Season 4, Episode 10
Director: Rob Bowman
Writer: Vince Gilligan
“A dream is an answer to a question we haven’t yet learned how to ask.”
This is a line bantered back and forth between Mulder and Scully as they wrestle with an imprisoned serial killer playing games with Mulder. Writer Vince Gilligan refashions an entire episode dedicated to exploring an alternative take on the disappearance of Samantha Mulder, who Mulder believes to have been abducted by aliens. Buoyed by a fantastic Gilligan screenplay and a hypnotic performance by Tom Noonan (Michael Mann’s Manhunter), “Paper Hearts” is another intriguing entry in Vince Gilligan’s brilliant portfolio of oddball entries into The X-Files.
“Paper Hearts” begins with Mulder dreaming of a red light guiding him into a park in Virginia where the body of a young girl is supposedly buried – an experience which immediately calls to mind the novel Alice in Wonderland, not specifically because the light spells out “Mad Hatter” but also because the viewer has the overall sense that Mulder is being led down a rabbit hole of sorts. The next morning, Mulder has a forensics team dig in that location to reveal the long-deceased body of a little girl – just as the dream had indicated. Missing from the dress is a heart-shaped section of cloth, the M.O. of a man Mulder had already arrested for murdering 13 girls – John Lee Roche (Noonan). After discovering Roche’s collection of his victims’ hearts, Mulder and Scully determine that Roche killed 16 girls, not 13 as originally thought.
When approached, Roche taunts Mulder with details surrounding the night his sister, Samantha, was abducted. Roche insinuates that he killed Samantha, which drives Mulder nearly insane. After digging up one additional body that turns out not to be Samantha, Mulder decides to escort Roche to his father’s home to determine finally if Roche did indeed abduct her. Roche begins giving excruciating details of the night she went missing, but Mulder has tricked him by taking him to a house Mulder’s father bought years before – not the house from which she was originally abducted. Mulder speculates that Roche was able to see his dreams and thoughts in order to use the memory of Samantha for his own personal gain. Later, Roche plays a dream trick on Mulder and is able to escape in reality.
Realizing that Roche was attracted to a young girl he saw on their plane, Mulder tracks Roche down to the town where Roche used Mulder’s stolen identification to abduct the young girl. Mulder finds the two – the girl unharmed – in a school bus graveyard. Roche has a gun pointed at the young girl’s back and taunts Mulder further, telling him he has no intention of going back to prison. Torn between returning Roche to jail and the risk that Roche would kill the little girl, Mulder shoots Roche in the head. As we close the episode, Mulder regards the final cloth heart with uncertainty whether or not it belonged to Samantha.
The screenplay to “Paper Hearts” is an intriguing concoction by Gilligan in that it introduces plausible deniability into the case of Samantha Mulder while still introducing an element of the supernatural into the story. As with other Gilligan-penned scripts, it’s not the supernatural that dominates the story. Instead, here, it is the character of John Lee Roche, a chillingly forthright and playful serial killer embodied by the very talented Noonan. Yet, the construction of the story isn’t its only successful element. In addition, the cinematography and the imagery of the cut-out hearts (fabric all of them – not paper) burns into the brain and makes a heart-wrenching mental association.
You realize that these hearts represent 16 little girls without having to see 16 dead bodies. In an interesting side note, given that these hearts aren’t actually paper and the fact that Roche was a salesman (and a conman), you have to wonder if the title isn’t a sick allusion to the 70s-era classic Paper Moon. In my dreams, I imagine that this was completely intentional, a brilliant trick dreamed up by the twisted mind of Vince Gilligan.