Sometimes a specific episode of a television show comes along and causes us to sit back in satisfied awe at the wonder we have witnessed. These are the episodes we refer to as classic without any trace of hyperbole. The X-Files’ “Paper Hearts” is one such episode.
It was recently announced that the upcoming San Diego Comic-Con will feature an X-Files panel to mark the show’s 20th anniversary. Series creator Chris Carter will appear alongside various writers/producers from the show, most notably Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan. Gillian Anderson is also on-board meaning Duchovny is the one fans now have to publicly shame into going and will boo down on the street if he ultimately declines to go. Let’s stay positive, though, and celebrate this news by looking back at one of the show’s all-time great episodes.
THE SERIES: The X-Files
THE EPISODE: “Paper Hearts”
Running from 1993-2002, Chris Carter’s loopy, paranoid, sci-fi series The X-Files became an unlikely hit for the Fox network. It’s hard to fathom its viewing numbers today, in a world of DVR and on-demand, but at its height, it was averaging nearly twenty million viewers a week, and even those numbers were just barely putting it in the Top 20. The series looked refreshingly, ground-breakingly cinematic, it had a real budget behind the creatures created, and over-reaching plots that required diagrams and charts to truly keep straight. The mythology-heavy series demanded regular viewership to remain up-to-date on the series events (even though it became harder and harder to follow as the series went on), and practically demanded fan devotion.
Conceived as a sort of modern-day Kolchak: The Night Stalker, Chris Carter originally had no real interest in the mythology-heavy, government conspiracy-driven narratives that dominated (and ultimately sank) the franchise. It was centered around two F.B.I. agents, desperate to believe anything Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and religious but scientifically skeptical Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson). Scully was partnered with Mulder in the hopes she could debunk his investigations into unexplained phenomena (cases called x-files), but Mulder was obsessed and driven to the point of insanity when it came to embracing paranormal explanations for the cases they investigated. His sister had been abducted (he believed by aliens) when he was a child, and everything he investigated seemed to stem from his desire to finally understand what happened to her and how responsible the government was for her disappearance. Even as the plots became increasingly hard to follow and take seriously, Duchovny and Anderson made their characters so compelling, viewers were willing to stick with conspiracies that no longer had any hope of making any sense.
It was only after Duchovny left the series for good before the series’ ninth season (he became a part-timer after the seventh season, but season eight dangles his few appearances like carrots) that viewers began to lose patience with plots that made increasingly little sense. The numbers dropped and the series ended with a whimper rather than the bang it deserved.
It’s amazing that a series as strange complicated, and cynical about our governmental authority became such a mainstream hit. After all, government conspiracy heavy, freakishly complicated, serial television were hardly the ingredients for a sure-fire success recipe. Considering how complicated the series became (and how increasingly clear it became that the writers had no real resolution in mind when they started introducing black oil and alien bounty hunters), it’s easy to see how the series could (and did) go off the rails. The series’ later seasons seemed to have soured memories of The X-Files, but looking back at the series during its heyday, it’s easy to see why it inspired such fan obsession and discussion.
(From this point on, SPOILERS are present. Read at your own risk. You’ve been warned.)
As stated above, the abduction of Mulder’s sister, Samantha, was the drive that propelled Mulder forward throughout the series. The series’ conspirators frequently used her to exploit/ manipulate Mulder. Eventually, there were more Samantha conspiracy theories than could fit in a clown car, with several clones sporadically popping up during the series’ run, but references to her and her abduction almost awlays made for interesting viewing. In this episode, entitled “Paper Hearts,” Mulder begins to doubt what really happened to her due to the influences of a manipulative serial killer.
The episode opens with a dream sequence in which a red light guides Mulder to a buried child. Mulder awakens, calls a forensic team out to the spot and finds the girl’s skeletal remains.
She was the victim of John Lee Roche (played with sinister glee by Tom Noonan), a serial killer who had worked as a vacuum salesman around New England, leaving a trail of victims all along the New England coast. The case was called “paper hearts,” because of the heart-shape he would cut out of his victims’ clothing. Before the discovery of this latest victim, Mulder believed he had found all of Roche’s victims, but this new discovery drives him to track down the cloth hearts and finally count them once and for all. He is able to do so, and discovers there are sixteen cloth hearts (two more than the fourteen bodies that have now been found).
Mulder goes to visit Roche in prison, who implies Mulder certainly takes these cases personally, and seems to drop several hints implying that he knows more about Mulder’s background than previously believed. Roche promises to provide Mulder with some information if he’ll bring him his cloth hearts. That night, however, Mulder has a dream involving the night Samantha was abducted, except this time she is taken not by aliens, but by Roche.
The next day, Mulder returns to Roche, who tells him he did murder his sister. Scully tries to caution him against taking Roche’s claims seriously, reminding Roche that he may be conning him.
Eventually though, he offers Mulder a chance to find Samantha’s body: pick her cloth heart from the two remaining swaths. He’ll give Mulder a victim either way. Alas, the victim chosen is not Samantha, but there is one heart left, and Roche claims it’s Samantha’s. Roche agrees to tell Mulder what finally happened to his sister if he’ll take him to Mulder’s childhood Martha’s Vineyard home. Mulder agrees, taking him without informing Scully (mostly because Scully’s whole “he’s lying to you – you know that, right?” didn’t mix with what Mulder preferred to believe).
They arrive at Mulder’s house, and Roche provides an accurate account of the night Samantha was taken. However, Mulder tells him they’re in the wrong house. Mulder comes to believe Roche must have somehow gotten into Mulder’s head the same way Mulder got into his when he profiled him in the 1980s. He no longer believes Roche took his sister, and he plans to take him back to prison the next day.
During the night, Mulder has another dream in which he frees Samantha from a locked car, only to have her disappear from his arms and wakes up to find himself handcuffed and Roche gone. Mulder finds him in an abandons bus yard outside his old apartment, having kidnapped a young girl he saw on the flight to Martha’s Vineyard. Roche reminds Mulder that there’s still one victim left, and that he’ll never find her without him. However, Mulder shoots him in order to keep him from killing his young hostage. The episode ends with Scully telling Mulder that he’ll find the remaining victim, and leaves him working in his office. Alone, Mulder stares at the cloth heart, filled with doubt as to whether or not it really belonged to Samantha.
Why I Love this Episode:
This episode has its detractors, mainly because viewers spend the episode certain in the knowledge that the series is not going to change a major drive of its mythology (that Samantha Mulder was abducted by aliens) in a monster-of-the-week episode like “Paper Hearts.” Yet, I think Vince Gilligan’s (now of AMC’s brilliant Breaking Bad) script sidesteps this problem by making the episode not about whether or not Mulder’s perceptions are correct, but how devastated Mulder is by the idea that his entire belief structure has been a lie. He’s built his entire life around the knowledge that his sister was taken by aliens. If she was abducted by a very human monster, what has been the purpose of his life since that critical evening? He’s convinced both he and Samantha are part of a vast, grand conspiracy. They are important players on a global scale. What if, instead, she was just a victim of random chance, and everything that drives him is just a mixture of lies and delusions? Add a little doubt, and Mulder’s world begins to crumble.
I’ll confess that most of my favorite X-Files episodes revolved around the search for Samantha. The fact that the final explanation (given in season 7) remains a crushing disappointment doesn’t diminish my love of those early episodes. The search for Samantha was Mulder’s major motivator, and searching for her brought out the best in actor David Duchovny. Duchovny’s sleepy line readings and under-reactions are practically the stuff of parody at this point, and its easy to forget how strong he could be when committed. Here, he’s fantastic. There’s a great moment when he goes to the burial site Roche has told him holds his sister.
He’s desperately digging, with a traumatized, haunted look on his face, and Scully, his sole emotional support, can do nothing to help or hold him back. This may be a monster-of-the-week episode, but it’s one with higher than normal emotional stakes for a series lead.
Another facet of the episode that makes it so fantastic is Tom Noonan’s brilliantly creepy performance as Roche. His insidious grin is instantly chilling, but there are also occasional moments, such as when he interacts with the child on the plane that he later ends up abducting, that one can see a false congenialness. It’s easy to understand how he could charm households as a vacuum salesman and gain an individual’s trust when required. The X-Files didn’t focus on almost purely non-supernatural monsters often, but Roch may be one of their most frightening boogeymen.
Really, though, what drives this episode is the tragic conundrum at the heart of Mulder’s quest. He claims he “trust[s] no one,” but he will seek out and uphold any conspiracy theory bestowed upon him. You can’t claim to be a cynical paranoic and follow every Don Quixote-like quest thrown your way. The two ideas just do not mix. His emotional desperation makes him an easy target. No matter how hardened he claims to be, he’s often as much of a victim as the individuals he examines. The episode may end with Mulder 99% certain that Roche is a liar, but the episode’s final moments show the nagging, plaguing doubt Mulder now has. He thrives on certainty, and that certainty has been robbed from him. All he can do is put the final heart in a drawer and continue on the path he laid out for himself. He may be the victim of a grand scheme or a mere turn of events, but he’s too entrenched now to turn back. After all, really, all Mulder wants is “to believe.”
Check out a trailer for the episode:
The X-Files is available to purchase on DVD, as well as available to stream through Netflix and Amazon (free to Prime members).
So, what do you think? Are you a fan of The X-Files? Is there another episode you think we should cover? Another series at which you want us to look? Let us know in the comments!
- Comic-Con will feature ‘The X-Files’ 20th anniversary panel (insidetv.ew.com)