The X-Files: “Paper Hearts”

The Ace of Hearts

by Sarah Stegall
Copyright ©1997 by Sarah Stegall

Written by Vince Gilligan
Directed by Rob Bowman

The FBI is made up of border guards, agents who are usually called into a case only when a state or national line is crossed. They are also called in when the line crossed is a matter of degree–excessive violence, excessive complexity, excessive difficulty. And Fox Mulder is the ultimate border guard, called in to explain the excessively strange. Little wonder, then, that eventually his researches must take him beyond the borders of consensual reality into the capricious landscape of dreams, where the door to Mulder’s office opens directly into the past, and Memory becomes as malleable as wet clay.

The heart of The X-Files has always been in the recesses of Mulder’s mind, in his relentless search for his sister and his implacable pursuit of memory. Like most of us, Mulder is mired in the past, which is both objectively immutable and subjectively plastic. What is unchangeable is the fact of Samantha Mulder’s disappearance: on this one concrete incident both he and Scully can agree. The agency of that event is a matter of some contention: Mulder asks his partner if she has ever believed that Samantha was abducted by aliens. Without saying so in so many words, Scully makes plain her doubt of this scenario. Beyond the borders of that country revealed by sight and hearing, into the misty borderlands of memory, Scully will not venture. Scully is dependent on the well-surveyed metes and bounds of Newtonian reality, so much so that she relinquishes her own search for answers about her abduction. Were Scully a better physicist, she might long ago have accepted the more fluid worldview of modern quantum theory, but she is always left behind in the minefield of mechanistic physics while Mulder leaps the fence, pursuing his hidden past.

Even so is Scully left to scrabble in Mulder’s wake in “Paper Hearts”, an episode that finally, after more than two years, lets us into Mulder’s heart and the memory of Samantha’s disappearance. After 1994’s “Little Green Men“, we have seen Fox Mulder find (“Colony“, “Herrenvolk“) and lose (“End Game“, “Herrenvolk“) his sister in various ersatz forms, yet her very existence is still a mystery. Was that really a clone of his sister in “Colony”–or a clever fake? Were those silent little girls of “Herrenvolk” really clones–or another lie? Are they still alive, or has Mulder been deceived? There are so many ways to interpret the various “Samanthas” we have been shown, that Mulder’s confusion on this issue is completely understandable. Particularly so in light of his self-doubt in “Little Green Men”, when he confessed to Scully that he was not sure the “abduction” even happened as he remembered it. So when a convicted child killer hints that he may know very precisely what happened to Samantha Mulder in November of 1973, Mulder is overwhelmingly compelled to listen.

Awakening from a vivid dream in which a small but perky ball of light resembling a laser pointer directs him to an unmarked grave, Mulder races to a local park and unearths the burial of a young girl, the victim of a man he helped put away many years before. A remorseless sociopath, John Roche culled his victims, all young pre-adolescent girls, from the families of people to whom he sold vacuum cleaners door-to-door. Although Mulder thought that all the victims had been identified when his profile caught and convicted Roche, Scully’s identification of the body in the park proves that there were more victims unaccounted for. Grimly, the pair set to work to find out how many more children Roche murdered. Almost immediately, Mulder discovers chilling evidence that Roche was involved in his sister’s disappearance. Roche taunts Mulder, relishing yet another victim squirming under his thumb, until Mulder finally springs Roche on a Federal release order. Mulder’s intent is for Roche to lead him to Samantha’s grave. Instead, Roche turns the tables on Mulder and escapes, taking a child hostage. Mulder is faced with the nightmare of an escaped predator armed with his own gun and badge, with Assistant Director Skinner breathing fire over his blunder. Throughout the episode, Mulder is guided by Memory wrapped in the guise of a Dream. He speculates near the end that Roche has somehow “gotten inside his head”–another example of The X-Files attempting to make a metaphor concrete. In the end, Mulder uses memory itself as the trap in which he catches John Roche in a web of lies.

Mulder’s pursuit of his sister is not just a brother’s sentimental journey. It is even more than his attempt to heal his broken family. We share more genes with our siblings than with our parents or our children, so Mulder’s sister is his other Self, his buried self, his anima. So she is the female expression of himself, the symbol of all that he is not but perhaps would like to be–innocent, carefree, happy, loving. His parking-lot dream rescue shows, for once, what a healed Mulder would look like. As he clasps his sister/self in his arms with a grin of pure relief and redemption, the deadpan mask drops and we see a Mulder full of joy, as he might have been before grief and failure and guilt turned him partly to stone. It was a wonderful moment, rendered in cool blues and silvers and black by Director of Photography Jon Joffin, which left Mulder’s smile in living color to flash too briefly across the screen before reality intrudes, and he rouses to a waking nightmare.

David Duchovny turns in a performance that belongs at the top of his oeuvre. His mad and primitive hunter in “Grotesque“, the eloquent body language of “Oubliette“, and the raw fire of “One Breath” prepared us for his very human, very emotional Mulder in this episode. We finally get to see a loving, tender Fox as he hugs his mother, obviously still grateful to have her. Maybe Mulder is beginning to break past his own defenses and connect to other people, after a lifetime of being frozen by the trauma of his childhood. Yet he is still the sharp-witted hunter wily enough to outwit his prey. Mulder starts out as the victim of Roche’s mind games (Roche: “Pick her out…Are you sure you want that one?”) and then snares Roche in his own net when he deliberately takes Roche to the wrong house to test his “memory” of abducting Samantha. Throughout, Duchovny gives us a three-dimensional Mulder who now truly trusts Scully, who lets her into his pain as he appeals to her for help (“It’s not her, is it?”). Duchovny shows us not only Mulder’s loss of control but his regain of his emotional balance in the final scene, where he can loosen up enough with Scully to laugh at his own insomnia, and hug her in an unself-conscious moment of companionship. And when David Duchovny accepts his Best Acting Emmy, I hope he thanks Vince Gilligan for the scene in the morgue, where he discovers that the body he recovered is not his sister’s. “It’s not her. It’s somebody, though.” This scene let him do what he does best–show us Mulder struggling to control so many emotions at once–grief, loss, relief, anger.

Gillian Anderson, for her part, shows us a Scully determined to defend her partner even from himself. When Skinner rightly threatens to yank Mulder off the case for hitting a prisoner, she defends her partner. One of the most telling moments comes when Mulder, digging away barehanded at what may be his sister’s grave, calls for her help. After a moment of hesitation, she joins him. In Season One’s “Conduit”, she forcibly restrains him from digging up a grave in similar circumstances; now she is willing to trust his instincts enough to abandon “the book”. Even more important, it shows that she has recognized that part of pursuing justice is bringing peace of mind to victims–and she perceives Mulder in this circumstance as a victim. I loved the Valkyrie-Scully coming out again, in her disgust at Roche’s attempts to shake Mulder. Her righteous indignation at Mulder’s breach of discipline in hitting a prisoner was right in character: no matter how heinous the provocation, her sense of fairness will never allow her to take unfair advantage. This integrity is what endears Scully to me more than anything else.

Tom Noonan, as the obscene John Roche, turns in a terrifying and naturalistic performance, perfectly nuanced. It’s a portrait of a man for whom the only borders are the bars of a cage; when released he knows no restraint, no boundary, no limit. A complete outlaw, he savors the savage murders of sixteen innocents, reliving them as the peak experiences of his life. His glee as he taunts Mulder’s belief in little green men from outer space, his satisfaction as he relishes the prospect of breaking Mulder with the fine points of Samantha’s murder, and his cowardice in the face of Mulder’s anger were all rendered in fine detail, as artless as breathing. It was a completely transparent performance, miles away from the barely articulate child-molester played last season by Michael Chieffo in “Oubliette”, and put John Roche in the top rank of X-Files villains.

I cannot omit my applause for the surreal dream sequences in this episode, which fitted so seamlessly into the overall fabric of the story. Especially good was the parking-lot bit, where the unlocking of the car and the release of Samantha parallels Mulder’s unconscious unlocking of Roche’s handcuffs and the release of his prisoner. What a terrible and stunning wake-up that was for Mulder. Throughout, the use of the ‘LaserTink’ to serve as a dream guide and messenger was whimsical and charming enough to keep us constantly in mind of young Samantha, without taking us over the edge into “cute”.

In all, “Paper Hearts” goes beyond most of this season’s X-Files, to set new standards for compassionate storytelling and stretched-to-breaking-point tension. And in the best tradition of the series, it leaves us with an agonizing ambiguity–what really did happen to Samantha Mulder? Has Mulder been deluding himself all these years? Did Bill Mulder tell his family a lie that gave them hope, to shield them from a truth they could not bear? Has Mulder’s famous memory played him false all his life? Delicious little puzzles like this are what make great X-Files. “Paper Hearts” gets five out of five sunflower seeds.