May 31 2012 12:00pm

Reopening The X-Files: “Paper Hearts”

Season 4, Episode 10: “Paper Hearts”
Original Airdate: December 15, 1996

Do you believe that Samantha Mulder was abducted by aliens? Really, gut check, at this point in the show, where are we on this? Of course Mulder is driven by many things but the core of the reactor is Samantha, is that night when the two of them argued about what to watch on television and then he couldn’t get to the gun fast enough. It could have been aliens, it could have been the government, it could have been aliens on behalf of the government or government on behalf of the aliens. But wouldn’t it be something, at this point, if it was none of those things at all?

This is the game of “Paper Hearts.” There’s no way—no way!—that the show will ditch the Samantha mythology at this point, right, I mean, right? It’s either aliens or it’s the government or it’s some permutation of the two, it is definitely, definitely not a serial killer named John Lee Roche. And if it’s impossible to convince us it’s probably also hard to convince Mulder, right, after all this is his whole life we’re talking about, his whole life believing that the lies all pointed to a particular brand of truth. But where we the viewers are jaded and brave, Mulder is vulnerable. Terribly vulnerable, and terribly willing to believe.

So it starts in his dreams. He dreams about chasing a red light into a park, and then the red light turns into a heart and there is the body of a dead little girl. Mulder believes the dream and he is not wrong. In the park, there is a girl, and there is a heart cut out of her nightgown. He recognizes the M.O. as belonging to John Lee Roche, who killed thirteen eight-to-ten-year-old girls. A vacuum salesman. Mulder was brought in to profile him and the profile helped catch him, but something always bugged Mulder, and that was the hearts. They never found the hearts so they were never able to count the victims. They could never be sure that there were only thirteen.

If the dream is the first domino, then doubt is the second. Our Mulder, plagued always by slightly unsolvable cases, ambiguous endings, the possibility of other victims. They track down Roche’s car and they find the hearts and they count sixteen. Three more than they thought at first, two more still unaccounted for. They go to prison and they visit Roche, played by Tom Noonan who gives maybe one of my favorite guest performances on the show. He’s clearly a creep, but there’s a softness to him, an accessibility that turns the stomach. Accessibility: Roche says he’ll tell Mulder what he wants to know if he shoots a basket from there. Mulder does (Did you know Duchovny played college basketball??? OKAY WIKIPEDIA SHUT UP). Creep: Roche was lying. Says actually, he’ll only talk if they bring him the hearts.

Mulder dreams then about his sister, and that plus a casual comment from Roche about taking the case personally sends him back to the prison, boiling. Roche coyly admits to selling Mulder’s father a vacuum cleaner—a vacuum cleaner that Mulder later finds in his mother’s basement—and Mulder punches him straight in the face. The angry cop who attacks a prisoner is not the freshest of beats, but Duchovny does pretty great work, here, showing us a Mulder who has lost his patience not only for Roche but for all of the men who have kept him from answering a single, simple question.

Scully is also in this episode, in case you were worried, hovering close to Mulder and delivering relevant theories about dreams and the subconscious and the Internet (she even quotes Mulder back at Mulder, reminding him of what he said in “Aubrey”: “Dreams are answers to questions we haven’t figured out how to ask yet.”) The theories don’t get much more specific than that, but they’re enough—it’s both likely and plausible that Roche would do a little work to torment the man whose profile set him up. Mulder was pretty quick to assume that sort of thing of Luther Lee Boggs, but back then it was Scully who was the open wound. Mulder is never so quick to discard Occam’s Razor as he is with a Samantha-related matter.

Skinner lets Mulder stay on the case, even though Mulder totally punched Roche, and our agents question the man again. This time, Roche feeds him even more, describing the abduction scenario with eerie specificity. He reveals the location of the fifteenth victim, a girl who turns out to not be Samantha, to the mixed relief of both agents. Roche then stonewalls, says he won’t say anything about victim sixteen. But he’ll show Mulder, if Mulder will get him out of prison for a few days. Scully shuts it down (“You’re going to see the inside of your cell instead. You’re going to rot there.”) only to have Mulder sneak off with Roche in the middle of the night.

In Martha’s Vineyard, Roche screws up. Mulder takes him to a house but it’s the wrong house, and Roche’s confident description of everything that happened right here is revealed to be a lie (shades of the Knicks shirt; Mulder loves tricking a serial killer). At this point Mulder falls back on his own version of Scully’s theory, hollering about how the two have a “nexus or connection” because of Mulder’s profile, who knows. The supernaturality of the whole episode is drawn very thinly, the rules of the dreams confusing—next thing we know, Mulder has had another Samantha dream and somehow, while asleep, freed Roche. This suggests that Roche does have some control, or that Mulder is a heavy, solemn sleeper. I want to mind, but I don’t. Not every X-File needs to be one.

Mulder finds Roche with a gun trained on a girl he first spotted on the plane to Massachusetts. Roche teases Mulder that he’ll never find the sixteenth victim without Roche’s help. And Mulder attacks the prisoner again, that old clam! Except with a gun this time. Right in the head, dead. Do you believe that Samantha Mulder was abducted by John Lee Roche? It’s not ruled out, but I always like to believe in the choice that makes the best story. If you believe in the Roche theory, then you take precious wind out of the mytharc’s ever-more-tattered sails. So I won’t, and I don’t. But what if he had, and what if Mulder had learned that. Would he shut down the X-Files? Give up his quest? You’d like to think he wouldn’t, that he’s learned enough about the scope of the conspiracy to want to light every corner, but given the power that Samantha still has over him, putting an end to the X-Files might be very easy indeed. 

Meghan Deans didn’t see it. She Tumbls and is @meghandrrns.

Ian Tregillis
1. ITregillis
The opening sequence with the lighted heart always reminds me of Real Genius. ("What's this?" "It's a laser beam, bozo! Follow it, it's a surprise.")

If you believe in the Roche theory, then you take precious wind out of the mytharc’s ever-more-tattered sails.

Very well said. That's exactly what bothers me about this episode. It threatens to completely undermine one of our two protagonists. It feels, I don't know, dangerous or reckless or something. Tossing out a somewhat perfunctory and contradictory explanation for Samantha's disappearance -- when her disappearance is set up in the pilot episode as The Thing That Made Fox Mulder -- makes it seem like they've given up on shoveling any more coal into that boiler. And this, less than halfway through the series (though we didn't know that at the time).

So instead, like you, I kept to the alien/government abduction theory. Perhaps naively, I always preferred to believe that the adult Samantha clones in "Colony/Endgame" really were copies of the real Samantha Mulder, and that the female children on the bee farm were also copies of the real Samantha. Shrug.
Steven Halter
2. stevenhalter
I, also, preferred to keep believing in the Samantha alien/government abduction theory. This episode always felt like somebody playing with Mulder and hence with us.
Cait Glasson
3. CaitieCat
I'm quite on the other side from you all; since I loathe the pointless and way-past-my-disbelief's-suspensibility-quotient conspiracy eps, I've always harboured a secret belief that it is, in fact, Roche who took Samantha, and that if there was any conspiracy, it was in feeding Mulder a bit of extra testosterone before this ep, so he'd be a surprisingly violent guy. And would destroy the possible proof of his sister's horrid but mundane end, leaving him dangling on the gruesome hook of his guilt and self-loathing for a few more seasons, and saving the taxpayers the cost of feeding and housing such a loathsome fellow for a good deal of time.

Which isn't, mind, how I personally feel about capital punishment - I am, as the folks say, agin it - but what I think might have happened, and don't feel is much less likely or realistic than the entire alien-oilian-tobaccoan conspiracy silliness.

So there. :)
Ian Tregillis
4. ITregillis
I doubt anything could be less likely than the oilian conspiracy. :)
Eugene R.
5. Eugene R.
With the plethora of possible abduction/disappearance scenarios that we are offered, I confess to never being sure who or what Samantha represents in the show, either to Mulder or to the viewers.

I will say, however, that Mulder's memory of Samantha's abduction indicates that it occurred while they were playing a game of Stratego, and anything that would interrupt a good game of Stratego would be traumatic, indeed. At least, it would be so for me.
Eugene R.
6. stevies
hi all, the avclub has just started their coverage of season 6,75664/

in the end, the coverage here (tor) is just a recap, with a humourous veneer, contrary to what was promised in the first post

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