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The X-Files – The List (Review)

This November (and a little of December), we’re taking a trip back in time to review the third season of The X-Files and the first (and only) season of Space: Above and Beyond.

The List taps into a lot of contemporary anxieties.

As with Chris Carter’s last stand-alone script for The X-Files, there is something very timely about The List. The late second season medical conspiracy thriller F. Emasculata had aired at a point where national anxieties about Ebola and other killer diseases were at a high, with the high-profile release of Outbreak and the publication of Crisis in the Hot Zone. One of Carter’s strengths as a producer and a writer was his ability to take the national pulse, and to make The X-Files reflect whatever made nineties America uncomfortable.

A capital idea...

A capital idea…

Most obviously, The List hits on the debate about the merits or justification of the death penalty as a means of punishment, a question percolating in the American consciousness in the mid-nineties. The List aired two months before Tim Robbins would release Dead Man Walking, a film that would receive four of the “big five” Oscar nominations, winning an Academy Award for Best Actress for Susan Sarandon.

There were other indications that capital punishment was at the forefront of national consciousness. October 1996 would see the release of The Chamber to middling reviews and no awards. Starring Chris O’Donnell and Gene Hackman, it was an adaptation of the 1994 John Grisham novel. Best-selling novelist Stephen King would serialise his novel The Green Mile in the back of various paperbacks across the middle of 1996.

Executive decision...

Executive decision…

Ironically, these critical and thoughtful explorations of the death penalty came at a point where it seemed like America was more confident in capital punishment than ever before. In 1994, public support for the death penalty reached a record high of 80%. Both the number of inmates on death row and the number of executions climbed during the nineties, declining slightly in the twenty-first century. It seems as though these pop culture meditations on the death penalty were set in contrast to this backdrop.

Still, the death penalty was on America’s mind at this point, and not just in films and literature. Although death row inmate Wilbert Rideau had been writing articles and editorials from Louisiana State Penitentiary since the late seventies, he shot to national prominence in the nineties. He was Fresh Air‘s prison correspondent from 1992 through to 1995. Life called him “the most rehabilitated prisoner in America” in 1993. In 1994, he published a high-profile article titled Why Prisons Don’t Work.

The green mile...

The green mile…

The portrayal of the Florida prison in The List seems to owe a rather conscious debt to Rideau’s description of his own life in “Angola”, as Louisiana State Prison is known. In his memoir, In the Place of Justice, he offers an account of life on death row:

This is my reality. Solitude. Four walls, graygreen, drab, and foreboding. Three of steel and one of bars, held together by 358 rivets. Seven feet wide, nine feet long. About the size of an average bathroom or — and my mind leaps at this — the size of four tombs, only taller. I, the living dead, have need of a few essentials that the physically dead no longer require — commode, shower, face bowl, bunk. A sleazy old mattress, worn to thinness. On the floor in a corner, a cardboard box that contains all my worldly possessions — a writing tablet, a pen, and two changes of underwear. The mattress, the box, and I are the only things not bolted down, except the cockroaches that come and go from the drain in the floor and scurry around in the shower. This is my life, every minute of the year. I’m buried alive. But I’m the only person for whom that fact has meaning, who feels it, so it’s immaterial.

Carter’s decision to shoot The List through a green filter may have been inspired by the infamous “graygreen” walls of Angola, the same walls that inspired the title of Stephen King’s The Green Mile and the interior design of King’s fictitious “Cold Mountain State Penitentiary.”

He's got a handle on the situation...

He’s got a handle on the situation…

Death Row in Angola holds particular focus in the American pop cultural imagination. Louisiana is not the state that has been most keen to employ capital punishment. Texas has the highest number of executions in total, while Oklahoma has the highest per capita rate of execution in the United States. While the number of inmates executed in states like Texas, Oklahoma and Virginia since 1977 number over 100 each, only 28 people have been executed in Louisiana since the re-legalisation of the death penalty.

So why does Angola linger in the public consciousness when people think about death row? It was the setting of Dead Man Walking and inspired the location depicted in The Green Mile. While the prison in The List is stated to be in Florida, it seems to have been modelled in some small way on Angola – opting for a prominently greygreen colour scheme. So why does Angola remain such a influential and popular location for these sorts of stories.

Behind bars...

Behind bars…

The reason, perhaps, rests in the other aspect of The List that touches on contemporary American anxieties. The List is a story about race, even if it is never explicitly so. Any discussion of the death penalty must note the racial discrepancy that exists. Crimes involving white victims are more likely to warrant the death penalty than crimes involving black victims. Crimes committed by black people are more likely to result in a death sentence than equivalent crimes committed by white people.

Nobody in The List mentions the fact that most of the prison’s inmates are black and that most of the guards are white. It is left hanging in the air, unspoken. All of the major prisoner roles are played by black actors, and most of the major prison staff members are white. It is quite telling that the only guard willing to break the code of silence to tell Scully the truth is Parmelly, the African American member of the death row staff.

That's one way to get a head in work detail...

That’s one way to get a head in work detail…

Although he is a guard, Parmelly only speaks in secret – as if afraid of provoking retaliation by exposing what is going on. Warden Brodeur admits that Parmelly doesn’t seem to fit in with the staff. He’s an outsider. “I don’t know Parmelly that well. He’s a transfer in from out of state. He’s only been here six months.” It seems strange to think that Brodeur and his staff would work with Parmelly for half-a-year and maintain such a distance.

Brodeur is even more blunt when dealing with the prisoners. Savagely beating African American prisoner John Speranza, Warden Brodeur taunts him, “Hear about your friend Parmelly tonight?” Of course, Brodeur has no real evidence that Parmelly is guilty – any more than he knows that Parmelly knew Speranza. Although The List seems to end with Parmelly as the official suspect, Mulder and Scully both acknowledge how unlikely this is. Carter seems to be drawing attention to how the system works.

All eaten up about it...

All eaten up about it…

In Flexing Those Anthropological Muscles, Karen Backstein notes that The List remains powerful because it leaves all this implied, rather than explicitly stated:

Early in the third season, The X-Files featured a heavily black cast in another setting known in the real world for it disproportionate number of African-Americans: the prison system. Titled The List, it takes on the cruelty administrated by prison officials and guards and, like Sleepless, it thematically deals with redemption and justice. Here, inmate Napoleon ‘Neech’ Manley, after dying in the electric chair, seems to be reaching out from beyond the grave to get back at his tormentors – especially the penitentiary’s warden and guard. However, in the end, his more political raison d’etre for the vengeful murders shifts into the personal: the payback becomes directed towards Manley’s wife and her new lover, a guard named Parmelly. Both the casting and the dramatisation of the prison routine implicitly acknowledge the racial composition of America’s jails and the mistreatment that frequently occurs by officials.

There is no heavy-handed monologuing or moralising here – no hand-wringing or angsting. We never get to discover how Mulder or Scully feel about the death penalty, and Scully never gives us any raw statistics about the process.

The chair...

The chair…

In an interview with Cinefantatique, Carter explained that he did not want to get too bogged down in something that should have been self-evident:

“I didn’t want to deal with the issue of black justice versus white justice. It was uninteresting to me, ultimately, because it’s kind of obvious in this country.”

As a result, The List just leaves those ideas hanging there in mid-air, unspoken but ever present.

Things are looking up...

Things are looking up…

It is worth noting that Carter is drawing heavily from popular iconography of capital punishment. The atmospheric opening scene, for example, owes a conscious debt to David Von Drehle’s account of the execution of John Spinkelink in Among the Lowest of the Dead:

The executioner, whose job was to trip the circuit breaker, had been chosen from several hundred applicants who had answered a classified ad. His identity was painstakingly concealed: he was picked up on a lonely road and driven to the prison by a circuitous back route; his $150 fee was paid in cash so no record would appear on any checking account.

It is an effective and unsettling opening sequence. After all, it seems like the pick-up is for something shady (“are you ready?” “yeah”) and The List doesn’t feature a supernatural event in its teaser. The sanctioned execution of ‘Neech’ Manly is unsettling enough. One senses that this tells us all that we need to know about Carter’s feelings on the death penalty.

Back seat driver...

Back seat driver…

Using Angola as the model for the death row prison in popular culture plays into the racial discussion around capital punishment. Louisiana’s State Penitentiary has a very sordid and shameful history, dating back to the time of slavery. As Jessica Adams explains in Wounds of Returning:

The Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, the nation’s largest maximum security prison, was once Angola Plantation, named for the homeland of its first slaves, as if in a mockery of homecoming. The slave cabins that were used to house prisoners; the cellblock where men were sometimes packed six to a tiny cell, their journey’s end just down the hall in the electric chair; and the men who have never left the penitentiary, buried in a cemetery called Point Lookout, indicate ongoing links between bodies and things. Angola was the “favourite Louisiana plantation” of Isaac Franklin, one of the most successful speculators in the interstate slave trade, who had six to choose from. In 1869 Major Samuel James, a former Confederate officer, purchased the lease for all of Lousiana’s convicts. In 1880 he bought Angola’s 8,000 acres and used some of the convicts he leased to work the land. Today the prison is sometimes referred to as just ‘The Farm.’ Warden Burl Cain commented in a documentary on Angola, ‘It’s like a big plantation in days gone by. We hate to call it that in a way, but it kinda is, because we have the, you know, the, it’s inmates in prison.’

The connection is not too hard to make, particularly with Samuel James’ exploitation of the lease on the convicts in a manner that very clearly harked back to slavery and indentured servitude.

Small fry...

Small fry…

Not that the only problems with the prison were historical. As Louisiana State Penitentiary, the institution was notorious for its cruelty and brutality. Discussing the infamous 1951 incident where several prisoners slit their own Achilles tendons to avoid working in the fields, Warden C. Murray Henderson was quoted in Louisiana State Penitentiary, a Half-century of Rage and Reform:

Representing the birth of real reform at Angola, this heel-cutting incident was symbolic of deep and serious problems in Louisiana’s correctional system, many of which stemmed from having a system which in actuality bordered on legalized slavery. Based as it was on the very same historic free-labour plantation system which in large part caused the demise of the Old South, the penitentiary at Angola as it was originally set up presented a system nearly impossible to salvage, a system from its very roots fraught with corruption, excesses and abuse.

Things did not necessarily get much better. During the late sixties, Angola was known as “the bloodiest prison in the South.” The treatment of prisoners in Angola remains contentious to this day. The prison is facing a number of lawsuits around the inhumane treatment of those held in custody.

Mulder lets it slide...

Mulder lets it slide…

While the death penalty was weighing on public consciousness in the mid-nineties, racial inequality was also a pressing concern. The trial of O.J. Simpson had become a media circus from 1994 through to 1995, exposing all manner of uncomfortable implications about race relations in Los Angeles and around the country. The scars from the 1992 riots had not fully healed, and the trial was a lightning rod for issues of race.

Detective Mark Fuhrman became caught up in allegations of racism and perjury thanks to the infamous “Fuhrman tapes”, bargaining his way out of a prison sentence for perjury the year after the Simpson trial. Investigations into Fuhrman exposed a system of racism and misogyny within the Los Angeles Police Department, with the possibility that Fuhrman may have been involved in a group of police officers calling itself “Men Against Women.”

Tough cell (block)...

Tough cell (block)…

When the verdict on the O.J. Simpson trial came through, two weeks before The List aired, it was a massive event. The O.J. Simpson trial had become a public spectacle over the summer, and it is estimated three-quarters of American adults watched the verdict live. Regardless of whatever veiled confessions that Simpson may have made in the years since the trial, contemporary reaction to the verdict was split on racial lines. African Americans supported Simpson, whites did not.

The whole thing served as a painful illustration of just how precarious race relations were in the Los Angeles of the mid-nineties. It laid bare wounds that had been festering since the infamous Los Angeles riots, exposing lingering resentments and institutional corruption that had only grown in the years since those horrific events. In a way, it seems like the actual trial itself had opened the door to something much larger and more uncomfortable.

Give him a moment to decompose himself...

Give him a moment to decompose himself…

The tension was so high that President Clinton had to step in. Commenting on the situation, he explicitly referenced slavery and the civil war:

Clinton dealt with the verdict as though it were an affair of state, calling for respect for the jury’s decision and sympathy for the victims’ families. In a speech two weeks afterwards, on the day of the Million Man March, led through Washington by black separatist leader Louis Farrakhan, the president raised the spectre of civil war. “Abraham Lincoln reminded us that ‘a house divided against itself cannot stand’,” he told a crowd at the university of Texas in Austin. “Differences so great, so rooted in race, threaten to divide the house Mr Lincoln gave his life to save.”

This is all part of the context of The List, perhaps suggesting why series creator Chris Carter wrote and directed a standalone episode set in a prison where the inmates predominantly African American.

Body of evidence...

Body of evidence…

The List stands out as the most low-key of Carter’s directorial credits. Divorced from the context of the time, it seems like another monster of the week. However, within the political and social realities of October 1995, this is a pretty crucial and important episode for the show to address. Carter is writes around social justice. His last script credit on a standalone episode was on F. Emasculata, another story about the abuse of prisoners by those in authority. Environmentalism is a theme of The Host and Darkness Falls.

Carter cleverly turns a lot of his weaknesses as a writer into strengths with The List. Carter has a tendency to write purple prose, but The List is free of any pretentious monologues. Instead, the script opts to say less with more – confronting the viewer with a host of questionable characters and no clear explanation, The List is an open-ended mystery. Carter was never particularly strong when it came to endings, so the decision to make The List so explicitly open-ended is an ingenious decision.

Warden off evil...

Warden off evil…

The List is an episode that is very clear in its ambiguity. Carter isn’t leaving things unresolved or murky by accident. At the end of the show, Mulder and Scully reflect on how little they’ve actually solved or proven over the hour. “I just don’t see the motives,” Mulder complains. “Do you? I don’t think Parmelly killed anybody.” Scully really cannot offer that much more to reassure her partner. “It’s over, Mulder. Let’s just go home.”

The X-Files had a large number of episodes where Mulder and Scully felt irrelevant to the plot. Often, it seemed like Mulder and Scully were simply the audience’s gateway to weird stuff happening – doing nothing but chasing a monster or a threat that refused to be caught. Shows like Darkness Falls and Død Kälm relied on convenient last-minute deus ex machina resolutions to the problem so that Mulder and Scully could escape alive.

Burning for revenge...

Burning for revenge…

With The List, it is clear that the open-endedness is intentional. Chris Carter has quipped that this episode is a story “about a man who was reincarnated as a fly.” That seems as plausible an explanation as anything, even if it is so completely insane a theory that Mulder cannot bring himself to articulate it. Is Neech a ghost? Is he a fly? Was Parmelly in on it? Is it all an illusion? The List doesn’t offer any concrete answers, and is all the more effective for it.

Carter also takes the bold approach of constructing an episode without any truly sympathetic characters. Parmelly probably comes closest, but even then there are ethical issues and ambiguities about conducting an affair with a prison you are employed to guard. Outside of Parmelly and Danielle, the guest cast in The List is downright unpleasant. The staff in the prison are so corrupt and so manipulative that it is hard to really care about any of them.

Life on the inside...

Life on the inside…

At the same time, Carter avoids the obvious angle when it comes to Neech. It would be tempting to portray him as a sympathetic character. After all, we are informed that he ended up on death row as a getaway driver for a botched robbery, and that he studied and read a great deal while in custody. The traditional arc for these sorts of narratives would suggest redemption or sympathy for a man who did not belong in the electric chair. Dead Man Walking even finds some sympathy for its central murderer and rapist.

However, The List makes it clear that Neech is not a nice person. Some of his targets can be justified. The guards brutalised him, and it is suggested that Warden Brodeur was at least passively aware (if not actively complicit) in that corruption and abuse. However, he also targets the anonymous person hired to flip the switch at his execution – a person just doing their job. He also targets his court-appointed defender, who may have been incompetent but is never implied to be corrupt.

Homecoming...

Homecoming…

Carter also directs The List. It is his second directorial credit on the show, and in many ways his most “normal.” This is the purest “monster of the week” show that Carter directed, even allowing for everything going on around it. His other standalone non-mythology episodes – Post-Modern PrometheusTriangle, How the Ghosts Stole Christmas, Improbable – feel distinctly “special” and unique within the context of the series. They are episodes that deviate from the standard formula of The X-Files.

In contrast, The List feels like a pretty standard “monster of the week” show. It is an intriguing episode, with an interesting setting and a lot to say, but there’s nothing about the premise that jumps out in the same way as “black-and-white episode!”, “four long takes episode!”, “Christmas special!” or “Burt Reynolds is God!” might. The List is well-executed – like most of the third season – but it does stand out in the context of Carter’s directing credits. The show’s context in 1995 is probably what made it an interesting choice.

Feeding time...

Feeding time…

Whatever his weaknesses as a writer, Carter is a great director. The List looks and feels stunning. The show earned Carter a nomination from the Directors’ Guild of America. He discussed his method in X-Files Confidential:

“I wanted to give it a look like no other X-File,” Carter says. “First of all, the color palette is green. John Bartley and I lit it with pink light, and then in the post-production process that pink was taken out, which saturated the green, giving it a submarine quality. In the sound of the show, too, I added a submarine quality. I wanted it to feel like you were compressed at the bottom of the sea. There were just things I wanted to do that were different from other episodes we’d done. I feel very proud of the results. I felt more assured as a director this time, but it’s extremely hard and demanding physically.”

In terms of sheer visual style, it is possible to chart this is a clear progression from Duane Barry towards Post-Modern Prometheus. It is a show that is still grounded and gritty, but also heavily stylised and heightened.

On guard against the supernatural...

On guard against the supernatural…

The casting deserves special mention here. In its third season, The X-Files was becoming a mainstream hit. While the show’s long run meant that it featured a host of up-and-coming stars, it also had the potential to attract major guest stars. The fourth season would feature a guest performance from Jodie Foster. Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space” would recruit Alex Trebek and Jesse Ventura for little more than cameo appearances.

With that cache, it is interesting to look at the recognisable actors who did turn up in The X-Files. Although Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose had been written for Bob Newhart and Peter Boyle was a last-minute replacement, he was still a pretty big deal. He was, after all, the star of Young Frankenstein. Like the casting of Steve Railsback in Duane Barry, it seemed like Carter would lean towards cult actors he respected ahead of bigger names.

Dawn of the dead prison inmates...

Dawn of the dead prison inmates…

The List features two character actors who would be familiar to nineties audiences. Ken Foree plays Parmelly. Foree is probably most recognisable as Peter from the original Dawn of the Dead. Like Railsback in Duane Barry and Ascension or even Michael John Berryman in Revelations, this was a way for Carter to affirm the show’s geek cred by casting a horror icon. On the other hand, J.T. Walsh was a phenomenal performer – to the point where he almost seems wasted on Warden Brodeur.

The List may not be the strongest episode of the third season, but it is an interesting and provocative piece of television. It’s a thoughtful look at the death penalty and racial politics in America, all while cleverly leaving a lot unsaid. The List is a show that works so well because of the ambiguity and the mystery, with Carter constructing a story where the most interesting elements exist in the negative space.

You might be interested in our other reviews of the third season of The X-Files:

2 Responses

  1. I recall on initial viewing I found this episode distinctly unpleasant and uncomfortable, and that’s as a teenager largely ignorant of the wider context. I agree that Carter did a great job here.

    Tangentially, since JT Walsh played a major role in this episode, I wonder if you ever saw Dark Skies, and if you’d be interested in reviewing that?

    • Is Dark Skies any good? I’ve not heard that much either way.

      I think it’s fascinating that The X-Files and Space managed to do their own commentaries on the history of race in America the same week as the O.J. Simpson verdict. This is why television retrospectives are fun!

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