Continuing a run of exemplary episodes, “Grotesque” is the antithesis of the lighter stories we have been enjoying lately. It is a dark excursion into an insane mind. And with its electric blue tone, gargoyle imagery and, more disturbingly, severed heads encased in clay, it’s also one of the most frightening and genuinely unsettling episodes we’ve had in quite a while. It is in fact the stuff of nightmares.
Primarily “Grotesque” acts as an insight into Mulder’s mind. Underneath his normally light-hearted exterior, Mulder was once of course a star pupil at the Behavioural Science Unit. Given that he was often knocking heads with the indomitable presence of Kurtwood Smith as his boss, George Patterson, it’s little wonder that he opted for light relief in the basement office. It’s a combative relationship (“I wouldn’t want to disappoint you by not disappointing you”), and one that Scully responds to by defending Mulder in front of Patterson wherever possible.
But often Mulder’s behaviour is very hard to defend. His distance, and his seeming involvement in the removal of crucial evidence, all gives Scully cause for concern (and in a paternal way, Skinner too), but frankly, when Mulder descends into the abyss, there isn’t an awful lot that Scully can do to help him. Unable to physically break through to him, she backs him up in the only way she knows, by tackling Patterson directly.
But what a dark place Mulder unflinchingly goes to. And the further into the recesses of the insane mind that he goes, the bluer the lighting becomes. There have rarely been episodes of this show that look this stunning – the depths of the blues, the flashing red lights of the police cars – and it’s little wonder that cinematographer John S. Bartley won an Emmy for his outstanding work here. Couple that with a dissonant score from Mark Snow and the mood of the piece is well established.
Wonderful to see that David Duchovny is well up to the challenge of portraying this tortured Mulder. Gone are the glib witticisms and in their place is a haunted man, sinking ever deeper into a place he doesn’t want to visit but is compelled to. The actor too seems as unafraid as his character in going down into the murky depths, and it certainly marks a refreshing change in what we usually expect from Duchovny.
But his director Kim Manners is well up to the task too. This kind of material is ideally suited to his stylistic talents. And he is certainly very empathetic to the goings on in the episode. In the latter stages, you can see that he resorts to a much greater use of handheld camera to symbolise the shakiness of both Mulder’s and Patterson’s minds.
And let’s not forget Howard Gordon’s script. Its level of insight into Mulder’s character, as well as the fact that it is a riveting story, means that this journey “into the dark…[to stare] into the abyss, into the laughing face of madness” must rank as one of the highpoints of the season, let alone the series.