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The X-Files – Paper Hearts (Review)

This February and March, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the fourth season of The X-Files and the first season of Millennium.

Paper Hearts is one of the best scripts that Vince Gilligan would write for The X-Files, and one of the best episodes of the fourth season. This is enough to put it in the frontrunners of any possible “best episode ever” ranking.

The episode is spectacular. It works on just about every conceivable level. It has a great script from a great young staff writer. It has a great guest star in Tom Noonan. It features a great performance from David Duchovny. Rob Bowman does a spectacular job directing. Mark Snow is one of the most consistent composers working in nineties television, and his score for Paper Hearts manages to be simple, effective and memorable. It is thoughtful, atmospheric, emotional and compelling. It is the perfect storm.

The truth is buried...

The truth is buried…

However, the real cherry on Paper Hearts is just how easy it would be to mess up an episode like this. On paper, Paper Hearts seems like a disaster waiting to happen. It is an episode that teases the audience with a potentially massive reversal of one of the show’s core truths. It posits an alternative theory for the abduction of Samantha Mulder that would shake the show to its very core. If Paper Hearts followed through on that basic premise, everything would change. Much like Never Again, this is an episode with the potential to poison the show.

Which makes it inevitable that Paper Hearts will back away from its potentially game-changing premise, which brings its own challenges. It is one thing to up-end the apple cart; it is another to pretend to up-end the apple cart only to restore the status quo at the end of the hour. On paper, and from any synopsis, Paper Hearts seems like the biggest cheat imaginable. “Everything is different!” it seems to yell. “And then it’s not!” The real beauty of Paper Hearts is the way that the episode works almost perfectly even with these huge hurdles to clear.

The heart of the matter...

The heart of the matter…

Interestingly, Paper Hearts began as an entirely different story. As Gilligan has confessed, the story that eventually led to Paper Hearts was built around the laser pointer that guides Mulder through his dreams:

“That idea come from a completely different story I had for Mulder being led around by a mysterious laser beam. That story never really amounted to anything, and I wound up using certain scenes in Paper Hearts instead.”

According to I Want to Believe, Gilligan had spent some of his time as a student at New York University working for a company that made laser-illuminated custom holograms.

Frickin' laser...

Frickin’ laser…

This original pitch seems more in line with Gilligan’s very first idea for The X-Files. An episode built around “a mysterious laser beam” fits comfortably alongside the “human black hole” at the centre of Soft Light. Ultimately, Gilligan decided to steer the episode away from that core idea; even though Paper Hearts retains the memorable visual of the investigation-prompting laser pointer. It is interesting to see how the story developed and grew, along with Gilligan as a writer.

Although he had written Wilder Napalm for the big screen, The X-Files was Gilligan’s first job as a staff writer on a television show. During his time working on The X-Files, Gilligan evolved and advanced as a writer and a director. Each of his first four scripts for The X-Files feel like they are pushing the writer forwards – that they are expanding his range and experience. There is a very clear progression from Soft Light to Pusher, and from Pusher to Unruhe, and from Unruhe to Paper Hearts.

Abduction theory...

Abduction theory…

Paper Hearts is a very ambitious piece of work. Like Unruhe before it, Paper Hearts feels almost like a rough draft of an episode of Millennium that somehow found its way into the writers’ room on The X-Files. It is an episode about a serial child murderer who finds a doorway into the mind of the profiler who captured him. It is populated with references both to Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon and to a popular children’s story, fixated more on the evil that men do than on the supernatural twist at the core of the story.

From the roughest of outlines, it sounds like a story tailor made for Millennium, the Chris Carter show that was actually about a criminal profiler. Indeed, it is interesting that The X-Files did its big “criminal profiler visits convicted psychopath in prison” episode before Millennium got around to it. Like Unruhe, it feels almost like The X-Files is reminding viewers that it laid claim to this thematic ground first. Fox Mulder was a brilliant criminal profiler long before Frank Black showed up on the scene.

Well, that chance of finding Samantha is shot...

Well, that chance of finding Samantha is shot…

Much is made of the debt that The X-Files owes to The Silence of the Lambs. Dana Scully is frequently compared to Clarice Starling by both fans and those working on the show. After all, both are young female agents who serve as a gateway character to a macabre world. It is no wonder that Gillian Anderson’s name came up for discussion when Jodie Foster decided that she did not want to reprise the role in the film Hannibal – and that Bryan Fuller eventually cast her in a juicy role in his television series Hannibal.

In contrast, the influence of Thomas Harris’ earlier serial killer novel, Red Dragon, tends to get overlooked. This makes a certain amount of sense. The Silence of the Lambs had been seismic success – a best-selling novel that became a film that swept the Academy Awards. There is a legitimate argument to be made that The Silence of the Lambs was the first horror film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. In contrast, Michael Mann’s adaptation of Red Dragon as Manhunter has been largely forgotten.

Skeletons in the closet...

Skeletons in the closet…

And yet, in spite of that, Red Dragon remains a significant influence on Chris Carter. Traces of Will Graham are to be found in both Fox Mulder and Frank Black, the once-great profilers who may have wandered too far into darkness. The script for Grotesque had acknowledged this, but Paper Hearts also contains more than a few clear nods toward both Red Dragon and Manhunter. It is very weird to see The X-Files asserting these links more forcefully than Millennium.

Paper Hearts contains a number of nods towards Red Dragon. Some of these are the type of broad story elements that Red Dragon all but baked into the genre that it helped to establish: Mulder gets inside the head of a killer; Mulder visits a psychopath that he helped to put away. Others are more esoteric: like Francis Dolarhyde, John Lee Roche is obsessed with an iconic piece of nineteenth century British culture; at one point, Mulder finds “Mad Hat” carved into a stone near a burial site like Will Graham finds the red dragon character etched into a tree near a murder site.

Just scratching the surface...

Just scratching the surface…

All of this glosses over the most obvious point of overlap: the casting of Tom Noonan as John Lee Roche. Although Noonan is a talented and recognisable actor, director and writer in his own right, Francis Dolarhyde in Manhunter remains one of his most iconic roles. Indeed, Gilligan actively wrote the role for Noonan:

The gentleman who wrote it, I can’t remember his name right now, he’s not a friend, but I know him pretty well. He was one of the writers on X-Files, and he wrote the episode for me. And at that point, I don’t think I’d done very much TV. I’ve done a little more since then, but he called me up and said “I’m one of the writers on the show, I’ve written this script for you, but I didn’t want to give it to you until I’d finished it,” and they sent me the script, and it was really fun. So I thought I’d do it.

Noonan is wonderful in the role, making John Lee Roche one of the series’ most memorable (and most despicable) one-shot villains. Noonan makes Roche’s monstrosity so banal and so pathetic that the character is all the more repulsive for it.

Where the buses don't go...

Where the buses don’t go…

Roche is yet another of Gilligan’s “little men who wish that they were big”, like Robert Modell and Gerry Schnauz before him. (In fact, casting Noonan as Roche adds an extra irony to the observation – at six feet and seven inches, it feels very odd to describe any Noonan character as “a little man.”) Roche tries to craft his own mythology to excuse his actions, to romanticise his evil. In essence, Roche is trying to package and sell himself in the same way that he packaged and sold those vacuum cleaners. “You must have been one hell of a salesman, Roche,” Mulder quips.

Roche makes frequent references to Alice in Wonderland, even inside Mulder’s dreams. It seems like he is trying to build up a mythology around himself, to make himself seem so much more important and significant. Asked why he lied about the number of victims, he replies, “I don’t know. Thirteen just sounds more magical, you know?” Discussing how he stalked one victim, he explains, “I stood outside her window atop sprigs of mint.” Of course, Roche is just as familiar with vacuum cleaning models, segueing between these attempts at mythologising his murders and recalling the details of his sales attempts.

A killer photo...

A killer photo…

Mulder’s profile of the killer managed to identify not only John Lee Roche as a travelling salesman, but also suggested that he was “someone ordinary.” Gilligan’s script is seems wary of the cult of personality and celebrity that tends to build up around serial killers, the tendency to sensationalise their murders and to wallow in their brutality. Indeed, Gilligan had considered having Roche remove his victims’ literal hearts. He dismissed the idea, saying that “it would have been just too gross. No one would want to see that. I wouldn’t want to see that.”

However, John Lee Roche’s banality is terrifying and unsettling in its own way – a manner much more subtle than the gimmicky “serial-killer-of-the-week” stories that recur throughout the first season of Millennium. Roche is monstrous in his ordinariness; he is the kind of boring person that people encounter every day. Although every serial killer inevitably has neighbours who will claim they always suspected something was amiss when the press come around, it is hard to imagine finding anybody who would actually remember Roche, let alone suspect him of being a child molesting serial killer.

Missing pieces...

Missing pieces…

The clothe hearts themselves are a nice touch. Their absence is an understated way of symbolising just what John Lee Roche took from the families of his victims, and just what Mulder is looking for. (At one point, in a line that should be a terrible pun, but is beautifully delivered by Anderson, Scully notes, “You went in there with your heart on your sleeve.”) The hearts without the pajamas are creepy, just like the pajamas with little heart-shaped holes cut in them – like jigsaw puzzles with parts that can never be properly put back together.

Perhaps a pedophile with a fixation on Alice in Wonderland is a little too on the nose – particularly given the popular theories about Lewis Carroll that were gaining more and more traction during the nineties. After all, this was only a few years after Grant Morrison had cast similar aspersions on Lewis-Carroll-themed Batman villain the Mad Hatter in Arkham Asylum. Still, Paper Hearts does not fixate on Roche’s interest in Carroll in the same way that Millennium might focus on its serial killers’ obsessions. It is presented as something pathetic, something put-on, something Roche is trying to sell but nobody is buying.

Their hearts in his hands...

Their hearts in his hands…

Gilligan has conceded that working on Paper Hearts unsettled him. Asked if he ever creeped himself out working on the show, Gilligan replied:

I’ve creeped myself out on several occasions, writing in my office here on the FOX lot late at night. One time that springs to mind was when I was on a tight deadline to finish the episode Paper Hearts. It was about 4 in the morning, and I was the only person on the lot, except for one or two guards. The studio is dark and deserted at that time of the night, much like a ghost town. I remember thinking I was seeing and hearing things just out of the corner of my eye as I would make frequent trips to the bathroom. The frequent trips to the bathroom were of course brought on by all the coffee a writer needs to drink when he’s pounding away at the typewriter at 4 in the morning.

Paper Hearts is an unsettling and uncomfortable piece of television. Its horror is more banal than the horror usually found on The X-Files, perhaps reflecting the type of horror in which Millennium typically traded.

No bones about it...

No bones about it…

Still, despite the broad similarities, Paper Hearts is a show that could never work as well on Millennium as it does on The X-Files. While the basic set-up could fuel an episode of Millennium, Frank Black doesn’t have any skeletons in his closet that carry the same weight as the abduction of Samantha Mulder. As with Unruhe earlier in the season, Paper Hearts seems to be almost teasing its younger sibling – demonstrating that not only can it do almost any episode that Millennium might want to do, but it can do them in a way that feels organic and essential.

Much of Paper Hearts is spent reminding viewers that Vince Gilligan has not forgotten any of the show’s tangled continuity. Paper Hearts basks in all sorts of continuity nods and references. Mulder makes reference to Reggie (“Reggie! Reggie!”) Purdue, the ill-fated supervisor who appeared in Young at Heart. Scully quotes back some dialogue from the underrated Aubrey. The flashback to Samantha’s abduction lines up with Little Green Men even more closely than Little Green Men lined up with Conduit. Mulder visits the house where his father died in Anasazi.

The pieces are in play...

The pieces are in play…

Indeed, Gilligan even makes reference to Teena Mulder’s stroke in Talitha Cumi and acknowledges that repression and forgetfulness have been her defining characteristics since Paper Clip. So much of Paper Hearts exists to convince viewers that Vince Gilligan knows his stuff. While this might appear like a number of in-jokes and references, it is also a very clear way of demonstrating his knowledge of the show’s minutiae. It builds a great deal of goodwill from long-term fans, demonstrating that Gilligan can tie a lot of random little details together convincingly.

Paper Hearts threatens to overturn a huge amount of what fans think they know about The X-Files; as such, Gilligan’s continuity references feel like a gesture of good faith. In acknowledging all these little bits and pieces of what came before, the writer seems to coax fans along with him. This isn’t some casual attempt to throw away everything that came before. This isn’t a cheap stunt that is being done because it is convenient. This is the work of a writer who has put a lot of thought into the details of The X-Files, who knows the show inside and out.

Sleeping on it...

Sleeping on it…

There is an interesting conflict at the heart of Paper Hearts, one that could easily lead the episode to collapse under its own weight. After all, the central premise of the episode is unsustainable. The idea that Samantha Mulder might have been abducted and murdered by a paedophile is something that The X-Files could not just slip into a standard monster-of-the-week episode, particularly when the show had worked so hard to delineate the important “conspiracy” episodes from the more episodic “monster-of-the-week” stories.

If Paper Hearts revealed that John Lee Roche killed Samantha Mulder, it would mean that all of Mulder’s quest had been based on a lie. It would mean that his belief in aliens and his pursuit of the truth was all just an attempt to process a more human form of evil. The importance of Samantha’s abduction in defining Mulder’s character had been established as early as The Pilot. The show offered a detailed version of events in Conduit, the fourth episode of the first season.

"I've never been happier you and dad gave Samantha to the government for alien experimentation..."

“I’ve never been happier you and dad gave Samantha to the government for alien experimentation…”

While Oubliette had Mulder insist Samantha did not motivate every decision he made, radically reworking a core concept of the show to such a degree would radically alter Mulder as a character. Any viewer with even a casual understanding of network television would understand that such a radical shift was unlikely to occur in the episode after the big sweeps two-parter in the middle of the season, from a writer who had officially joined the staff less than a year earlier. Anybody remotely televisually literate understands that Paper Hearts is making an empty threat.

Then again, that is the beauty of Paper Hearts. The episode works so well because it seems to acknowledge this. There is no cameo from the Cigarette-Smoking Man to clutter the narrative and lend John Lee Roche some legitimacy. There is no focus on the files that Mulder and Scully found inside the mountain during Paper Clip. No mention of Bill Mulder’s promise to his son in The Blessing Way There is no acknowledgement of the clones of Samantha Mulder who appeared in episodes like Colony, End Game and Herrenvolk. In short, while Paper Hearts acknowledges continuity, it never appeals to it.

I see the truth...

I see the truth…

Paper Hearts never tries to convince the audience that it is anything more than a monster-of-the-week with a focus on character. It does not dabble with the bigger threads tied into the mythology. It is an episodic instalment of The X-Files. John Lee Roche is never mentioned outside of Paper Hearts. These killings are never mentioned again, even when Chris Carter does return to the thematic ground in Sein und Zeit and Closure. This is very consciously and very clearly designed to be monster-of-the-week rather than a mythology episode, and so limitations come baked in.

This is not a bad thing. In fact, it works to the advantage of Paper Hearts. Acknowledging these limitations is a clever move, preparing the audience for the episode’s non-committal ending. Viewers are a shrewd bunch; often viewers are smarter than studio executives would have people think. After years of exposure to televisual storytelling, they intuitively understand many of the unspoken rules of the medium. Paper Hearts treats the audience with enough respect and good faith that they eagerly follow along.

"Last stop."

“Last stop.”

The script to Paper Hearts is very wry and self-aware. Indeed, Roche’s desperate pitch to Mulder seems to directly acknowledge the skepticism that that the episode’s basic premise would provoke from on-line fans. “I can’t just tell you,” he advises Mulder. “I know you don’t believe me. You need me to show you, you need me to lead you through because… after all these years, anything less than that’s not going to satisfy you, right?” It seems almost like Gilligan is directly addressing the fans, explaining what the show needs to do if it ever resolves the mystery.

Paper Hearts consciously falls shy of that burden of proof. It never really tries to convince the audience. Gilligan never tries to win of the cynics in the audience who know that this can’t be the sad story of Samantha Mulder. That is not the drama at the core of Paper Hearts. Gilligan shrewdly realises that the drama of Paper Hearts is about watching Mulder deal with the idea that his quest might be a lie, rather trying to convince a sceptical audience that everything they know is wrong.

Burden of evidence...

Burden of evidence…

The episode is about watching Roche generate enough reasonable doubt to undermine Mulder’s faith -as opposed to the faith of the audience. After all, none of the evidence that Roche produces undermines the show’s larger mythology arc. Instead, it is all subjective to Mulder himself. Roche doesn’t explain why there are clones of Samantha running around, or why there’s a file with her name in a mining complex; he instead reveals that he knows about a vacuum cleaner in the Mulder family basement and that he appears in Mulder’s subjective dreams.

Signalling that this is a “monster-of-the-week” ensures that the audience are not disappointed by the resolution. After all, viewers are seldom disappointed when a lead character makes an impossible escape from a deadly situation; people know that lead characters are unlikely to die twelve minutes into the fourth episode of the second season. Most of the viewers watching Paper Hearts are in on the joke, and willing to go along with an episode that never insists too firmly that it is going to change everything.

En-light-ening...

En-light-ening…

(Incidentally, the ending to Leonard Betts works so effectively due to similar logic. Leonard Betts brutally subverts the same expectations that Paper Hearts exploits. It is a “monster-of-the-week” story that rather suddenly and brutally turns out to have significant implications for the show’s larger mythology. The twist is impeccably delivered. In contrast, Paper Hearts shrewdly maps out its ending ahead of time; so the fact that story has no long-term impact comes baked into the premise rather than undermining the episode.)

It is worth stressing that the “monster-of-the-week” episodes are in no way inferior to the “mythology” episodes. Paper Hearts is not lessened in any way by the fact that it doesn’t really connect with Terma or Memento Mori. The story is not diminished because it doesn’t radically change the direction of the show. Paper Hearts works incredibly well on its own terms, as a character-driven story about Mulder’s loss of his sister. It affords the kind of intimacy that often gets squeezed out of big mythology episodes.

Tearing at the fabric of the show...

Tearing at the fabric of the show…

While the show was on the air, the central mythology storyline was the focus of a lot of the attention on the series. The show’s big sweeps episodes generally tied into the over-arching conspiracy storyline – even tangentially. There was never a big sweeps two-parter that could be accurately described as a “monster-of-the-week” story. Mulder and Scully battled the conspiracy during their first trip to the big screen in The X-Files: Fight the Future. The Cigarette-Smoking Man was the only character aside from Mulder and Scully to appear on The Simpsons.

In hindsight, one can wonder whether this was a good idea. Pushing the mythology as the heart of The X-Files meant that the show eventually lived or died based on the success of that central conspiracy storyline. Although there were other factors at play in the show’s eventual decline, it is worth noting that the state of the mythology episodes was always a fairly good indicator of the overall health of the show. As such, history has been kind to the “monster-of-the-week” shows, free from the excitement and fascination with the mythology that surrounded the show on initial broadcast.

Things are looking up...

Things are looking up…

Paper Hearts is very much a triumph of the “done-in-one” episodic style of the “monster-of-the-week” story. In a way, it is kind of episode that seems less likely to get made in today’s era of hyper-serialised drama. Although The X-Files was far from the first prime-time network drama to support arc-driven storytelling, it did popularise the form in high-profile and mainstream drama. Without the legacy of The X-Files, one wonders whether shows like 24 or Lost or Fringe would have developed in quite the same way.

Towards the end of the nineties and into the new millennium, it became more and more acceptable for network television shows to have these sorts of serialised arcs built into the premise. Indeed, following the success of 24 and Lost, it seemed every series had to have such an arc or mystery built in. Look at high-profile failures like Flash Forward or Revolution or The Event or Alcatraz, stories built around big central mysteries waiting to be solved. Even episodic television series like CSI or Law & Order are more conscious of arc-building and long-form storytelling.

A new mythology fashioned wholeclothe...

A new mythology fashioned whole-cloth…

In some respects, this boom in serialised storytelling was enabled by advances in multimedia technology. DVD box sets made it feasible for casual viewers to buy entire television seasons, and TiVo made it practical to marathon runs of episodes. This resulted in massive change to how television was produced:

By the mid-2000s, “serialized” was the buzzword synonymous with the daring narrative innovations of the DVR era. Lost built on the 24 model and expanded it in every direction. The Lost series premiere was a kitchen-sink mega-mystery, filled with characters with secrets and a weird recording of a French lady and an out-of-place polar bear. Lost opened the door to a whole host of shows with loglines that sounded more like two-hour movies than ongoing series. Prison Break, The Nine, Vanished, Kidnapped, Heroes, Invasion: These were shows with exciting premises, shows with pilots that threw a million balls in the air and attempted to juggle them in TV form. Most of them failed — really, what do you do with a show called Prison Break after they break out of prison? — but when a Serialized Thriller succeeded, it felt like nothing else on television.

This was just one aspect of a larger shift in narrative focus. While the major networks were enjoying more and success with long-form storytelling, serialisation became the de facto form for prestigious high-profile drama. After all, this quiet revolution was unfolding at the same time that HBO was enjoying its own successes.

Mulder squashed that Roche...

Mulder squashed that Roche…

Shows like The Sopranos and The Wire would come to be defined as “novels for television”, implying that each episode was not so much a distinct story as a single chapter. This attitude arguably bled into mainstream television as well:

The single episode has taken a backseat in importance to the season, which itself is subservient to the series. Rather than take stock of what has just transpired, eyes get cast immediately toward that which is still unseen. In other words, what just aired gets mixed into what we’ve already seen in order to formulate opinions about the unknown future. After all, if we measure quality by the gold standard of HBO, then by definition, the best element of the show has yet to actually air. In talking about modern television greatness, The Wire, The Sopranos, and Deadwood are often offered up as the prime examples. Such an assignation has merit, but has established a benchmark against which other programs simply can’t compare.

In this bold new era of television, it seemed more and more that the individual episode existed to serve the larger arc, as a cog in a much larger machine. While the best shows still structure episodes so they work on an basic functional storytelling level, there is clear hierarchy in play.

This one is in the bag...

This one is in the bag…

What makes Paper Hearts such a fascinating piece of television, and what makes it seem like an episode that would not have been produced a decade later, is the way that it makes a piece show’s larger arc take a back seat to the individual episode. Paper Hearts does not advance the investigation of Samantha Mulder’s disappearance. In fact, it serves as something of a narrative cul de sac if examined in the context of that larger arc. On a show more preoccupied with serialisation, this would be considered a waste of valuable narrative real estate.

However, Paper Hearts uses that trauma as a springboard to a very personal and emotional story for Mulder. Gilligan manages something quite brilliant here, something that has challenged the writing staff on the show since the first season. Glen Morgan and James Wong’s Beyond the Sea was a highlight of the first season. The script had helped to define Scully as a character. However, there had been a great deal of difficulty trying to replicate the success of Beyond the Sea for the other series lead.

Putting it all on the line...

Putting it all on the line…

Morgan and Wong had attempted in both Little Green Men and One Breath, two wonderful second-season episodes featuring fantastic central performances from David Duchovny. Nevertheless, neither felt quite as emotionally raw as Beyond the Sea. There are any number of reasons why this may have been the case. On the most basic level, it feels like Morgan and Wong tend to gravitate a little more towards Scully as a character. Also, Scully also comes with a lot less baggage; Mulder’s quest and motivations are tied into something much larger than himself, making it difficult to get truly intimate in a character study.

Indeed, Paper Hearts is almost transparently “Beyond the Sea… but for Mulder.” This is apparent on a number of levels. Both episodes feature the lead characters consulting an incarcerated multiple murderer with a special gift. In fact, if Beyond the Sea seemed to riff openly on The Silence of the Lambs, Paper Hearts turned to Red Dragon. Both episodes focus on absent family members. Both episodes push the focus character well outside their comfort zone, forcing them to confront ideas that run counter to their core beliefs.

I guess you could call this a bus-t...

I guess you could call this a bus-t…

In Beyond the Sea, Scully found herself questioning her skepticism, with Mulder arguing the more rational position. In Paper Hearts, Mulder finds himself wondering if there is a more plausible explanation for what happened to Samantha, while Scully rejects his reversal. Mulder even calls attention to how strange this reversal must be. “Scully, do you believe that my sister Samantha was abducted by aliens?” he asks, candidly. “Have you ever believed that? No. So what do you think happened to her?”

There is a delicious irony here, just as there was in Beyond the Sea. There, the one time that Scully believed, Mulder played the skeptic. Here, the one time that Mulder invests in a rational theory, Scully cannot bring herself to support it. Just as in Beyond the Sea, the other partner is worried that the focus character is being manipulated in a moment of weakness. “Look, he is playing with you, Mulder,” Scully warns Mulder. “He is committing emotional blackmail and you are letting him. You walked into that room with your heart on your sleeve. He saw vulnerability, and he took advantage of it.”

A touching moment...

A touching moment…

Paper Hearts is a story that hinges on the dynamic between Mulder and Scully. Scully is right, Mulder is vulnerable and on edge. Indeed, Paper Hearts makes a very strong case that Mulder needs Scully to help keep him balanced. Mulder makes a number of incredible lapses in judgment – to the point where it surprising that he still has his job by the start of El Mundo Gira – but they typically occur while Scully is not around to stop him. He punches Roche during a solo interview; he takes Roche on a road trip after Scully leaves him alone for the evening.

That last lapse in judgment is particularly interesting. When Skinner finds out about Mulder and Roche’s trip to Martha’s Vineyard, he is as enraged as you might expect. However, he seems particularly disappointed with Scully. “And where were you while this was happening?” he demands. Scully explains, “I had left Agent Mulder for the day. I suggested that he get some sleep.” Skinner doesn’t seem particularly satisfied by this perfectly professional explanation. “You let me down,” he states bluntly, in a manner that seems almost cruel in light of Scully’s unresolved issues with disappointed father figures.

You know, if Vince Gilligan's not a shipper, that's just mean-spirited...

You know, if Vince Gilligan’s not a shipper, that’s just mean-spirited…

However, what exactly was Scully meant to do? Was Skinner suggesting that she was meant to stay over with Mulder in his apartment that night? Make sure that he was comforted? Mitch Pileggi might have his own particular opinions about Skinner’s “shipper” sentiments, but it feels like Paper Hearts puts the character firmly in the “shipper” camp – all but suggesting that Scully should have spent the night in Mulder’s apartment. That said, Gilligan claims to be agnostic on the relationship. “I don’t really think of it in those terms,” he explained at one point.

Paper Heart is full of lovely moments of interaction between the two characters. In particular, Scully’s protectiveness of Mulder is striking – she stands up to Roche during the interrogation, covers for Mulder in front of Skinner, and tries to limit the damage that Mulder does. More than that, while she is wary of Mulder’s emotional investment in the case, she supports him as much as she can.

The field where my career nearly died...

The field where my career nearly died…

Even if Gilligan is not quite a shipper, he does have a firm grasp on the relationship between Mulder and Scully. “Let somebody else do this,” she urges Mulder when they find another buried victim. Mulder cannot stop himself digging, despite Scully’s advice. “Help me, Scully,” he pleads. Rather than pressing the issue or trying to physically stop him, Scully does. Scully reaches into the ground and starts digging – demonstrating that she is willing to make the leap for Mulder even when she isn’t entirely convinced herself.

(In a way, this is the most significant difference between Mulder and Scully. Scully tends to be a lot more emotionally engaged and supportive of Mulder than he is of her. Compare Scully’s sensitivity to Mulder’s near breakdown here to Mulder’s self-centred stubbornness and patronising insensitivity to Scully’s difficulties in episodes like Beyond the Sea or Never Again. It is a nice delineation between the two characters, one that remains quite consistent throughout the show’s run.)

Wrapped in plastic...

Wrapped in plastic…

Paper Hearts works quite well at demonstrating the surrogate family that Mulder has built around himself. Not only is Scully looking out for Mulder, Skinner is also working hard to protect the constant pain in his side. Skinner may adopt more of a “tough love” approach to Mulder, but the fact that he allows Mulder to remain involved with the investigation suggests that Skinner is sensitive to Mulder’s own emotional needs. (Skinner seems quite sympathetic whenever dealing with Mulder’s family problems – letting Mulder know about the “family emergency” in Colony or his mother’s stroke in Talitha Cumi.)

Duchovny offers one of his best performances as Mulder here, firmly anchoring the episode. There is an incredible vulnerability to Mulder here, a palpable desperation. Duchovny nails all of the episode’s emotional beats, from his need to know if the recovered body is Samantha to his eagerness to poke holes in John Lee Roche’s theories as soon as the opportunity presents itself. Duchovny is frequently undervalued as an actor, but Paper Hearts is an episode that demonstrates the actor’s range.

And then your boss shows up, demanding a pound of Skin(ner)...

And then your boss shows up, demanding a pound of Skin(ner)…

Similarly, Paper Hearts benefits from tight direction from Rob Bowman. Bowman is one of the show’s most dynamic and kinetic directors, bringing an energy to the series that helped to make it one of the most exciting shows on television. He does a wonderful job with Paper Hearts, particularly with Mulder’s dream sequences and at the climax in the bus graveyard. Paper Hearts is an episode that works astonishingly well, and is fantastically put together. It is a demonstration of virtually everything that The X-Files has learned to do well by this stage in its life-cycle.

Paper Hearts is a classic episode, and one that deserves to be ranked with the best that The X-Files ever produced.

You might be interested in our other reviews of the fourth season of The X-Files:

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  1. Reblogged this on dalbas!.

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