Thursday, August 29, 2013

The X-Files 20th Anniversary Blogging: "Paper Hearts" (December 15, 1996)

A television series can endure many seasons and many years if it manages a tricky alchemy: the series must be true and faithful to its past and continuity, and yet also vivid and vibrant enough to surprise the long-time viewer with fresh ideas.  If the series gets stale or treads into repeat ideas…it dies. 

The X-Files fourth season story “Paper Hearts” -- written by Vince Gilligan -- is an almost textbook-perfect example of a narrative that tackles series history and continuity in a fresh and surprising way, re-casting facts the audience “thinks” it knows in a totally new and believable light.

In particular, the episode treads into the series’ central mystery: the disappearance of Samantha Mulder, Fox’s sister. 

All along, via Mulder’s own words (in the series pilot), as well as in flashback imagery (in episodes such as “Little Green Men”), the audience has been led to believe Samantha was abducted by aliens.  This fourth season episode, however, suggests a more diabolical, more “realistic” explanation for her disappearance, and one with frightening plausibility in terms of Mulder’s psychology: she was the victim of a serial killer.

And because Mulder couldn’t prevent Samantha from being taken away, right under his nose, he has constructed an elaborate mythology around the events of her disappearance.  “I want to believe” is thus a mantra not only about believing in aliens, but specifically about Samantha, and Mulder’s own actions in that situation.  He wants to believe that his sister did not end up in a dark place, murdered by a fellow human being, but rather spirited away by creatures which may or may not exist, and which may or may not have had insidious plans for her.

“Paper Hearts” lingers in this uncertainty about Samantha’s fate, and operates by the premise that “a dream is an answer to a question” that the conscious mind hasn’t yet learned to ask.  In other words, Mulder’s dream at episode’s start here is the beginning of consciousness of or awareness about Samantha’s real destiny.  It’s starting to break through the long-held, intricate denial (represented by the abduction tale). 

Gilligan’s stunning twist on The X-Files’s central mystery renders the episode suspenseful and surprising television, and in some way, even paves the way for the final revelation regarding Samantha’s disposition in the seventh season.

Mulder (David Duchovny) experiences a vivid dream in which a red laser light directs him to the corpse of a young girl.  Unfortunately, reality bears out this disturbing vision.  Mulder has discovered the fourteenth victim of a serial killer, John Lee Roche (Tom Noonan), that he jailed some years earlier.

Now -- armed with a book of paper hearts cut from the blouses of each of Roche’s young victims -- Mulder attempts to locate the last two dead bodies, girls who have never even been identified by authorities.

A strange twist emerges in the case, however, when Roche informs Mulder that Samantha -- his long-missing sister – was actually one of his final victims.  Mulder investigates, and finds evidence supporting this shocking revelation, even as Scully (Gillian Anderson) warns him to tread lightly, and that Roche is untrustworthy…

“Paper Hearts” thrives as drama in part because Gilligan’s story makes such a convincing case that “Mad Hatter” killer, Roche, is actually responsible for Samantha’s disappearance.  The plausibility of this explanation is heightened by the fact that Roche can point to physical evidence, namely a vacuum cleaner he sold to Mulder’s parents.  Also, facts suggest Roche was near Martha’s Vineyard, where the Mulder’s lived, during the time of Samantha’s disappearance.

But more than any of that, the story “feels” true emotionally because of what we know of and understand about Mulder as a character.  He has taken up a career in which he repeatedly hunts and apprehends predators like Roche, which might be described as a kind of psychic catharsis for or exorcism of his own (buried…) culpability in failing to save Samantha from the “monster.”   Because Mulder failed once, he has pursued a life that demands that he succeed, again and again undoing the first failure.

In X-Files episodes such as “Oubliette” and later, “Mind’s Eye,” we see how Mulder gravitates towards women who require his “saving.”  He is trying to make up, clearly, for the one who got away.  He is seeking redemption.  And yet this is not a conscious thing, no doubt.  His mind protects him from fully understanding his own actions with the carefully-constructed mythology of alien abduction.
Making “Paper Hearts” feel even more shocking -- and true – is the feedback from Scully.  When Mulder asks if she ever believed that Samantha was really abducted by aliens, her answer isn’t exactly affirmative.  

In other words, the episode provides both a psychologically-convincing portrait of Mulder that rings true with his behavior we have seen in the series thus far, and then, for punctuation, allows the voice of rationality and reason, Scully, to remain ambivalent about Samantha’s fate.

Of course, it would be an exact of supreme self-negation for The X-Files -- a series about conspiracies and aliens -- to undercut its very bread and butter by having Roche’s story in “Paper Hearts” proven true.  But the episode never feels gimmicky because every aspect of Roche’s tale feels terrifyingly plausible.

Additionally, Tom Noonan is a terrifying opponent for Mulder in this episode.  He is a sinister, sick man, but Noonan doesn't play him as "Evil" with a big "E."  Instead, he is soft-spoken, quiet and seemingly-rational at times, but all along he is actually playing the role of master-manipulator.  He is one of the creepiest predators (perhaps second after Donnie Pfaster in "Irresistible") to appear on the series.

Finally, "Paper Hearts" is both impressive and distinctive in the way that it depicts Mulder's dreams.  The red laser light points out aspects of long-forgotten crime scenes in Mulder's mind, and though our unconscious mind is rarely so specific or clear (in my experience), the idea works visually and in terms of character.  First and foremost, Mulder is a profiler with a mind of clockwork precision.  On a regular basis, he visualizes details to assemble a full-picture of the cases he works on.  In "Paper Hearts," we get a sense of that steel-trap mind, and how it tirelessly -- even at rest -- pinpoints important clues that might otherwise be missed.   The scary part, of course, is that the very mechanisms of Mulder's mind are subverted by a sinister invader here...

Next week: "Leonard Betts"

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