X-Files Flashback: ‘The List’

Season 3, Episode 5
Director: Chris Carter
Writer: Chris Carter

The list is an absolute good. The list is life. All around its margins lies the gulf.”
~ Itzhak Stern (Sir Ben Kingsley), Schindler’s List

…except in The X-Files, “The List” is… well… it’s death.

I was all ready to sit down in front of “The List” with a small bowl (watching my middle-aged man figure) of mint chocolate chip ice cream, my personal favorite. The episode spun up on Netflix, and, within ten minutes, the urge was completely gone. Thanks, maggots. All the maggots.

The X-Files does it again. The munchies go out the door.

“The List” opens and largely takes place on death row where “Neech” Manley (Badja Djola) is about to be executed. He refuses the traditional last rites and, strapped into the electric chair, launches into an end-of-life rant that culminates in the revelation of the titular list, a list of the five people that caused him pain in prison, before being executed. Shortly after Manley’s death, Mulder and Scully are called in to investigate a gruesome death in the same prison. A prison guard was apparently suffocated to death, his body quickly riddled with maggots. Over the course of the episode, Mulder and Scully begin to investigate the crime but are quickly overwhelmed by the bodies that begin to pile up – a ticking through Manley’s list. Other prison guards and inmates claim to know those on the list, but the information isn’t deemed credible enough in time. Prison Warden Brodeur (J.T. Walsh) becomes panic-stricken that he would be on the list, going so far as to beat a prisoner to death.

On the outside, Manley’s widow Danielle (April Grace) is secretly seeing a prison guard, but she is filled with dread and paranoia over Manley’s possible return. At the end of the episode, she awakens to find Manley watching her sleep. He slowly turns and walks away, and Danielle creeps into the living room to find her prison guard boyfriend standing in the window. Danielle, believing Manley has been reincarnated as her boyfriend, shoots the man as the police pull up outside. The now-dead prison guard is believed to have committed all of the crimes, and the case is closed. Frustrated, Mulder tells Scully that pinning the case on the prison guard feels wrong since he had no connection to many of the victims. Scully tells him to forget the case, and they begin to leave town. Prison Warden Brodeur passes by in his car only to be attacked by Manley’s spirit and forced directly into a tree, killing him on impact.

First and foremost, enough with the maggots. It’s one thing to offer gore like this once or twice an episode, but the maggots are actually a plot point here. Each victim is filled with them, swimming around the dead bodies or dropping from the ceiling. For me, it became a distracting and gratuitous addition to what was an otherwise ordinary plot. Like most recent episodes, the cinematography here is phenomenal. The prison glows with an eerie green light, and smoke drifts in and out of corners, the light catching the smoke in brilliant ways giving the prison scenes an extra bit of detail and setting the scene apart from traditional prison content. The performances here are fine with J.T. Walsh giving his Walshiest of performances – solid and intense with an authoritarian air of vague evil. And Gillian Anderson looks absolutely disgusted every time she sees a maggot, most likely not a performance.

Much is made of Chris Carter’s direction of the episode for which he received a DGA Television nomination. I suppose I don’t have any strenuous objections to that, but it’s bordering on nothing to write home about. He makes the prison feel appropriately threatening and claustrophobic by, in my opinion, borrowing a great deal from, yet again, The Silence of the Lambs. He spends a lot of time in the interpersonal relationships between the characters, which never hurts, and he challenges viewers by leaving Mulder and Scully unsuccessful in solving the mystery. But I suspect that many praise the episode for its fantastic cinematography over its core direction.

But, again, enough with the maggots.

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