Manhunt: Unabomber, written by Andrew Sodroski, is Discovery Channel’s first television drama. It is an eight-episode series that retells how Ted Kaczynski – more famously known as the Unabomber – was brought to justice.
After the first few episodes, I thought the series was leading me nowhere – a mere extended law and order series stuck on the same case. However, as the season develops, the series became less about the cast and more about the viewers – being transformed into FBI profilers themselves – delving into a mysterious persona that is Ted (played by Paul Bettany).
Manhunt: Unabomber is based on true people and events. And while we already know the very fact that Ted Kaczynski is already serving life imprisonment since April 1996, the series gives the viewers a new perspective on the case by making them feel like they’re sitting alongside FBI top profilers and discover what led to the arrest of the notorious Unabomber.
The Unabomber was labeled an American criminal mastermind throughout most of the mid to late 90s. He was most famous because he sent explosive devices through mail and was known for targeting universities and airplanes – the reason he was dubbed as UNAbomber.
The series moves around in time, mostly between 1995 and 1997, following an FBI profiler’s journey into the Unabomber case.
The first episode does not actually start with the chase of the killer but his capture. It is here that the cat and mouse games begin. While you may think a solid case exists against Ted as he sits in the interrogation room, it becomes clear that he does not plan to allow a checkmate so early at this time. He plays with the profiler’s head, congratulating him on understanding the importance of words. Meanwhile, the profiler is banking on Ted’s huge ego, believing he has no other choice but to confess.
Ted wins this first phase of his game against the FBI as he quickly makes the whole team realise that all the evidence on him could constitutionally be thrown out because it is the fruit of the forbidden tree. Ted tells them that they can’t issue a warrant against him using a case that is not there in the first place.
Jim “Fitz” Fitzgerald played by Sam Worthington is an unlikely criminal profiler as he is a beatnik Philly cop who managed to graduate at the top of the FBI academy. Despite the lack of experience, the San Francisco FBI field office wants him on the Unabomber case.
Soon enough, Fitz becomes the antagonist fighting against the FBI’s whole strategy on catching the Unabomber. The Unabomber is an extreme purist when it comes to technology and at some point was able to convince the FBI to allow the publication of his manifesto in the Washington Post. The manifesto surprisingly provided answers on how technology has enslaved society and it leads to Ted’s arrest several years later.
Agent Fitzgerald develops a groundbreaking area of forensics called linguistic analysis that is able to compare writing samples and language used that helps to not only build a profile but lead the investigation team directly to the Unabomber’s brother’s door. He utilises some common phrases that are switched around from their typical order – most notable in the show is “eat your cake and have it too.” Even the use of citations and numbered paragraphs ends up as key indicators pointing to the identity of the criminal mastermind.
For me, however, one of the best episodes of the series was the one narrated by Ted Kaczynski. We start to see beyond the eyes of this killer who, after all, was not born a killer.
Ted was overly intelligent with an IQ score well above genius level. Because he was way beyond his peers, his childhood is sadly taken away from him. He skips grade levels because of his advanced knowledge, but his social skills failed to advance simultaneously with it. Shunned by his peers and misunderstood by the people around him, Ted becomes the perfect target for a brainwashing experiment at Harvard University.
At only 16, Ted is accepted at Harvard, one of America’s most prestigious universities. He meets a psychology professor who he worships like a God.
Ted, as socially awkward as he is, finds solace in the presence of the professor. Ted considers him as the only person who understands and accepts him.
Little does Ted know that the professor is using him for a social experiment.
After a year of friendship, Ted finds himself strapped down to a chair with electrodes to begin the second phase of the experiment (the first one being Ted answering psychology questions and innocently confiding to the professor about his personal life and ways of thinking).
He is told that his participation in the research is much more then he could have imagined, as what they learn from him will help the CIA with their brainwashing programmes against the Russians. As he is strapped in front of a panel of key psychologists, Ted gets verbal insults. Psychologists tell him that he is a fraud, and that he does not have original ideas. The team behind the social experiment uses electrodes to monitor the subject’s physiological reactions.
This goes on for years and in the end, the experiment ultimately breaks his sprit. This is why he became a reclusive and a survivalist who wants nothing to do with society.
As he had his manifesto published, he was living out a quite existence in Montana but could never shake off the experiments and disempowerment he suffered at the hands of someone he hugely trusted.
Manhunt: Unabomber is a thrilling crime drama that highlights the psychology behind a deviant behaviour. It really has a great arc.
In the beginning you don’t see the Unabomber and only know him as this evil person killing innocent people.
Then we get to know him a little and understand his past. I even found myself sympathising with him.
But in the end, you realise that a lot of people have gone through rough lives but they don’t go out and kill innocent people.
This series will leave you thinking deeply: Why am I doing what I am doing? Do I have, in any way, the same mind with a criminal genius like Ted?
Have got nothing much to do this Khmer New Year? Then you can spend a day or two with Manhunt: Unabomber, now available on Netflix.