MANHUNT: UNABOMBER takes a deep dive into the life of Ted Kaczynski to see what events may have led to his being alone and angry in the woods, lashing out from long distance at others. This episode is an origin story about what turns a man into a monster.
Throughout the course of Manhunt: Unabomber, we’ve been seeing things from Fitz’s POV, as he tries to use language to figure out just who the illusive Unabomber is. In a brilliant move tonight, we change focus to get to know Ted Kaczynski and what makes him tick. How did he end up this way? People with a high IQ and a promising start in life don’t usually find themselves in his situation. It would have been easy to have Ted Kaczynski be a phantom during this entire season without really understanding how he came to be this way. This approach works, and we’ve seen it in countless serial killer movies. It’s a brave move to craft an hour of television that makes you feel sorry for a person doing terrible things, but that’s what this episode of Manhunt: Unabomber does.
A person’s life is built from small instances and experiences that mold and sculpt them into the individual they are at any given time. Early emotional scars may never fully heal, and the memory of them, and the fear they create inside of a person’s psyche, may guide their actions as adults. We’re told all of the time when bad things happen we should move past them, not fixate on the past, learn from our mistakes and let them make us better people, but that isn’t so easy for a lot of men and women. The psychological scars are not easily forgotten, nor are the feelings any less intense in the memory of an embarrassing moment, than in the original moment itself. Sometimes in trying to avoid traumatic situations in ones life, a form of self-sabotage makes these same types of situations happen over and over again, only increasing the damage over time. It’s like a feedback loop of emotional distress. Getting to the root of Ted ‘s distress is the aim of tonight’s episode.
We’re guided by Ted’s diaries and letters, which are narrated, to us over flashbacks and memories. They explain how he believes he came to become the person he is. What’s so interesting about getting inside of the Unabomber’s head, is to see just how much he struggles against the angry person he can’t help but be. His past and present wrestle with each other, and Ted seems unable to get the upper hand over his demons. This is not the life he imagined for himself, and there’s a sense he wants to change and wishes he could’ve taken another path in life. He’s desperate to escape what he’s become. The inner turmoil of these two opposing forces is tearing him up inside. The seemingly happy life in the town he now lives in, where everyone knows him and greets him warmly, is hard to comprehend given what we know he’s been up to. How can a man hide the monster within him to the people he lives amongst?
The roots of Ted’s penchant for lashing out at people he feels have wronged him appears early in his life. He was an awkward child, but found a best friend in another boy named Doug, whom he did everything with. They were inseparable until a girl came into the picture and got in the way of their friendship. Ted was jealous, and spied on them, but was caught by Doug and his girlfriend, who threw rocks at Ted and chased him off. Their friendship was suddenly gone, and in its place was an extreme sense of betrayal. In chemistry class, Ted creates his first form of mail bomb, mixing chemicals and placing it in a folded note, which is passed to Doug. When Doug opens it, it explodes in his face, burning his skin. In this moment, the Unabomber was created. You can read a sense of power in young Ted’s face, and a feeling of justification and superiority. This first betrayal and his reaction to it will lay the groundwork for how Ted reacts to future feelings of anger and betrayal.
Since Ted had such an advanced intellect, he found himself suddenly in Harvard at the age of 16, unable to connect with his fellow students, instead grasping on to a professor he believes to be his friend. Professor Henry Murray is not Ted’s friend. He courts Ted to believe they are friends in order to do psychological experiments on Ted. Instead of just seeing a psychologist, Ted is unwittingly being manipulated as part of Professor Murray’s involvement in the MK-Ultra experiments for the government. These experiments are meant to find the easiest way to manipulate and break down a person mentally. Ted finds out the truth of their relationship during an extremely harsh and degrading session recorded and watched by government figures. The goal of MK-Ultra was mind control, and Professor Murray lies, degrades, and belittles Ted, breaking something inside of him mentally that he’ll never recover from. These experiences haunt Ted into his adult life, and he has flashbacks of it while living in his cabin in Montana.
These two instances, paired with Ted’s brother firing him from his job in Chicago and subsequent marriage, also feels like a betrayal. His reaction to his own family has put a distance between Ted and his brother, and makes him feel even more alienated. There’s a touching scene of Ted imagining a different life for himself, one with a wife and son. This is one possible path his life could have gone down, and one he yearns for, but his anger and awkwardness would not allow this happiness to be his. The scene is lit and shot like something out of a Terrence Malick film, showing his romantic notions of a life he could’ve had. It’s beautiful, but brief. The episode ends with Ted going to sleep, the struggle continuing on inside of him, with a newly constructed bomb tucked snugly under his bed.
It’s a moving episode, and perhaps one of the best of the entire season so far. The way it makes the viewer feel sorry for what we clearly know is a depraved monster capable of death and destruction is a storytelling feat. With only two more episodes left, it appears the Discovery Channel has a hit on their hands.
Season 1, Episode 6 (S01E06)
Manhunt: Unabomber airs Tuesdays at 8PM on The Discovery Channel
For six months out of the year Jeff is holed up in his home with nothing to do but shovel snow, watch television, write, and dream of warmer climates.
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Jeff Iblings | Contributor