"Paper Hearts"
Written by Vince Gilligan
Directed by Rob Bowman

In which Mulder is led to the remains of a little girl by a series of dreams, all pointing to a connection between a serial killer he helped put away and Samantha’s abduction...

Status Report - Memorable Quotes - Final Analysis


Status Report

At the center of Fox Mulder’s universe is the memory of a single event, the moment that his life changed forever. The memory of Samantha’s abduction has haunted Mulder for years, and as time has marched on and evidence has grown more and more elusive, that memory has become his driving motivation. His entire belief system is an outgrowth of his psychological need to create and support the kind of paranormal world where alien abductions are real and tangible things.

Mulder’s time on the X-Files has been bittersweet. For every shred of evidence that seems to support extreme possibilities, there’s the hint of something far more mundane behind it all. Evidence of alien invasion turns into evidence of government conspiracy. Alien experiments have become illicit military programs. Time and again, Mulder has been forced to doubt himself and his conclusions, but underneath it all, the memory endures.

This episode challenges the very core of Mulder’s belief system, exploring the possibility that the recovered memory of Samantha’s abduction was nothing more than an illusion. What if Samantha had really been killed under relatively normal circumstances, the victim of a serial killer? The answer could be disturbing, given his meltdown in “Herrenvolk”: Mulder could have nothing left to sustain hope in the world or the future.

Even in the beginning of the episode, of course, there are indications of something more at work. It’s unlikely that Mulder could ignore the process by which he discovered victim #14; following a dream to a specific murder scene, all connected to a case dating back to his career prior to the X-Files. What triggers the initial dream is never directly explained; Mulder’s ultimate theory doesn’t quite hold water, since there’s no context for why Mulder and Roche would suddenly start swapping memories.

The trigger could have been the anniversary of Samantha’s abduction, something that would continue to cause Mulder some distress. Having doubted Samantha’s survival several months earlier and recently faced with mortal danger in “Tunguska” and “Terma”, he would have to be wondering whether or not Samantha might have been killed by some of the killers he used to profile. It’s certainly suggested that Mulder has some unresolved issues from his early years, as seen in “Grotesque”. Combined with the coming of 27 November, Mulder’s head could have been in just the right space to access the imprinted memory of Roche’s killing.

The idea of “imprinted memory” comes up in several dozen episodes of the series, and in this case, it could even be a part of Mulder’s slow process of recovery from his recent ordeal. Speaking of “Tunguska” and “Terma”, this episode presents a bit of a timeline challenge. Those two episodes clearly take place before this one, but the dates actually coincide, pushing into December 1996 in “Terma”. That being the case, it’s better to ignore the dates given in this episode and assume it takes place closer to the holidays. That kind of timing would also fit well with Mulder’s state of mind.

Scully’s theory may not ultimately answer all of the open questions about Mulder’s dreams, but it does provide a basis for how Mulder would have his dream imagery entangled with the real memories of John Lee Roche. Mulder is pre-occupied with thoughts of Samantha, wondering if his recover memories are real. He starts thinking about serial killers with patterns that would make Samantha a possible victim, and the unanswered questions about Roche are right there in his mind. As Scully says, the information is all in his head; beyond that, Mulder’s latent psychic ability does the rest.

The first act covers just the investigation itself. Even before he makes a connection to Samantha’s abduction and his dreams, Mulder seems to be taking the case personally. After all, as he told Scully, he had always wondered if Roche had killed more than 13 little girls; the resonance is already there with helping other families find closure. The closer Mulder gets to the information he dreads, the more agitated he becomes. David does an excellent job of expressing the depth of Mulder’s investment.

After Mulder and Scully have their first meeting with Roche, all the elements are present for Mulder to begin questioning his recovered memories. Samantha’s abduction was already on his mind, but when he relives the same memories in a dream state, now those memories are mixed with the circumstances of Roche’s past crimes. Because his first dream was so insistent and detailed (and perhaps even delivered to him by his “angelic” spiritual benefactors), he assumes that the second dream is also revelatory. Of course, it’s not, but this only highlights the fact that Mulder has doubts about his own beliefs.

Mulder is apparently so overcome with suspicions and dread that he seems to forget something very important: his regression hypnosis memories are documented and available to others. It wouldn’t take much for Roche to find out what Mulder has said about Samantha’s abduction since his original arrest. Roche doesn’t have to have any psychic ability at all to know all the details of that night. In fact, Mulder ought to wonder why Roche wouldn’t have taunted him with this information back when he was originally caught, if he knew that Samantha was one of his victims. Scully has Roche pegged from the beginning, but for Mulder’s sake, she keeps her doubts to herself, especially since she’s never subscribed to the “alien abduction” scenario.

It’s nice to see Teena again, since her condition after “Herrenvolk” was never discussed. Clearly she’s still recovering, and Mulder is just happy to still have someone from his family alive and relatively well. He can’t bear to tell her the reason for his questions, especially when he notes that the vacuum cleaner matches the type Roche claims to have sold to Bill Mulder in 1973. (Of course, a more rational Mulder might have wondered how many different types were being sold in 1973, and whether Roche was just tossing out two models that had a high probability of being correct.)

It’s not entirely surprising that Scully lets Mulder get away with a little prisoner abuse. Though it runs counter to her morality, she’s been present for Mulder’s recent escalation of frustration, and some part of her understands that there’s nothing to be gained by reporting it. (Or, at least, that’s how it seems, since otherwise it’s a rather large plot hole.) What is surprising is Skinner’s reaction. He smacks Mulder down, and would have every right to pull Mulder off the case and toss him back on electronic surveillance duty. Letting him remain on the case, even under Scully’s watch, puts him an equally bad position. Skinner would take the blunt of any reprimand, which could be his intention, but overall, it’s not going to help Mulder’s cause.

Well aware that neither of the two remaining victims is Samantha, Roche demonstrates how clever he can be, leading Mulder around by the nose. Making Mulder choose is a cruel joke, and even before Mulder is on his knees digging through the dirt, it’s clear how deeply Roche is able to wound Mulder with his insinuations. When Mulder pleads for Scully to help him dig, there’s a thematic connection back to “Conduit”, when Scully was more inclined to stop Mulder from contaminating a crime scene. This time, of course, the relationship between them is different, and Scully helps Mulder in every way possible.

The scene in the autopsy lab is a perfect character study for Mulder. More than ever, the search for his sister dominates everything in his world. For just a moment, it’s hard to tell if he’s terrified or relieved to discover that it isn’t Samantha. It’s only when Scully confirms it that he seems to trust his own conclusion, and then he immediately concerns himself with the case at hand, finding out the identity of the victim. In a situation where his judgment is clouded and his emotions are exposed, Mulder still manages to focus on the big picture…but only after his own questions are answered.

As Roche continues his manipulation, all designed to get him out of prison so he can continue his killing streak, it’s clear that Scully is also beginning to take the case personally. It’s impossible for her to sit back and watch Mulder be played, even when there’s little or nothing to be done about it. It’s somewhat surprising that Scully wouldn’t know Mulder well enough to ensure that some kind of control would be placed on Roche’s movements, but as plot conveniences go, the overall quality compensates for it.

The scene on the plane makes it very clear that Mulder is making a huge mistake, and Skinner’s reaction underscores how serious a breach of conduct it is. The trap that Mulder sets for Roche is clever enough, though one has to wonder how Bill Mulder’s house has remained more or less vacant for more than a year. The Mulders apparently have a thing about keeping real estate in the family. For a moment, it seems like Mulder is maintaining some semblance of sanity, but his theory about Roche invading his memories and dreams comes out of left field. In fact, it’s so out of place with the rest of the conversation that it almost breaks the tension. Roche’s comment about what he’s heard “about Mulder” reinforces the idea that he had access to Mulder’s recent activities, which in turn validates the idea that Roche read an account of Mulder’s regression session.

The suggestion seems to be, however, that Roche intentionally takes advantage of his connection to Mulder, sending Mulder a wish-fulfillment dream so he can affect escape. It’s more likely that Mulder is still working through his emotional trauma and exhaustion, and that he falls victim to his own limitations. Roche is an opportunist, as his manipulation of Mulder demonstrates. Skinner would have been justified to beat the crap out of Mulder right then and there, but at that point, the entire department was going to be answering tough questions anyway. Breaking Mulder’s legs would have impeded the manhunt.

Mulder breaks out of his confusion quickly enough to revive his profiling skills, working past his issues over Samantha to once again focus on the current crisis. Appropriately, Mulder finds Roche, who appears to be waiting for him. If the goal were simply to kill Caitlin, then why would he just be sitting there, waiting for Mulder to show up? Having Caitlin count off gives the scene even more tension, and Mulder’s kill shot is brutal but necessary.

The final scene highlights Mulder’s struggle to deal with the fact that his sister is still out there, her fate unresolved. His experience with profiling serial killers, mated with the whole Roche debacle, has to have reminded Mulder that any mundane explanation for Samantha’s abduction would likely end at a gravesite. Like the end of “Herrenvolk”, he finds all of his hope resting on the possibility of alien abduction, and it’s becoming less and less satisfying as an option.

As with most Vince Gilligan episodes, Mulder and Scully are openly more affectionate with one another than they normally would be. However, in the wake of “Terma”, Mulder seems to be even more willing to lean on Scully as a symbol of trust and hope. Samantha is still paramount in his mind, but Scully has taken on more of a nurturing role for him. This emotional attachment, evolving out of their contentious relationship in the third season, is necessary to set the stage for the trauma that Scully’s cancer would cause.

Despite the fact that there are some plot conveniences throughout the story, the episode succeeds based on the strong production values and David’s excellent work. By this point, the producers were well aware of the popularity of the series, and this is another episode that seems designed for an Emmy highlight reel. Mark Snow’s score matches Rob Bowman’s direction perfectly, and Tom Noonan plays Roche with a wonderfully casual menace. While it wasn’t apparent at the time, this would set the stage for Mulder’s complete crisis of faith at the end of the season.

Memorable Quotes

IDIOT: “Honest to God, a serial killer owned my car? For real?”

ROCHE: “You’d trust a child molester?”

ROCHE: “This man…this man hit me.”
GUARD: “I didn’t see it.”
SCULLY: “I did…”

SKINNER: “You tread very lightly. You see that he does.”

MULDER: “You just want to get out of here.”
ROCHE: “You’re damn right I do…if only for a day or two. I’m realistic. And more than that, I can’t wait to see your face.”
SCULLY: “Oh God…you’re going to see the inside of your cell instead. You’re going to rot there…”

SCULLY: “I would hope that you’d appreciate the uniqueness of this situation and its effect on Agent Mulder.”
SKINNER: “No, I fully understand the effect it has on him, Agent Scully. As I recall, that was the sum and total of my last words to you on the subject. You let me down!”

SCULLY: “Mulder, it’s not Samantha…and whoever that little girl is, we’ll find her.”
MULDER: “How?”
SCULLY: “I don’t know…but I do know you.”

Final Analysis

Overall, this episode was another strong character piece by Vince Gilligan. As usual, Gilligan ties together some of the disparate threads of previous seasons worth of character development into a satisfying package. There were some minor plot holes, but the episode as a whole managed to transcend those weaknesses. Another quality episode from the series’ best season.

Writing: 2/2
Acting: 2/2
Direction: 2/2
Style: 2/4

Final Rating: 8/10

Next Episode

Back to Season 4

Back to Reviews

Email: entil2001@yahoo.com