Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The X-Files: Paper Hearts (4.10)

731, one of season three's various mythology episodes, played around with the idea of the fantastical elements of the series being a vast, unbelievable lie engineered to cover up real evil perpetrated by humans. Paper Hearts, one of the series' greatest episodes so far, covers similar ground to far greater effect, combining the best elements of traditional standalone episodes with the one over-arching mystery this show hasn't systematically destroyed yet (though they've definitely tried)...

There's a true sense of realism here, with Mulder forced to process the thought that all of his conspiracy theories over Samantha's abduction were simply an extreme interpretation of a far more mundane, yet arguably more horrifying, version of the truth. While I don't believe Roche had anything to do with the abduction, the mind games he creates are reprehensible, Tom Noonan infusing the character with a relaxed, casual fa├žade, masking the psychotic child murderer lurking beneath. He's a terrifying character, especially in the scene where he begins to speak to the little girl on the plane. Noonan hits all the right notes, not making Roche some hackneyed boogeyman, but somebody you honestly sense is deep down entirely disturbed and monstrous.

The script itself has obvious parallels to Millennium as well as the first season episode Beyond the Sea, another series classic where the key to a case lies with an incarcerated prisoner. But Paper Hearts has a far greater emotional core, presumably as it's an even more personal case for one of our protagonists. There's a great scene where Mulder and Scully break the news of one of Roche's previously unknown victims to the girls' father, who explains that the worst part of the entire circumstance is the not knowing, and that there's the ability to find closure when somebody is dead, and not merely missing. Throughout the rest of the episode, Mulder explores that same feeling. It's tragic that the tiny shred of hope is officially gone, but full recovery can only truly be glimpsed when the truth is finally revealed. It's a powerful idea to build a script around.

The episode also has overwhelmingly powerful visuals, from the macabre fairytale quality of Mulder's dreams (the flashing neon signs, the sudden vanishing of Samantha), to the wonderful visual motif of the cloth hearts themselves. Paper Hearts works on pretty much every conceivable level, and cements Vince Gilligan as the most daring and interesting writer working on the show at this point. Classic. Rating A+

Guest stars Mitch Pileggi (A.D. Walter Skinner); Tom Noonan (John Lee Roche)
Writer Vince Gilligan Director Rob Bowman

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