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The X-Files – Unusual Suspects (Review)

This May and June, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the fifth season of The X-Files and the second season of Millennium.

On the surface, Unusual Suspects looks like quite a clean little episode.

It is an obvious production save – a story thrown together when it became clear that David Duchnovny and Gillian Anderson’s commitments to The X-Files: Fight the Future meant that they would not be available to film even the shortened order of twenty episodes in the fifth season. Although Unusual Suspects aired as the third episode of the season, it was actually the first produced. With limited availability to David Duchovny, Unusual Suspects was constructed as an episode that could be built around a member (or members) of the supporting cast.

Hero shot!

Hero shot!

Five seasons in, this is not a radical concept. While Mulder and Scully are still very much the heart of the show, the supporting cast has been developed to the point where the show can turn over an episode to somebody who isn’t Mulder or Scully. The fourth season offered a glimpse of the (possible) secret history of the Cigarette-Smoking Man in Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man and allowed Walter Skinner to act out his own morality play in Zero Sum. After these two characters, the Lone Gunmen were likely candidates for their own episode.

As such, Unusual Suspects also works quite well as “ground zero” for the eventual development of The Lone Gunmen during the eighth season of The X-Files. It is the episode that demonstrated that the trio could carry their own story with their eccentric little dynamic, while still being engaging and exciting. Given how The Lone Gunmen turned out, a particularly cynical commentator might suggest that Unusual Suspects very much over-sold the appeal. Nevertheless, Unusual Suspects is a logical and clear step forward in the evolution of the Lone Gunman.

Peering through the curtain...

Peering through the curtain…

And yet, for all that these are the aspects of Unusual Suspects that generate discussion and debate, they are not the heart of the episode. What is most interesting about Unusual Suspects is the way that it allows writer Vince Gilligan to brush up against the show’s central mythology, albeit only fleetingly. Gilligan is fond of arguing that Memento Mori was his only credit on a mythology episode, but that sells Unusual Suspects rather short. Although it does not dabble directly with “black oil” or “alien bounty hunters”, it does allow Gilligan to play with the show’s big central story thread.

Unusual Suspects is not just positioned by Gilligan as the “secret origin” of the Lone Gunmen. The episode is decidedly more ambitious than all that. Without directly acknowledging it, and without explicitly coming out and saying it, Unusual Suspects presents itself as the roots of the show itself. Although nowhere near as boldly and triumphantly subversive as Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space” or Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man, the episode allows Gilligan to offer his own sly (and slightly stinging) commentary on the show’s central mythology.

Tonight we're gonna party like it's 1989.

Tonight we’re gonna party like it’s 1989.

The factors that went into the development of Unusual Suspects are quite well known by fandom. It was very much a product of the production realities around trying to produce a big blockbuster and a television show using many of the same resources. As Gilligan has explained:

“That episode was a real challenge, but it wound up being a lot of fun,” VG says. “I got the assignment to write it because David and Gillian weren’t going to be available at the fifth season’s beginning. They were still shooting the X Files movie. We had to get production rolling, but we needed an episode without Mulder and Scully. Chris decided our best bet was the Lone Gunmen. He gave the assignment to me. I was flattered, but I didn’t know what the hell I was going to do with it. I came up with an entire board, with John’s help, that was a pretty cool story, and we’ll probably use later, but we didn’t use it for Unusual Suspects. It was a contemporary story starring the Lone Gunmen, and it took place in the present, rather than telling how they met each other. I pitched it to Chris, who said, Maybe you ought to go back and try again. A lot of work had gone into it, but he was right, and I knew it even then. We sat there for a few minutes and talked about it, and Chris said, Why don’t you just show us how they met? Go back in time and show us the particulars of their meeting and becoming the Lone Gunmen. That’s when it all clicked. After that, coming up with the particulars with pretty painless.”

For all that the final story was pretty painless, Gilligan has been quite candid about the teasing difficulties on the first draft. “The first board for Unusual Suspects was a real… I don’t want to say stink-a-roo, but the whole thing ended up being thrown out,” he admitted later.

Maximum Byers...

Maximum Byers…

The end result was so enjoyable that it even garnered a sequel of sorts. Gilligan would team up with writers Frank Spotnitz and John Shiban to write Three of a Kind late in the show’s sixth season. Not only did that episode bring together the three writers who would run The Lone Gunmen, it also provided a much more solid foundation for the series than Unusual Suspects, at least according to John Shiban – who described Three of a Kind as “a model for the series.” As such, while there is a clear line between Unusual Suspects and The Lone Gunmen, it is also a very different beast.

The most obvious difference is that Unusual Suspects is very much a solo Vince Gilligan script, rather than a collaborative effort with Frank Spotnitz and John Shiban. While each member of the trio brings something to the partnership, but they also have very distinctive solo voices. Unusual Suspects feels more like a Gilligan solo script than a lost pilot to The Lone Gunmen. It touches on a number of ideas and themes that are very firmly in line with Gilligan’s approach to the show and its world.

Give it arrest...

Give it arrest…

There is a very logical argument to be made that Gilligan presented himself as the writing staff’s successor to Darin Morgan. Small Potatoes seemed to literalise that baton-passing with Darin Morgan starring in a script written by Vince Gilligan in the style of Darin Morgan. After Morgan left, Gilligan became probably the most consistently reliable comedic voice on the staff. More than that, though, Gilligan became one of the few writers – aside from Carter himself – who would frequently dabble in the postmodern.

To be fair, Gilligan was much more conventional (and also much more prolific) than Morgan. Gilligan was perfectly capable of producing a solid and reliable monster-of-the-week whenever the show needed it. At the same time, he was also the writer who would push the show to experiment as much as (if not more than) Carter himself. This begins with Unusual Suspects, and continues with Bad Blood, Drive, Hungry and X-Cops – each of which very consciously play with the narrative conventions of the show in a sly and knowing way.

Somebody had a really good time at the Fight the Future wrap party...

Somebody had a really good time at the Fight the Future wrap party…

What’s interesting about Gilligan’s subversive streak is that it never seemed quite as overt or as apparent as the work that Darin Morgan did in Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space” or that Glen Morgan and Jim Wong did in Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man. Gilligan seems much too polite to upend the show’s connections so dramatically. So he does it more quietly, smiling cheerfully as he goes along. Unusual Suspects is just “the Lone Gunman episode.” Well, except for the bit where Gilligan slyly turns it into the secret origin of The X-Files as a whole.

Unusual Suspects has Gilligan engaging with the show’s central conspiracy storyline. Despite being a prolific writer who would work on the show until the bitter end, Gilligan remained curiously disengaged with the show’s mythology throughout his tenure. Asked about the possibility of the return of the Cigarette-Smoking Man in an online chat in 2000, Gilligan acknowledged his distance from that long-form storytelling engine. “I’ve never really had a hand in writing any mythology episodes, save for Memento Mori, which I guess you could count.”

Talk about a buttoned-down federal employee...

Talk about a buttoned-down federal employee…

Aside from the novelty of focusing on a trio of secondary characters, Unusual Suspects is notable for representing the point at which Gilligan comes closest to writing a solo script that uses the series’ conspiracy mythology as a backdrop. It does not feature the Cigarette-Smoking Man (“I don’t think I’ve ever actually written for the CSM,” Gilligan confessed in that same chat) or the black oil, but it is as much about the mythology as Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space” or Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man.

It is worth noting that Gilligan explicitly places the events of Unusual Suspects in May 1989. The hypnosis tape in Conduit had dated Mulder’s first recollection of Samantha’s abduction to June 1989. Even if the date is a coincidence, the scenes of Mulder wandering the Baltimore convention floor seem to suggest that he has yet to become “Spooky.” There is a very clear sense that Unusual Suspects is a story that exists in a world not too dissimilar from our own, at a point where Mulder, Byers, Langley and Frohike are all part of a world that looks quite familiar.

Keep 'arping on about it...

Keep ‘arping on about it…

Of course, 1989 is an interesting date for a number of other reasons. In a very literal sense, it marks the end of the eighties and the beginning of the nineties, the decade of introspection and analysis in which The X-Files is firmly entrenched. More than that, it was the year that saw the collapse of the Berlin Wall – the point at which the end of the Cold War became something inevitable. It was 1989 that created the political climate where something like The X-Files was possible, where the United States was the only real superpower and so could engage in soul-searching and reflection.

It was this context that made the central conspiracy plot line of The X-Files possible. Although Chris Carter firmly rooted the sinister conspiracy to control the destiny of mankind back to the end of the Second World War in the third season, writers like Glen Morgan and Vince Gilligan suggest that such historicalisation only really became possible after the collapse of “the Evil Empire.” In Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man, Deep Throat and the Cigarette-Smoking Man assassinate an alien after the end of the Cold War. Here, it seems that Mulder’s paranoia is retroactively applied.

Eighties hair!

Eighties hair!

Actor Dean Haglund noted as much when he sat down to discuss the episode with the Cinescape X-Files Yearbook, acknowledging the conspicuous and strategic positioning of Unusual Suspects in Mulder’s chronology:

I think this fits pretty comfortably into the mythology. The only question I had in my mind was that when Mulder meets these guys, we might have had a little too much [to do] with him becoming involved in the X-Files. It’s always been in my mind set up that he had this interest a long time before he ever got into the FBI because of what happened to his sister. That was a small question mark in my mind, but David Duchovny obviously read the script, and he knows the character much better than I do. He obviously had no problem with it because as far as I know the scenes were not changed and none of the lines were changed, so it must be ok.

Of course, Duchovny was playing his own games with the mythology – wearing his wedding ring in the flashback scenes of Unusual Suspects and Travelers without providing any explanation. Still, it seems like Unusual Suspects finds Gilligan marking his own “secret origin” of the show’s mythology.

Closing up shop...

Closing up shop…

It is a rather cynical “secret origin” at that. Unusual Suspects seems to suggest that such grand conspiracies involving aliens and world domination are just stories that disenfranchised and disillusioned people tell themselves to avoid dealing with real problems. Unusual Suspects does feature a plot to conduct an amoral government experiment upon the population of Baltimore, but there is a banality to that sort of conspiracy that is underscored when Mulder begins to see the government agents as little green men.

After all, testing that sort of compound on an unsuspecting civilian population is not outside the realms of possibility – it might just be the most grounded and generic evil thing that the United States government does over the course of The X-Files. To an audience familiar with the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, project MK-ULTRA or even radiation trials, this is the kind of sinister plot that probably doesn’t even find its way across the desk of the Cigarette-Smoking Man. This is mundane abuses of power. There is no cloning, no genocide, no colonisation, no black oil.

Desperately seeking Susanne...

Desperately seeking Susanne…

Unusual Suspects makes a point to tie itself back to classic conspiracy law. It is revealed that Byers’ full name is “John Fitzpatrick Byers.” He explains to Detective Munch, he was born on the day that Kennedy was shot. “I was named after JFK. Before the assassination, my parents were going to call me Bertram.” The Kennedy assassination remains the subject of much speculation and fascination. Since the seventies, the vast majority of the American people have been skeptical of the “lone gunman” theory.

At the same time, the actual belief in concepts like the “New World Order” or the “Illuminati” only really became a fixture of American popular culture into the nineties. There had always been fringe groups and radicals, but the ideas only really came to public attention after the Cold War. While most Americans feel comfortable enough suggesting that the assassination of John F. Kennedy was not solely the work of Lee Harvey Oswald, and can accept the fact that the NSA is spying on its citizens (and foreign citizens), most would have difficulty accepting the idea of a secret group ruling the world.

They should call it a (be)warehouse...

They should call it a (be)warehouse…

The difference is one of scale. The idea proposed in The X-Files that all of these plots actually comprise a single linked conspiracy directed by a powerful and inaccessible cabal is a very particular subset of conspiracy theory – what writer Michael Barkun defines as a “superconspiracy” in A Culture of Conspiracy:

This term refers to conspiratorial constructs in which multiple conspiracies are believed to be liked together hierarchically. Event and systemic conspiracies are joined in complex ways, so that conspiracies come to be nested within one another. At the summit of the conspiratorial hierarchy is a distant but all-powerful evil force manipulating lesser conspiratorial actors. These master conspirators are almost always of the Type I variety – groups both invisible and operating in secrecy. Superconspiracies have enjoyed particular growth since the 1980s, in the work of authors such as David Icke, Valdamar Valerian and Milton William Cooper.

It is no coincidence that these so-called “superconspiracies” really shot to prominence in the wake of the Cold War. They provide a narrative of history that can be followed quite easily, which makes a great deal of sense and logic out of chaotic reality.

For although John Byers is noble spirit and pure of heart, he remains, nevertheless, a federal employee.

For although John Byers is noble spirit and pure of heart, he remains, nevertheless, a federal employee.

Unusual Suspects marks a point at which the world of The X-Files seems to definitely and clearly branch off from our own. The episode introduces Byers as a member of the FCC, presenting him as a well-intentioned (if oblivious) government official. The opening act has a great deal of fun at the idea of Byers as the representative of a communications body that has ironically fallen out of touch with the people it claims to represent. “We at the FCC enjoy forging positive ties with the American public,” he explains. “It’s our way of saying ‘Communication is just another word for sharing'”

It seems quite likely that the body of government is comprised of people like Byers – well-intentioned and mild-mannered civil servants who are simply out of touch with the body public. The idea that government could be organised enough to run a superconspiracy is absurd. “Now, I’m sorry, you’re telling me that the US government, the same government that gave us Amtrak,” Frohike asks, “is behind some of the darkest, most far-reaching conspiracies on the planet?! That’s just crazy!” Pointing to the incredibly trusting and friendly Byers, Langly deadpans, “I mean, like, this guy works for the government.”

Sweetening the deal...

Sweetening the deal…

In contrast, Unusual Suspects ends with Byers breaking out on his own. Quite likely unemployed after his involvement in a shoot-out in a warehouse, Byers watches as the woman he loves is abducted and ferried away in the back of a government vehicle. The events of Unusual Suspects wreak havoc upon Byers’ life, turning a man who had been so trusting that he didn’t make the obvious connection between “Holly Sugar” and “Holly Modeski” (when Susanne constructed an alias from materials at hand) into the leader of a trio of conspiracy theorists working out of a basement in an industrial estate.

(To put it in more succinct and self-aware terms, Unusual Suspects begins at a point where the Lone Gunmen and Mulder could be side characters in the grounded world of Homicide: Life on the Street – a world populated by bitter custody battles, child kidnappings and Detective John Munch. By the time the end credits begin to play, the world has dramatically changed to the recognisable world of The X-Files – a world of secret plots, sinister experiments, and an unstoppable government conspiracy.)

The tooth is out there...

The tooth is out there…

Gilligan seems to acknowledge that these sorts of conspiracies are just stories repeated and whispered as ways of dealing with very real trauma – the mythology becomes a literal mythology. Mulder loss of his sister becomes a nightmare that he can substitute for reality. Byers can cope with the loss of Susanne Modeski is he mythologises it and turns it into an epic story about a secret plot to control the world. There is something heart-breaking and beautiful about the final shot of Mulder and the Lone Gunmen gathering in an empty Baltimore conference centre, pulling up chairs to tell each other stories.

Byers is heart-broken, but seems to find a reserve of strength when Mulder comes to him for advice. Assuming the role of storytelling fashioning all of this crazy speculation into a singular unified narrative empowers him – if he can reduce reality to a story that he can then convey, then Byers has power over it. “You want the truth?” Byers asks. “You might want to sit down, this is gonna take a while. The truth is … none of us is safe. Secret elements within the United States government seek to surveil us and control our lives.” It is almost like Byers is telling a bedtime story.

A lone gunwoman.

A lone gunwoman.

On the surface, it might seem to be the most depressing and downbeat bedtime story ever told, but it is actually quite affirming. Mulder and the Lone Gunmen are given purpose by the story; they are assured that they are the only people who see the world for what it really is. It casts them as heroes in opposition to a vast and all-powerful evil. More than that, it takes the random cruelty of the world and fashions it into something with meaning and purpose. Mulder will soon know where Samantha has gone. Byers can still find Susanne.

In a way, Unusual Suspects hits on that core theme of Vince Gilligan’s work – the idea of sad little men building stories around themselves to help account for their own insignificance. Little men who want to be big, to repeat Scully’s succinct summary of Robert Patrick Modell in Pusher. It is a description that can be applied to many of Gilligan’s guest characters, who have a tendency to craft fantastic narratives around themselves in order to make them feel a little less pathetic in the grand scheme of things.

Three of a kind...

Three of a kind…

Robert Patrick Modell claimed to have traveled the world to hone his skills, like a real-world version of Batman. Gerry Schnauz created “the howlers” to account for his own traumatic history in Unruhe. Even John Lee Roche’s fixation on Alice in Wonderland in Paper Hearts allowed him to imbue his grotesque crimes with some sense of scale. Eddie Van Blundht steals other people’s lives (their stories, so to speak) to account for his own inadequacies in Small Potatoes. Gilligan’s work is packed with the motif, right down to Walter White’s cultivation of “Heisenberg” to help him assert his own authority and power.

Unusual Suspects is interesting, then, because it is a rare example of a bunch of sympathetic characters employing the trope. Unusual Suspects features a bunch of little men constructing a self-aggrandising narrative, only to suggest that this might not be such a bad thing. Yes, it is tragic and sad that Mulder and Byers have had their lives disrupted in this manner, but the narrative remains sympathetic to both characters as they struggle to find some deeper meaning for everything that has happened.

Not everybody was delighted to hear that the Lone Gunmen would be the first X-Files characters to get a spin-off.

Not everybody was delighted to hear that the Lone Gunmen would be the first X-Files characters to get a spin-off.

Then again, Unusual Suspects is notable for providing The X-Files with an explicit crossover into Homicide: Life on the Street. When Byers is arrested, he finds himself interrogated by none other than Detective John Munch. Munch is rather famously the king of television crossovers, appearing as a regular on both Homicide: Life on the Street and Law & Order: S.V.U. for twenty-one consecutive seasons of television. That alone would make Munch a character of interest to television fans, outside of Richard Belzer’s extra-curricular appearances.

Outside of those two shows, the character of Munch has appeared in a wealth of television shows – from guest-starring in crossovers with St. Elsewhere or The X-Files through to the looser Richard Belzer cameos in The Wire and Arrested Development; although Beltzer himself was not directly involved, there was even a Munch-themed puppet in Sesame Street working for the “Special Numbers Unit.” One might be forgiven for assuming that, if actors have a “Bacon number”, characters have a “Munch number.”

Munch ado about nothing...

Munch ado about nothing…

The idea of crossing over The X-Files with Homicide: Life on the Street came from Gilligan himself as he was writing the episode. As he explained to Resist or Serve:

Then came the interesting Homicide crossover. When I was then or fifteen pages into the script I realized that the whole episode was framed around Byers telling his story to a Baltimore homicide detective. So I figured ‘What the heck? Homicide’s a great show, so why not try to get Richard Belzer to play his Detective Munch character?’

Indeed, Gilligan proves to be quite the Homicide fan. “Don’t lie to me like I’m Geraldo Rivera,” Munch states at one point, a reference to the episode Gone for Goode. “I am not Geraldo Rivera.” In the dialogue in the Homicide episode, Munch referenced Montel Williams.

Holding down the fort...

Holding down the fort…

The crossover between The X-Files and Homicide is interesting. For one thing, it is a surprisingly casual crossover – particularly considering the problems that Chris Carter faced in trying to cross over with Picket Fences all the way back in Red Museum. There is no real attention drawn to Munch as a character of particular importance; he could just be a regular Baltimore cop. Indeed, Unusual Suspects really kicks off Munch’s tenure as a ubiquitous television cop, extending his reach beyond the nexus of Homicide and St. Elsewhere.

However, the crossover suggests something that will become a recurring feature of Gilligan’s scripts. Gilligan is absolutely fascinated with the idea of crashing The X-Files into other forms of television. There is a decidedly postmodern aesthetic to his work, as the writer playfully draws attention to the intersection between The X-Files and other forms of television entertainment – whether it’s prime-time drama in Unusual Suspects, new coverage the OJ Simpson chase in Drive or reality television in X-Cops.

To and Fro(hike)...

To and Fro(hike)…

The X-Files is obviously deeply influenced by television. Chris Carter has gone on record acknowledging just how much Kolchak: The Night Stalker meant to him as a child; Darren McGavin will even pop up in a small role in Travelers to help solidify that connection. Twin Peaks is an obvious stylistic influence. Episodes like D.P.O. and The Post-Modern Prometheus are intrigued by The Jerry Springer Show. Carter will include sly references to The Simpsons in his script to The Beginning.

However, as a rule, the major writers and directors on The X-Files have tended toward cinema as a major influence – an approach most obviously borne out in the way that the show is frequently described as “cinematic” or in the format of blockbuster movie every week. Darin Morgan’s script for Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space”, for example, makes visual reference to Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Glen Morgan’s script to Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man is obvious constructed as a cynical parody of Forrest Gump.

Two outta three ain't bad...

Two outta three ain’t bad…

Even a glimpse at the episodes around Unusual Suspects bear out the idea that most X-Files writers were more interested in engaging with film than with television. Redux I and Redux II quote extensively from Oliver Stone’s JFK and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather. Frank Spotnitz has acknowledged that Detour was inspired by Deliverance. Chris Carter’s script to The Post-Modern Prometheus is most obviously built around James Whale’s Frankenstein, but also affectionately references films as diverse as Superman and Risky Business.

It feels somewhat ironic that Vince Gilligan has talked about how he always wanted to be a movie writer, and how he never planned to write for television. (In his interview with Emmy Television Legends, he is quick to insist that he never looked down on television, it just wasn’t something he wanted to do when he started out.) As a writer, he has an innate understanding of and abiding affection for the medium and how it works. Gilligan became one of the more experimental and self-aware writers on the show after the fourth season.

Filling everybody in...

Filling everybody in…

It should be noted that the golden age of the crossover was still some distance away. While producers like David E. Kelley and Donald P. Bellisario had done their fair share of crossover episodes, the idea of tightly interwoven shared continuities would not become a feature of the television landscape until the new millennium. For all that there were occasional indications that they shared the same fictional world, The X-Files and Millennium only fleetingly interacted. The destruction of the world in The Time is Now had no impact on the events of The X-Files: Fight the Future.

After all, the Star Trek franchise had two overlapping series on the air for seven years in the nineties, but what few crossovers occurred were generally fleeting and subtle. A character or actor would cameo across shows – Picard appears in Emissary, Bashir appears in Birthright, Part I, Quark appears in Caretaker, mirror!Tuvok appears in Through the Looking Glass. However, these crossovers never had the same weight and texture associated with the links between – say – Arrow and Flash or Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Marvel movie universe.

Sleeping this one out...

Sleeping this one out…

Unusual Suspects is a rather early example of casual prime time intertextuality between two shows that have no shared lineage or explicitly linked continuity. In a way, it is an example of Gilligan’s fondness for pulp storytelling. The crossover is a storytelling tool that was perhaps most common in comic books, which were a rather heavy influence on Gilligan’s script for Pusher – Robert Patrick Modell is very clearly a comic book supervillain, down to his superpowers, snazzy wardrobe and fabricated origin which feels like it came from a Batman comic.

(Friends was quite fond of these little linkages as well – most notably in suggesting that Lisa Kudrew’s recurring waitress character Ursula on Mad About You was the twin sister of Phoebe Buffay, leading to a cameo from Helen Hunt in her role from Mad About You. However, there were lots of little points of intersection as well, most notably the show’s participation in NBC’s “black out Thursday” or the knowing guest appearances of George Clooney and Noah Wiley in a way that riffed on their contemporaneous roles on E.R.)

Telling stories...

Telling stories…

Crossovers are an interesting storytelling tool for a number of reasons. The most obvious is that elements carried over from other stories come with their own history and signifiers quite apart from whatever the script itself provides. As Erwin Feyersinger notes in Metaleptic TV Crossovers, John Munch has more weight and significance by virtue of being John Munch than he would if he were a random character:

The incorporation of intertextually known entities (from both the actual world and fictional worlds) easily adds depth to a fictional world, for all their assumed intrinsic properties, history, and interrelations can now become part of this world. An established character, such as Munch, is certainly more complex than and an unknown character; however, as not all viewers share the background information, properties that are important for the respective episode still have to be specified or be made implicitly accessible.

If the role were filled by a character the audience had never seen before and would never see again, it would seem likely that Unusual Suspects would likely be the most surreal and weird case of his career. However, because Munch has so much history and back story, Unusual Suspects reverses the dynamic. For Byers, this is the most important day of his life. For Munch, it’s a a slightly quirky case in twenty-one years of police work.

The show worked hard to lock them down for a spin-off...

The show worked hard to lock them down for a spin-off…

More than that, John Munch helps to ground Unusual Suspects. Munch is firmly rooted in a gritty and grounded style of police drama – one at odds with the weirdness and surrealism of The X-Files. (There are obvious exceptions on both sides, of course, but there is quite a clear distinction between the two, generally speaking.) Putting John Munch in Unusual Suspects suggests that Unusual Suspects exists in a fictional world perhaps closer to our own than The X-Files usually allows, which is a nice way for Gilligan to set up the idea that Unusual Suspects is the “secret origin” of The X-Files as a different sort of procedural.

Of course, inserting John Munch into the world of The X-Files also brings up issues of crossover continuity and intertextuality and postmodernism. Due to his appearances across the width and breadth of television, John Munch is a pretty important lynchpin of a theory of television which suggests that all (or most television shows) can be dragged together under a particularly convoluted and elaborate continuity. John Munch helps to turn the vast majority of television into a sprawling series of interlocking references that would make Mulder blush. It is all connected.

"Great," Detective Munch thinks to himself. "This'll come in handy when I want to watch The Wire when I'm in it a decade-and-a-half from now."

“Great,” Detective Munch thinks to himself. “This’ll come in handy when I want to watch The Wire when I’m in it a decade-and-a-half from now.”

John Munch appears in Homicide and The X-Files, so they are linked. Mulder and Scully appear in The X-Files and The Simpsons, so now Homicide and The Simpsons are linked. The cast of Cheers appear as those characters in The Simpsons, so Homicide and Cheers are linked. Cheers spun off into Fraiser, so Fraiser is linked to Homicide, The X-Files, The Simpsons, The Wire and lots of other shows, spiraling outwards like an ever-expanding wave of madness. Television becomes something that can be tied together with pins and strings, like some sort of crazy crime scene theory.

So this sort of interlocking continuity is interesting because it plays on the idea of continuity as something subjective and external – something imposed by viewers on a television show (or shows). In putting all these little pieces together, fans are constructing their own continuity; telling their own little stories using pieces of existing series. Unusual Suspects provides proof that John Munch was working these sorts of cases four years before audiences first met him in Homicide, which becomes part of his story in a way that it isn’t for Homicide fans oblivious to his appearance here.

Shapes of things to come...

Shapes of things to come…

The idea that continuity can exist beyond shows or production houses is fascinating, because it represents a democraticisation of storytelling. While it could be argued that production teams are able to enforce their own continuity unto their work – witness the work of Richard Arnold on Star Trek – there is no way for anybody except the viewer to try to manage a continuity as sprawling as that created by crossovers and linkages. These bonds are not maintained and cultivated by writers and producers managing their own shows; they are constructed by the audience.

Consider the infamous “Tommy Westphall hypothesis”, the idea that (almost) every show on television exists as a dream in the mind of a young autistic child named Tommy Westphall. Westphall exists one degree of separation away from John Munch, when the final episode of St. Elsewhere revealed that the entire show was the dream of a young autistic boy. Munch had appeared in a crossover between Homicide and St. Elsewhere, suggesting that Homicide is also part of that dream. If Homicide is part of that dream, so is The X-Files. And so on.

X guest star.

X guest star.

There are diagrams dedicated to the idea, mapping out points of conceptual overlap between all the different shows. How easily could a character navigate from Homicide to Red Dwarf or The Andy Griffith Show? Fans have dedicated considerable effort to piecing it all together, trying to imagine some fragile chain of interlocking continuity that might connect Marcia Brady to the Fonz. It is a fascinating example of how something like continuity can be outsourced, how fandom constructs its own larger meta-narratives tying everything and anything together.

Of course, it goes without saying that the theory is not water-tight or absolute. After all, all manner of logical and existential issues present themselves if the idea is taken literally. Given that people like Rudolph Giuliani have played themselves on shows like Law & Order (not to mention all the celebrity appearances in The Simpsons), does that mean that the real world is part of this run-away dream of Tommy Westphall? There are some delightful philosophical quandaries to be discussed there – how recursive is reality if we dream him and he dreams us? – but that seems to take everything a little too seriously.

The hard sell...

The hard sell…

As Jason Mittel contends in Serial Orientations, these sorts of interlocking theories are not meant to be taken entirely seriously, instead serving as an interesting mode of fan engagement and democratic storytelling:

While such orientation practices are certainly not designed to actually help viewers truly make sense of fictional worlds, as the theory is clearly meant to be taken as playfully ludicrous, I would argue that fans do take it seriously – they get immersed in the intertextual web and passionately argue about interpretations concerning the validity of various connections. They know it’s not ‘real’, even within the fictional worlds of television, but many seriously embrace the practice of creating expansive paratexts as if it were ‘real’, playfully undertaking hypothetical analysis and conjecture similar to recent forms like alternate reality games.

Indeed, the popularity of such postmodern storytelling techniques conveniently coincides with the increasing popularity of more communal and “open-source” storytelling models like “role-playing games” in all media – games where the player directs their story as much as a designated writer or rule-maker.

Don't hate the player...

Don’t hate the player…

To tie all of this back into Unusual Suspects, Gilligan very cleverly suggests that the central mythology of The X-Files (and conspiracy theories in general) might be just an extension of this sort of postmodern communal storytelling. The construction of narratives was never anything that could be fully regulated and arbitrated – there was always a great deal of freedom in the sense that anybody could tell or alter a story. However, the era of the internet and or role-playing games expands that concept even further.

Storytelling becomes a massive communal activity that is crowd-sourced and fully democratised, to the point where nobody really has any control about how their story will be connected and interpreted and interlinked. The producers working on Homicide and The X-Files have no real control over the behemoth that is “the Tommy Westphall hypotheses.” Instead, audiences stitch it together like a very literal postmodern prometheus, a larger living story constructed from lots of bits and pieces sewn into an awkward and monstrous “supernarrative.”

Game on.

Game on.

This reflects the emergence of the “superconspiracy” in the realm of conspiracy theory. Just as it is not enough to believe in individual conspiracies any longer, it is not enough to believe in individual stories. Conspiracy theories must be sewn together to fashion something larger and more imposing, just as stories must intersect and overlap to become something more epic and unwieldy. Conspiracy theory is not just a type of story, it is a world view and theory of narrative. Unusual Suspects is very much Vince Gilligan’s big “conspiracy” episodes, and he manages to say quite a lot quite eloquently.

Unusual Suspects feels like a companion piece to Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man in this respect, pitching conspiracy theory as a way of fashioning a story out of things that are too big and too complex to be coherently connected in such a fashion. Unusual Suspects is an underrated gem that manages to slip quietly and politely in under the radar, while offering a somewhat radical and provocative take on the show.

You might be interested in our reviews of the fifth season of The X-Files:

2 Responses

  1. And speaking of crazy linked-in conspiracy theories, Richard Belzer also played a deliberately Much-ian detective in “A Very Brady Sequel”… fertile ground later visited by Vince Gilligan in his final script for… “The X-Files”.

    • I hadn’t realised Belzer was in that film. Six degrees on John Munch!

      But I think “Sunshine Days” is another example of Gilligan as a writer who is more televisual than most of his contemporaries on staff.

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