“Listen, we got FBI agents running around, military police. Whatever the hell is going on around here, it’s big. And your lady friend is somehow at the center of it all.” – Melvin Frohike
Two hackers and an employee of the Federal Communications Commission get tangled up with a mysterious woman and a federal agent, and that’s just the beginning of the story.
Max: Before I begin laying out the episode proper, I just wanted to make note of a major milestone in not only the series, but right here on Apt. 42 Revisited. “Unusual Suspects” marks the one hundredth episode of The X-Files aired/reviewed (due to the production schedule though, “Redux II” has that honor in terms of episodes produced) and its unique place in the program’s history is reflected in the telling of exactly how Fox Mulder got involved with the men that he would in the future rely on to provide him with first-rate information. Set in 1989, the episode doesn’t feature Scully at all, and with Mulder in only a few scenes, this is our most prolonged exposure thus far to the beloved Lone Gunmen, even if this was before they teamed up together.
Set around a Baltimore area computer convention, the episode’s inciting moment is when then-FCC liaison John Fitzgerald Byers encounters a troubled woman who claims to be looking for her possessive ex-boyfriend after he kidnapped their daughter. The woman comes with a lead that he is in the Baltimore area, as well as an obscure reference to the old Arpanet defense network (the predecessor of today’s Internet). We see how Byers readily apparent puppy dog crush on this woman leads him down the primrose path from uptight “narc” to a man willing to hack into DoD and FBI databases.
With the unwilling assistance of Melvin Frohike and Ringo Langly, two hackers at the convention hawking competing cable descramblers, they become embroiled in a government conspiracy to test dangerous chemical compounds on an unwitting American public. To this end, we discover that this woman is Susanne Modeski, a government chemist on the lam after being framed for the murder of her colleagues at the White Corps defense facility in New Mexico. Moreover, the ex-boyfriend isn’t actually a boyfriend but rather an ambitious agent of the FBI’s Violent Crimes section assigned to capture her. You may have heard of him, his name is Fox Mulder.
This episode gets a ton of mileage out of upending our expectations surrounding both Mulder and The Lone Gunmen by telling a story of the four men before the experiences that would so profoundly shape their current lives and personas come into play. Perhaps the most glaring example of this is Mulder himself. Still the golden boy of the FBI’s Violent Crimes section with “commendations up the yin-yang,” he has yet to begin to dig into his past, a project that would lead him to the X-Files and eventually a consignment into the Bureau’s basement. Still, he’s the same dogged investigator and his pursuit of the truth is just as unwavering. In fact, his open-mindedness is perhaps what endeared him to the three men he was pursuing as they filled him in on the blanks in his memory after he was accidentally dosed in the warehouse with the Ergotamine Histamine gas that Suzanne worked on in New Mexico.
The Lone Gunmen share a similar trajectory, this being the episode where by the end of it we see the groundwork laid for the fruitful yet improbable partnership of three completely different personalities. Byers does most of the heavy lifting in this episode via the framing structure of him laying out what happened in the episode to Det. John Munch, one of Baltimore’s finest (on loan from NBC’s Homicide: Life On The Street). Munch’s incredulousness after he hears what Byers has to say is a familiar beat, made hilarious by actor Richard Belzer’s real-life belief in government conspiracies and malfeasance.
The charm though lies in seeing Byers, Langly, and Frohike argue and bounce off of each other. There is a lot of animosity, but a begrudging respect emerges from the weird adventure they were taken on. It is also surprising to see that it is Byers that is the one that stands up to X (yes, our favorite wetworks informant makes a wonderfully unexpected cameo) as various minions clean up and get rid of evidence in the warehouse. Demanding that the American public be informed to what goes on in their name, including evoking the tragedy in Dallas 1963, Byers gets only silence from our taciturn man in black.
X does though, in an offhand comment before he vacates the premises, makes a statement that gives this ragtag group a name, and that my friends is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Radhika: “Unusual Suspects” is not some earth-shattering, pivotal installment in the long timeline of X-Files episodes, but it is a little piece of character history. And it’s all thanks to a bit of convenient happenstance that we got to witness this bit of back-story. With Duchovny and Anderson still needed during the filming of the X-Files movie, an episode with a lighter load for the main players became necessity. And so, we got this Lone Gunmen-centric episode of the series, with no Scully and a bit of Mulder. Again, this isn’t the moment Scully finds out she has cancer. This isn’t the moment Krycek loses his arm. But it’s still fun and manages to connect a few key figures in the series together a lot earlier than one would expect.
It’s quite a delight to see the dead-in-the-present-timeline X appear in this episode. Oh-so-belligerent during his run on the series, it’s nice to know that X was well aware of Mulder long before he became that lovably Spooky scamp we all know and love today. Mulder seems pretty normal for most of this episode, but starts hallucinating and sounding increasingly paranoid after he’s introduced to what else… a paranoia-inducing gas. As a clean-up crew suggests “bagging” Mulder, X is quick to say that no one is supposed to touch the agent. This is a bit before Mulder’s extended stay in a certain basement office, but it’s a slight hint that there may have been a plan for him all along.
In fact, the episode is almost a comical telling of a loss of innocence. Mulder, seen here as pretty square for the most part, ends up becoming friends with this ragtag assembly of men who would go on to become the Lone Gunmen. But we get the sense that it was quite the journey to get there as the episode comes to a close, with the Gunmen telling him about the government’s desire to control the public’s lives. Mulder’s incredulous “What?!” is comical in its delivery, but it’s also sad when you realize the lengths at which he winds up going to uncover such conspiracies in the future. And of course, the Lone Gunmen lose their innocence thanks to this series of events — as Max pointed out, Byers makes quite a journey from FCC man to conspiracy theorist.
But there are also moments of comedy that are just meant to be comedy, and I have no intention to dissect them all too much — Mulder’s gigantic old-timey cellphone, along with fun facts like how Bertram was supposed to be Byers’ name before JFK was assassinated and left him with the moniker of John Fitzgerald. Those light moments add some much needed levity after the events of the “Gethsemane” trilogy. It’s a filler episode, a bridge to the rest of the season of The X-Files, but at least it’s entertaining.
YES, IT’S THAT GUY
Richard Belzer – Belzer, over the last twenty years, has made his character of Det. John Munch into something of a television institution. Created for the NBC show Homicide: Life On The Streets, Munch has left his fingerprints on several programs on at least four different networks. Probably better known today for Munch’s long tenure on Law And Order: Special Victims Unit, the character has also appeared on other Law And Order series, as well as Arrested Development, The Wire, 30 Rock, The Beat, as well as a sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live!. Other non-Munch roles include guest turns on Lois & Clark, Miami Vice, Mad About You, and playing himself on 3rd Rock From The Sun. Cinematically, he’s been in everything from Scarface to The Groove Tube to The Bonfire Of The Vanities. When he isn’t in front of the camera he is behind a microphone performing stand-up comedy like he’s been doing since 1972.