The X-Files

Season 5 Episode 3

Unusual Suspects

1
Aired Sunday 9:00 PM Nov 16, 1997 on FOX
SUBMIT REVIEW

Episode Fan Reviews (9)

8.6
out of 10
Average
279 votes
  • A nice try, but not the best attempt at focusing on the supporting cast

    6.0
    In seasons past, the premiere episode(s) have resulted in major consequences for the characters, which would then disappear almost instantly as the series returned to its usual fragmented formatting.

    In this case, the writers were up against an even greater challenge. The “Gethsemane” trilogy left the characters in a state of spiritual flux, but the roadmap between Scully’s restored belief and Mulder’s crisis of faith and the events of the film (which had completed the bulk of principal photography over the break) wasn’t clear. The network didn’t want the series to end with the fifth season (where Carter had assumed it would), and the writers weren’t sure how that would play out. Add to that the limited availability of the cast early in the production schedule (which was already down to 20 episodes to accommodate the film), and the season was off to a rocky start.

    The solution was relatively simple. Instead of trying to create an episode that would take place after “Redux II” (which was still to be filmed, for that matter), the producers decided to make the first episode a flashback. That solved the continuity problem. To resolve the cast scheduling, the writers focused not on Mulder or Scully, but rather, on some unlikely stand-ins: The Lone Gunmen.

    It was a risk, and not just because of the somewhat unnecessary and gratuitous Richard Belzer cameo. It was a risk because the series had long since abandoned any concerted effort to take supporting characters and flesh them out. Skinner got two episodes, but they were largely plagued with a lack of clear direction; there was an obvious lack of commitment in terms of making the character stand out as a potential series lead of his own. Indeed, the supporting characters only got to star in an episode when the leads needed time off, so such episodes were clearly not conceived with the notion of giving those characters life.

    The episode plays like something of an “origin” episode, telling the story of how the Lone Gunmen came together and how Mulder became their highly unlikely ally. Left to choose which of the three outcasts would make the most natural central lead for the hour, the writers settled on the most conservative of the bunch: Byers. After watching this episode again, it’s odd to think that so many fans bashed the future “Lone Gunmen” series for beginning with a Byers-centric episode of Mulder-esque proportions; the writers of this episode clearly attempt to use Byers as a natural bridge between Mulder’s more conventional point of view (at least in this time period) and the more esoteric personalities of Frohike and Langly.

    In 1989, Byers starts out as an idealistic employee with a sense of pride and trust in his government that is almost painful to hear. Frohike and Langly, warring hackers with business in illegal cable, look down at him as a “narc”. Everything changes, as it so often does, when a mysterious woman walks into Byers’ life, and everything he believes is turned upside down. In short order, Byers becomes utterly convinced that his government is the enemy, and all that idealism is turned towards exposing the truth.

    The parallels to Mulder are striking, and there’s no small amount of foreshadowing in that symmetry. In 1989, Mulder is the rising star of the Violent Crimes Unit, with no sign of delving into “extreme possibilities”. The conceit of this episode is that Mulder met the Lone Gunmen in the very moments of his personal conversion, just as they found their own mission in life. It’s like a conspiracy theorist’s favorite comic book origin story, and it plays out in that fashion, right down to the odd plot contrivances of the final act.

    Perhaps the most unbelievable aspect of the episode is the central premise. Why would a woman like Susanne Modeski accept help from someone so out of his depth as John Fitzgerald Byers? Granted, she’s at the convention to find someone with the skills to hack into the defense computer network in the hopes of stopping the conspiracy’s test program, but what makes her think that Byers is the one? If the audience is supposed to be sympathetic to Modeski by the end of the episode, her decision to use and abuse Byers’ trust and puppy love doesn’t exactly fit that expectation.

    If one accepts that this is all about Byers calling on Frohike and Langly to pull off the most difficult hack ever in the name of uncovering the truth and saving democracy, all with their pathetic little hearts on their sleeves, then the episode still comes up a bit short on the details. It’s remarkably easy for Byers to break into the Whitestone network, and when it comes down to breaking into the FBI network, it’s not exactly something that looks like it requires three unusual minds working together. In fact, it’s hard to tell what exactly Frohike does, or why Byers really needed Langly in the first place.

    By the time that Modeski explains her true purpose and the depth of her justifiable paranoia, the episode has already embraced a certain level of contrived absurdity. This works if one can accept that the events are being told from Byers’ slanted point of view, both then and “now”. Not all the flaws are covered by accepting this point of view, but it helps. Even taking Byers’ particular and peculiar perspective into account, some parts of the story don’t add up.

    The final act is the deal-breaker. It’s impossible to accept the idea that Mulder would be exposed to a dosage of paranoid juice at least hundreds of times more powerful than even the conspiracy intended and survive intact. That’s a massive overdose of a chemical agent, and such things typically result in lethal side effects. For Mulder to survive, only to have his inner conspiracy theorist brought to the surface, seems rather forced. After all, if that’s the extent of the effect of a massive overdose, what did the conspiracy think would happen at the much smaller dosage? It’s not like Americans aren’t kept paranoid enough by their employers!

    But even taking that with faith, how did the Lone Gunmen themselves survive? They watch Informant X “sanitize” the scene with little or no regard for any life other than Mulder’s, and they get any with little more than a cheap scare. Is the audience supposed to believe that Informant X was impressed with Byers and his idealism, and that Informant X let them live out of some sympathy with those ideals? As a rough concept, that works, but Informant X has killed and “sanitized” others with just as firm a sense of idealism in the past.

    Therein lies the difficulty of this episode. It’s great to see the Lone Gunmen get their chance in the limelight, and it’s good to see them as distinct characters. But this has all the same problems as every other retroactive “origin” story: the stakes must be high enough to shake the characters out of their old lives and into a more polarized philosophy, yet the characters must survive those circumstances despite their own ignorance. Several times in the story, the Lone Gunmen were in a position where they should have been dead; their survival was never in question, and so the extremity of their situation was hard to accept.

    If one is able to sit back and just accept what happens without question, then the next challenge is the tone. The episode takes itself very seriously. In fact, the tone is even more serious than the “Lone Gunmen” pilot episode, which was panned for lacking in the wacky. The script has some clever and funny moments, but they are few and far between. Several scenes suffer from Byers’ lack of animation; it may be his character trait, but it’s not too exciting to watch an even less expressive version of Mulder without something to balance out the earnest seriousness.

    That’s not to say that the episode is devoid of the humor and quirkiness that makes the Lone Gunmen so much fun to watch in small doses. Frohike and Langly make a good comic team, especially when they get competitive and start ripping into one another. Langly’s role playing habit, complete with cash gambling, is a definite highlight. And it’s funny to see the straight-laced Mulder of yesteryear run around with a cell phone the size of a toaster oven. It’s just that the plot gets in the way of the fun, regardless of how much one wants to sympathize with Byers and his lost innocence.

    This episode, for all its emphasis on the Lone Gunmen, is notable for how it fits into Mulder’s established history. By this point in the series, it was clear that Mulder had set aside the issue of Samantha’s abduction until his memories of the event were “recovered”; the events of this episode seem to be designed to send him down that path. But as later episodes would reveal, the trigger was more than just an enhanced paranoia. Mulder began working actively on the X-Files and finding answers to his questions after he became involved with Diana Fowley.

    Mulder’s relationship with Diana is never really defined, except to say that it ended shortly before Mulder’s first case with Scully. The implication is that Mulder was kept from gaining any true insights while working with Diana; his role as disinformation lackey was the sole extent of his misguided efforts, and Diana made sure of that. Mulder’s importance to Cancer Man, on the other hand, was definitely a known quantity in 1989, since Informant X makes certain that Mulder is left relatively unscathed.

    From his FBI record, Mulder is single (not divorced); thus his wedding ring is somewhat hard to explain. (And yes, his record would indicate a divorce, since an agent’s ex-spouse would be kept under tabs, for obvious reasons.) One explanation is that Mulder had already gotten involved with Diana, and this was some kind of romantic gesture. Alternatively, he wore the ring to ward off anyone trying to get involved with him, and Diana overcame that obstacle.

    The real answer, of course, is that the fifth season is when David Duchovny began asserting his will upon the series in a major way. He was recently married and rather unhappy with the idea of having to stay and film in Vancouver. It’s well documented that he was making a lot of noise about leaving the series if there weren’t changes. So in the name of “adding mystery to Mulder’s past”, he was resolute in wearing his wedding ring in this episode. Since the writers never really knew what to do with that little character element, one can only wonder if they chose to interpret the move as a tantrum on Duchovny’s part.

    But Duchonvy’s growing dissatisfaction (matched by some of Anderson’s as well) should have been a sign that the series needed to expand and grow. Episodes like this, focusing on someone other than the two main characters, could and should have been a solid tool for establishing a wider pool of candidates for future exploration. Instead, it was written to be the stop-gap measure that it was in reality, with little thought of where it might lead. That being the case, it’s an entertaining episode, but hardly to the level that it could have been.

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