The X-Files: “Grotesque”

Monsters from the Id

by Sarah Stegallcopyright 1996 by Sarah Stegall

Writer: Howard Gordon
Director: Kim Manners

“Is this the monster called Madness?” — Fox Mulder A good hunter tracks his prey from the inside: he wears camouflage to blend in with the background, seeks patterns in the way the prey operates, studies it closely to exploit its weaknesses. Like American Indian buffalo hunters before the advent of horses, a good hunter will put on the skin of the prey, looking through its eyes as he approaches the quarry, drawing ever closer to it both physically and spiritually. And when the quarry is a madman, what guise will suffice but madness itself? Howard Gordon turns in a beautiful portrait of evil and madness intertwined in Friday night’s “Grotesque”, where we see Mulder finally demonstrating the skills that made him a legend in the Bureau’s Behavioral Sciences Unit even as he earned the nickname “Spooky”. His foray into this heart of darkness reminds us that, until recently, society did not distinguish between madness and evil, and that even today we ignore the terrible price some must pay in tracking the monsters among us.

When a series of mutilation murders continues even after the perpetrator is caught, Mulder and Scully are assigned to aid Mulder’s old mentor at the Behavioral Sciences Unit in tracking down the killer’s accomplice or copycat. But Mulder quickly develops a novel theory–that killer John Mostow’s (Levani) claim that he is possessed by a demonic spirit is true, and that the drawings on his grungy apartment walls are portraits, not fantasies. Mulder’s former boss, Agent Bill Patterson (Kurtwood Smith) professes his disappointment in Mulder’s odd notions, but admits to Scully that it was Mulder’s “cracked genius” he was hoping to use to “close this God-forsaken case”, a case Patterson has been working on for three years. Even Skinner voices concern as Mulder becomes moody and withdrawn, ditching his partner as she tries to reach him. Mostow himself fears Mulder is slipping into darkness, as he warns him through a mouthful of blood, “It will find you. Maybe it already has.”

The idea of the gargoyle as protective image gets turned on its head through the constant repetition of the image. The murderer first projects his inner evil onto paper and clay, and when that fails to serve, onto human flesh. “It wants to see its own reflection”, says Mostow, reminding us that murder is the ultimate act of ego, a deadly narcissism. Finally, he carves human faces into the image that haunts him, in a ritual of exorcism that needs real flesh and real blood.

“If you want to catch a monster, you must become one yourself.” Mulder remembers Patterson’s lessons all too well, and in the next half hour descends through the circles of Hell, taking on the camouflage of his prey in an almost shamanic journey. He covers his walls with diabolical icons so he can see through the killer’s eyes. He puts his hands where the killer’s have been–on the murder weapon, on the concealing clay, on the walls and furniture of his home. He sleeps where the killer has slept, summoning into himself not only the spirit of the murderer’s surroundings but the spirit of murder itself. Kim Manners poses him like one of the leering gargoyles in Mostow’s studio, bathing Mulder in a cold and dispassionate light, as one who has ceased to look on his fellow humans as brothers but has joined the ranks of the predators. His one concession to sanity, the one lifeline Mulder leaves himself, is Dana Scully. He shuts her out deliberately, sparing her as much as possible the ugly trip into madness he must make, letting her rescue him as Patterson has tried to make Mulder rescue him from the descent into corruption.

For the first time this year I have gotten a glimpse of a Mulder who might have worked through his grief and guilt, all on his own. From some terrible and lonely silent place he seems to have gained some peace of mind, but it has made him older, quieter, grimmer. Scully, persistently in denial over her abduction, the government conspiracy he sees so clearly, the nature of the evidence they find, finds herself increasingly at odds with him. Having come out the other side of a trial she refuses to face, Mulder may now find himself with little common ground. He still trusts her, even when she pulls a gun on him, but he cannot talk to her any more. This is a much more interesting relationship than the petty jealousy we’ve recently seen, and much more believable. For this revelation we have David Duchovny to thank, who showed us Mulder sinking into the heart of madness almost without the use of dialogue. His defiant attitude toward Patterson shows us a disappointed Mulder, a man whose hero worship was cracked by confronting the reality of the man himself, who has never really learned how to deal with hostile authority figures. I loved the soft bewilderment in his voice as Mulder tells Scully, “But I didn’t take it!”, the subtle shifts during his conversations with Scully about Patterson, the sorrow on his face as he realizes he has shot his idol and guru. Best of all, the confrontation scene between Mulder and Patterson shows Mulder’s fundamental ability to keep his head even in the eye of a nightmare, and find his way out of a maze that has brought low a man of more experience and expertise. And his in Mostow’s cell was sudden, furious, and deeply troubling. That sudden loss of control revealed more than any ten lines of dialogue could have. Applause to David Duchovny for a very subtle performance.

Trapped in the light of reason, Scully can only contribute confusion to the investigation: her discovery of a weapon on the scene of an attack on Mulder throws more suspicion on her partner’s actions. Mulder’s fingerprints on a murder weapon alarm her, but not as it might first appear. When she later confronts Mulder about this over the phone, she accepts his reassurance without hesitation, knowing that someone has set up her almost helpless partner. She refuses to undermine her relationship with her partner by agreeing with Skinner’s concerns, knowing him better than Skinner. And she reaches right past Bill Patterson’s gruff exterior to reach a common concern for the Mulder they both know so well. Again, kudos to Gillian Anderson for showing us a determined yet caring Dana Scully, who can go from righteous anger to caring concern in a few seconds and make us believe it.

Kurtwood Smith turns in a wonderful performance as the hard-nosed investigator who does not see the trap his prey has sprung on him. Poor pitiful Patterson, who realizes too late that Mulder is right, knowing in the deepest reaches of his soul, where he refuses to look, that the demon has moved in and taken over. Because Mulder is not afraid to look into the eye of the gargoyle, he survives: Patterson’s refusal to admit the danger in his investigation makes him easy prey. The confrontation scene between Mulder and Patterson in the warehouse was stunning: Mulder finds compassion even in the midst of his anger (“I’m sorry!”) and Patterson comes up short as his anger gives way to sudden realization (“Look at your hands. Now tell me what you’re doing here.”). How terrible to find yourself at last gazing on your own reflection–and recognize the demon looking out of your own eyes.

Emmys for Best Supporting Actor in a Dramatic Series this year should really go to Mark Snow’s music and John Bartley’s cinematography. Without Snow’s tragic, echoing theme the episode would have lost whole dimensions of loss and sadness. Bartley’s camerawork leaches the light and warmth of humanity out of every scene in Mostow’s chamber of horrors, until even Mulder becomes a soulless gargoyle, his eyes empty and dark, his skin the color of mortal clay. Without the deep blues and purples of the warehouse scenes, “Grotesque” might have been flat and cartoonish, but Bartley’s magnificent and cinematic work add layers of meaning to a shaft of light, a shadow, a ripple of rainwater down a windowpane. Images like surrealist portraits play across the screen: Mulder’s face superimposed on a gargoyle outside a window, the almost palpable darkness of Mostow’s secret studio, the tortured features of a gallery of gargoyles contrasting with Mulder’s closed, abstracted face. Bartley even used hand-held camera work to humanize an otherwise static scene between Scully and Skinner.

Art Director Graeme Murray and Director Kim Manners surely come in for honors as well, as they decorate both Mostow’s and Mulder’s apartments in image after image of mind-bending ugliness, an increasingly deranged portrait gallery of evil. I was especially impressed with the slide show in Mulder’s office, where his own portrait gallery of murder victims, horribly and all too literally defaced, is barely glimpsed in passing, teasing our imaginations with abominations we can imagine all too freely. When Mulder and Scully pass back and forth before the projected images, the blood and bruises play across their faces, turning them both into living gargoyles for a moment.

Howard Gordon shows his background on “Beauty and the Beast” in the concept and writing of “Grotesque”. Chunks of voice-over narration, that might have made the episode wordy and long-winded, are balanced by extended scenes with no dialogue, where the story is told in images and music. If he did not have Mark Snow and John Bartley to tell the story with him, “Grotesque” might have left us confused and frustrated. But the combination of all three talents in the service of one story is dynamite. The red herring of the agent’s bitten hand, the subtle clue in the mutilation victim’s reaction to seeing his attacker in his own hospital room, the barely-glimpsed demon mask of the attacking Patterson all added up to a tense and suspenseful hour. I could have done without the closing voice-over–the zoom in on the gargoyle drawing in Patterson’s cell was enough–but otherwise it was a well-done, exciting, and damn near perfect episode, one of the best this season. I award it five out of five sunflower seeds.