The X Files Revisited: 4.10 Paper Hearts
The X Files ran for nine seasons and two movies, charting the efforts of Agents Mulder and Scully in their search for the unexplained. Now eight years after the second movie The X Files: I Want To Believe, the show is returning for six new episodes in 2016. Here at The Digital Fix, we are going to work our way through each season, reviewing some of the big episodes – and both movies – across the years in the build up to season ten. With 202 episodes, there is simply too much to cover every episode; instead we'll pick the story highlights of each year. This latest episode delves into the mystery of Samantha's abduction and ponders on whether it was alien or something altogether more human...
One of the key parts of The X Files mythology is the abduction of Mulder's sister Samantha, first brought up way back in the pilot episode and serving as his motivation to become an agent and pursue his quest of alien life and the unexplained. And four seasons in, the show brings up an intriguing possibility; what if its wasn't aliens or shadowy men in black, but a very human, and very chilling child killer behind it all? Enter John Lee Roche, a case from Mulder's early profiling days, a man who kidnapped and murdered thirteen children before the FBI agent caught him.
"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?"
That is the premise of Paper Hearts and it is a great little mystery. One that has - as I have discovered with several episodes on rewatch - very little in the way of the supernatural. The suggestion of a mental connection between Mulder and Roche is key but the real 'heart' of the episode - pardon the pun - is the chilling realisation that her abductor may have been under his nose all this time.
The episode begins with Mulder dreaming of a young dead girl buried in the woods. Despite it only being a dream, he calls out an FBI forensics unit out to the scene at 5am, discovering a fourteenth victim of John Lee Roche. The question of how he knew the little girl was there is the 'X Filesy' element of the episode and ironically the weakest; I much preferred Scully's explanation. His dream was a way of his mind putting together evidence on the case he had worked on years earlier.
Their search for clues leads to the discovery of a fourteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth cloth heart in a copy of Alice In Wonderland Roche hid within his car years earlier. And so armed with the search for two more victims Mulder visits the killer he put away. What is really intriguing is how mild mannered Roche is when we first meet him. Tom Noonan delivers a very subtle performance that almost borders on likeable if you didn't know he had killed so many children.
Things take a very sinister turn as Mulder relives the abduction of Samantha from season two's Little Green Men but where there was the shape of an alien in the brightly lit doorway now it is Roche. The real hook of the episode is the possibility that the killer was responsible for Samantha's abduction and one of those two cloth hearts, cut from the clothing of Roche's victims, belongs to her. Just like Bogg's ability to tap into Scully's emotions after her father's death in season one's Beyond The Sea here Roche plays on Mulder's long-term grief over what happened to Samantha. Whether Mulder subconsciously mixed his memories of his sister's abduction with the case of whether it is real is the big question and one the episode explores very well.
Roche telling Mulder how he was in his childhood home, selling a vacuum cleaner to his father adds to the believability of it all, just as his ability to recount in detail the moments leading up to Samantha's abduction - Mulder playing with the red toy soldiers, Watergate on the TV - it all becomes horrifyingly real. And while Skinner, back to his hardnose role berates Mulder for striking Roche in a moment of weakness, Scully's concern for his wellbeing becomes a touching moment as she too begins to believe Roche abducted and killed Samantha.
The scene where they find the grave of one of the victims, Scully joining Mulder in digging through their dirt on the knees to uncover what might be his sister's body is powerful stuff. As for the scene in the morgue where Mulder gingerly touches the skeleton, forcing back tears in his eyes; this is David Duchovny knocking it out of the park in his performance.
And of course it isn't Samantha. But Mulder's desperation to find out whether that last victim is Samantha sends him over the line, convincing a judge to release Roche into his custody and taking him on a plane back to his hometown in Martha's Vineyard. It is that recklessness that almost ruins him. Roche immediately latches onto a young girl on the place and at the earliest opportunity he escapes custody and kidnaps her. But only after Mulder turns the table in a wonderful twist as Roche sits down on the couch in the house, recounting how he sat there as he sold the vacuum, only for Mulder to reveal they're in a different house entirely.
Waking in handcuffs by Skinner and Scully, Mulder realises too late that Roche has taken his gun and badge and already used it to locate the girl from the plane's manifest and take her. The threat of the young girl's death because of his actions fuels Mulder's pursuit of Roche in the chilling climax of the episode as he pursued him to a yard of abandoned buses and finds the girl and Roche on the back seat, the killer holding Mulder's gun to the back of the girl's seat. Mulder choosing to save the girl bu shooting Roche in the head rather than get the answers about the final girl is a powerful moment particularly when maybe, just maybe, it might be Samantha.
It is just the idea that Mulder and Roche have become so connected that I don't fully by. Given that it has been a long time since I had last seen the episode, I was expecting the reveal that Roche had somehow got hold of tapes of Mulder's regression about the abduction; the idea that he could get in Mulder's head just as Mulder could his wasn't as strong as it could have been.
But it is a small gripe in an otherwise excellent episode. The unsettling nature of the case, the tease of a solution to Samantha's abduction, fantastic performances from all, particularly Duchovny and Noonan and let's not forget a great, moody, almost ethereal score from Mark Snow throughout and Paper Hearts remains one of the strongest episodes of season four. It might not have made as big an impact as episodes like Homes of Musings Of A Cigarette Smoking Man but it still stands alongside them in its own special way...