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Manhunt: Unabomber makes a compelling mystery out of a story whose ending you already know

It’s the perfect true-crime story for fans of word games.

Manhunt: Unabomber
Paul Bettany makes a riveting Ted Kaczynski in Manhunt: Unabomber.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Every Sunday, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episode of the week for August 6 through 12 is “Fruit of the Poisonous Tree,” the third episode of Discovery Channel’s Manhunt: Unabomber.

On some level, the appeal of a mystery story is getting to solve the case alongside the protagonist. The best mysteries lay out all the evidence before your very eyes, but only make sense once you put that evidence together in a certain way, one that the author has deviously hidden from you. The worst mysteries intentionally withhold key evidence so you could never possibly guess the solution. In other words, they cheat. (For more on this, I recommend this excellent, though very long, video takedown of the BBC series Sherlock.)

True crime, in contrast, usually presupposes that you know the ending right from the start. For the most part, true crime stories conclude with someone behind bars, even if there’s some question as to whether that person actually committed the crime (as in, say, Making a Murderer or Serial). Rather than give viewers a mystery to help solve, they let viewers get to know the very worst of human nature from a safe distance. It’d be impossible to make a TV series where the writers tried to keep the identity of Jeffrey Dahmer a secret — his story is simply too well known. But a true crime show about the serial killer might aim to delve into his psychology, or the gruesomeness of his crimes, or the story of how he was caught, or all of the above.

A combination of these two formats is what makes Discovery’s Manhunt: Unabomber so intriguing. On the one hand, viewers know who the Unabomber is — though the show introduces one Ted Kaczynski very early in its run, just to be sure. On the other hand, much of the series is played like a mystery, where the characters have the evidence in front of them but don’t yet understand how it all fits together.

It functions, then, like a mystery moving from its beginning and end toward its middle, to the degree that it flashes between the Unabomber investigation in 1995 and 1996 and the build-up to Kaczynski’s trial in 1997 and 1998. It’s a deft little puzzle where you already know the solution. It shouldn’t work, but it kinda does.

Word game enthusiasts should enjoy this show

It took until the third episode of Manhunt for the show to really click for me (I’ve since seen everything but the eighth and final episode). In the first two episodes, I was too irritated by clumsy exposition, the relegation of the great Elizabeth Reaser to a “long-suffering wife” role, and the huge charisma gap between Paul Bettany as a perfectly sinuous Ted Kaczynski and Sam Worthington as a much duller FBI agent, Jim Fitzgerald.

But in episode three, one big element of the show clicks into place: You realize that Manhunt is a series about catching a killer by playing word games.

Okay, it’s not like Kaczynski taunts the FBI via the Junior Jumble in the newspaper (though I rather wish he did). But Fitzgerald and his team do seize upon the Unabomber’s Manifesto as a way to start building a profile of a figure who could be literally anyone.

The Unabomber (who most famously sent explosive devices through the mail and was known for targeting Universities and Airplanes — hence UNAbomber) sent his Manifesto to several major publications. The FBI got its hands on the long, dense work (which you can read here), but didn’t glean much from its content other than the idea that the Unabomber was suspicious of technology and what he dubbed “leftists.”

Manhunt: Unabomber
The FBI investigates the Unabomber via his spelling mistakes. Yes, his spelling mistakes.

But as Fitzgerald and his team dug deeper and deeper into the Manifesto, the more they realized that the Unabomber’s writing style might contain several clues as to his ultimate identity. Some apparent misspellings would turn out not to be misspellings but, simply, archaic spellings that had fallen out of favor. Some common phrases were switched around from their typical order — most famously “eat your cake and have it too.” Even the use of citations and numbered paragraphs could offer a clue as to when and where the Unabomber received his education.

“Fruit of the Poisonous Tree” sees the team unravel all of these clues, with the help of a scholar in linguistics who helps them start to pin down just what they should be looking for, in particular a style guide that offers all of the archaic spellings the Unabomber used. When they find it, they’re able to deduce that their man grew up in the Chicago area — which turned out to be true of Kaczynski.

And yet almost everybody casts doubt on these findings. How much can you really know about someone from the words they use? Is Fitzgerald’s seeming invention of “forensic linguistics” worth anybody’s time, or is it complete bullshit?

Enter Paul Bettany, Manhunt’s MVP

Even Kaczynski himself — seen primarily in Manhunt’s 1997 timeline, where he’s preparing his trial defense — seems amused by the notion of forensic linguistics. So much of what led the FBI to his door, he says, was premised on this bullshit pseudoscience, and if he can get the very concept of forensic linguistics thrown out of court, he just might be able to score a not guilty verdict. All evidence gathered from forensic linguistics will be thrown out, too — the titular “fruit of the poisonous tree.”

“Fruit” was the first episode of Manhunt where I felt like Bettany and Worthington occupied the same series, largely because it didn’t try to convince me they were playing some sort of cat-and-mouse game (which Bettany would win handily). Instead, the episode argues, Kaczynski might have beat Fitzgerald were it a one-on-one match, but where Kaczynski was engaged in a footrace, Fitzgerald was doing a crossword puzzle. His ability to tease out something Kaczynski never would have expected led to Kaczynski’s capture.

I don’t know how accurate the show is. One of the few things I know about this case is that Kaczynski was ultimately caught because his brother called the FBI to tip them off after reading the Manifesto, which would seem to be a facet of crime solving not involving forensic linguistics at all. But the forensic linguistics stuff makes for fascinating television all the same, especially once Bettany arrives to offer a saucy grin and a preening confidence in his own superior intellect.

Manhunt: Unabomber
Jim and Ted face off.

Kaczynski is so intent on destroying Fitzgerald in court that he barely realizes the man is already in tatters. In Manhunt’s 1997 timeline, Fitzgerald doesn’t appear to be married or have any friends, really, and he’s increasingly isolated and cut off from the world at large. It’s as if removing Kaczynski from his extreme isolation (in that famous mountain cabin) led to Fitzgerald trying to fill that very void.

If nothing else, I love watching a crime drama where so much of the action revolves around words, around the idea of spelling and style guides being important clues to solving an enduring mystery. Manhunt was clearly greenlit because Discovery hoped to draft off of the massive ratings (and critical acclaim) for FX’s 2016 miniseries The People v. O.J. Simpson. But in its clever, puzzle-solving approach, it offers something genuinely new and intriguing, even if that’s most apparent when Bettany’s on screen.

It’s the rare series that can tell you its conclusion while also making you genuinely curious as to how that conclusion was reached. It’s the rarer still series that tells such a story from a very famous true story. I don’t know that Manhunt succeeds 100 percent, but it comes closer than I ever would have expected. By working from the outside in, it’s eating its cake and having it too.

Manhunt: Unabomber airs Tuesdays on Discovery Channel at 10 pm Eastern. Previous episodes are available on the network’s website.