Season 4, Episode 10: “Paper Hearts”
“Paper Hearts” is the first episode to explore a question that hasn’t been asked yet: what if something else happened to Samantha Mulder? What if she wasn’t abducted by aliens?
What with all the mythology involving Samantha, particularly in Season 2, there became a division between the girl Samantha Mulder and the plot device Samantha Mulder, with the latter largely overtaking the former. Not since Season 1’s “Conduit” do we really get a chance to focus on Mulder’s feelings concerning Samantha, and by the time Season 2 hits we start to attach Samantha Mulder’s name with the mythology. Think “Samantha Mulder,” and you immediately think clones, aliens, UFOs, the Cigarette Smoking Man. You do not think about a man who has spent his entire life trying to fix a tragedy that has broken him and his family apart.
What “Paper Hearts” does is bring Samantha Mulder back to earth, by placing her in a scenario that has nothing to do with aliens, abduction, or a conspiracy. Just like in “Irresistible,” the horror in “Paper Hearts” is very human.
But so, too, is the hero. “Paper Hearts” is one of my very favorite episodes for Mulder’s character, because it shows just how good of a person he is. It’s very tempting, I think, to write Mulder off as a quirky, obsessive weirdo who can sometimes reach stupefying levels of asshole (see “Revelations”), but “Paper Hearts” reminds us that he has incredible integrity. Just look at how he says “It’s somebody, though,” after learning that the girl’s body isn’t Samantha’s. Mulder understands the humanity behind the deaths, especially in this case. Every paper heart for Mulder is a representation of the pain that he knows too well. But Mulder is also incredibly sympathetic and mindful. I tend to disagree with Skinner a little when he accuses Mulder’s personal feelings clouding his judgment. They may cloud his practical judgment surrounding Roche, but they sure as hell don’t cloud his desire to put the victims to rest, Samantha or no Samantha.
Speaking of John Lee Roche, how awesome is Tom Noonan in this role? Compare Roche to the likes of Donnie Pfaster (“Irresistible”) and Robert Patrick Modell (“Pusher”), and again you get a very different sort of horrible person than we’ve seen before. We have the same lack of remorse, but the thing about Roche that always got me was how normal he seemed, apart from the whole murdering 8-10 year-old girls thing. Just like Mulder, I can easily see him as a salesman, and that’s terrifying on a different level than Pfaster or Modell. Not necessarily more scary, but in a different way.
There are so many things I love about this episode, and to name them all would take a review longer than most of you are probably willing to read. What I will talk about is a little detail I didn’t notice until this recent rewatch. When Mulder and Scully are talking to Addie Sparks’s father, he says this:
FRANK SPARKS: No. I used to think… that missing was worse than dead because…You never knew what happened. Now that I know… I’m glad my wife’s not here. She got luckier.
I never thought about how central that idea was to this episode until I watched it this time. Mulder’s search for his sister, particularly in the context of the mythology, always operates under the assumption that his sister is missing, not dead. But here is a case in which Samantha is subconsciously inserted, placed right into a scenario where she is almost certainly dead. Mulder’s talk with Scully (which is so deeply layered that I can’t discuss everything, kill me) illustrates this conflict. How does he really want to find Samantha? Missing or dead?
Mulder seems to think that at the end of the day, the aliens, conspiracy, the truth, nothing is as important as finding out what happened to Samantha. Even if it turns out that Roche killed her. Even if aliens aren’t involved at all. But what Mulder learns in “Paper Hearts” is that Samantha is something that can and will occasionally have to be sacrificed. Whether it’s to save the life of a little girl, or for Scully’s sake, or even for his own sake, Samantha – the person, not the plot device – will only be put to rest if Mulder takes care of the people in his life first.
And that’s a beautiful message we all can take something from, don’t you think?
Final score for “Paper Hearts” is 10/10. No, but really. This episode is pretty close to perfect. From David Duchovny’s really-should-have-won-an-Emmy performance to Scully’s gentle yet fiery concern to Mark Snow’s phenomenal theme to Vince Gilligan’s elegantly simple writing, this episode just has it all. It’s actually my favorite episode from Season 4, and it is one of the very best Mulder-centric episodes. It’s just…well, it’s just what I say for most Vince Gilligan penned X-Files episodes. It’s just damn good television.
- God, there are too many. Where to start?
- I didn’t talk about her much in the review, but how beautiful and awesome is Scully in this episode? She’s the only person in this episode who seems to scare Roche a little. I mean, just look at this DFWS stare.
- Vince Gilligan obviously loved the “A dream is an answer to a question we haven’t figured out how to ask” line from “Aubrey.” He uses it three times in this episode if I’m not mistaken.
- If I had to make one itty bitty complaint about this episode, it’s that I wish they had identified the last heart. It would have tied in the whole “missing or dead” theme better, as well as give more weight to Mulder’s “It is somebody, though,” line. Since, I’ll just say it, the last heart isn’t Samantha, it will never be brought up again and in the context of the show that girl, whoever she is, has never been put to rest. Sad.
- Mark Snow, you genius.