The Magnus Protocol Reviews: “Running on Empty”

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“Running on Empty” Gives Us An Amazing Reveal

“Running on Empty” was different from the beginning. I’d grown used to the usual pattern. We check in on Sam and Alice, and then we cut to a spooky story. But this time, we go right into things with yet another new story template. Not since “Thought for the Day” or “Dead Woman Walking” can I recall a particularly college-focused episode. Though, if I’m being honest, this barely counts as such.

Let’s get the anthology stuff out of the way so we can talk about the later revelations. First, we have a story that is interesting from a conceptual and long-term perspective but fails a few times before then—in some of the same ways “Give and Take” did. The parallels are actually so aggressive I’m sure it’s deliberate. I had assumed the weird fake people were from The Stranger, but now it seems they work for any of the Dread Powers. This episode’s group is extremely reminiscent of the starving people from an Extinction episode. They could even be remnants from the post-change world, since we knew the Domains were filled with some fake people when they were needed as props. It would explain why they talk in catchphrases and seem to operate like a hive mind.

Running on Empty

The Best Part Of The Episode Isn’t The Horror Part

The issue, though, is they’re not that scary. A far cry from weird mannequins or violent puppets. The compounding issue is that the verisimilitude in “Running on Empty” and the last episode breaks for the sake of that ineffective horror. At a certain point, the idea that we’re listening to a college paper (or a resignation form) falls apart. The tension here demands moment-to-moment information—which wouldn’t be included in formal documentation. “Running on Empty” simply drifts to standard horror prose. And that’s unjustified in the storytelling.

But, like, who cares, really? That’s not what this episode is about. It’s not why people will re-listen to “Running on Empty.” The last ten minutes or so made my jaw actually drop. It was especially effective because, despite “Family Business” being a top-ten episode for me in Archives, I didn’t recognize the voice at first. Cheerfulness without malice isn’t common in these shows, so I assumed it was a new character. And then I really wasn’t expecting to hear Gertrude again, or Georgie’s name dropped. The implications of any of them being alive are vast. I had suspected the difference in the timeline was that Gertrude had successfully burned down the Archives, but confirmation of that does call into question other things. Too many things, actually. Contradictory things to my other theories. I’d assumed the Dread Powers didn’t exist in this reality until recently, but the way Gertrude talks made me deeply suspicious that she knows about the supernatural. The Magnus Institute burning down makes a lot less sense without rituals being a concern.

But, again, like the last episode, we simply lack information. “Running on Empty” will matter far more down the road. As to my formal review of it by itself, I’m not withholding a verdict this time. And it’s sadly not a positive verdict in the end. Sure, this episode was fun for longtime fans—but it’s ultimately a small part of its runtime. The majority is a solid idea for a Lonely or Extinction episode that lacks that enigmatic, cosmic element that makes similar stories in Archives stick with you. Maybe we’ll get that retroactively with future reveals, but that’s not a good enough excuse in an episodic series.   

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