The 100th episode of The X-Files to air, "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, 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?
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. 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.
It's this low-fi, analog vibe that's always appealed to me about the Gunmen. Their spinoff 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. 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. 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. 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. 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, 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, I wasn't quite sure why I didn't love it as much as some of Vince Gilligan's other solo scripts. 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 even like the giant "1989" that opens this segment. From there, we cut to Det. Munch 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. 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 dig deeper, they learn something alarming: Holly Modeski is really named Suzanne Modeski, 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, 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 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. 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.
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. 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 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.
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, 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 never came.