF, to be sure, but it’s also got several scenes of madcap genius in it, and a twist that doesn’t quite work but is still ridiculously hilarious in just how gutsy it is.
Forthwith, a short list of just SOME of the issues “Sense And Antisense” tries to toss into its mix of crazy shit: the Human Genome Project, the Tuskegee syphilis experiments, the long history of scientific trials on humanity’s least fortunate, the Rwandan genocide, the threat of manmade plagues decimating humanity, problems in relations between white and black Americans, the Millennium Group’s possible interest in biological plagues, and taxi cab drivers’ lack of respect for black people. And, honestly, that’s probably an incomplete list. “Sense And Antisense” never fails for a topic to toss at the audience, but it seems to buzz by some of them far too quickly, especially for those of us watching now in 2011, who can’t really be bothered to find the Human Genome Project as terrifying as the episode wants us to find it. (Apparently, it’s funded by the Department of Energy? HORRORS!)
In that interview I linked to, episode writer Chip Johannessen seems pretty down on this one, and he says he thinks it only got worse through the rewrite process. I can see why he feels that way. He indicates that the original script dealt with racial issues, and that was a topic that many networks were shy about confronting in the ‘90s, for whatever reason. (Network dramas were very pleased to talk about race in the ‘80s, often ham-handedly, but outside of NYPD Blue and Homicide when NBC wasn’t hobbling it, race was treated with kid gloves all too often in the ‘90s.) And that sort of makes sense. The best part of the episode—well, the most cohesive part, at least—comes at the very start, when Gerome, an unlucky cab driver, picks up an African-American man who’s clearly come down with the plague to end all plagues.
Now, I can’t exactly call this scene “good.” It’s filled with some of the most embarrassing “rich TV writers trying to write street slang” dialogue of the ‘90s (and that decade was positively filled with this sort of thing). Every so often, a TV writer will come along who’s really able to slip into this particular argot, but not everyone is David Simon. Johannessen DEFINITELY isn’t, and his characters have a tendency to slip into lecture mode in these scenes, where they’re pointing out the PROBLEMS with SOCIETY, man. But the central hook here is a good one. The unnamed passenger is dying, blood dripping out of his mouth. And when Gerome gets him to the hospital, nameless men in suits come after him, and Gerome realizes that the passenger’s rants about Tuskegee might have been based in something more than random crazy person paranoia. And so Gerome helps his passenger escape, and the case gets tossed to Frank, who’s needing a little cash while on break from the Millennium Group (there are, again, ominous rumblings about bringing him on full-time).
While the basic material here—giant government conspiracy creates a plague it then inflicts on the homeless—seems more like an X-Files episode than a Millennium episode, the first half of the episode does a pretty good job of ramping this up nicely and making it fit within the show as we already know it. A little girl steps into a giant pool of Patient Zero’s blood. The task force that’s meant to bring down Patient Zero convenes in a large room that is later emptied of all evidence it ever contained anything. (The remnants of what once WAS a place where mundane evil was carried out are a hallmark of Chris Carter shows and almost always utilized well.) Gerome and Patient Zero go to a newspaper to try to convince a reporter of Patient Zero’s story—there are “trucks” that come and take the homeless and give them these awful diseases—and the reporter is ready to grab the exclusive… but only after he sees Frank pull up. And then Frank sends Patient Zero back with the government, and the episode rather goes off the rails.
Up until this point, the episode has just had a nice enough arc about the government, well, kidnapping homeless people and giving them a plague. That’s a pretty standard “crazy person proved right” story, and the episode is executing it well enough. But once Patient Zero disappears, things start to get a little nuts, with Frank’s shirt smeared with Patient Zero’s blood, which ISN’T infected with some weird plague. Instead, Frank begins to realize that he was duped by a government agency that merely made him THINK he was chasing someone who was deathly ill. He brings Peter in on the search, and the two begin wandering the city, trying to figure out just what’s going on. And the episode loses its power as it shifts into a pretty strange story about how the Human Genome Project is being used to flip certain genes inside of people and make them more violent than they would normally be (a Morgan/Wong chestnut).
But the episode doesn’t really DO anything with any of this. There’s a monologue by a crazy homeless person about how we’re all trucks, driven by people and forces we can’t really understand. There’s a scene where Watts intones about how Frank shouldn’t really be working outside of the Group’s purview. There’s a bunch of scenes where Frank figures out that lots of homeless people have been taken and tested, including one where he infiltrates an ambulance. And there’s lots and lots of pontificating about just what it all means and how the U.S. government mistreats its people. None of this is bad, but it doesn’t fit together in any way, shape, or form.
But that’s to say nothing of the twist: When Frank finally tracks down the people behind the experiments, he discovers the man in charge is… Patient Zero, who turns out to be a man named Dr. William R. Kramer. Kramer, as it turns out, may have been responsible for the Rwandan genocide, thanks to his research into how to make people start killing the hell out of each other, and he and his operation disappear into the night, using their food trucks to round up more unsuspecting test subjects. It’s a powerful ending, but it doesn’t make a goddamn lick of sense once you start to think about it. (Just how DID Kramer end up “infected” with his DNA dosing?) And as the episode closes with Frank trying to figure out just who it is that keeps calling him and hanging up—by bringing over his ol’ buddy Brian to install a machine to unblock the blockage on the anonymous caller’s caller ID—and growing frustrated with his inability to do so, it all feels like something that should have cohered but didn’t. Johannessen might be right. This, though entertaining throughout, feels like something that’s been rewritten at least one time too many, to incorporate more and more ideas until the center cannot hold.
- I do like that Frank actually has to do some detective work on this show. Too many crime shows just end up with the characters having the clues fall into their laps. The scene where Frank tries to decipher Patient Zero’s jibber jabber is a very good one.
- Gerome ends up dead for his troubles, the victim of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. (And, amusingly enough, of picking up an African-American man at night, though I’m pretty sure Johannessen didn’t intend this as dramatic irony.)
- Stupid things fans of the show thought at the time of air: They hated Brian Roedecker! Brian’s the best, people of 1997. You know this to be true.
- "We are living in a more Blofeldian world."
- "White people say it's extraterrestrial." So we do. So we do.
Next week: Zack takes on one scary-ass X-Files monster in “Detour,” then heads after, well, another monster in “Monster.”