X-Files Flashback: ‘Unusual Suspects’

Season 5, Episode 3
Director: Kim Manners
Writer: Vince Gilligan

Well, they can’t all be winners.

“Unusual Suspects” is Vince Gilligan’s first out-and-out dud of an X-Files screenplay. I don’t think it’s his fault, really. Given David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson’s absence during the filming of the X-Files movie, the producers needed something that wouldn’t hinge on their participation. Therefore, Gilligan was assigned the task of coming up with an episode that would focus on the Lone Gunmen. Chris Carter rejected his first idea and provided the framework that would become “Unusual Suspects,” and your affection for the episode is entirely dependent on your affection for the Lone Gunmen. I have a passing appreciation for the trio, so, naturally, I didn’t really find the dedicated episode really worth the effort.

As the series likes to do, the episode begins toward the end of the action as police burst into a warehouse to find a naked and disoriented Mulder under a box. Three men, the Lone Gunmen, try to escape but are arrested. The structure of the episode is based on Gunman John Fitzgerald Byers’s (Bruce Harwood) interrogation through which the plot is unveiled. At an electronics convention, the individual members of the Gunmen – at this point not yet united – are entranced by a mysterious woman, “Holly” (Signy Coleman), who hits each of them with a sob story about her abusive ex-boyfriend who has allegedly kidnapped her daughter. She cons Byers into hacking a Department of Defense login where she is able to obtain encrypted information about her daughter, Susanne Modeski. When her “abusive ex-boyfriend” (Fox Mulder) appears, she is able to convince the three men to decode the material.

At another location, it is revealed that “Holly” is actually Susanne Modeski who is wanted by the FBI for murder. Susanne claims that the government has manufactured an airborne toxin that causes mass hallucinations and is planning to test this toxin in the Baltimore area. She claims the government killed her lab associates and framed her. She also discovers that she is being tracked by the government through an implant provided by her dentist, and she promptly pulls out her tooth. Having fully decoded the information, Susanne and the three men converge on a warehouse where they discover a box containing asthma inhalers supposedly full of the gas. When Mulder and two mysterious men arrive to arrest them, a shootout ensues, and Mulder is exposed to the gas, causing him to convulse into hallucinations. Susanne shoots the other two men and escapes, leaving the pre-Gunmen behind. Next, “X” arrives with a crew to clean the scene.

At the end of the story, the police do not believe Byers’s story, but they are eventually freed with Mulder comes to his senses and corroborates their story as much as he can. Freed, they manage to track down Susanne who is attempting to sell her story to the press – with no buyers. As they watch her walk away, two government cars pull up, and she is abducted. As her car passes by, “X” stares out the window at the Gunmen. Later, they meet with Mulder and give him an advanced crash course in government conspiracies thanks to their experience and knowledge gained from Susanne.

The episode has been described as an “ode to paranoia,” and I suppose that’s true. However, it doesn’t actually make for a compelling and engrossing storyline. The problem with the episode, in my opinion, exists within its focus on the Lone Gunmen who are perfectly fine characters in very, very small doses. To paraphrase a stronger mind than mine, these characters are the cilantro of The X-Files, and cilantro is a seasoning. It spices up a bigger, heartier meal. No one wants a meal that’s all cilantro. The “Unusual Suspects” episode is exactly such a meal. The characters aren’t compelling enough or well drawn enough to make their own story worth following, a fact echoed by the failure of their X-Files spin-off series The Lone Gunmen. Finally, I’m not convinced that Fox Mulder’s origin story around his obsession with government conspiracies makes any sense when considering the inspiration came from the Lone Gunmen. What happened to “Spooky Mulder?” It’s a cutesy way to close the story, but it’s unconvincing and feels out of character for Mulder.

But, Vince Gilligan has contributed so many brilliant hours to the series that I’m willing to forgive him for this outing. It’s clear that his heart wasn’t in the writing of “Unusual Suspects,” so it doesn’t bear any of his trademark dialogue, plotting or adventurous treatment of the supernatural. So, I’m willing to forgive him for the lack of passion and clear storytelling.

Basically, I’m willing to forgive him for overindulging in cilantro.

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