Discovery has created an exceptional linguistic thriller with their new crime-drama series, Manhunt: Unabomber, based on the hunt for infamous domestic terrorist Ted Kaczynski, who operated from 1978–1995.
The majority of the eight-episode series is told from FBI profiler James ‘Fitz’ Fitzgerald’s point of view, although some parts are flashbacks from Ted’s point of view. Fitzgerald was one of the earliest proponents of forensic linguistics, and the Unabomber case allowed him to prove the method’s effectiveness in capturing serial killers and other domestic terrorists.
Who Is The Unabomber?
In real life, James Fitzgerald was an agent at the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit and was a major inspiration for the show, Criminal Minds. In this series, Fitzgerald (Sam Worthington) is a young FBI agent straight out of Quantico with a gift for deciphering linguistic patterns and word puzzles.
The series doesn’t make a ton of effort to explain why they chose a random recent graduate to join the most important investigation in the country, but in real life, Fitzgerald had worked a case involving a series of threatening letters to celebrities (like Donald Trump), so he was a logical choice to join the Unabomber task force.
Anyway, Fitz joins the task force, and is pretty much written off for busy work by his superiors. Forensic linguistics doesn’t really exist at this point, and most of Fitz’s superiors are skeptical that studying the Unabomber’s word choice and idiolect could help catch the guy.
Fortuitously for Fitz, the ‘leads’ the task force thinks are ‘really strong’ fall apart as the series progresses, leaving Fitz looking like a prophet as his profile continues to be far more accurate. His desk-mate Tabby (Keisha Castle-Hughes) is quick to realize that there’s something special about the forensic linguistics pursuit, and plays a critical role in the eventual identification of Kaczynski.
Fitzgerald’s obsession with finding the Unabomber through his writing leads him to abandon his wife and kids, and screw over Tabby, who risks her career to help him. The case consumes all aspects of Fitz’s life, he begins to see similarities between himself and the Unabomber, and even relate to his views on society – it’s quite a transformation.
Why It Doesn’t Suck
The series breaks away from other recent true crime miniseries with its non-linear storytelling that adds suspense and drama to a well-known story. The sixth episode, Ted, is told entirely from Kaczynski’s point of view, instilling the viewer with a level of empathy while neatly explaining how Ted came to reject society and isolate himself in a Montana cabin.
Sam Worthington does a fairly good job descending into the obsessive role of Fitzgerald, but fails to portray a convincing genius… perhaps because he’s usually slaying titans and avatars.
Keisha Castle-Hughes on the other hand, does an amazing job as the savvy agent who gets sucked into Fitzgerald’s exciting orbit before being discarded like all other people (women?) in his life.
Paul Bettany is dead ringer for Kaczynski – and portrays his sullen genius really well… like chillingly well. The scenes between Kaczynski and Fitz are the some of the best and are strangely suspenseful, despite the viewer presumably knowing Kaczynski’s eventual fate.
This is the first time we’ve seen Worthington and Bettany in major lead roles on TV and I’d say they both did really well – although, I’d expect nothing less of two veteran actors. Worthington is scheduled to be the lead in Avatar 2, 3, 4, and 5 (extending through 2025).