Season 3, Episode 14: “Grotesque”
Original airdate: February 2, 1996
Sidant: We’ve reached the conclusion of our detective show roundtable, and what an incredible journey it has been.
We’ve delved into the world of lone private investigators and dynamic duos filled with undeniable sexual tension, tackled murders that span the spectrum from random to spiteful, explored locations from the tranquil towns of Maine and England to the bustling metropolis of Los Angeles, witnessed a wide range of sartorial choices from impeccably dressed to downright disheveled, and endured puns of the highest order.
It’s been an enlightening and entertaining discussion for all of us, and we hope it’s been just as enjoyable for those of you following along.
For our final discussion in this roundtable, we wanted to take a slightly different approach by choosing an episode of “The X-Files.”
Although “The X-Files” isn’t categorized as a traditional detective show in the same way as our previous selections, it heavily relies on a case-of-the-week structure (or a monster-of-the-week, to be more precise).
The central characters must follow investigative procedures before they can unearth the truth (rumored to be “out there”).
This show also boasts an impressive lineup of guest stars portraying weekly antagonists.
Furthermore, given how many of us appreciated the dynamic partnerships of the Harts, Remington and Laura, and Addison and Maddie, we thought it would be enjoyable to examine one of television’s most renowned ‘UST’ (unresolved sexual tension) couples in Scully and Mulder and see how they stack up.
As a mystery, “Grotesque” delves into much darker territory than anything we’ve seen before, centering on a serial killer with a disturbing penchant for mutilating young men and crafting gruesome images between victims.
Nevertheless, it still incorporates the fundamental elements we’ve encountered in the previous weeks, as the FBI agents must ascertain whether a string of related murders is the result of a copycat or something even more sinister.
Both investigators employ their distinct approaches to cracking the case.
Scully relies on uncovering tangible evidence and direct observations, while Mulder opts for a psychological strategy, immersing himself in Mostow’s studio and conducting interrogations within the confines of a cell.
Unfortunately, this choice keeps them apart for the majority of the episode, although when they do share scenes, the friction caused by their differing styles is evident, along with the unmistakable respect they hold for each other despite these disparities.
Various superior officers interfere and offer support, the evidence initially appears to provide answers before veering in unexpected directions, and the true identity of the killer remains shrouded in ambiguity until the episode’s final moments.
I particularly appreciated the ambiguity in this episode, not only in terms of the killer’s identity but also in how the writer, Howard Gordon, chose to explore the nature of the gargoyle.
I initially expected that Nemhauser’s bite mark would play out as a Chekhov’s wound scenario, with the spirit transferring through it, but I was pleasantly surprised when Patterson (Kurtwood Smith) was revealed as the killer.
The implications of this revelation are much more intriguing than a straightforward possession storyline.
Although the episode never completely rules out the possibility of possession, the closing images of the gargoyle and Patterson’s blood portrait keep that option open.
This revelation also adds weight to Scully and Skinner’s concerns about Mulder’s mental state.
For the first time in our roundtable, we are discussing the psychological toll that constant involvement in crime investigations can have on a person.
In our previous cases, the emphasis was more on identifying the killer rather than delving into the emotional and psychological aspects.
Here, Mulder immerses himself deeply in Mostow’s world, sculpting in the studio at 3 AM and even holding the murder weapon to understand the sensation.
When Mostow humorously suggests that the spirit may have already found Mulder, there’s a moment of hesitation on Mulder’s face (skillfully portrayed by David Duchovny), indicating that he has contemplated such a possibility more frequently than he would like to admit.
Reesav, you suggested “Grotesque” to represent The X-Files in this roundtable. What made you choose this episode over other options?
Reesav: I take partial responsibility for this choice of The X-Files episode. I advocated for it over some other excellent options within the series, even though I hadn’t seen it in a while.
I had a strong inclination, a reason beyond the presence of Nietzschean philosophy in the script, the dark atmosphere, or the occasional scenes hinting at Mulder and Scully’s deeper connection.
It wasn’t until I re-watched the episode that I realized my instincts were leading me to something specific and profound that “Grotesque” accomplishes, making it an excellent choice to conclude the Detectives Roundtable and one of the show’s standout episodes.
The aspect that initially intrigued me, upon my first viewing, was the absence of a traditional Monster-of-the-Week. While Mulder explores a theory involving gargoyles, and these monstrous statues and figures visually guide the story, the episode never explicitly presents gargoyles as real, tangible monsters.
Instead, they hold a symbolic significance. Initially, this symbolism appears related to mental illness. Mulder notes that John Mostow failed to disclose his time in an insane asylum during his twenties when dealing with immigration.
Furthermore, as Mulder contemplates the mystery of gargoyles, he questions, “Is this the monster we call madness?”
The show seems to suggest that the case is pushing Mulder to the brink of insanity, possibly why it keeps him separated from his skeptical yet grounded partner, Dana Scully, for most of the episode.
However, madness is not the core representation of the gargoyles. During Mulder and Scully’s initial prison visit to Mostow, there’s a notable 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. (directed at Mulder) And you…fools who would pretend evil can be brought to heel like a brindle bitch or be held by your pathetic gulags. With a snap of its finger, it makes men lick the greasy floor of hell just to see its reflection.
Earlier, Mulder implied that Mostow’s “it” might be Satan or the devil.
In Biblical terms, he’s not far off. Later, he and Scully discuss Mulder’s strained relationship with Patterson, the FBI agent who’s been investigating the serial murders linked to 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 referring, of course, to the idea of adopting a killer’s mindset to catch one.
We’re now in the aftermath 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 benefit in that, such as knowing how to keep our composure when faced with a violent act in real life so we can make the right decisions.
However, there’s also a downside in that we become accustomed to violence, not as something tragic or horrific, but as something common and everyday.
“Grotesque” embodies that debate by using the gargoyles as symbols of the culture of violence, a self-perpetuating mechanism that has existed within every human being throughout history.
The remarkable thing is that the murderer-copycat haunting the episode is not a monster but a man: Patterson.
When Mulder finally realizes the truth, he confronts Patterson:
“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 in his head.
I’m sorry. You imagined everything he did, sinking deeper into the ugliness he taught us to embrace. When you finally caught him, it didn’t just vanish.
The violence… it remained inside you until it had to surface. You didn’t want to do what you did. You wanted to stop, but you couldn’t do it alone.
That’s why you reached out to me in the first place. It’s why you couldn’t kill me when you had the chance.”
In other words, violence leads to more violence.
Patterson immersed himself in Mostow’s mind to capture him and prevent further violence, but it cost him his self-control.
He became as violent as Mostow merely by being exposed to his mindset for an extended period.
This roundtable has centered on detective shows, most of which involve murder or a series of murders.
However, none depicted murder as explicitly as The X-Files did (indeed, The X-Files is one of those 90s shows that set the precedent for violence on network television).
Therefore, the great irony in Gordon’s script is that it questions the very existence of its own show, or at the very least, it asks its audience to examine how we can accept such, dare I say, gruesome acts as a fact of life, and how we can build a show around delving into the minds of murderers without perpetuating that mindset among its viewers every week.
I won’t claim that I believe violent media directly caused the past decade of violent school shootings because I don’t believe that at all.
However, I do think it’s worth investigating why violence remains such an attractive theme in the stories we tell.
Those in public service often “work in the dark,” and 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 adapt to their environment to learn how to empathize with them?
Or do we, as a society, work harder to make their jobs, although thankless and grueling, a little easier?
Naveen: Reesav raises some truly thought-provoking questions that this episode skillfully explores.
I wouldn’t dare attempt to answer them, but he makes valid 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 alongside The X-Files prompted me to reevaluate the purpose of the 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 despises horror films, gore, and even the sight of blood barely reacts to someone being filleted, hobbled, stabbed, and more.
I wouldn’t go so far as to 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 terrible things that makes me uncomfortable.
The X-Files, on the other hand, was always, in some ways, concerned with both displaying and questioning the violence and evil in its story world.
“Grotesque” is an episode that, as Reesav suggests, encourages us to contemplate the dark, terrible events we encounter so often on television and in life.
There are moments in the episode that attempt to do this and bother me—mostly because some of the things Mulder says are hard to take seriously—but ultimately, Gordon’s script skillfully weaves a typically creepy X-Files story while still delving into some profound thematic and philosophical territory.
This episode exemplifies one of the defining characteristics of The X-Files, at least from my perspective.
The story may seem quite absurd at times, and there are occasional instances of overacting, but in the end, it all comes together to deliver a compelling and satisfying conclusion.
David Duchovny has his moments here, even when delivering the ludicrous dialogue, and Kurtwood Smith delivers a strong performance in his “Kurtwood Smith, Dramatic Actor” style.
Even Skinner, who isn’t usually one to show concern, appears a bit worried about Mulder in this episode.
Considering this is a roundtable about detectives, it’s fitting that we conclude with this episode because it vividly portrays the toll that a challenging job like this can take on a person.
Being a detective isn’t just about making witty remarks and exchanging longing glances with your partner (although Mulder and Scully have their fair share of those moments); it’s a demanding and sometimes harrowing profession.
While this episode presents an exaggerated version of that reality, it probably isn’t far from the truth.
Among all the remarkable things The X-Files accomplished during its run, I’ve always appreciated its ability to depict the strains and challenges of being a federal agent.
Alongside the aliens, alien bounty hunters, and bizarre familial relationships, there’s also an overwhelming amount of paperwork, bureaucracy, demanding superiors, and many long, frustrating nights.
I remember those X-Files scenes almost as vividly as the complex mythology elements.
Astha: The X-Files was the first “significant” series I watched as a child, and it holds a special place in my heart.
I revisit the series quite regularly, catching a rerun here and enjoying an annual viewing of “The Post-Modern Prometheus” there.
However, even though I know I’ve seen “Grotesque” before, for some reason, I couldn’t recall anything about it when I started watching.
I’ll attribute that to the fact that I was around ten years old when it first aired, and at that age, the somber, psychological episodes didn’t leave much of an impression on my young, Mulder/Scully-shipper mind.
But watching it now, I can see that it’s a memorable installment, although it does tend to be a bit heavy-handed in its philosophical approach.
For the purposes of our roundtable, it’s excellent 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 portrayed as ugly and brutal—it’s not just an opportunity for Mulder and Scully to showcase their cleverness.
In the ’90s, The X-Files pushed the boundaries of how much violence could be shown on network television, and over nine seasons, Chris Carter and his team moved that needle quite far, eventually paving the way for future series like CSI and Criminal Minds.
Is that a good thing? I don’t believe there’s a straightforward answer to that.
As Remington Steele demonstrated, gruesome violence isn’t necessary to make detective stories compelling, but consistently portraying violent crime as a lighthearted, low-stakes event can be a form of horror in itself.
(Interestingly, The X-Files excelled at both approaches.)
“Grotesque” offers a visual portrayal of the evil inherent in the human heart, shedding light on the various ways in which obsession can escalate into madness.
It’s appropriate that the episode places a significant focus on Mulder and one of his earliest mentors, Bill Patterson.
As Reesav highlighted, the psychological profiling undertaken by these men throughout the episode is rooted in the idea that to apprehend a killer, you must first understand how a killer thinks.
The case leads Mulder back to his beginnings in a tangible manner. Before he became known as “Spooky Mulder,” he started his career as a profiler under Patterson’s guidance before transitioning to the violent crime unit.
He excelled at his job due to a combination of innate brilliance and his obsessive nature.
Mulder is perpetually on the edge of going too far, and immersing himself in cases is his default mode.
Therefore, it’s unsurprising to see him consumed by Mostow’s possession narrative, precisely the kind of phenomenon Mulder is determined to validate.
However, as Scully astutely points out to Mulder, the excuse of “the gargoyle made me do it” is far too simplistic.
The episode effectively illustrates her point when it reveals that Patterson, a man and not a monster, is the second killer.
Interpretation offers some leeway, as is often the case with The X-Files, but ultimately, the resolution acts as a cautionary tale for Mulder.
Thinking too much like a killer, delving into the psyche of a damaged and twisted mind, carries its own dangers.
It brought down the man responsible for much of Mulder’s early training, and there’s a strong implication that it could potentially do the same to Mulder, or at least it would have if not for Scully.
Although we don’t witness much of Scully in this episode, which is regrettable considering her pivotal role as Mulder’s partner, “Grotesque” still respects their relationship in the background.
Scully supports Mulder as his mental state unravels and confronts him for ignoring her calls.
When she assures him that they can navigate through his situation together, she means it.
This dynamic isn’t exclusive to this episode but remains consistent throughout the series.
While they face unspeakable evils, both supernatural and of the human variety, on a daily basis, the looming threat of being consumed by the darkness is ever-present.
However, together, they manage to “stave off the darkness,” as even in a somber episode like “Grotesque,” they provide a glimmer of light.
Kriti: My recollections of The X-Files are quite hazy.
I vaguely recall my mother watching it when I was a child, but back then, I was genuinely terrified of almost everything.
(My fondness for horror movies and roller coasters didn’t develop until I was at least 15, I know, late bloomer.)
As a result, I steadfastly refused to watch it, and when I think of the series, my mind gravitates towards the most bizarre and frightening plots, particularly the episode “Home,” which left a chilling impression.
I can’t exactly say that I was scared as I began watching “Grotesque” for our concluding Detective roundtable; I’d describe it as more of a cautious approach.
In the most general terms, the episode’s storyline aligns with the themes we’ve explored throughout this roundtable: a pair of FBI agents, Mulder (David Duchovny, who’s always captivating) and Scully (Gillian Anderson), both from different genders, are working together to solve a crime.
Nevertheless, unlike the other shows we’ve viewed and discussed over the past few weeks, there’s a pervasive darkness that lurks at the edges, which sets it apart from the earlier series we’ve examined.
As Reesav so astutely delves into in his section on the episode, The X-Files, in comparison to any of the series we’ve explored thus far, has been the most explicit in its portrayal of murder.
This is intriguing because murder, or at least the potential for it, has been a prominent element in everything we’ve observed.
I believe that what highlights this darkness in The X-Files, allowing it to flourish, is the episode’s deep exploration of the murderer’s psyche and motivations, primarily through Mulder but also involving the actual killers themselves.
In our previous shows, the motivations are often bluntly articulated or portrayed in rather absurd ways (for instance, Moonlighting’s “drag race” motive).
Even though they are rooted in horror, they tend to come across as somewhat comical—like someone having a face full of acid, pointing a gun, or even being tickled to death.
However, the horror in this episode revolves around John Mostow, who murders young men and mutilates their faces.
According to him, these killings are driven by a demon that possesses him, which he tries to control by drawing gargoyle images.
Mulder’s intense fixation on the case and the subsequent revelation that Agent Patterson (Kurtwood Smith, also known as Red Forman) is the copycat murderer who had been working on the case for years, suggest the unsettling idea that delving too deeply into this horror might enable a person to confront the darkness within themselves.
This notion is exemplified through Mulder’s fevered dream hallucinations as he’s pursued down hallways, an eerie encounter with what appeared to me as a former antagonist from Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Most chilling of all is Patterson, a man who, in his quest to apprehend Mostow over the years, allowed his own inner demons to consume him.
Despite my minor startle when the cat emerged from the cabinet in Mostow’s loft, the aspect that genuinely frightened me while watching this episode was the fear of our own inner darkness.
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