At this point, The X-Files seems to be spinning the wheels a bit when it comes to the mythology. The series had moved to Sunday nights and maybe the point of this one was to introduce viewers to the larger mythology of the series, all the while not necessarily pushing anything forward in any significant way. The elements of a good conspiracy episode are here – the black oil, the Syndicate, Krycheck etc.
But all those pieces never add up to anything that feels all that significant.
Part of that is that it falls into the trap of a lot of the mythology episodes by giving us a sweeping canvas but having to somehow hit reset by episode’s end.
A diplomatic pouch with an alien rock in it shows up, along with Krycheck. If you’re a fan, all of these things are familiar. I do wonder just how Mulder manages to keep his job when he’s repeatedly assaulting Krycheck (Skinner too for that matter). Or even taking him to Russia only to let him escape. A lot of these episodes are excuses for Mulder to hit Krycheck.
Or maybe it just seems that way
Meanwhile, Scully is given little to do beyond defending Mulder and go to jail for contempt of Congress. One of the more frustrating aspects of the mythology episodes was how often they had to push Scully to the side in order to allow Mulder to witness things or go off and make decisions that you just know Scully would disagree with — again, he takes Krycheck to Russia on a hunch.
Thankfully, as season four continues, the writers find a way to give Scully an investment in the mythology of the show beyond just her concern for and friendship with Mulder.
Of course, the episode does have to hit some rather tedious points as well. The minute we see Scully testifying to Congress about where Mulder has gone, it’s easy to predict that he’ll show up at a dramatic moment in order to cause loud gasps.
The episode tries to flesh out the Syndicate a bit more and the Well-Manicured Man’s role in it — though I’d argue it doesn’t really do that very well. It also sees some huge travel expenses for multiple characters pile up — Mulder goes to Russia, the CSM seemingly drives up and down the eastern seaboard to stop by and chat with people at convenient moments. Heck, Mulder goes to NY to have a conversation with Marita even before he heads to Russia.
I think Skinner went bald tearing his hair out over Mulder’s travel expenses.
And there’s still the large question of — is Mulder infected or cured of the black oil? It seems to go largely unresolved here (though I may have missed something) and for the rest of the series run. It makes a fantastic cliffhanger (this show was good at making sure you wanted to come back next week). But it’s far too easily dropped once Mulder comes back to America.
Or maybe it was just all to give us the visual of Krycheck losing an arm.
Either way, this two-parter ends up being a disappointment.
Vince Gilligan’s fourth episode of The X-Files is his most audacious to date. In it, Gilligan gets Mulder (and by extension, the audience at home) to doubt one of the central premises of the series’ mythology — that fact that Samantha Mulder was abducted by aliens as part of some overarching conspiracy by powerful men within our government.
It’s a pretty big risk for the show. And it’s one that could easily backfire big time if not done properly. It’s easily an episode that could have a “jump the shark” moment for the series. And yet somehow, “Paper Hearts” avoids the ramp to the shark.
Part of that is because the show leans heavily on our investment in Mulder. Darren Morgan may have shown us how fundamentally flawed Mulder in his episodes. But it’s Gilligan who takes that ball and runs with it a bit more here. Mulder is given a lot of rope with which to hang himself in this episode — whether it’s hitting Roache in prison or checking him out to follow-up on a lead. And yet, for as much hot water as Mulder can or should land in after this episode, you get the feeling that he won’t necessarily get in that much trouble — or really any more trouble than his wacky theories usually get him.
Part of that is that he’s got a staunch defender in Scully. The scene in Skinner’s office when she stands up for him, saying that he deserves a lot of discretion on this is one of the better Mulder or Scully has to defend the other to those in authority. Heck, I’d argue that this scene works better than much of what we saw in “Tunguska” and “Terma” with Scully showing her willingness to take the heat so Mulder can pursue whatever theory or evidence has come across his desk this week. Of course, this time Scully doesn’t have to go to jail, so I guess she’s come out ahead of things and looking better.
The X-Files certainly hadn’t shied away from its procedural roots in the past. And it certainly steers hard into them here with the story of Roache. In a lot of ways, “Paper Hearts” is “Beyond the Sea” only this time Mulder is at the center of things and not Scully. Both episodes hinge on Mulder’s ability as a profiler — and give us some indication of how hard he had to work to get to the point where the FBI would let him be assigned to his own personal pet project in the basement.
Gilligan’s idea that Mulder and Roache got so inside each other’s heads that details of their lives are leaking over is an interesting one. So much so that when Mulder has to kill Roache in the closing moments to save the little girl, I couldn’t help but wonder if Mulder felt some kind of greater loss than we see on-screen. Yes, Mulder is losing a chance to find closure for that last victim. But on some level, Mulder has got closure on this particular avenue that could explain where Samantha went.
This one lays some of the groundwork for season five and Mulder’s switch from believer to a skeptic and then back again. I can’t help but wonder if Carter and company might have benefited from having this one air later in season four if only to reinforce how and why Mulder’s doubts will begin to creep in and fundamentally change his character during season five.
Rewatching “Paper Hearts,” another thought that struck me was, thank goodness everyone keeps everything. If the guy who buys Roache’s car doesn’t keep the topper or Mrs. Mulder doesn’t keep the vacuum, this episode is a lot shorter.
Also, as a fan of Gilligan, it’s interesting that, once again, he picks large vehicles for nefarious deeds to take place. Sure, we don’t see buses carry over to Breaking Bad like we did RVs. But the lot full of deserted buses is still a creepy sight.