Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The X-Files - S4:E10 "Paper Hearts"

[ S4:E9 "Terma" <<< Season 4 >>> S4:E11 "El Mundo Gira" ]

Paper Hearts opens with an uncomfortable juxtaposition of whimsy and the macabre (perhaps to reflect the similar juxtaposition of innocence and evil that the particular murders this episode deals with evoke), as Mulder (apparently dreaming) begins to follow a laser pointer - like a cat - to a park where the body of a little girl has been buried. (Thankfully, the rest of the episode sticks mostly to the macabre, as this is a pretty dark subject we're dealing with here). He tracks down the spot after he wakes up, orders an excavation, and finds a child-sized skeleton buried in the ground. By a cloth heart cut out of the girl's clothing, he identifies the M.O. as belonging to a serial killer he helped to put behind bars (as in Young At Heart). This, of course, raises the question of how many other victims the killer claimed that he never confessed to.

This is an unsettling premise to begin with, but when Mulder begins to suspect that one of those unaccounted-for victims may have been his sister (first suggested to him in another dream, in which he relives his sister's abduction, but this time it's the killer that takes her away), it becomes personal. It plays on that fear you get when someone (especially a child) goes missing, and you start to wonder - not knowing for sure - if she might not have been one of the victims of a serial killer. Mulder gets a little extreme in this episode (not that that's unusual - he can be pretty intense at times), but in this case you have to forgive him, because it's his sister we're talking about after all. Not someone like his sister, as we've seen in the past (Conduit, for example), but - if the killer is telling the truth - his actual sister.

I mean, what would you do? What could you do, if you had lost your sister (or your daughter), and you thought you had the man who knew where to find her, and he wouldn't tell you? What could you do, but give in to his demands - anything he asks? Could you just walk away? What kind of strength of character would that require? This episode really does a great job of making the emotions personal, by bringing Mulder's sister into it - in a way that doesn't feel cheap and superficial, like it was in Miracle Man. Really, this has been the most touching an X-Files episode has ever gotten - and it feels natural, given the dark themes, not like The Field Where I Died, which tried too hard. Writer Vince Gilligan really hit it out of the ballpark on this episode.

Other notes: Tom Noonan is thoroughly unsettling as the serial killer John Lee Roche (it's funny how true it is that the best villains on the X-Files are the killers with three names), who manages to be one of the most frightening characters in an episode of the X-Files, despite being totally human, and even while doing nothing but sitting behind bars, completely harmless (aside from his mind games). It speaks to the horrible nature of his crimes, combined with his unaffected attitude.

On the other hand, this episode does play into the easy stereotype that anyone who would be attracted to innocence must necessarily be itching to snuff it out (I have no idea how that logic works). Have you ever noticed that the victims in these crimes are always made out to be as cute as possible? I guess it makes the crime that much uglier - and hell, I don't deny that it's an effective horror premise. But I would appreciate a more realistic depiction of this particular pathology. I had to groan when they found the paper hearts in a copy of Alice in Wonderland.

It was pretty exciting to see Skinner out on a case, working with the agents for once, instead of just sitting behind a desk supervising them (i.e., yelling at them for stepping out of line - although there's some of that, too, heh).

Scully's scientific explanation this time is pretty predictable, and utterly unconvincing. Normally, I don't go in for the concept of prophetic dreams, but this is The X-Files, after all. And I have a hard time believing Mulder's dream mind would be able to figure something out from clues he already had, that his brilliant waking mind couldn't work out. There's ultimately not much explanation as to where the supernatural elements of this episode come from, but I can forgive that, because it suits the emotional impact of the script quite satisfactorily in the end.

I really appreciate the continuity, though, when Scully references something Mulder said about dreams in season 2 - a dream is an answer to a question we haven't yet figured out how to ask.

Honestly, when Mulder asks Scully if she believes his sister was abducted by aliens, she should have said, "Mulder, I was abducted by aliens - except that it wasn't aliens, it was really the government." The non-mythology episodes seem to gloss over that whole incident, although I guess maybe Scully is just willfully repressing it because she's not ready yet - until the proper mythology episode - to embrace that truth.

Memorable quotes:

Frank Sparks: I used to think that missing was worse than dead never knew what happened. But now that I know, I'm glad my wife's not here. She got luckier.

Scully: You're in here for life - you've got nothing to lose.
John Lee Roche: I've got nothing to gain.
Mulder: You can gain one moment of decency in your life.

Mulder: Where were you in 1973?
John Lee Roche: What, the whole year?

(See, this sounds funny - and it is - but it's a joke told wryly in the context of a very unsettling and emotional scene - it does more in setting up the inappropriately glib manner of the killer than it does in adding any levity to the atmosphere).

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