The X-Files and the Monsters of That Week: Paper Hearts

by thethreepennyguignol

A dream is an answer to a question we haven’t learned how to ask.

Or, at least, that is the opinion of Special Agent Fox Mulder: a man who frequently finds himself at the centre of nightmares. What would such a man dream about given the things he has seen, the extreme possibilities that he takes as a given? The answer to this comes in one of the show’s most elegant, most frightening Monster of the Week episodes: Paper Hearts.

Season four of The X-Files is one of, if not the most, consistent season of the show’s run. It’s packed with classics, some of which, like Home, are amongst the most popular and culturally relevant. So, like my choice of Pusher for season three, I’m picking an episode that hasn’t been talked about as much as the aforementioned Home. 

Paper Hearts is written by Vince Gilligan (who also wrote Pusher) and we can see a theme growing with his episodes at this point of the show. A Gilligan Monster of the Week is grounded in reality, with the paranormal aspect of his scripts usually coming from the minds of disturbed people. Robert Modell had a brain tumour that had enabled him to force his will on others; in the season four-episode Unrhe, the villain is a schizophrenic man trying to save women from the monsters in his own mind by giving them lobotomies. Gilligan is fascinated by characters who can’t trust their own minds, and in Paper Hearts, he transitions this problem to our hero, Fox Mulder. 

The question is, how do you get to Fox Mulder? What is the weakness that you can exploit as a writer? Gilligan’s answer is simple: what if Samantha Mulder wasn’t abducted by aliens but was actually killed by a serial killer that Mulder helped catch before he worked on the X-Files? Here is where the idea could have run into trouble: Samantha’s abduction is the driving force behind Mulder’s quest. He wants to uncover the truth of the alien conspiracy, but what he really wants is to be reunited with the sister he couldn’t save the first time around.

All of this should blunt the effect of Paper Hearts. Samantha’s disappearance is the cornerstone of the mythology, meaning there is absolutely no way that Chris Carter would let one of his writers pull the rug out from under Mulder and us with such a mundane (at least for this show) explanation as given in Paper Hearts. We know that Samantha wasn’t a victim of the episode’s villain, John Lee Roche, but that frankly doesn’t matter because Gilligan doesn’t care whether this is a real possibility or not – his job is to make Mulder care, and that’s the magic of the episode.

At this point in the show’s run, we have had a few Monster of the Week episodes that act as a showcase for Gillian Anderson’s talent. Paper Hearts is the first truly great example of a David Duchovny masterclass. That’s not to say that it has taken Duchovny three and a bit seasons to turn a good performance, far from it, but Paper Hearts puts Mulder through the ringer like no other episode outside of the mythology. 

It’s all achieved through eerie, disturbing dreams that are seemingly sent to Mulder’s subconscious from Roche. One of the things that make Gilligan a special writer on this show was the fact that he never overexplains paranormal elements of his stories. The psychic connection between Mulder and Roche is given the lip service of good guy and bad guy being so obsessed with each other that they have a mental bridge that only Roche knows how to manipulate. It’s perfect in its own twisted way. How would you get Mulder, a man who freely admits that he’ll believe just about any impossible thing, to doubt one of his life’s formative experiences? Give him a mundane answer with a paranormal delivery system. 

Simply put, in order for Mulder to believe Roche, this had to be an X-File, and those dreams had to be an answer to a question he was too afraid to ask.

By Kevin Boyle

(header image via IMDB)