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Series / Manhunt: Unabomber

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Manhunt: Unabomber is the first eight-episode season of the True Crime Docudrama anthology series Manhunt. It dramatizes the FBI's hunt for American luddite terrorist Ted Kaczynski, a.k.a. the Unabomber, played by Paul Bettany. Sam Worthington stars as James "Fitz" Fitzgerald, a rookie FBI profiler brought aboard as a document analyst who starts developing a profile of the killer based on what he calls "forensic linguistics." His boss (Chris Noth) is constantly skeptical, but Fitz becomes obsessed with the case, to the detriment of the rest of his life. The show also has a parallel story running two years later, as Fitz tries to convince the captured Kaczyinski to plead guilty and avoid a media-circus trial.

Manhunt: Unabomber was first aired by the Discovery Channel in 2017, but the channel bailed out around the time of release and put the continuation of the series in jeopardy. Following acclaim, it was picked up by Netflix for airing in some countries, before Starz uncancelled the show and aired a second season, Manhunt Deadly Games, in 2020.


This series includes examples of:

  • The '50s: The episode "Ted" shows Kaczynski's high school years in the late fifties.
  • The '60s: Kaczynski's next major crisis was when he took part in a secret MKULTRA psychology experiment at Harvard after he enrolled in 1962. However, due to it being the early '60s and Kaczynski being not up to date with the latest pop culture, it looks more like it's still the '50s.
  • The '80s: The last Unabomber attack before he went dormant was on a computer renting store in 1987.
  • The '90s: The mid-'90s milieu is mostly downplayed, although the technology definitely marks its era (especially the way Fitz keeps being summoned by pager) and other details (he goes to watch Sudden Death with his kids before needing to go to his office to check the manifesto again to see if he can glean an "Eureka!" Moment, abandoning his family at the cinema as a result).
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  • Alas, Poor Villain: Kaczynski is essentially railroaded into pleading guilty and being jailed in solitary at supermax for life, or being stuck inside a mental institution without even going to trial. Instead of getting the long trial where he would be free to broadcast his ideology to the world, as he had likely planned for years, he gets only a short statement after he pleads guilty, after his victims speak, and he bungles it due to his emotional breakdown.
  • All for Nothing: Fitzgerald's superiors really don't feel happy upon discovering that the "Nathan R." clue that they spent so much time and resources pursuing was just the result of some guy in the New York Times' mailroom being an idiot.
  • All Men Are Perverts: Lampshaded by Bob Guccione, who tried to convince Kaczynski to allow Penthouse magazine to be the periodical to print out his manifesto by mentioning that the (pornographic) magazine has a high number of subscriptors that work in the Pentagon.
  • Anachronic Order: The show hops between two parallel story lines: one in 1995, in the last months of the Unabomber chase, and one in 1997, as Kaczynski is awaiting trial. The sixth episode also includes extended flashbacks into the 1950s, when Kaczynski was a boy.
  • And I Must Scream: Invoked by one of the survivors of Kaczynski's bombs in the court hearing's closing statements: that his wish is for Ted's lifetime imprisonment in solitary to be the most cruel of mercies, as Ted is unable to do anything but feel the world pass him by.
  • Antagonist Title: The story of the manhunt to find the Unabomber, one of the most notorious pre-9/11 domestic terrorists in American history.
  • Bait-and-Switch Boss: Done very briefly. Anyone familiar with Kaczynski's former lifestyle will assume that he's the man we see during the opening credits, living in a remote cabin in the woods and foraging for food. Turns out Kaczynski has already been captured, and the man is actually Fitz.
  • Betty and Veronica: Fitz's involvement with the case costs him his relationship with his wife, but also gives him the chance to start another with a comparative linguistics academic.
  • Brainwashing for the Greater Good: What Fitz claims will happen to Kaczynski if he doesn't plead guilty.
  • Cain and Abel: Ted and David Kaczynski had a falling out due to Ted's antisocial nature, which forced David to fire him. Still, David loves his brother enough to have a federal analyst compare some of his letters with the Unabomber's manifesto and feels very glad when the analyst says that they don't compare... not to mention getting defensive when Fitzgerald eventually arrives to tell them that they do.
  • Composite Character: The real James Fitzgerald has called the show's James Fitzgerald this. While the real Fitz did do forensic linguistics work on the case, many of TV Fitz's other actions were done by other people (which leads to a severe case of The Main Characters Do Everything).
  • Defective Detective: As the story goes on, Fitzgerald becomes a bit too obsessed with figuring out how Kaczynski's mind works and capturing him.
  • Driven to Suicide: Kaczynski attempts to hang himself in jail after he realizes he won't get the perfect trial he's likely envisioned for years.
  • Drone of Dread: Used and abused throughout the soundtrack, from regular droning up to almost deafening bursts of white noise.
  • Dude Where Is My Respect: All of Fitz's superiors who had been acting as the Obstructive Bureaucrat claim his work as their own the minute it leads to Kaczynski's arrest.
  • Endangering News Broadcast: This comes up after the FBI is able to single out Kaczynski as the most probable suspect and start to surveil his home and mobilize agents covertly to raid it when the time is right and they have iron-clad proof. What was meant to be a multi-month operation turns into a mad dash to find enough evidence to present to the judge and strike within 24 hours when CBS catches wind of what is going on and the Smug Snake producer tells the director that he will only hold the story for that much time (even after the director insists that if Kaczynski is the Unabomber, then the broadcast may end up causing a bloodbath).
  • "Eureka!" Moment: Fitz has several of them, such as when linguistics consultant Natalie Rogers explains how linguists identified the homeland of the Slavic peoples by realizing that they had no native words for trees, leading them to conclude that they came from a place with no trees. Fitz immediately runs off to analyze the manifesto for what isn't in it.
  • Evil Luddite: Kaczynski's bombing campaign is motivated by his belief that technology is enslaving us. He himself lives off the grid, in an isolated cabin in Montana.
  • Facial Composite Failure: In one scene, Fitz explains why the famous sunglasses-and-hoodie sketch of the Unabomber doesn't look much like Kaczynski: it was actually a second composite sketch made years after the event, and the witness actually wound up describing a face that looked a lot like the original sketch artist's, because she spent hours looking at him but only a few seconds looking at the Unabomber.
  • False Friend: Kaczynski's teacher at college pretends to befriend him, then humiliates him in front of some supposed distinguished Harvard doctors. It's all just an unethical psychology experiment, but he never informs him.
  • Fate Worse than Death:
    • For Kaczynski, being put in a mental institution. He'd rather kill himself or get executed.
    • The way Fitz paints Kaczynski's life after passing through a mental institution, being reprogrammed to renounce all his beliefs and being reinserted into society as a 'productive' shadow of his former self.
  • A Fool for a Client: After Kaczynski fires his attorney because, against his most fervent wishes, she tried to apply for an Insanity Defense and he tries to carry on his legal defense by himself. Theodore is smart enough to do it, but unfortunately everybody wants his blood because of what he's done and thus there is no option available that won't end with him in jail.
  • Foregone Conclusion: Since this is Based on a True Story, and a highly publicized one at that, most viewers will know how it turned out.
  • Foreshadowing: In Episode 2 of Unabomber, there's a flashback to the Salt Lake City bombing where Kaczynski is first spotted by a woman at the electronics store. Then the sketch is shown and it looks nothing like him, foreshadowing a later scene where Fitz reveals that the iconic composite is actually a redo of the original and drawn to resemble the original sketch artist, rather than Ted, because the woman forgot what the Unabomber looked like in the intervening time.
  • Formula-Breaking Episode: "Ted", which is all about Kaczynski's backstory.
  • Freudian Excuse: The episode "Ted" shows Kaczynski's troubled youth, when he was isolated by his genius-level intelligence and put through abusive psychological experiments by a trusted mentor.
  • GPS Evidence:
    • Subverted with the "Call Nathan R." clue. The FBI goes through a great many variations of the clue, including checking the criminal records of the nation for anybody with a similar name (which actually nets them a possible suspect, a white supremacist with experience with explosives already in custody, but Fitz is able to determine he's not who they seek) only for it to turn out to be a humongous Red Herring - the clue was the result of someone in the mail room of the New York Times with a big post-it habit. After all the waste of time and resources, the FBI doesn't takes it well.
    • Invoked by the FBI, which accepts to have Kaczynski's manifesto, Industrial Society and Its Future, printed out in a national newspaper of their choosing in the hopes that the fact the paper is sold in just one specific location in San Francisco will allow them to narrow down surveillance of who buys it (they expect Kaczynski will do so, for the sake of feeling important). It turns out to be a bust, but a copy of the paper eventually arrives at the house of Kaczynski's brother, who recognizes the manifesto's writing style as the one his brother uses and contacts the authorities (which is the other reason the FBI allowed it to be published). The initial analysis by Fitzgerald and some other agents also is able to figure out that Kaczynski went to college in the Fifties or Sixties because his manifesto is written in an antiquated thesis format.
  • Hannibal Lecture: Fitz is sent to the imprisoned Kaczynski repeatedly to convince him to plead guilty, but Kaczyinski keeps picking at his psychological weaknesses instead.
  • He Who Fights Monsters: Despite being responsible for capturing Kaczynski, Fitz develops a begrudging respect for his ideas as the series goes on and ends becoming a hermit himself.
  • Historical Hero Upgrade: Kaczynski never really had a close relationship with the residents of Lincoln, Montana, nor did he have a quasi-paternal dynamic with any children there. The locals were mostly apprehensive of him — hearing odd explosion noises, suspecting that he was stalking them, or vandalizing property. In the immediate aftermath of, and twenty-fifty-plus years since his arrest, most are simply resentful of the manhunt putting Lincoln on the map for all the wrong reasons.
  • Historical Villain Downgrade: Limited, in that the series doesn't justify the Unabomber's actions, but it does downplay the actual content of the Manifesto, which in real life reads closer to a post taken from an alt-right nexus than simply as a coherent anarcho-primitivist text. For example, his extended criticism of leftism, feminism, gay rights, disability rights, and so on, as well as his strongly Social Darwinist worldview are more or less ignored. In particular, his belief that modern technology led to the preservation of "defective" genes establishes a clear motive for the bomb sent to Charles Epstein, the man prominently featured in the series with a badly mangled hand and scarred face. Epstein, a geneticist, conducted groundbreaking work on researching Down Syndrome. Without any of this detail, Kaczynski appears more like a nature lover who became unhinged at modern society, instead of that merely being a rabbit hole down towards a much nastier ideology.
  • How We Got Here: In the series' opening scene, Fitz is living alone in a remote cabin, much like Kaczynski himself had done, and Kacyznski is in jail. The 1995 timeline shows how both men got to where they are.
  • I Just Want to Be Normal: Kaczynski acts against society because he feels rejected by it, but deep down wishes he'd just have formed a family.
  • Insanity Defense: Kaczynski categorically rejects using one, as he's terrified of being in a mental institution (no doubt due to his highly abusive experience at the hands of a psychiatry professor who used him in a psychological experiment) and since it would threaten the credibility of his message. He's enraged when his lawyer is revealed to have prepared it anyway in spite of his express wishes and tries to fire her so he can represent himself. The judge however refuses until he's ordered a psychiatric evaluation, and warns that if they decide Kaczynski is a danger to himself or others, they will begin treatment immediately. Put in a bind, Kaczynski pleads guilty and gets life without parole, but avoids a mental institution.
  • It Will Never Catch On:
    • All over the series. Most FBI agents consider profilers quacks and forensic linguistics a waste of time (the latter view is also shared by academics not in the field). Fitz has basically to kick and beg for the FBI to even read Kaczynski's manifesto, even thought it's the perp telling them his entire worldview in 56 pages.
    • When told that Ted has been ruled out as a suspect, his brother David screams in relief: "Ted Kaczynski is not the Unabomber!"
  • Jerkass:
    • Stan Cole stands head over shoulders over all of the people in the FBI that treat Fitz like crap, believing that forensic evidence and forensic evidence alone (and forensic evidence that his team discovers alone) will solve the case. He is the sole senior agent that adamantly refuses to print Kaczynski's manifesto on the news, constantly citing that "the United States of America does not negotiate with terrorists". In the scenes that take place after the Unabomber is arrested he maintains emnity with Fitzgerald even when it's clear that the latter is the only person the Unabomber will speak to.
    • Bob Guccione, the founder of Penthouse magazine, tries to negotiate with the Unabomber so his magazine will be the one to print the manifesto. Also when the sting operation made by printing it in a San Francisco periodical doesn't work, he's quick to go to the news and say "if this had been printed on Penthouse, things would have gone better." Kaczynski makes clear in a letter he sends after Guccione's attempt at reaching him that he was okay with Penthouse being one of the printers, but because he wanted the manifesto to reach all possible audiences (something hard if it's printed in a porn mag), if Penthouse was going to be the only periodical to print it, he would "reserve the right to send one last bomb" instead of stopping entirely.
    • Alan Meeks, the CBS producer that warns about the upcoming Endangering News Broadcast. He bluntly insists he will delay the broadcast of the news that the FBI is surrounding Kaczynski's house for 24 hours only and acts like it's the most magnanimous thing he can do.
  • Jerkass Has a Point:
    • A lot of people feel this way once Kaczynski's anti-technology manifesto comes out, including Fitz himself.
    • While Fitz's ideas about the case mostly turn out to be correct, his disapproving bosses do have a point that he's ridiculously overconfident given his experience level (and has an annoying habit of barging into meetings uninvited).
  • Ludd Was Right: This is Kaczynski's view in a nutshell, decrying the affect he feels modern technology has on human beings and saying it has to be destroyed. It's also the motive of his bombings, targeting people working with, on or selling the latest technology. Kaczynski claimed that if not stopped, technology could lead to a world in which humans are controlled by malevolent AI and other dystopian results.
  • Mad Mathematician: It's mentioned early on that Kaczynski is a mathematical genius to the point he was able to become a teacher very young and in his A Day in the Limelight episode he befriends a young man by giving him math tutoring.
  • Manifesto-Making Malcontent: Kaczynski's 35,000-word manifesto, Industrial Society and Its Future, is so important to him that he promises to permanently stop bombing if a major newspaper will publish it. Although he personally dislikes the word "manifesto."
  • Married to the Job: Fitz becomes so obsessed with the case that he neglects his children, inducing his wife to finally dump him.
  • Morality Pet: While living in Montana, Kaczynski befriends the local librarian and her tween-age son, even becoming something of a Parental Substitute for the latter in the absence of his real father. Part of the reason he goes back to building bombs is because he develops a Villainous Breakdown when he goes to the kid's birthday party and sees he got a better present than what Theodore made for him (which he takes yet another sign of being a Cosmic Plaything).
  • Obstructive Bureaucrat: Fitz's superiors ignore, belittle, or literally throw his work on the trash at several points.
  • Off on a Technicality: Kaczynski believes he will beat the charge in a trial because the evidence against him was obtained in a search warrant that was based on the forensic linguistics profile elaborated by Fitz, and if he can convince the jury that Fitz's work is quackery then the warrant is invalid, and all the physical evidence gotten from it is inadmissible. Part of the reason why the Bureau gets Fitzgerald to try to make Kaczynski admit to his crimes is because they know the jury will be too blood-thirsty about the chance of putting the Unabomber behind bars, which may lead to Kaczynski trying to appeal later on.
  • Politically Incorrect Villain: Kaczynski is depicted as fairly misogynist and racist. One feature of his writing that the linguistics team notices is that he uses terms like "Negro," "broad" and "chick" (referring to women), hinting how his attitudes on race and gender haven't changed since he dropped out of society in the 1960s.
  • The Profiler: Fitz is a rookie one after spending a decade as a beat cop, but he's as good at it as the usual TV profiler.
  • Reassigned to Antarctica: During his first stint as a traffic cop, Fitz wrote a parking ticket that a superior requested to make disappear, but he refused. After that, he was reassigned to the anti-graffiti squad and denied a promotion for ten years.
  • Recognition Failure: The judge claims that he will not be "another Lance Ito" (meaning he won't allow Kaczynski's trial to become a media circus, like O.J.'s). The reference flies over Kaczynski's head, due to his self-imposed isolation.
  • Redemption Rejection: Kaczynski does intend to keep his promise to stop bombing after his manifesto is published, but he's become so accustomed to building bombs to stave off his inner turmoil that he can't abstain for long.
  • Saved by the Awesome: Fitz goes way out of line by pilfering evidence and going to see Kaczynski's brother David on his own, but since he produced a credible suspect his boss puts him back on the case anyway. Even though his partner who slipped him the evidence gets fired.
  • Shirtless Scene: Believe it or not, Bettany-as-Kaczynski gets a moment of Fanservice as he bathes in a river, showing off his well-muscled torso.
  • Silly Rabbit, Idealism Is for Kids!: What MKULTRA does to Kaczynski and the other subjects as an experiment. They let them voice their most private thoughts freely, then humiliate them for having them to see how they will react.
  • Something Only They Would Say: What "forensic linguistics" are, in a nutshell: breaking down documents such as the Unabomber's manifesto and finding the parts of someone's writing that are distinct. While racing to find a clue that will hopefully allow the FBI to convince a judge to sign the warrant that will let them raid Kaczynski's cabin at the climax, the team notices that Kaczynski uses an ancient, now rarely-used way of writing the phrase "have your cake and eat it too" that he's also written in his university articles. The judge also recalls his time serving in the Pacific Theater and how his battalion used words that had the letter "R" as passwords (because of the difficulty for Japanese speakers to say "R" and "L" differently).
  • Spiritual Successor: The series has a few passing (but prominent) mentions to the Waco siege, as if hinting a future season. The following year, before Starz uncancelled the show, Paramount aired the miniseries Waco starring Taylor Kitsch and Michael Shannon.
  • So What Do We Do Now?: Fitz asks this after the case that's consumed his life is finally over. His friend replies, "Whatever we want," but he still seems unsettled.
  • Start of Darkness: Kaczynski's being moved two years forward in high school. He falls for a girl who is not interested in him due to the age difference but another he can't compete with physically. He then uses his knowledge of chemistry to scare the other boy with an explosive note, and gets away with it.
  • Undercover as Lovers: Two background members of the Unabomber taskforce pose as a couple with a young child, to stake out the San Francisco news stand in "Publish or Perish." In "Abri," these two agents again pose as a vacationing couple going bird-watching in Lincoln, Montana, and use their hotel room to set up an observation post overlooking Ted's cabin.
  • Villain Episode: The sixth episode leaves off the Police Procedural entirely to give Kaczynski's backstory.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: Fitz gets this a lot, as his Jerkass behavior increases in proportion to his obsession with the case.
  • Where da White Women At?: Inverted. Teenage Kaczynski is shown to have a liking for "Negro women's backsides".
  • The Worm Guy: James Fitzgerald is a rookie agent specialized in forensics with a pretty odd new field... it's not the only thing that the FBI uses for investigation, of course, and typical to this Trope people think he's nuts, but following this avenue does lead to a few discoveries that get Kaczynski convicted.
  • Writing Indentation Clue: One of the early leads is that the words "Call Nathan R." were indented on the envelope of a letter sent from the Unabomber. It turns out that the mailroom employee who handed out the letter wrote a Post-It note on top of it, so the indentation was not from the bomber.