3×14: Grotesque

“Patterson 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.” — Fox Mulder

Mulder and Scully, working alongside a former mentor of Mulder’s, investigate a serial killer who says a gargoyle spirit committed the crimes he was accused of. As the case intensifies, Mulder becomes obsessed with solving it… at a potential cost.

20th Century Fox via Chrisnu

20th Century Fox via Chrisnu

Radhika: “Grotesque” is a Monster of the Week episode that has just stayed with me ever since I first watched it well over a decade ago. While a supernatural undercurrent remains throughout, it’s another one of those episodes — like “Irresistible” — that focuses more on how evil can consume a human being, which makes it even more compelling and chilling than your average Monster of the Week.

In this episode, Mulder and Scully are drawn into the case of John Mostow, a mentally disturbed Uzbekistan immigrant, who was arrested by an FBI task force (led by Mulder’s former mentor Bill Patterson) for murdering a number of men by mutilating their faces. Mostow, who seems consumed by the need to draw gargoyles, says he was possessed during the killings — which continue even after his arrest.

Mulder, likely drawing from his past life as a profiler, grows obsessive as the investigation continues, plastering his apartment with Mostow’s drawings and revisiting Mostow’s studio — where some of his victims’ bodies are found underneath gargoyle sculptures — from time to time. Scully grows increasingly worried about Mulder due to his behavior, and due to the fact that his fingerprints are found on a knife at a crime scene.

The episode ends with a bit of a twist, when Mulder — returning to Mostow’s studio — finds another FBI agent who was on the case dead and encased inside one of the gargoyle sculptures. That’s where he deduces that Patterson, who spent three years obsessing over Mostow and actually requested that Mulder be put on the case, is the killer. By the episode’s end, Patterson is shot, apprehended and seen in a jail cell, proclaiming his innocence.

This is a story where one of the so-called good guys, a behavioral sciences expert, winds up turning into a bad guy, which is a pretty terrifying thing to think about — and far more terrifying than the Flukemen and liver-eating monsters of the world. It’s chilling to realize that such darkness can consume someone who was never meant to be a monster in the literal sense, and if a person spends too much time dwelling on that particular thought, it makes the world around us become ten times more sinister than we believe it to be.

While rewatching these early episodes of The X-Files, the visuals — worn down over the years, before fancy digital technology came into play — always seem a bit faded and almost home movie-ish. But that doesn’t stop the cinematography of “Grotesque” from driving home the darkness of the subject matter. This episode has even more blue overtones and dark shadows than others do, and certain sequences, like the moment John Mostow wakes up — his pale face barely looking human — before the FBI bursts in, convey the sense of a quiet nightmare. These are the factors that make this one of the scariest, and best, Monster of the Week episodes of the show for me.

20th Century Fox via Chrisnu

20th Century Fox via Chrisnu

Max: “I have never met anyone so passionate and dedicated to a belief as you. It’s so intense that sometimes it’s blinding,” said Scully to Mulder way back in season one’s “E.B.E.” Mulder’s quest to uncover truths that have been covered up and calling to account those who have committed such injustices has been the backbone of the series. Which is why an episode like “Grotesque” is so powerful, because someone like Patterson ends up being a cautionary tale of what would happen to Mulder if he went down the rabbit hole, never to return. We get hints of this darkness when Mulder cuts himself off for a couple of days in Mostow’s studio to get inside the head of a man tormented by demons. It concerns Scully enough that there is that sliver of a chance that Mulder could be following Mostow down that path, which is why it comes as a bit of a shock that it was instead the seemingly level-headed Patterson who had succumbed to the consuming evil.

This for me brings up the kind of second spine to the series, and that is Scully’s own journey, starting out as essentially a plant by Bureau higher ups to rein in the errant “Spooky” Mulder. I think it is exactly someone like Scully that Patterson lacked, and why he became so consumed by this case that he transmogrified into what he was chasing. Through Scully’s sheer determination to let the evidence and methodologies be her guide, her influence on Mulder’s working practices have helped to keep him from going over the edge, from letting the demons he clearly has inside of him from taking over.

And as Radhika mentioned above, the issues we are dealing with here are far from paranormal and supernatural. Getting wrapped up in one’s work or in one’s head is a danger in a lot of lines of work. Moreover, there can be such a fine line between ideation and action, that it sometimes only takes a little push to realize negative thoughts and emotions that we all have from time to time. That’s where the real potency of “Grotesque” lies, and how utterly chilling the final scene of Patterson screaming out for help is.

This being said, as someone with a background in art history, it was great to revisit this episode again. The idea that art can explore the darkest, most hidden aspects of human nature and the cosmos is one that is centuries old. The melancholic temperament of the artist has been explored going back to the woodcuts of Albrecht Durer, where men are so consumed by the anguish of creativity that they seem helpless and can easily fall prey to depression or madness. Melancholy was sometimes referred to as “black bile,” and the force that gave life to so many beautiful paintings and sculptures. Today we call such things clinical depression or bipolar disorder, which hold the key to understanding the psychologies of creatives from Van Gogh to Mozart. The prison where Patterson ends up, meanwhile, is reminiscent of the woodcuts of imagined prisons crafted by the artist Giovanni Battista Piranesi, whose sprawling catacombs of darkness can infect even the brightest of souls.

After the previous two episodes of comedy and satire, it felt good to be back in the typically eerie swing of things in this episode, and to see the results be just as sharp as the series’ best offerings. The X-Files is still cooking with gas, and I love seeing one of my favorite programs at the height of its powers.


Kurtwood Smith – Before he went on to play gruff dad Red Forman on That ‘70s Show, Smith could be seen in films like Robocop and episodes of TV shows like this very installment of The X-Files, in which he played the role of Bill Patterson. Smith’s TV and movie career, which has also involved a number of voice acting roles, consists of a rather long list of credits, including Dead Poets Society and Star Trek Deep Space Nine.


4 thoughts on “3×14: Grotesque

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