“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?” — Fox Mulder
“What are you saying you believe now?” — Dana Scully
“I don’t know. I don’t know what happened. I don’t know what to believe. I just know that I have to find out now.” — Fox Mulder
Mulder and Scully investigate a child killer Mulder helped catch years ago, who seems to have killed more victims than everyone thought. Mulder begins to consider the possibility that the killer may have been behind his sister’s disappearance.
Radhika: Every once in a while, an episode of The X-Files will draw upon its larger mythology in its Monster-of-the-Week episodes, and “Paper Hearts” really takes that to the next level. Mind you, I still wouldn’t consider this an actual mythology episode, but it preys so heavily on the vulnerabilities Mulder has after his sister’s abduction, that it really gives us a chance to experience the impact that event had on his personal and professional life.
“Paper Hearts” is a beautiful episode. It has dark content — as 99.9 percent of X-Files episodes do — but it is shot beautifully, acted beautifully and is ultimately a compellingly told story.
The episode begins with Mulder having a dream about a red light that leads him to the corpse of a young girl buried in a park, which leads to him finding her skeleton in real life. Investigators determine serial killer John Lee Roche, who was caught by Mulder, murdered her. Roche — who worked as a traveling vacuum salesman — murdered 13 girls, and would cut a heart out of each victim’s clothes. Scully’s autopsy of the girl’s remains shows that she died in 1975, which indicates the killing spree began earlier than thought. After searching Roche’s old car, the agents find 16 cutout hearts and grow determined to find out who the remaining victims were. This is where the mind games begin, with Roche heavily playing into Mulder’s growing suspicion that he may have been the man behind Samantha’s abduction — not aliens, as he has believed all along.
Mulder quietly has Roche released from prison into his custody, allowing Roche the chance to lead him to the final body, which the killer claims is Samantha’s, but it becomes clear that Roche has been playing him. After Roche slips out of his custody with Mulder’s badge, gun and phone gone, he abducts a young girl. The episode ends with Mulder, Scully and Skinner finding Roche and the girl on an abandoned bus — and Mulder is forced to shoot Roche (fatally) to save the child. There’s a lingering feeling of not knowing whether Roche may have been telling the partial truth and might have been Samantha’s killer all along.
“Paper Hearts” is that ultimate “what-if” scenario: What if our hero’s motivations for getting into the alien-hunting business were wrong all along? What if it was really something as ordinary — though horrifying — as a serial killer who targeted children that took away his sister on that fateful night? What if everything the fans believed happened never really happened? The only paranormal element here is that Mulder’s dreams and Roche’s psyche seem to have become interlinked, allowing Roche to gain some insight into what happened to Mulder’s sister — thereby allowing him to mess with the agent’s mind. But everything else is a suggestion of everyday horrors, of completely plausible, not particularly fantastic, events. That’s what allows the episode to tug at the heartstrings, without being a schmaltzy, melodramatic mess.
We, the audience, can really feel what Mulder is feeling. Those years of angst and confusion over just wanting an answer for what happen are heightened and even though he does a few things that require some serious disciplinary action (like taking Roche into his custody without saying anything to his partner or superior), we can understand his actions here, probably even more than we have been able to in the past. We’ve seen hints of how Samantha’s abduction causes Mulder to react to a standalone case before, but this is the most extreme situation we find him in thus far. It’s an episode I fell in love with the first time I watched it, and it continues to remain a serious favorite upon every rewatch.
Max: “Paper Hearts” is a tremendous episode, not only for its extremely haunting imagery, but for the outstanding guest turn by Tom Noonan as the villainous Roche. Noonan is one of my favorite character actors, and his performance here exemplifies his particular brand of sinister silkiness that he’s brought to a number of roles. It becomes Roche’s singular pleasure in absolutely screwing with Mulder’s head, making him second guess every decision and investigative deduction. And with his gentle facade, you can see how he managed to initially charm his sixteen victims, luring them down the primrose path before absolutely destroying them in all manners of the word.
A lot of our foes in The X-Files put on masks that disarm the unsuspecting, like Eugene Victor Tooms and Donnie Pfaster, but none of them manage to do it as effectively as Noonan’s John Lee Roche. Both Tooms and Pfaster were never really comfortable in the mundane settings of everyday life. But Roche is a consummate salesman, and his ease in varied situations proves to be his trump card. Hell, even I would probably buy a vacuum from him! He’s also tremendously cavalier about things, talking to Mulder like an old friend, and staking vital information about his victims on the result of a Mulder three-pointer (even though his wager turns out to be more mind games).
In terms of the iconography, it was an absolutely inspired move to generate Mulder’s dreamworld through the medium of that phantasmagoric red light. From words that hint at important elements of the crime to the outlines of the eponymous trophies, this one stylistic decision is rather unique amongst not only the series as a whole, but in the whole realm of storytelling. It is something completely captivating as well as frustratingly numinous, as if it has all the answers but is unwilling to play by the rules. Another startling image is the body of Addie Sparks sinking into the ground she was buried under in the cold open. It’s that kind of inventiveness that makes the series continue to this day stand out from the pack.
An episode like “Paper Hearts” also rewards repeat viewings with its rich textures and multilayered narrative. Radhika mentioned above Mulder’s angst and confusion, and his demands for answers from Roche about Samantha and the identity of who belongs to the final heart. Those answers about the heart will never come, with Mulder being forced to kill Roche to save the girl he abducted. The lack of closure is of course maddening and frustrates our typical narrative desires. But this actually an asset in this episode, transforming it into a beguiling tale of innocence consumed by evil. We glimpsed through the looking glass into the subconscious of one of our heroes, a link that also seemingly allowed Roche to take advantage of Mulder (not that he needed much help in that department, as Scully said, Mulder “walked into that room with [his] heart on [his] sleeve”).
If there is one minor quibble, and I hate to bring it up in an episode that uses the material to such great effect, but it gets a bit tiring to have Samantha, specifically the fact that anything involving or reminding him of her, be a continual blind spot/refrain. If we’ve rolled our eyes at every time Scully has gotten abducted/captured, then we should do the same every time Samantha comes up for Mulder. I’m not leveling this accusation against “Paper Hearts,” but it is a salient point to bring up, especially as we make our way further into the series.
YES, IT’S THAT GUY
Tom Noonan – Appearing here as John Lee Roche, Tom Noonan has played a variety of parts in various films and TV shows. His films include Synecdoche, New York, and his TV appearances include everything from Law and Order: Special Victims Unit and CSI to Damages and Hell on Wheels.