Tuesday, September 12, 2017

REVIEW: 'Manhunt: Unabomber' - The Judicial System Comes Crashing Down on Ted in 'USA vs. Theodore J. Kaczynski'

Discovery's Manhunt: Unabomber - Episode 1.08 "USA vs. Theodore J. Kaczynski"

When Ted fails to have the evidence against him invalidated, Fitz makes one last appeal to him to plead guilty.

Overall, there were a lot of good elements to Manhunt: Unabomber. It provided a phenomenal lead performance from Paul Bettany who was mesmerizing on the screen whenever he appeared. There was a strong command of tone and purpose immediately. All of the acting was perfectly fine and believable. It was all bolstered by some strong and consistent direction from Greg Yaitanes. Of course, there are some complaints as well. The split narrative structure wasn't all that necessary. It allowed Bettany to show off his incredible performance in the early going. But it definitely hindered some of the tension throughout the story because it seemed inevitable that Fitz's methods would be proven to be right in capturing the Unabomber. That feeling of inevitability would have always been present because this is a season of a TV show where the expectation is that the lead character's efforts will catch the antagonist. But it was explained early on in the 1997 story how Fitz discovered Ted's true identity and the strategy Ted planned on using in order to get the case tossed out in court. It set up expectations for those moments. But in the end, it was all very procedural. The structuring was simply a way to build excitement in the early going for the concept of this show. It wasn't ultimately necessary. In fact, it could have been better if the show kept Bettany hidden for a little while. That would have increased the suspense. The audience would have been learning information right alongside the characters. Of course, the audience is still at an advantage because we have the benefit of hindsight and knowing how this case will ultimately be handled. As such, the more personal moments of this story are where the season truly excelled.

"Ted" was easily the most gripping and dynamic episode of this season because its focus was so intimately on Ted and exploring that damaged and tragic side of a deranged killer. It showed a different side to this case that goes against the established narrative. The public knew Ted Kaczynski as a mentally damaged person who sent bombs through the mail in order to deliver a twisted message about the corruption of technology in modern society. But this hour should the man behind the story in a surprising way that built more sympathy. It's because of that side of the story that every action has more resonance to it. The audience now has the understanding of what Ted's life was like long before he started sending bombs through the mail. That's the action that would define his legacy. No one really cares about his manifesto anymore even though it still has some chilling thoughts about modern life. Ted Kaczynski is simply a serial killer who was caught because of forensic linguistics. But this finale doesn't suffer from a sense of inevitability to it. All season long the FBI has been coaching Fitz into trying to get Ted to plead guilty. It's the outcome that the government needs for this trial. And now, the focus of this final hour is how everyone essentially conspired against Ted in order to ensure that this outcome would happen. It's crushing while also feeling like a swift case of justice winning out in the end. It fosters conflicting feelings which allows this show to feel like more than a factual retelling of the events of this case.

The season had previously built up the threat of Ted attacking Fitz on the stand and calling into question his qualifications to get a judge to sign a warrant when there was no precedent for using forensic linguistics like this. He was planning on getting the entire case thrown out because the FBI didn't have the cause to search his cabin in the woods. That's still an action that completely destroys Ted's life. Now, he is walking around with the identity of the Unabomber. People know who he is and have strong, visceral feelings towards him. They have a face for the person responsible for all of these horrific crimes. But his cabin is no longer out there in the woods. That community is no longer a safe place for Ted. This idyllic life he built for himself is completely gone. He can never go back to it even if his strategy in court works. Even though he seems like he has the power in this moment, it's still just a desperate move in order to prove his superior intellect. He can manipulate the system better than anyone else despite living off the grid and wanting nothing to do with the system. He believes he has the superiority to do so. It's a mission that has filled Fitz with so much dread. He has come to idolize Ted in such a significant way. His life is forever changed by this case. He's afraid to take the stand and have every single action questioned and destroyed.

But that doesn't actually happen. It doesn't happen because Ted no longer has any control. As soon as he was arrested for these crimes, he lost his power. His power came when he was anonymously sending bombs through the mail. That was his way of exerting his power and control over society. It was a risky venture that finally led to his arrest. He believes he has a system that can work for his benefit. But he doesn't. His lawyers are doing their best to represent him and save his life. But they are prejudiced against him as well. They don't want to entertain his fanciful ideas because they only see him as a mentally ill person who would rather live all alone in the woods. They never were going to allow Fitz to get on the stand and question the validity of the search warrant. That was never their strategy. And at the defense table, the lawyers are the ones with all of the power. They are just manipulating Ted in order to get the consent that they need. They believe the Murray experiments are all the evidence they need to mount an insanity defense. To them, that's the simple solution to this case. They don't really care what the implications will be for Ted. They aren't willing to allow him to make a circus of the criminal justice system. They just want a simple case that follows the letter of the law. They respect it just as much as the judge and prosecutors. It's a product of the time where wild things have been happening in the courtroom that have gotten in the way of justice being served. Everyone knows Ted is guilty and are manipulating the trial to get to that result.

It's a crushing realization for Ted. He believes his mind can allow him to escape any dangerous situation he is in because he's always the smartest person in the room. But that high intellect is now being used against him. His core beliefs are being used against them. Everyone is pointing at him saying how crazy he is. It's a narrative controlled by the media. It's the story being told through David when the cameras are on. David doesn't actually believe that his brother is a paranoid schizophrenic. It's just the story he needs to say in order to save Ted's life. In the end, that's all that matters. His brother needs to still be alive by the end of all of this. But what kind of life is it for Ted? He wants to continue preaching his message. He wants people to continue to think about how society is coming to control all of their lives. Right now, the only person who seems changed by all of this is Fitz. That's not good enough. Ted feels the pressure to continue his message. He's just being silenced and that's so crippling to him. It's very destructive. The walls are caving in and nothing he does seems to make any difference at all. He wants to fire his lawyers and represent himself. The judge won't allow it. He wants to commit suicide. The guards are right outside his door to cut him down. He wants to escape from all of this. But the only way to ensure he keeps his mind is by pleading guilty. It's the only conclusion that gives him some semblance of his life again.

It's easy to sympathize with all of this. Like in "Ted," the show is asking the audience to have a variety of feelings towards Ted Kaczynski. It makes him a fully realized man. He's a complicated presence who can't easily be labeled one thing. It's the same feeling Fitz has in order to feel motivated to make one last appeal to Ted. All of this hard work pays off. But it's hardly the system doing what it's suppose to do in order to convict a guilty individual. It's instead an outcome everyone manipulates into happening. That's an important realization as well. But it's just as powerful to know that everyone is right to do this because of the importance of this trial. This is a case where lives were forever changed and lost. It's important to see those testimonies from the victims. It's important to hear the punishment they see fit for the man who destroyed their lives. Of course, it's also so unexpected to see Ted's reaction to all of this. He has a prepared statement he wants to make about being remembered differently once all the details of the case are revealed. But even he seems to see that it's futile at this point. He's breaking down less for the stories from his victims and more because of the punishment that's coming for him. It's completely just for him to be locked away in solitary confinement in a maximum security prison for the rest of his life. It brings an end to the central manhunt of the series. But the story works as well as it does because of the touch of humanity in every single action taken and the cost all of this has for the people involved.

Some more thoughts:
  • "USA vs. Theodore J. Kaczynski" was written by Andrew Sodroski and directed by Greg Yaitanes.
  • It's such a visceral shot to see Ted's cabin lifted up out of its place in the ground and carried over the nearby community for a truck to transport to the trial. It's this literal place of evil that was a part of this community that no one knew about which is now being removed for good. It catches the eye of everyone in this town. They know exactly what it is as well.
  • Plus, it's continually a mystery as to who actually put the plans into motion to bring the actual cabin to the trial. Fitz is telling Ted that it was his own defense team. The FBI just so happened to also have access to it. Meanwhile, Judy is claiming that the prosecution made a very convincing replica. In the end, it wasn't even necessary. It was just a tool to warp Ted's mind even further.
  • The show didn't really put in the effort to make it okay and believable that Fitz and Natalie would be driving off into the sunset with each other once all of this is over. It's also a problem with the structuring of the story because Natalie wanting nothing to do with Fitz happened much more recently than her helping him through the difficulty of the trial. It was weird and not all that effective.
  • All that Judy Clarke seemingly has to do in order to control Ted and get him to go along with her strategy is give him a Reese's peanut butter cup. It's her subtle way of revealing who has the power in this dynamic. She can bring him this small amount of joy and pleasure while also planning to completely destroy the life that he wants to be living.
  • In the end, none of the supporting characters in this story really mattered. It's just important that Ted and Fitz are the clear characters of focus in this finale. They are the ones whose actions really mattered. The rest were along for the journey but Ted and Fitz were the ones connected and had the vision for everything that happened in this case.
  • I'm not entirely sure what the future holds for Manhunt as an anthology series at Discovery. I know that was the original plan before it actually started airing. The ratings have been good. Discovery has never done an ongoing show before. This wouldn't even be continuous either because the Unabomber story comes to a definitive ending here. There's no more story to tell. The next season would tackle a new case. If the show can find the right story, I could easy see it returning for another season. We're still just waiting for that announcement.