Season 5, Episode 3: “Unusual Suspects”
Original Airdate: November 16, 1997
There shouldn’t be anything particularly vital about “Unusual Suspects.” It’s an origin story, for sure, but it’s an origin story for three of the show’s peripheral characters: Frohike, Langly, and Byers. Together, the Lone Gunmen have always been available to advance a plot or allow Mulder a quip, but as characters they’ve never been key. It’s an episode that could easily have gone down as filler, but writer Vince Gilligan makes a concerted effort to give the Gunmen an important place in the mytharc.
The episode wisely introduces us to the Gunmen not only before they were the Gunmen, but before any of them believed in government conspiracy theories. As in the show’s previous origin story, the episode is told in flashback, Byers earnestly confessing a tale to none other than Richard Belzer, who is totally, for no particular reason, playing Detective Munch (Homicide: Life on the Street era). In constructing back stories for each of the Gunmen, Gilligan would have had little but their costumes to go on, and it is in this way that the clean-suited Byers takes center stage as an FCC official (with a suspiciously Canadian accent, I’m going to say) about to fall from grace.
At an electronics trade show in 1989, Byers is approached by Suzanne Modeski, a mysterious, beautiful blonde seeking a big strong geek to help her hack into the Defense Department. Good-hearted straight-arrow Byers hesitates, but Suzanne convinces him by taking her sunglasses on and off several times and telling him story about something and her ex-boyfriend and her daughter being kidnapped. As it happens, she’s actually a former defense contractor who’s being framed for murder in an attempt to suppress what she knows about a weapons-grade gas being developed for the government. And, as it happens, she’s being tracked by Mulder.
This is a pre-X-Files Mulder, back when he was working for the Violent Crimes Unit and racking up “commendations out the ying yang.” It’s another strong choice from Gilligan, allowing the episode to be both an origin story for The Lone Gunman and for Mulder’s suspicion of the government. Here, he’s pursuing Suzanne because he’s been told to pursue Suzanne. He believes her to be armed and dangerous, and he has no reason to be suspicious of the report that she blew up her own lab and killed four people. His lack of paranoia is quaint, though not nearly as quaint as the sight-gag-sized cell phone he at one point pulls out of his jacket (“Oh hey, Reggie, what’s up?”).
To assist Suzanne, Byers enlists Frohike who enlists Langly to hack further into government records. Suzanne enrolls them all in Conspiracy Theories 101, monologuing about JFK and the Gideon Bible a surveillance device. For her grand finale, she pulls out her own tooth to reveal a metal implant (a nice nod to implants still to come). All three of the Gunmen react with bafflement, and it is in this state they remain as Suzanne leads them to a warehouse full of the poison gas, as Mulder gets poisoned by the gas, as men in black swoop in for a cleanup, as Suzanne shoots the men in black to save Mulder. Mouths agape, the Gunmen bear witness to the truth together for the first time.
In the episode’s cleverest twist, the men in black are led by X, who instructs them to leave Mulder alone, then forces the Gunmen to their knees. He holds a gun to Byers’ head and pulls the trigger, but the gun is empty, and no one else dies. It is in this way that we learn that we must give X credit for saving one man—Mulder—and inventing three more. Is it possible that X had the foresight to recognize that the Gunmen would aide Mulder in his search for truth and consequences? Can we truly give him that much credit? X might have spared the Gunmen because he didn’t see them as a real threat, or because he was genuinely out of bullets, but it’s more interesting to view it as a purposeful gesture. As another man’s origin story.
One of the most exciting and dangerous things about X was how, as an informant, he always appeared to be motivated not by a long-term plan to take down the conspiracy, but by a grudging acknowledgment that things had gone too far. Here was a guy who would have preferred to live an efficient, accomplished life, but instead he was cleaning up bodies and hunting down pretty defense department contractors. “For what possible reason?” asks Byers in the warehouse. Perhaps it’s this question that leads X to reveal himself to the Gunmen a second time, as a passenger in the black car that sweeps Suzanne away for good. His window is rolled down, and for what possible reason? Except to let them see him. Except to reinforce the connections that lead the Gunmen to their fate.
So “Unusual Suspects” becomes an episode not only about the Lone Gunmen, but about what spurs us to action. At what moment did you believe, and at what moment did you choose to do something? For Mulder, it was when he came to and found his memory gone and the Modeski case closed. For Byers, Langly, and Frohike, it was in the warehouse, watching a still-living man get zipped up in a body bag. And for X, perhaps, it was when a man from the FCC thought to ask why.