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Sunday, October 2, 2016

Static Thoughts - X-Files: The List

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As I write this, the largest prison strike in US history is currently going on and is getting almost no media coverage.  It comes on the heels of a year of major push back against what’s come to be called the prison-industrial complex; the system by which states prisons have become a massively profitable business and proliferated mass incarceration throughout the US.  

Earlier in the year Obama actually made a visit to a US correctional facility and spoke with prisoners there and later he officially closed down all 13 federal sanctioned for-profit prisons.  It’s a major issue that seems to have sprung up over night alongside the rampant police fascism that’s been in the news since 2014. It’s tempting to consider these to be new problems facing society and while that’s partially true past had its fair share of misconduct by the justice system, that’s where the X-Files comes in.

In season 3 of X-Files, series creator Chris Carter returned to the dual roles of writer and director for the second time to produce one of the series most underappreciated episode entitled ‘The List.’   The episode revolves around the execution of one Napoleon “Neech” Manley, a Florida black man who got the death sentence for being a getaway driver.  Shortly after Manley’s execution, a string of mysterious and unaccountable murders at the prison where he was executed draw the agents’ attention. 

Something I really like about this episode is that it both is and isn’t a ghost story.  The actual explanation for the murders isn’t your standard spectral possession or the like but something a lot creepier and more unique, about the idea that Manley has somehow reincarnated back to life.  It’s never directly spelled out for us how he managed that or how his reincarnation as flies allows him to physically manifest and murder people but then again X-Files isn’t really a show about answers. 

For all their posturing and conspiracies X-Files has always been strongest when it’s willing to leave lingering, unanswered questions that can exist as oblique facts to be accepted.  At the same time, I’m more willing overall to accept the idea of “Manley reincarnated because he was obsessed with the idea,” as that’s a very comic book-ish kind of thinking. 

On the flipside, however, the episode is very much a ghost story in terms of pacing, narrative, and framing.  This is one of the few episodes where the agents really aren’t the main characters so much as they’re an excuse for the cameras to be rolling.  That might sound a little odd, but it’s often produced some of the best episodes such as Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man or Hunger.  In this case, I’m loath to actually name any character as the episode’s central focus, which goes hand-in-hand with the admittedly shallow characterization. 

Every character we’re introduced is, essentially, a stock character from a story you already know even if you can’t name it.  The thuggish prison warden, his violent guards, the grieving widow, the friend of the deceased, the slimy lawyer, these are all characters we recognize right off the bat.  Even the setting of this sprawling, swampy Florida prison has a touch of the familiar to it, a crumbling artifice of human suffering.  That kind of generality can be mistaken for poor writing; the difference is that this writing isn’t poor so much as it’s deliberately narrative focused. 

A key element of ghost stories is that the characters exist in service of the tale, that everything about a character’s personal history and identity is designed to interlock with the thematic and stylistic effects of the story being told.  The characters’ roles are usually stock while the details are conformed exactly to what’s happening.  In the case of ‘The List,’ the characters all act in service of the themes of miscarried justice, the dehumanization of the prison system, and the inherent amorality of the death penalty.  

The guards who view prisoners as subhuman, the warden who thinks of the prison as his own little police state where he’s God, the anonymous executioner whose little more than a hit man, the lawyer who lives a charmed life far away from the failure that got his client killed, they’re stock characters, but the details form an intricate palette. 

As mentioned, the set does a lot to add to this particular tapestry of horror, especially given all the troubles the production had.  The prison set was the biggest undertaking the show ever had at the time, and they actually went over budget completing the set in time.  It looks fantastic though, a sprawling maze of weird corners and odd angles with walls that constantly ooze humidity. 

The post-production crew also used a green tinted color correction system that gives the whole setting an even more unnerving look, it all feels very otherworldly and haunting like some kind of emerald Hell.  Following the idea of ‘The List’ as a ghost story, the prison takes the role of the haunted house, and it fits perfectly in that position. 

A lot of that comes from Chris Carter’s direction, which is top notch all the way.  He’s got real skill with lingering shots and framing that keeps you off balance within the walls of the prison.  The whole place feels a lot like a labyrinth of human suffering, marked by a particularly chilling scene of the warden beating one of the prisoners to death in the showers. 

It’s a chilling moment thanks to how little we see of it, as the camera slowly drifts backward through the tiny blackened hallways onto the prison block as the sounds of the savage beating echo through the cells.  There’s a real sense at this moment that even with all the revenge killings things haven’t changed here, that there really is no way out.

J.T. Walsh is in the role of the warden and he does a fine job as one the most rotten and thuggish law enforcement officials the agents have ever interacted with.  Ken Foree is also on hand as a guard who ended up getting together with the grieving widow and he’s always good to have around even if he isn’t afforded that much to actually do in the course of the episode.  Like I said, this is a showcase for cinematography and mood more than character and performance, though Badja Djola does a great job in the opening sequence as Manley during his execution via electric chair. 

It’s a very powerful and unnerving scene thanks, again, to how well it conforms to the ideas of dehumanization and inescapable injustice that haunt the entire episode.  There’s a callousness that informs the entire prison staff’s relation to Manley’s execution that’s very uncomfortable, like for them this is just another day. 

‘The List’ is not an episode for everyone, but it’s a standout episode if you’re the kind of person who can meet it half way regarding intention.  If you really need super fleshed out characters with a full life of their own to be engaged, then you probably won’t like this episode.  However, if you take it as a whole, a sort of 45-minute campfire ghost story with the central bent being the setting of a Florida prison, you’ll really like it. 

What’s more, like a lot of great X-Files episodes it’s informed by a palpable passion for the issue it’s revolving around, mainly one of helplessness.  Other episodes like ‘Unrequited’ or ‘The Walk’ may have felt more angry in the face of neglected veterans or acceptable losses but this one approaches the idea of the rampant perversion of justice in the American law enforcement system with a sense of defeat and inevitability that has proven terrifyingly grounded and true to life.

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