by Sarah Stegall
copyright ©1995 by Sarah Stegall
Writer: Chris Carter
Director: Chris Carter
When I first realized that all the prisoners on Death Row in Chris Carter’s The List were black, and that all but one of the prison guards was white, I thought we were going to see an exploration of racial themes in Friday night’s episode of The X-Files. Certainly it would be in character for Carter, who has dealt with controversial subjects before in this series without backing away: his episodes Darkness Falls, Red Museum, and Irresistible all incorporated politically or socially charged themes. But about halfway through The List, we find that we are dealing with a more personal story, and that was a let-down.
Mulder and Scully are called to help the State of Florida determine cause of death in the murder of a prison guard, after the execution of a high-profile prisoner named Napoleon “Neech” Manley (Badja Djola). From the electric chair itself, Manley vowed to come back from the dead and wreak vengeance on his enemies, and now appears to be doing just that. Scully’s first discovery is that the body, only a day or so old, is already so infested with parasites as to be useless in an autopsy. We are treated to a delightful close-up of a body riddled with maggots, in a scene that actually surpasses the exploding pustules of F. Emasculata. Another guard is decapitated, and again the remains are fly-blown and putrescent. [This becomes a recurring motif, as every one of the ‘real’ victims of Napoleon Manley is accompanied in some way by flies or fly larvae.] The story progresses through the subsequent murders of a lawyer, the executioner, and finally of the boyfriend of Manley’s two-timing wife (April Grace). The murders of two prisoners are a red herring dragged across the investigative trail, but in the end, even the Warden falls prey to Manley’s death curse.
Carter directed this episode himself, and his growing confidence behind the camera is shown in his bold use of contrast. The gloomy, almost submarine light of the prison interiors is set off against the glare of Florida sunshine. In fact, I was surprised to see Mulder and Scully shown in such bright daylight–I had no idea Duchovny’s hair was that light a shade of brown. Bars frame most scenes–prisoners behind bars, guards behind grilles, even Manley’s widow secluded behind her Venetian blinds. We are hemmed in by walls, razor wire and iron at every turn, lending a shadowy, claustrophobic air to the entire episode. The most chilling sequence, for me, was the point-of-view camera journey through Danielle Manley’s house in the darkness, tracing a route through an open window and down hallways, like a prowler stalking the woman lying asleep in the bedroom. Carter also likes reflections that superimpose the faces of people at odds with one another–from Manley in his chair of execution reflected in the plate glass window of the witness room, to Manley’s reflection in the doomed Warden’s rear-view mirror in the final scene. Carter fills his screen with dusty shadows, silhouettes against bright windows (the silhouette of the dead executioner in his attic chair, slumped against the bright window, comes to mind), an erratic rhythm of light and dark whose subliminal cues and miscues keep us off balance.
Carter also evokes some fine performances from his guests. Badja Djola so clearly inscribes Neech Manley’s powerful personality on our vision that even though his screen time is brief, his character is present throughout the episode. J. T. Walsh as Warden Brodeur is the epitome of hypocritical white male power without becoming a Southern-sheriff stereotype: he is both rational and brutal, pragmatic and impulsive, a villain of no little ambiguity. Virtually everything he says to Mulder and Scully is eminently reasonable (“A prison is a war”) but since the man himself is corrupt, his message becomes suspect. Smaller parts were seamlessly brought off: John Toles-Bey as the dreadlocked Speranza was defiant and sympathetic at the same time. Mitch Kosterman’s edgy performance as the second victim, Fornier, is a study in contradiction: his wary stance and tense movements belie the bravado of his words. Ken Foree plays the guard Parmelly as equal parts menace and teddy bear, an unusual but lifelike combination.
As usual, Carter’s script opens up a tiny bit more of Mulder and Scully for us, as in their exchange in Manley’s cell (in front of an array of philosophical tomes worthy of any university library) which actually elicits a rare Scully smile for us. More subtly, we see the fruits of the usual Mulder-Scully argument: although he simply dismisses her level-headed suggestion that the murders are part of a conspiracy among the guards, he later incorporates her argument into his discussion with the Warden about lockdowns. See? Mulder does listen to Scully, he’ll just never admit it to her. Gillian Anderson said more with her eyes than her dialogue in this episode: her curious glance at the corridor that leads to the shower stalls, her nervous glances at the death row prisoners heckling her, her look of utter revulsion at the horror that is the executioner’s body all told us a lot about the machinery ticking away behind the cool facade. Duchovny has less to do, but is up to par on scenes showing Mulder’s confusion and bafflement in the final scene. Mulder and Scully’s fast-paced analysis of motive and alliance in that scene reinforced the image of a well-seasoned pair playing off one another’s strengths.
All the ingredients for a good scare story are here, but The List just does not scare me. Part of it was the lack of menace to any sympathetic character: I didn’t care if a thuggish guard or the sadistic warden died. Some of the dialogue was downright weak (I have a passionate dislike of lines like “It’s over”, something people never say to one another in real life). The warden’s death would have been more effective (and less reminiscent of Fresh Bones) if we had never seen Manley in the back seat. And the repeated “shock” of crawling maggots and deliquescing corpses grows old quickly, robbing the images of whatever capacity to horrify they hold. I wondered if the maggots and flies were meant as a symbolic statement on the corruption of power as embodied in the Warden; if so, it was a statement hammered home with the subtlety of a brick through a window. There was a lot of potential for added drama and conflict in the situation–black men on death row in a Southern state, one of them a man convicted under questionable circumstances. I regret it was not more fully exploited.
All in all, The List is a mid-range story, whose pacing, imagery, and control showcase Carter’s directorial abilities more than his writing. This ambitious though flawed episode earns three sunflower seeds out of five.