The X-Files: Paper Hearts

Case: Mulder re-opens an old case for which he had a serial killer of young girls convicted when a dream leads him to a previously unknown victim's body.

Destination: Various.

"Mulder, let's get a team out here. Let somebody else do this."
"Help me, Scully."

There are a few episodes of The X-Files in which Mulder is forced to question his belief concerning what happened to his sister and consider the possibility that she was abducted and/or murdered by a thoroughly human villain or villains, and for me this one is probably the most effective.

I love the simplicity of this story. There's very little of the paranormal in it, though the plot is driven by the simple, spooky plot device of a mental connection between Mulder and a serial killer he's been obsessed with for years, who refuses to reveal the locations of the bodies of some of his victims. That connection allows Mulder to find one missing victim's body and, even more importantly, to find the killer in one of hundreds of identical trailers (or static caravans, to us Brits) where he is holding a young girl hostage, at the climax. Unfortunately, it also allows the killer, Roche, to get inside Mulder's head and taunt him with the possibility that not only was Samantha not abducted by aliens, but that Mulder might finally be able to find her body and get some closure on an event that's taken over his whole life.

Throughout this episode, we see Mulder struggle with a wealth of contradictory emotions, all brilliantly and mostly silently played by Duchovny. He is clearly shaken up by the possibility that his firmly held belief about what happened to his sister might be wrong, and of course he's also dealing with the possibility that she is dead and has been for years, something that is far from certain if she was abducted by aliens. Every time Roche's allegations are seemingly disproved, we see Mulder's relief, first when the second body is proved not to be Samantha, and then his grin when Roche is fooled by being taken to the wrong house, as it means he can continue to hope that she is still alive. But there's no certainty here. Without either the reappearance of a living Samantha or the discovery of her dead body, Mulder can never quite be sure.

It all leads up to that climax in the trailer, which is mesmerizing, and unbearably tense and tragic for Mulder. Roche dangles Samantha in front of him like a carrot, for despite his obvious hope that she's still alive, there is surely a part of Mulder that just wants to know, one way or the other. If that last heart represents Samantha, and if he can find her body, he can finally move on with his life and close that chapter. But Mulder, of course, gives up that chance at certainty to save the life of a little girl who's right there in front of him and in danger, though we see the heartbreak on his face as he does so. We're used to seeing our heroes do brave things and make sacrifices on television, but this is an especially moving and complicated example of such selfless behaviour.

This is also a great episode for its portrayal of Mulder and Scully's relationship. Whether you view their closeness as romantic or platonic, this story really brings out how much they rely on each other - in this particular case, how much Mulder relies on Scully - for support, and I love how protective Scully is of Mulder throughout this story. Skinner's increasing fondness for both of them comes out a little bit too, albeit in a less obvious way. There is no way Skinner should have let Mulder back on the case after he hit Roche, especially knowing that Mulder now believes the man to be his sister's abductor and probably her killer, but the fact that he does is telling. He's definitely getting a bit too attached to Mulder and Scully by this point. His 'And where were you while this was happening?' when he ticks off Scully later makes it sound amusingly like they're the parents and Mulder is an errant schoolboy.

Other Thoughts

 - Mulder is great with the little girl, reassuring her and telling her to close her eyes and count to twenty before he pulls his gun on Roche. Both Mulder and Scully are very good at dealing with kids.

 - At one point it almost looks as if Scully might be right for a change, and Mulder's dreams and visions really are the result of his own obsession with the case. The episode leans towards the paranormal explanation, as usual, but that little chink of doubt still alive at the end of the episode, that tiny possibility that Roche was telling the truth and he did murder Samantha and simply mis-remembered the house's location, means Scully's suggestion holds rather more weight than usual.

 - Assuming Roche did not abduct or kill Samantha, Mulder's dream in which he remembers that night differently must be just that, a dream - which just goes to show that dreams are not reliable evidence in a criminal investigation, however occasionally useful they may be.

Quotes

Mulder: Scully, do you believe that my sister Samantha was abducted by aliens? Have you ever believed that? No. So what do you think happened to her?

Scully: You're right Mulder, it's not a match. It's not her.
Mulder: It's somebody, though.

Mulder (triumphantly): Wrong house!

Final Analysis: Tense, touching and a story that stays with you. Four out of four identical trailers.

Juliette Harrisson is a freelance writer, classicist and ancient historian who blogs about Greek and Roman Things in Stuff at Pop Classics.

3 comments:

Heather said...

Juliette:
What a great review. I love this episode... The acting, cursing!Scully etc. Vince Gilligan was the dean of continuity and the through line in Paper Hearts in relation to the other episodes that came before is staggeringly cool.

ChrisB said...

This one is tough to watch. I really, really want Mulder to be able to get some relief and some peace and there is always part of me that hopes that this is it. Even this time through, there is part of me that believes that she was Roche's victim. He just knows way too many details about that night.

Unless, of course, he can get into Mulder's head the way that Mulder can get into his. Then, the creep factor goes up exponentially.

drnanamom said...

Wonderful review thanks Julliette. This is a great episode as you've described and the emotional component is so evident that I found myself paying little attention to the actual story. Poor Mulder. The piece that makes me think that Roche was lying was the bit where Mulder was supposed to have frozen once he got his dad's gun. Even as a child I think that was highly unlikely. A small detail - I think those were abandoned streetcars rather than trailers.