Manhunt: Unabomber (Discovery Channel) (2017)

Over the last couple of years, the idea of white terrorism has gradually become available, for the first time since before 9/11, as an object of critique and discussion in American popular culture. Whether due to the escalation of gun violence, which is typically perpetrated by white subjects, or the ascension of Trump, who has counted white supremacists amongst his closest circle, there has been a greater willingness, on the part of the media, to consider the ways in which whiteness might have played a role in gestures of extremism and terrorism that, on the face of it, have nothing at all to do with race. That tendency has been especially clear in recent television, which has sought to historicise this moment by looking back to iconic moments of white terrorist and sectarian activity across the American twentieth-century, as if to re-establish a tentative continuity between these older moments of white pride and the contemporary political landscape in ways that 9/11 precluded. At the same time, it’s been so long since we’ve been able to think of terrorism and whiteness as part of the same matrix that popular culture needs to mine the past for ways of representing that relation, even or especially if it means looking to the ways in which white terrorists have represented themselves – and, in particular, the ways in which they have generalised white disenfranchisement into gestures of “universal” representation.


No white terrorist has been so preoccupied with self-representation as the Unabomber, and yet no white terrorist has deracinated their agenda more comprehensively either, so it was only a matter of time before the activities of John Kazcynski were serialised and aestheticised as a way of thinking through, and querying, the representational possibilities around white terrorism in the twenty-first-century. While Manhunt: Unabomber may focus, generally, on the hunt for the Unabomber, played by Paul Bettany, it therefore does so by way of criminal profiler James R. Fitzgerald, played by Sam Worthington, whose contribution to the task force lay in his pioneering work with the then-emergent field of forensic linguistics. Bypassing the circumstantial and hard forensic facts of the case, Fitzgerald instead analysed the precise turns of phrase in the Unabomber’s letters and manifesto, “On Industrial Society and its Future,” performing a close analysis in order to determine his idiolect, or verbal and linguistic “signature.” While the version of Fitzgerald on display here is something of a composite, his procedure drives the series as a whole, as the search for the Unabomber – by this stage a federal institution in itself – gradually converges on this idiolect once Kazcynski’s brother David, played by Mark Duplass, and his wife Linda, played by Katja Hebers, recognise Ted’s voice and mannerisms in the manifesto, after Bay Area divisional head Don Ackerman, played by Chris Noth, takes the risky decision to publish “Industrial Society and its Future” in The New York Times at the Unabomber’s insistence.


Of course, there’s a broader profile of the Unabomber outlined here, from his initial focus on universities and airlines (hence the name), to his apparently random pattern of attacks, to the individual mail bombs and attacks that he coordinates. Nevertheless, by such a late stage in the Unabomber’s career – the series opens in 1995, and cross-cuts with Fitzgerald’s later encounters with Kazcynski in 1997 – all the circumstantial and hard forensic evidence has been effectively exhausted, leaving nothing by the Unabomber’s linguistic signature to proceed upon. As a result, a great deal of the series involves parsing “Industrial Society and its Future,” not just in terms of its language, but in terms of its ideas, and especially Kazcynski’s claim to represent a general “freedom” that is supposedly extricable from race. While Manhunt: Unabomber does give some credence to his ideas – it’s hard to deny his intelligence – it also codes them as racially-oriented as well, reaffirming what was clear at the time: namely, that while the Unabomber may never have mentioned race as a guiding factor, it was almost unthinkable that this crime could have been perpetuated by a white woman, or a black man, or a black woman, or anything other than a white man, if only because of the blitheness and assurance of the Unabomber’s claims to universal relevance. The point is made succinctly early on, where one of the very first linguistic signatures extrapolated from the Unabomber’s letters is his antiquated use of the word “negro,” a lexical choice that clearly isn’t meant to be directly or perjoratively racist, at least as the series presents Kazcynski, but is just as clearly meant to indicate the insularity and entitlement of his worldview in a more sustained and systemic way as well, along with the impossibility of thinking of that systemic solipsism in terms other than those of whiteness.


It’s with that use of the word “negro,” then, that Fitzgerald and his team start to build a profile of the Unabomber, as they parse through the more specific demographic connotations of his ostensibly – or aspirationally – universalist declaration that “technological society is incompatible with individual freedom.” As might be expected, that process denatures the normality and stability of American whiteness – so often taken for granted, or invisible, as a point of reference – as it proceeds, producing an uncanny Americana that’s encapsulated in the fact that neither of the lead actors here are American themselves. While Bettany and Worthington’s American accents never feel contrived, or distracting, there’s nevertheless something mildly performative about them as well, something you feel more than you really hear, especially in the few scenes that they share together. At these moments, it feels as if both the actors and the characters that they play are competing to see who sounds most authentically American, even as the gradual telescoping of the action to their rapport removes the authentic American voice as a referent, turning it into a horizon of aspiration that neither can quite capture or reach, concluding with the beautiful final sequence in which Fitzgerald leaves San Francisco after Kazcynski’s sentencing only to find the horizon bound by one of the red traffic lights that plays such a critical metaphorical role in Kazcynski’s personal explanation of his manifesto.


Before getting to that point, however, Manhunt: Unabomber aestheticises Fitzgerald’s ideology by way of his remote cabin in Lincoln, Montana, which is here presented quite pointedly as a direct descendent of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, both of which are eminently at home in the high-definition pastoral Americana that has become such a staple of quality television and digital streaming. It’s quite apt, then, that the series initially aired on the Discovery Channel, since that service is just as much a beneficiary of Thoreau and American transcendentalism as the Unabomber himself, albeit in a different kind of way. Between the Unabomber, the Discovery Channel, and the transcendentalist aesthetic of quality television, a complex dialogue therefore emerges within which the very address of the series alternately deconstructs and demonstrates Kazcynski’s ideas. That’s especially clear in the opening episodes, which embed the characters within their social ecology in ways that encapsulate the Unabomber’s fear that human action can never quite differentiate or distinguish itself from the conditions that produce it so long as technological society continues. At the same time, however, the series continues this aesthetic, and arguably amplifies it, as the backdrops become more pastoral and the action converges on Montana, as if to suggest that Kazcynski’s own ideas are just as indebted to a contextual matrix as those of his targets, even if he claims to have transcended and surpassed context.


That particular context is examined in the sixth episode, which forms a standalone backstory into Kazcynski’s motivations. While there have been various indications, along the way, that Kazcynski might have acted upon psychological distress, or childhood trauma, the cogency of “Industrial Society and its Prisoners” renders these a bit unconvincing, and the series seems to know it too, skirting away from these more generic determinants before arriving at this sixth installment. For those unaware with Kazcynski’s earlier life, this episode details his involvement in a fairly traumatic and unethical psychological experiment conducted at Harvard by academic Henry Murray. In this experiment, Kazcynski was encouraged to spend a year outlining his thoughts and beliefs to his mentor, and was then subjected to a series of “voluntary” interrogations – over two hundred hours – in which he was belittled, ridiculed and attacked for those beliefs, with electrodes attached to his body, in what turned out to part of a mind control project used to perfect brainwashing of Soviet spies. To some extent, this belittling is a cathartic moment for the series, since it’s the only point at which anybody really calls out Kazcynski on the paucity of his ideology, and undercuts his claims to intellectual grandeur, with Murray, played by Brian d’Arcy James, confronting him with a wave of invective in which he tells him that his ideas are “derivative, clichéd and juvenile,” an act of “tepid sophomoric regurgitation” and the product of a “creepy beta male shrimp.”


In another kind of series, the screenplay might have been content to frame this as a psychological trauma and leave it at that. What makes Manhunt: Unabomber so interesting, however, is that it presents this as a kind of reverse indoctrination, whereby Kazcynski is so brutally interrogated that he is forced to double down, defensively, on ideas that are no doubt the product of a certain kind of white adolescent male entitlement, but that would presumably have been diluted with age, or at least deflected into a more “functional” social orientation. By subjecting him to sustained humiliation, however, the Harvard experiment not only keeps him in a suspended state of arrested development but forces him to identify with the subject position of a white, paranoid, disenfranchised subject to such an traumatic extent that it becomes the core of his personality and subjectivity from this point onwards. Far from being an outlier, then, Kazcynski, as the series presents it, is just a more intensified version of the way in which the American system, with Harvard as its epicentre and synecdoche, manufactures whiteness and white entitlement, since his only reason for continuing with the experiment is to maintain the fantasy of Harvard as a representative horizon in his own mind, if only as a point of conflict and confrontation. Combined with the way in which the final episode orchestrates the trial and conviction, the result is to paint Kazcynski as an embodiment of the “real” assumptions underlying the system – the system taken to its logical conclusion – rather than any kind of exemption to it. And in that gesture lies the series’ radical refusal to present Kazcynski as a folk hero, much like the orientation of American Crime Story to OJ Simpson before it, and its deep scepticism about the ways in which white terrorism claims to depart from, or be exempted from, representation itself.

About Billy Stevenson (929 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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