Here’s a thought absolutely no one should have: “Well, seeing things from Ted Kaczynski’s perspective, I have a better idea of how this happened.” And yet there I was, on my couch, on a lazy Sunday afternoon, having that thought as I watched Paul Bettany fail to connect with the outside world in the scruffy, hermetic guise of math prodigy-turned-anarchistic terrorist Ted Kaczynski. Such internal struggles run rampant through the Discovery miniseries Manhunt: Unabomber, which wrestles with the question of how much credence Kaczynski’s thoughts and opinions should get from we, the 99.999 percent of the population that hasn’t backed up a bigoted, luddite philosophy by mailing explosives to perceived enemies. In its sixth episode, Manhunt shines a blazing spotlight on that tension, shying away from the forensic investigators and the FBI administrators working to capture the Unabomber and instead concentrating entirely on Ted, as he writes a letter to his brother David (played by Mark Duplass—the casting of this thing is wild) and peels back the curtain on one of the 20th century’s greatest enigmas.
It’s an effective piece of TV storytelling, weaving flashbacks to Kaczynski’s school days between vignettes from his life in Lincoln, Montana circa 1995. The quotidian details are telling, his tentative bonds with the townsfolk stirring. (Once again, Manhunt caught me off guard when it had me thinking, “Come on, Ted Kaczynski—accept the invitation to the kid’s birthday party!”) College Ted’s friendship with a Harvard professor, which leads to his participation in an infamously abusive psychological experiment, is played for maximum, slowly dawning horror, without going so far as to portray it as the thing that transformed an isolated math whiz into the Unabomber. For all it does to put us in Kaczynski’s shoes, the episode, simply titled “Ted,” never lets us forget that those shoes belong to a monster.
“Ted” is a Manhunt standout, but it has plenty of company in contemporary TV: These sort of stand-alone, spotlight installments have become a favored implement in the toolboxes of TV writers in recent years, an opportunity to take a breather from a series’ overarching plots while drilling down into a particular character or relationship. Like many other popular contemporary TV storytelling conventions—flashbacks, for one—you can trace the proliferation of this device to Lost, and it’s only a hop, skip, and a jump from “Exposé” (a.k.a. The One That’s All About Nikki And Paulo) and “The Man Behind The Curtain” to Damon Lindelof’s TV follow-up, The Leftovers, the best episodes of which put a tight, novelistic focus on individuals. Carrie Coon got to do several of those as The Leftovers’ tragic heroine, Nora Durst, then took a solo sojourn to Los Angeles when she joined Fargo’s third season; fellow FX anthology American Crime Story earned awards and acclaim with “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia,” the Sarah Paulson spotlight that did two decades of reputation salvaging in the span of 51 minutes. It makes sense that Manhunt would try the same with another true-crime subject, about whom the audience had already made up its mind.
But when Stranger Things 2 brought us “The Lost Sister” last week, the reaction was far more Nikki-and-Paulo than “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia.” The episode has found its defenders, and creators Matt and Ross Duffer have presented their justifications, but I remain skeptical of the episode that buses Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) to Chicago in order to connect with her sister-in-telekinetic-arms, Kali (Linnea Berthelsen). In this graffiti-covered Dagobah, Eleven expands and harnesses her abilities, and stares down the barrel of ethical compromise when faced with murdering a man complicit in her and Kali’s captivity and torture. As The A.V. Club’s Emily L. Stephens writes in her recap, the episode “could have worked. It should have worked.”
El has plenty of history, heartache, and internal conflict to mine for a stand-alone episode, and Millie Bobby Brown has more than enough talent and presence to carry one. Ripping the audience away from the terrible action unfolding underneath Hawkins needn’t have destroyed the season’s momentum; it could have provided a fertile interlude for tension to grow.
“The Lost Sister”’s shortcomings are plentiful: Its supporting performances are lackluster; its script so-so; its lack of an overexcited Gaten Matarazzo, a terrified Winona Ryder, a grumbling David Harbour, or a single one of Joe Keery’s luscious locks pronounced. But some of those shortcomings are inherent in the type of episode “The Lost Sister” is—they temporarily mute some of our reasons for regularly engaging with a TV show. What’s so exciting and noteworthy about the examples discussed above is that they overcome those limitations, with their ripping yarns, commanding lead performances, and sheer novelty serving as a sleight of hand. “Two Boats And A Helicopter,” from The Leftovers’ first season, is a taut piece of short fiction with a mean Book of Job streak. Paulson is a force to be reckoned with in “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia.” “The Law Of Non-Contradiction” is a shaggy-dog detective story for a shaggy-dog season of Fargo.
Unfortunately, “The Lost Sister” is too clumsy to cover the misdirection. The blunt approach taken by Kali’s band of central-casting punks will make you grateful all over again for the uncommon naturalness of Stranger Things’ young stars. And it poses that question that has vexed anyone who’s watched “Exposé” since its 2007 debut: “Why do we care about these people again?” There’s thought given to the relationship between Eleven and Kali, and the latter serves as an example of one path the former could one day walk—but if Kali shows up alone in Stranger Things 3 and says, “My friends had to go. Their planet needed them,” I do not foresee a loud public outcry.
In a time-warp befitting Stranger Things, Kali and the cast of The Return Of The Living Dead are part of a 21st-century trend, yet feel tied to stand-alone episodes of an older vintage. For decades, TV producers have seeded spin-offs within the runs of their parent programs, through what’s known in the biz as a backdoor pilot. (Once more, “The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show” provides a helpful illustration: “Good news, everybody. I’m moving into my own apartment with two sexy ladies.”) Sometimes, this works out, in the case of Mork from Ork and his visit to 1950s Milwaukee; other times, it does not, and you wind up trying to figure out why Howard Borden from Bob Newhart has infiltrated your Mary Tyler Moore Show DVDs at the end of season two, hogging all the attention as a dopey Minneapolis city councilman. As far as I’m aware, “The Lost Sister” isn’t a backdoor pilot, it just feels like one—and not one of the ones that earned a green light. All of a sudden, everything you like about Stranger Things has been sucked out of the show by a group of new people, and it’s disorienting, disappointing, and discouraging.
Stranger Things is, among many other things, about people striving to make real, raw, honest connections. Stranger Things 2 turns this into a motif, as Mike and Eleven struggle to contact one another over the airwaves, and the people in El’s white-noise Under The Skin hidey-hole evaporate when she reaches out to touch them. El is connecting with other people in “The Lost Sister,” but those connections are forced by narrative necessity, her link to Kali the only one of any vitality beyond the confines of “The Lost Sister.” And those people aren’t characters, but rather outrageous hairstyles and wardrobes transferring the few, surface-level things that define them to their new surrogate sister.
A spotlight episode is a game of limitations, the TV equivalent of writing a pop song with three basic chords or telling a joke in the space of 140 characters. A select few can overcome those those limitations; the rest are just so much more white noise. And not every TV show needs to have one. A well-executed spotlight episode can help elevate a middle-of-the-road series; the only reason I’m still thinking about Manhunt three months later is because of the artful “Ted.” But a bad one can have the opposite effect, even as new episodes and new seasons crowd it from our collective memories. Perhaps by the time Stranger Things 3 arrives in our queues, the argument over “The Lost Sister” will simply feel like one of those busted backdoor pilots, a weird speed bump on an otherwise pleasant TV journey. I mean, it’s not like anybody’s still fighting about Nikki and Paulo anymore, right?