Written by Howard Gordon
Directed by Kim Manners
In which Mulder must descend into the disturbing rationale of an insane killer when a former mentor requests his help on a long-running serial killer case...
Status Report - Memorable Quotes - Final Analysis
After two episodes focusing on varying levels of self-parody, the season gets back on track with a disturbing look into Mulder’s formative years as an FBI agent. Too often, Mulder’s strong background in criminal psychology and profiling is ignored in favor of his self-depreciating search for hidden truths.
There’s a link between Mulder’s educational background and his work on the X-Files, and that link is his ability to understand the underlying dynamics and possibilities within behavior and the subsequent evidence. It turns out that Mulder has always been the kind of agent that will walk his own path to the truth, and sneaking into government property is just an extension of his established approach.
Mulder developed this method through an evolution of techniques made famous by his first true mentor, an agent named William Patterson. Patterson is apparently a legend in the Bureau, having developed a method of catching killers through understanding how the killer thinks. It’s easy to see why Patterson would have considered Mulder to be a prodigy, given Mulder’s natural talents.
As soon as Patterson’s background is covered, the entire episode is more or less obvious in terms of the central mystery. Anyone with a background in abnormal psychology or deviant behavior studies can plainly see the central premise: “when one obsesses over the enemy, that person becomes the enemy”. In this case, it’s clear that Patterson’s own method, delving into the madness of Mastow and his rationale, has resulted in a responsive insanity.
It’s equally easy to figure out that Patterson is early enough in the stages of that insanity to call on the one person he knows can end the cycle: Mulder. Patterson knows that Mulder can descend into that darkness without becoming consumed by it, and whatever part of Patterson that remains is able to pull Mulder in, pushing him in the right direction when necessary.
Several episodes of the series fall into the same category: the solution to a mystery is easy to guess, making the quality of the episode a reflection of how the mystery plays out. In this case, Gordon uses the plot as a means to explore what made Mulder “Spooky” to begin with. Mulder had that reputation long before his obsession over the X-Files, and this episode alludes to the reasons for that nickname.
During the initial confrontation with Patterson, just after speaking with Mostow, Mulder continually leaves open the possibility that the man was possessed. It’s not entirely clear if Mulder really believed that, or if he was leaving open the question of whether the belief in such a possession was reflective of the mechanism of the copycat killer.
The link between the killings had to be the method, and Mulder immediately understood that there was a connection between the obsession with gargoyles and the disfigurement. This was confirmed when Mulder found the dismembered bodies covered in clay. That scene is played very well, because once Mulder begins down that path of looking into the killer’s mind, he stops communicating with Scully.
That lack of communication is a combination of their fractured trust and Mulder’s understanding that he can’t take Scully down the path he needs to tread. Things haven’t been the same between the agents all season, and part of that is Scully’s denial. She doesn’t want to explore her growing knowledge of the conspiracy and everything surrounding it, and Mulder is finding it hard to share his thoughts with something so willing to dismiss her own experience.
Even so, he protects her from something she cannot truly understand. This is as much a matter of practicality as it is a worry over her sanity. Scully simply hasn’t been through the process, and if anything, her previous reaction to connecting with a case has demonstrated her inability to safely step back into the light. At the same time, Mulder can’t let constant questions be too much of a distraction.
Gordon does provide a red herring for the audience, playing on the expectation of some fans that the “gargoyle possession” might really exist, transferred to Nemhauser when Mostow bit him. It’s used to cover the fact that the victim that survives would recognize Patterson. When the victim responds to someone in the room, it would be hard to correctly identify the one causing that reaction, based solely on the staging of the scene.
Mulder begins by treating the image of the gargoyle as a separate entity, as if to reinforce the idea that Nemhauser is the new killer. But even Mulder’s voiceover points to a very different train of thought. Mulder understands that Mostow considered the gargoyle to be something “other”, a state of being that functions in a sense as if it were a separate consciousness. By exploring that possibility, Mulder isn’t necessarily operating under the belief that the gargoyle is real; he’s trying to understand how Mostow, acting as the gargoyle, might conceive of its world.
That’s not to say that the idea of a possessing evil isn’t a viable explanation for what happens. It’s just not nearly so interesting as the idea of a brilliant agent falling prey to his own methods while trying to catch a demented killer. A “gargoyle spirit” would fit the unwritten theme of the season well, but it would also take away from the character study of Mulder. (The mechanism for this theoretical possession would be an extension of the one described for “The Walk”.)
It could also be something in between: a transformative effect of the madness within. This is somewhat more difficult to explain. It’s a fact that the mind can have physical effects on the body, such as psychosomatic disorders of various kinds. In terms of the series, it has been established that a strong enough will, sane or otherwise, can result in a change of one’s appearance. The inhuman killer that “possesses” Mostow and then Patterson could simply be the outward manifestation of the disturbed yet inexorable will of an incarnated rage.
Gordon tosses out the possibility that Mulder might be turning into a killer himself. By the time Scully is parsing her words with Skinner to cover Mulder’s possible troubles, the episode takes the audience in exactly the right direction. If it’s not clear by this point that Patterson is the killer, taking this direction with the story lays the foundation for the final revelation by showing how an agent could fall into the trap.
Mulder figures it all out as if in a dream, so far removed from his typical personality that it’s not hard to believe that three years of the same methods would result in strong transference. Mulder, on the other hand, snaps out of it almost immediately, having gone just as far as necessary to solve the case.
With the central mystery fairly obvious, it’s all about the storytelling. Gordon does enough to keep it interesting, but this is really a showcase for the cinematography and score. The music is sometimes modified or directly lifted from previous episodes, but that just goes a long way towards demonstrating the power of Mark Snow’s trademark style. Similarly, the varying degrees of darkness and contrast in every shot fill the screen with an almost subliminally unnerving mental picture.
The success of this episode, at least in terms of execution, could have been an early test of the premise behind the series “Millennium”. Patterson’s concept of delving into the mind of the killer becomes embodied in the semi-psychic abilities of Frank Black, a former FBI agent noted for his talent in ways similar to Mulder in this episode. Black could have easily been a protégé of Patterson.
In terms of timeline, this should come shortly after “Syzygy”. As would become the unfortunate norm for the series, there’s no attempt to reference what happened in that episode (or for that matter, any other). This episode is really more of a follow-up to “Revelations”, and perhaps that is the best way to look at it. There’s a constant back-and-forth with Mulder and Scully this season, with each finding reason to become personally involved with an aspect of a case and the other dealing with it.
In the months since getting back on the job in September 1995, the agents have found it difficult to deal with the transition. Scully can’t seem to decide whether she wants to believe or can’t bear to consider it, while Mulder seems to react to her crisis of personal faith with scorn and disappointment, manifesting itself as something approaching personal disdain.
As the rest of the season would bear out, this is largely Mulder’s reaction to the revelations about his father and his apparent work with the conspiracy. Mulder has to believe that there’s something more than human intervention at work, because otherwise, his father was one of the real monsters. Scully’s constant denials of anything paranormal or alien prove out the one thing he doesn’t want to admit. And he can’t see that Scully can’t reconcile the personal cost that her involvement with Mulder has incurred.
What this episode confirms is the underlying connection between them. Mulder protects Scully from something he’s not sure she can handle, just as she defends him from the consequences of his unorthodox methods. As much as they might struggle with the subconscious effects of their inner conflicts, the trust that has built between them rises to the occasion.
PATTERSON: “About being possessed? I have to tell you, I’m really disappointed in you.”
MULDER: “Well, I wouldn’t want to disappoint you by not disappointing you…”
SCULLY: “Well, did you actually see it? Mulder, maybe you’re seeing what you want to see.”
MULDER: “What makes you think I’d want to see that?”
Overall, this is a solid effort by Howard Gordon. It’s good to see some of the methods that earned Mulder his nickname, and the underlying dynamic between Mulder and Scully is very well played. The central premise is vague enough to fall within the confines of the unusual, if not necessarily paranormal, and the supporting cinematography and score rise to the occasion.
Final Rating: 8/10
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