Roundtable Review: The X-Files, “Grotesque”

By Cory Barker, Sabienna Bowman, Kerensa Cadenas, Les Chappell and Cameron White


The X-Files
Season 3, Episode 14: “Grotesque”
Original airdate: February 2, 1996

Les: Well, we’ve come to the end of our detective show roundtable, and what a trip it’s been. We’ve worked with solo private eyes and partnerships rife with sexual tension, solved murders ranging from the random to the spiteful, traveled from the sleepy towns of Maine and England to the metropolis of Los Angeles, run the gamut of outfits sharp to sloppy, and fought off puns of the highest magnitude. It’s been an enlightening and entertaining discussion for all of us, and we hope that it’s been as much fun for those of you reading.

For the roundtable’s final discussion, we thought we’d take a slightly different approach, selecting an installment of The X-Files. While not defined as a detective show in the same way that any of our previous installments have been, The X-Files is still a show built heavily on a case-of-the-week structure (or monster-of-the-week as it were), one where its central characters have to go through the steps of an investigation before the truth (reputed to be out there) can be discovered, and a show that boasted an impressive roster of guest stars to play its weekly antagonists. Also, after so many of us enjoyed the partnership dynamics of the Harts, Remington and Laura, Addison and Maddie, we thought it’d be fun to take a look at one of TV’s most notorious UST couples in Scully and Mulder and see how it compares.

Gillian Anderson as Dana Scully and David Duchovny as Fox Mulder, The X-Files, GrotesqueAs a mystery, “Grotesque” is a good deal darker than anything else we’ve watched before, fixating on a serial killer with a penchant for mutilating young men and sketching horrific images in between victims. However, it’s still one that that contains the nuts and bolts we’ve witnessed in previous weeks, as the FBI agents need to determine whether a related series of murders are the work of a copycat or something more sinister. Both investigators have their own approach to solving the case—Scully relies on the evidence she can uncover and what she can see for herself, while Mulder prefers to play the psychological card by spending time in Mostow’s studio and interrogating him in his cell. (Disappointingly this choice keeps them apart for the majority of the episode, though in their shared scenes you can see both the friction their differing style causes and the obvious respect they have for each other despite that fact.) There’s interference and support from different superior officers, evidence that seems to give the answer only to take things in a new direction, and an ambiguity about who the real killer is until the very end.

That ambiguity is what I appreciated most about the episode, not just in who the killer was but also how writer Howard Gordon chose to play the nature of the gargoyle. I thought that the bite mark on Nemhauser’s hand would turn out to be a Chekov’s wound scenario and the spirit transferred into him through that, and my expectations were subverted when Patterson (Kurtwood Smith) was revealed to be the killer. The implications there are much more interesting than if it had been straightforward possession—though it never quite takes that possibility off the table, as evidence by those closing images of the gargoyle and Patterson’s own blood portrait—and it certainly adds more weight to Scully and Skinner’s concern over Mulder’s own mental state.

And for the first time in our roundtable, we bring up the implications of the psychological toll constant investigation of crimes takes on a person. Our previous cases tended to de-emphasize or distance our heroes from the murder in question—the dead body was a catalyst for the investigation to take place around as opposed to an emotional occurrence, and the killer was someone to be identified rather than analyzed. Here, Mulder is delving deep into the world of Mostow, sculpting in his studio at three in the morning and holding the murder weapon in his hand to gauge what it felt like. When Mostow laughingly posits that the spirit may have already found him, there’s a hesitation on Mulder’s face (played very well by David Duchovny) that indicates he’s considered a similar possibility more often than he’d care to admit.

So, Cameron, it was your suggestion for “Grotesque” to represent The X-Files in this roundtable. Why this one over many other options?

Cameron: I feel partially responsible for this episode of The X-Files. I pushed for it over some other excellent choices within the series without having seen it in a while. I knew I had a good reason for it—a reason beyond the Nietzschean philosophy permeating the script, or the dark mood, or even the brief, intermittent scenes indicating that Mulder and Scully might be into each other—but it wasn’t until I re-watched the episode that I realized that my instincts were pointing me towards something specific and resonant that “Grotesque” does that makes it not only a good choice to cap off the Detectives Roundtable, but also one of the show’s finest hours.

Levani Outchaneichvili as John Mostow, The X-Files, GrotesqueThe thing that struck me as odd the first time I watched the episode is that there is no real Monster-of-the-Week, per se. Oh sure, Mulder chases down a theory involving gargoyles, and the monstrous statues and figures themselves play a visual role in guiding the story, but the episode never literalizes or makes explicit the gargoyles as monsters that exist. Instead, they serve a symbolic role. At first, it appears to be for mental illness: Mulder makes note of how John Mostow neglected to tell Immigration that he spent his twenties in an insane asylum, and later, as he ponders the mystery of gargoyles, he asks, “Is this the monster we call madness?” Certainly, the show wants us to buy into the notion that this case is driving Mulder insane, which is probably why the show keeps Mulder separated from his skeptical but ultimately grounded partner-in-crime-scenes, Dana Scully, for most of the episode.

But insanity is not what the gargoyles represent. When Mulder and Scully first visit Mostow in prison, there’s this exchange:

Mostow: It killed them. How many times do I have to tell you?
Scully: Well, its fingerprints weren’t on the murder weapon, yours were. And it won’t be tried for seven murders under the death penalty.
Mostow: That is why it laughs at fools like you. (to Mulder) And you… fools who would pretend evil can be brought to heel like a brindle bitch or be held by your pathetic gulags. While with a snap of its finger, it makes men lick the greasy floor of hell, just to see its reflection.

Earlier, Mulder insinuated that Mostow’s “it” might be Satan, or the devil. In Biblical terms, he’s not far off. Later, he and Scully talk about Mulder’s shaky relationship with Patterson, the FBI agent who’s been investigating the serial murders associated with Mostow and Mulder says this: “[He] had this thing about wanting to track a killer, to know an artist, you have to look at his art. It really meant, if you want to catch a monster, you have to become one yourself.” He’s talking, of course, about adopting the pathology of a killer if you want to catch one.

Kurtwood Smith as Bill Patterson, The X-Files, GrotesqueWe’re now in the wake of another school shooting here in America, and the worst part about that sentence is that I had to write “another.” American culture (not just pop culture) has desensitized us to violence. There’s probably some good in that (for example, knowing how to keep our heads when presented with a violent act in real life, so that we can make the right decisions accordingly), but there’s also some bad, in that we become acclimated to violence not as something tragic or horrific, but as something commonplace and everyday. “Grotesque” codifies that debate by using the gargoyles as symbols of the culture of violence, a self-perpetuating machine that exists in every human being through time immemorial. And the crowning achievement is that the murderer-copycat that haunts the episode is not a monster, but a man: Patterson.

When Mulder finally realizes the truth, he lays it bare for Patterson himself:

“You’re here because John Mostow stole three years of your life. Every day and every night for three years you lived and breathed the horror show that was in his head. And I’m sorry. Imagining everything that he imagined. Sinking deeper and deeper into the ugliness that you taught us to do. When you finally caught him, it didn’t just go away, and the violence… It stayed alive inside you, until it had to come out. You didn’t want to do what you were doing. You wanted to stop but you couldn’t. Not by yourself. That’s why you called on me in the first place, why you couldn’t kill me when you had the chance.”

In other words, violence begets more violence, and even if Patterson was immersing himself in Mostow’s mind in order to capture him and prevent violence, it cost him his own self-control. He became as violent as Mostow simply by being exposed to his mindset for such a long time.

This roundtable has been about detective shows, and nearly every one has been about some kind of murder or string of murders. But none were as explicit in depicting murder as The X-Files (indeed, The X-Files is one of those 90s shows that set the precedent for violence on network television). So the great irony in Gordon’s script is that it argues against the very existence of its show, or at the very least asks its audience to question how we can accept such, dare I say, grotesque acts as a fact of life, and how can we build a show around getting into the minds of murderers without perpetuating that mindset into its viewers every week.

I’m not going to say that I think violent media is directly responsible for the past decade of violent school shootings, because I don’t think that at all. But I do think it’s worth it to investigate why violence remains such an attractive force in the stories we tell. The people in public service “work in the dark,” they “do what [they] can to battle the evil that would otherwise destroy us,” as Mulder says at the end of the episode. So do we force the rest of the world to acclimate to their environment in order to learn how to sympathize with them? Or do we work harder as a society to make their jobs, thankless and grinding as they are, a little easier?

The X-Files, GrotesqueCory: Cameron poses some truly thought-provoking questions that this episode does an excellent job of cultivating. I wouldn’t dare try to answer them, but he makes great points about violence in the media. Before I watched this episode, I was catching up on the second season of American Horror Story, and while I’m enjoying it quite a bit, watching it in concert with The X-Files spurred me to reconsider the point of the kind of violence we see on television. American Horror Story is a show that uses violence for shock and awe; it keeps piling it on until even someone who hates horror films, gore, and generally even the sight of blood, barely blinks at someone being filleted, hobbled, stabbed, and more. I wouldn’t go as far as call it “senseless” (though I also wouldn’t want to suggest that Ryan Murphy has sense, either), but there’s a cavalier attitude towards all those awful things that makes me uncomfortable.

The X-Files, on the other hand, was always in some ways concerned with both displaying and interrogating the violence and evil in its story world. “Grotesque” is an episode that, as Cameron suggests, wants us to think about the dark, terrible proceedings we encounter so often on television and in life. There are moments in the episode that try to do this and bother me—mostly because some of the things Mulder says are hard to take seriously—but ultimately, Gordon’s script manages to tell a typically creepy X-Files story while still addressing some heavy thematic and philosophical territory.

This episode embodies one of the defining features of The X-Files, at least for me, in that the story is fairly ridiculous and includes the occasional piece of over-acting, but it eventually comes together and produces a powerful, satisfying conclusion. David Duchovny has his moments here—even when delivering the ridiculous dialogue—and Kurtwood Smith does a fine job in his “Kurtwood Smith, Dramatic Actor” performance. And although the show always got good mileage out of developing Mulder and Scully’s relationship through situations where they were apart and/or looking for one another, I like that even Skinner is a little concerned about Mulder here.

David Duchovny as Fox Mulder, The X-Files, GrotesqueConsidering this is a detectives roundtable, I guess it’s fitting we finished here with this episode because it displays the kind of toll a dreadful job like this can have a person. Being a detective (presumably) isn’t just about cracking wise and shooting your partner the sex eyes (though Mulder and Scully exchange their fair share of those as well); it’s a tough, sometimes terrible job. This is an exaggerated version of that, but probably less than we think. For all the great things The X-Files did in its run, I always appreciated its ability to depict the wear and tear of being a federal agent. Sure, there are aliens and alien bounty hunters and incest families, but there’s also an unbelievable amount of paper work, bureaucracy, stiff bosses, and frustratingly long nights. I remember those X-Files scenes almost as much as I remember the wild mythology stuff.

Sabienna: The X-Files was the first “important” series that I watched as a kid and it remains near and dear to my heart. I revisit the series fairly often—a rerun here, an annual viewing of “The Post-Modern Prometheus” there—but for some reason, even though I know I’ve seen “Grotesque” before, going into the episode I couldn’t remember anything about it. I’m going to chalk that up to the fact that I was around ten when it first aired, and at that age the somber, psychological episodes didn’t leave much of an impression on my young, Mulder/Scully shipping brain. However, watching it now I can see that it is a memorable outing, albeit one that suffers a bit from being so heavy-handed in its philosophizing.

It’s excellent for the purposes of our roundtable though because it represents the darker side of detective work. For Jessica Fletcher, the Harts, and even Miss Marple, murders were little more than the beginning of a particularly rousing game of chess. Here murder is ugly and brutal—it’s not simply an opportunity for Murder and Scully to show off how clever they are. In the ‘90s, The X-Files pushed the boundaries of how much violence could be shown on network television, and over the course of nine seasons Chris Carter and company moved that needle pretty far, eventually opening the gates for the CSIs and Criminal Minds of the future. Is that a good thing? I don’t necessarily think there is a simple answer to that. As evidenced by Remington Steele, we don’t need gruesome violence to make detective stories compelling, but constantly playing violent crime as a lighthearted, low-stakes event is its own form of horror. (Incidentally, The X-Files was quite good at doing both. [Ed. note: As our own J. Walker pointed out earlier this year. – LC])

David Duchovny as Fox Mulder, The X-Files, Grotesque“Grotesque” presents us with a visual interpretation of the evil that lurks in the heart of men, and along the way illuminates all the ways in which obsession can tip over into madness. It’s fitting then that the episode focuses so heavily on Mulder and one of Mulder’s earliest mentors, Bill Patterson. As Cameron pointed out, the type of psychological profiling these men engage in throughout the episode is grounded in the logic that in order to stop a killer, you must first think like a killer.

The case takes Mulder back to his roots in a very tangible way. He wasn’t always “Spooky Mulder”; when his career began, he worked as a profiler under Patterson before moving on to the violent crime unit, and he was extremely good at his job. Part of that skill can be attributed to his natural brilliance, but much of it comes from his obsessive nature. Mulder is always teetering on the brink of going too far. Over-investing in cases is his default setting, so it’s not surprising to see him consumed by Mostow’s possession story. That is exactly the kind of phenomenon Mulder desperately wants to prove.

As Scully points out to Mulder, “the gargoyle made me do it” is far too easy of an out though. The episode goes on to prove her point when Patterson, a man, not a monster, is proven to be the second killer. There is wiggle room in the interpretation because there always is with The X-Files, but ultimately the resolution presents itself as a cautionary tale for Mulder. There is danger in thinking too much like a killer, in walking in the shoes of a damaged and twisted mind. It took down the man who was responsible for much of Mulder’s early training and it is heavily implied that it could take down Mulder too—or at least that it could, if not for Scully.

Gillian Anderson as Dana Scully, The X-Files, GrotesqueWe don’t see much of Scully here, which is a shame because as the Watson to Mulder’s Sherlock, Scully is a huge part of what makes The X-Files so great, but the episode does at least do justice to their relationship at the margins. She has his back (just as he has hers) as his mental state is fraying, and calls him out on ignoring her calls. When she promises they can work through Mulder’s situation together, she means it. Not just in this episode, but in every episode, Scully grounds Mulder even as he untethers her. As agents, they confront unspeakable evil (both supernatural and original flavor) on a daily basis. The threat that it could consume them is ever present, but to borrow a phrase from the second X-Files movie that no one saw, together they “stave off the darkness,” giving even a dour outing like “Grotesque” a small, glimmer of light.

Kerensa: My memories of The X-Files are pretty limited at best. I remember my mother watching it while I was growing up but I was so afraid of just about everything (my love of horror movies and roller coasters didn’t kick in until at least 15. Yeah, I know.) I refused to watch—and my memory always goes to the most outlandish plots and episodes, specifically the episode, “Home”, left a frightening mark.

I mean I’m not going to say I was scared by any means when starting “Grotesque” for our final Detective roundtable, I’ll go with cautious. The plot of the episode fits in squarely with where we’ve come from during this roundtable, in the vaguest terms, a mixed-gender pair of FBI agents, Mulder (David Duchovny, who can always get it) and Scully (Gillian Anderson) trying to solve a crime. However, unlike all the other shows we’ve watched and discussed over the weeks, there’s a permeating darkness, creeping around the edges that just isn’t there within our previous shows. As Cameron so eloquently discusses in his section on the episode, that The X-Files of any show we’ve previously watched has been the most explicit in portraying murder. This is interesting, considering, that murder or the potential thereof has played a huge role in everything we’ve watched.

David Duchovny as Fox Mulder, The X-Files, GrotesqueI think the main thing that makes this apparent within The X-Files, what allows this darkness to grow, is that within this episode, we get into the psyche, the motivation of the murderer through, mainly Mulder, but also the actual killers themselves. In our previous shows, the motivations are blurted out loud or orchestrated in such silly ways (Moonlighting’s “drag race” comes to mind) even though they are based in horror—a face full of acid, a pointed gun or even being tickled to death. The horror in this case focuses on John Mostow who kills young men and mutilates their faces. According to him, these murders occur because of the demon possessing him, which he attempts to keep at bay by drawing pictures of gargoyles. Mulder’s obsession with the case and the subsequent reveal of the copycat murderer to be Agent Patterson (Kurtwood Smith aka Red Forman!) who had worked on the case for years reflects that rather queasy thought that being too entrenched in this horror could allow a person to truly see the horror within oneself. This is seen through Mulder’s fevered dream hallucinations while he’s being chased down hallways, by what looked like to me, a former Buffy the Vampire Slayer big bad. And more terrifyingly in Patterson, a man who in his quest to find Mostow over the years, let his own horrors take over himself. Despite jumping when the cat appeared out of the cabinet in Mostow’s loft, that’s the thing that really scared me while watching this episode: the fear of ourselves.


Editor’s note: The roundtables are adjourned for a couple of weeks, as This Was TV’s writing staff takes some time to celebrate the holidays and also lay out our plans for 2013’s discussions. As always, we’d like to hear from you about what you’d like us to do. Would you like us to go back to discussing a handful of standout episodes from one show in the Taxi vein? Discuss the full run of a shorter series as we did with Blackadder? Continue with thematic discussions and watch a range of episodes from several shows? Should we watch pilots? Cult shows? Episodes canonized as classics? Make Cameron happy and watch a group of episodes united only in that they feature werewolves? Any and all ideas are welcome.

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