Written by Howard Gordon
Directed by Kim Manners
The concept of going inside the head of a killer in order to catch one is far from a new one. In the years that followed The X-Files, dozens of series would come forth, using it as a central theme—- Carter himself would make the concept at the crux of his series Millennium. And there are very few twists and turns that can come from it even if you do it right. But twists are hardly what Gordon has in mind for the center of this episode —- as close as the series would ever come to looking right into the abyss of insanity.
In later series, Gordon would demonstrate his strength with more grounded series such as Homeland, dealing with the modest terrors that can come through life. In what can only be described as the pinnacle of his work on X-Files, he gives the first signs that he is ready to stare into darker territory than the usual supernatural revenge fare we’ve come to expect. He does a decent job of trying to fake us out at first, with Mostow’s claiming that he has been possessed by a spirit of evil. He does a good job by making him seem like such a little man with great delusion that we almost want to believe that there is something far darker working through him.
The tendency of this series to introduce characters from our heroes past was one that we thought had petered out in Season 2, and we’re at first expecting more of the same Bill Patterson, Mulder’s first mentor when he joined VICAP. But we clearly see that for the first time, this isn’t just being used to buoy up a weaker plotline. Rather its to show just how brilliant a student Mulder was when he first joined the Bureau, and to see just where he might end up being without other forces intervening. It’s hard to see in the dislike the two seem to have for each other, but its clear that this is the work of some part of Mulder who wants Patterson, and some part of Patterson that needs Mulder. Kurtwood Smith, still two years away from his most famous role on That 70s Show, gives one of the more frightening portrayals of his career, arrogant at first, but slowly slipping into desperation the more attacks take place, until the end when he seems more buried in darkness and insanity he seemed above in the first episode.
Duchovny gives what is arguably his finest performance on the series to date, as he finds himself sinking into the madness from a job he is obviously brilliant at but clearly never wanted to revisit. The scenes in Mostow’s studio are among the most frightening of the season, not so much for what we see there but rather for the extreme anxiety that begins to plague him the further into the killer’s mind he gets. The scenes where Mulder finally corners Mostow in a cell and begins to beat him, needing to know that something supernatural is behind this, to get out of the darkness. The pattern of having our two agents at each other’s throats continues in this episode, but here Scully, despite her fears for her partners sanity—- far more dangerous than they have been at any point in their hunt for the paranormal— ends up saving Mulder simply by being there. It’s her presence that ends up saving Mulder— and the fact that Patterson doesn’t have a similar balance that dooms him.
What’s also noteworthy is how brilliantly the technical aspects of the episode help contribute to the mood. The lighting is particularly bad here, but in addition to the shadows are a large number of blues and reds, expert work by cinematographer John Bartley, who received an Emmy nomination for his work in this episode. The editing is also extremely well handled, and Mark Snow’s brilliant score, for once more haunting then eerie
One could argue that technically speaking, like Irresistible the previous season, this episode isn’t an X-File at all, but this is part of its power. Grotesque is far more frightening than some monster-of-the-week because it reminds that sometimes the worst monsters are the ones that are inside us, lurking just below the surface. The central characters know this all too well, but only one of them comes out the other side. This is a highpoint both for Gordon, who would never try something quite this shade of dark again. The series would but rarely traffic nearly as efficiently, or as simply. But maybe that’s for the best. There are some doors its not worth opening more than once.