Sunday, April 30, 2017

Case 03, File 05: The List

AKA: Orange Is The New Dish Best Served Cold

You know, when I first entered the second season, I assumed The X-Files would leave the 'Revenge From Beyond The Grave" in the first season, but more and more I've found that to not be true. And I think I know why; They're easy to write and produce. They basically function like X-Files madlibs; You have your basic structure, you just come up with your hook and your reason for revenge, and you can knock the script out in a week. Unfortunately this means they start to feel a little samey after a while.

The List kicks off with Napoleon "Neech" Manley on Death Row and about to be executed. As his last words, he claims he's discovered the secret to reincarnation and that he will return to exact his revenge on 5 people. Mulder and Scully get called in when guards start dying, to try and figure out if its ghosts or a conspiracy of prisoners that Neech (who was apparently quite bright) worked out before his death.

From there, the episode sort of teases out a series of revelations: A prisoner named Roque has a list of who's marked to die, a guard named Parmelly wants to help Mulder and Scully, the warden thinks the prisoners are responsible and is acting cruel and abusive till it stops. Another guard dies and his body is placed in the Warden's office, which sort of sets everyone even further on edge.

Meanwhile, Roque keeps pushing for a deal in exchange for the list of names and the Warden, being the logical sort, decides the best course of action is to have him beaten to death, like ya do. Meanwhile, Mulder and Scully go visit Neech's wife, Danielle who indicates she's scared that Neech is back, but also reveals to the audience that she's sleeping with Parmelly. Roque is passed off as one of the men on the list, but Mulder is skeptical, since the first two victims were guards, and requests the name of Neech's executioner, which it turns out is confidential, but Mulder naturally has no fucks to give.

The whole fly subplot goes basically nowhere, except as Neech's calling card, but it looks cool.
It's too late though, as by the time they arrive at the executioner's house, he's already dead. After visiting a prisoner named Speranza, who tells them Roque was not on the list, Mulder and Scully finally go visit Neech's lawyer (who was mentioned in Neech's last speech, come on guys), who tells them he's working on Speranza's case, but is then immediately killed by Neech. Wah wah. He also tells them that Parmelly was at Danielle's house when he last went to see them.

Alright, nearly done; Mulder and Scully begin to suspect Parmelly and go to arrest him, while the Warden offers to commute Speranza's sentence if he stops the murders. But when our heroes arrive at Danielle's house, she kills Parmelly because...she thinks he's actually Neech resurrected? That part isn't super well defined. The Warden reneges on his deal with Speranza and has him killed, blaming the murders on Parmelly. Mulder isn't satisfied with that explanation, but can't do anything about it, as the episode ends with the Warden's car being crashed into a car by Neech.

In retrospect, it's not the actual plot of episodes like this that tends to sink them. Sleepless was structured like a revenge from beyond the grave episode, and that is a great episode. But the stakes there were well defined, and involved Mulder, and the entire episode was anchored by a mammoth lead performance from Tony Todd. No, the problem is that too many of these episodes suffer from a lack of real stakes, a solid plot, or anything to anchor the episode. The List tries to compensate by having an overabundance of plot, but that brings it's own issues.

"Is he dead?"
"Worse. He's become a Holocaust Denier. Errol Morris wants to make a documentary about him and everything."
For starters, the overabundance of plot means that no one thread gets enough screentime. Roque has barely been introduced before he's dead, Danielle has maybe 2 scenes before she kills Parmelly, the lawyer shows up and is killed in more or less the same breath, it's all moving way too fast, and we don't have much of a handle on it. This might work better if the stakes hit a little closer to home but Mulder and Scully are never really in danger, and we get so little time to know any of the characters who are in danger well enough to make the stakes feel tangible.

This might be a little better if the episode was more willing to commit to the mystery, but the script never takes the possibility that it's a human doing the murders seriously, so the audience never does either. We'd probably be a little better off if the episode spent a little more time with the prisoners and guard on their own, so we could get the feeling that there are plots and conspiracies going on, even if they're unconnected to the five people who are going to die. As is, with the plot so overstuffed with subplots and side characters that we barely have room to resolve them all, much less spend some downtime with minor characters.

Still, it's not like the episode is a total loss. Monster of the Week already made a crack about how the prop department seems to be using this episode as an opportunity to break out its grosses stuff, but that's not a complaint, they look pretty great, and there are worse things to hang your episode on than a bunch of gross props. The acting is also really solid across the board, especially among the prisoners. I wish we'd gotten more stuff out of the actor who plays Neech, as he's very intense in the one scene he's in.

"Peekaboo motherfucker."
In writing this review, I found that it feels more down than I actually feel. This episode isn't terrible, it's just kind of meh. A couple of good effects and performances hung on a subpar script, which I guess is enough. It feels like a major step down from the previous episode, but only a handful of episodes wouldn't feel like a major step down. It's just one of those episodes where the negatives are more interesting to discuss than the positives.

Case Notes:
  • I know very little about executions, but I don't think the executioner just waits on the side of the road for someone to pick them up.
  • The dialogue in the cold open is really, really, really on the nose. I get they needed some exposition but good lord.
  • I'm sorry, Neech's given name was Napoleon and he decided to go by a nickname?
  • I find it hard to believe that the driver of a getaway car would get sentenced to death, but whatever floats your boat script.
  • Scully should really know better than to wander alone in death row. She looks genuinely shaken after Parmelly grabs her, which is rare for Scully.
  • The lighting and camera work are both really solid. I was about to make a comment that it reminded me of Duane Barry, but then I remember Chris Carter directed both of them, which explains a lot.
  • The Roque-making-a-deal subplot is so weirdly vestigial that I feel like it's a leftover from an earlier draft of the script.
  • The scene where Mulder and Scully search Neech's library is also pretty vestigial, since it only exists to send them to his wife's house (where they should have gone before) but their dialogue is pretty charming, so I'll allow it.
  • The warden flat admits to abusing prisoners to Mulder and Mulder just brushes it off.
  • The state hires executioners through an ad and pays in cash? Nuh-uh, that does not sound right at all. If someone with more expertise wants to chime in and correct me, they can but that sounds very, very off.
  • I hate to nitpick like this, but Neech's lawyer should have been in the episode before the third act, he comes right the hell out of nowhere and leaves again just as quickly.
  • What this episode really needed to do was cut a subplot or two and just follow one thread all the way through. I like the Parmelly connection a lot, but because they keep hopping around, he's barely in the episode.
  • I actually really like the tracking shot through Neech's girlfriend's house, it's just creepy enough without feeling like it's trying too hard.
  • The final confrontation between Parmelly and Danielle is really well shot and Danielle sells the hell out of it, but her anger at him feels like it comes out of nowhere too. If we were going to do a rewrite; Less Roque, more Danielle.
  • Sperenza sounds a lot like James from Showgirls in his final scene.
  • Scully basically admits that the official version of events has a lot of holes, but she's more or less done with it. They accomplished very little in this episode, frankly.
  • Final car crash is also very well realized. Good episode for props and technical work, not so great for script.
Current Celebrity Watch:

Parmelly, as any sharp eyed horror fan should know, is played by Ken Fore, best known for playing the lead in Dawn of the Dead...the original mind you. He's actually pretty good in this, and I wish he was in the episode more.

Our warden is also played by J.T. Walsh, one of those actors who was never precisely famous, but was also never out of work, most famously appearing as the villain in Good Morning Vietnam. Believe it or not, Jack Nicholson dedicated his Oscar for As Good As It Gets to him.

Future Celebrity Watch:

Roque is played by Bokeem Woodbine, who spent a lot of time building buzz and is now just beginning to break through into mainstream success. He recently appeared in the second season of Fargo as Mike Milligan, for which he got a (well deserved) Primtetime Emmy nomination. He's also going to be playing Shocker in the upcoming Spider-Man film.

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