Written by Chris Carter
Directed by Chris Carter
In which Mulder and Scully investigate a curious series of deaths on death row, where the victims are apparently being killed by a reincarnated inmate recently executed...
Status Report - Memorable Quotes - Final Analysis
After a strong start to the season, the inevitable stumble comes, ironically, with an episode written and directed by Chris Carter. There’s no question that Carter’s creativity exists, given the success of the series and its enduring place in popular culture. But when it comes to individual efforts, that creativity doesn’t always work. Elements remain strong and relatively consistent, but some of the pieces don’t quite gel.
The premise of the episode is vengeance through reincarnation, which is a fairly standard staple of the horror film genre. The nature of the premise fits with the kind of phenomena that Mulder would love to investigate, so the basics are there. But there’s little else is added to the mix, leaving the entire episode with a context that is a bit too familiar.
Carter misses an immediate opportunity for additional drama by ignoring the racial context of the prison situation. Instead, the usual “warden vs. inmates” conflict is mined for drama, immediately slipping into established patterns that do nothing to make the episode exciting. The central mystery is predictable, because there are only two possibilities: a rogue guard or a resurrected Manley. And considering that this is “X-Files” territory, that answer isn’t hard to figure out.
Like “Fresh Bones” before it, there’s no debate over the reality of Manely’s return. This is another example of the shift in the tone of the series. When Scully was strictly representing the rational, scientific aspect of every case, there was an ambiguity regarding the true nature of the central mystery. But as Scully’s measure of belief and acceptance has grown, the portrayal of actual paranormal abilities has increased in proportion. Since the series is more or less the story of Scully’s life as impacted by her work with Mulder on the X-Files, this makes sense.
At the same time, it strips away some of the intrigue in an episode like this one. The setting is familiar, the roles are familiar, leaving only the mystery to bring the story to interesting ground. But in the end, there is no real sense of mystery. And so there’s nothing left but the process of watching the investigation itself unfold.
Like “D.P.O.”, this episode suffers from the agents’ general lack of impact on the outcome of the situation. In the end, all five people on Manely’s list die. Mulder and Scully have nothing to do with it, dealing mostly with the futile attempt to stop it from happening, never really knowing what happened and not able to stick around to find out. They’re only there to justify telling the story in the context of the series, but since the story isn’t distinct enough to merit its own existence, it becomes more of an exercise than anything approaching compelling.
Though it doesn’t do much for the episode itself, the reincarnation concept behind Manely’s vengeance fits into the overall spiritual tapestry of the series. Once again, there is the strong suggestion that the mind and body are distinct, and that consciousness can survive death and remain viable. In the past, violent death has been associated with a lack of cohesion of one’s consciousness. In “Paper Clip”, it’s strongly suggested that Albert was sent by a guiding spiritual presence to make certain that Melissa Scully retains a large part of her intelligence after crossing into death, despite being violently killed.
Contrast that to Manely, a man who spent years researching the idea of a timeless universal consciousness, within which all seemingly distinct intelligences are contained and connected. Manely’s writings fit perfectly within this philosophy, and it’s clear that Manely was attempting to become so personally aware of this facet of the human mind that he could exist independent of the flesh. Hence the powerful suggestion that Manely had reached a state of awareness that left him “pure energy”…only holding on to the material until the moment of his physical execution.
Within the context of this spiritual concept, a normal human being would simply retain a full measure of memory and personality through the transition from material to immaterial. But Manely took it just a bit farther. He intentionally focused his will on reincarnating himself as necessary to achieve what he felt was justice. This is important to the overall mythology of the series, because by extension, a more powerful will could create and manipulate a physical form as desired.
This fits, because that’s exactly what seems to happen throughout the course of the series. The perfect example is Nurse Owens in “One Breath”. She didn’t exist in the real world, and yet she took physical form as needed to bring Scully back from the abyss. The same is at least potentially true during “Paper Clip”, when Scully is directed towards the escape route by apparent creatures that appear out of nowhere and disappear just as quickly.
Manely presents another example of the possibility that within the human potential. Something in the human genetic code has unlocked the ability, at least in certain populations, to transcend the normal human limitations. (The effect is probably the other way around, a genetic effect of a rising non-corporeality of humanity.) Manely also underscores the danger inherent within that possibility. As spiritually aware as he might have become, Manely still decided to use that awareness to kill and dominate.
Of course, this aspect of the mythology was never as obvious in application as the more obvious aspects of conspiracy. Certainly, there was no intent on Chris Carter’s part to take the premise of this episode and make it relevant to the series as a whole. And that highlights one of the weak points of the series. For all that Mulder and Scully experience and come to understand, they seldom relate their individual cases in that larger context. Without that sense of self-awareness, episodes like “The List” fall short of the quality one would expect.
There is one thing worth noting. Carter may not have written a classic episode, but the direction is rather well done. It’s clear that Carter wants to establish a tone to all of the prison scenes, using bars wherever possible in the foreground and forcing nearly every light source to come through mesh and grate. It looks otherworldly, adding to the paranormal flavor, but it also stands in sharp contrast to the outside world. Note that the scenes filmed in the Manely home retain that constricted feeling, as if to suggest that Manely’s wife is caught in the same snare as Manely’s other victims.
Regardless of the strength of Carter’s directorial skills, the writing remains the weak link. The cast does everything to make the episode work, playing the stereotypical roles with as much nuance as possible. But in the end, there’s nothing special about the episode, and nothing to make it stand out.
MULDER: “I guess you’ll be able to finish that autopsy now, Scully…”
SCULLY: “Being obsessed with it doesn’t mean you can do it.”
MULDER: “Unless he knew something we don’t.”
SCULLY: “Like what? The secret password?”
MULDER: “Yeah, but imagine if it were true, Scully. Imagine if you could come back and take out five people who had caused you to suffer. Who would they be?”
SCULLY: “I only get five?”
MULDER: “I remembered your birthday this year, didn’t I, Scully?”
ROQUE: “You’re number five. How’s it feel to be on death row, Warden?”
SCULLY: “A woman gets lonely…sometimes she can’t wait around for a man to be reincarnated…”
Overall, this episode is the first real misstep of the third season. There’s simply nothing original about it, and Mulder and Scully don’t really need to be there, since they have nothing to do with the resolution of the situation. Carter’s direction is strong and cast tries to make it all work, but the fundamental problems with the writing can’t be overcome.
Final Rating: 5/10
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