Paper Hearts 4×8: Tell me about this dream.

"Tut, tut, child! Everything's got a moral, if only you can find it."

Writer Vince Gilligan first popped up on The X-Files’ roster with Season 2’s “Soft Light” (2×23) before breaking out with the hallmark episode “Pusher” (3×17) in Season 3. It turns out that Gilligan began as a screenwriter and was a fan of The X-Files as a regular ole’ viewer long before he came on staff. This explains both his predilection for cinematic stories and why this episode is almost unnervingly cannon in content.

For a man who claimed that mythology episodes weren’t his strong suit, Gilligan is awfully accurate about the myriad of X-Files facts that he scatters throughout “Paper Hearts”, an episode that uses the mythology as its base even though it’s certainly not a mythology episode and can barely be categorized as a Monster of the Week. It’s more a psychological study than anything else, along the lines of “Irresistible” (2×13) and “Grotesque” (3×14). But I digress. Every fact except Mulder’s birthday makes its way in here through such fleeting references as a mention of Mulder’s former mentor Reggie Perdue who was killed in “Young at Heart” (1×15) and a quote from the episode “Aubrey” (2×12). That’s not even counting the word-for-word recreation of Samantha’s abduction with adult Mulder inserted into the mix, a scene that’s perfectly done.

Clearly, “Paper Hearts” is written by a man who understands the language of fandom.

And like the fans, Vince Gilligan is well aware that the whole premise of The X-Files hinges on Mulder’s belief that his sister Samantha was abducted by aliens. If indeed she turned out not to be, the payoff wouldn’t be as grand. And indeed, eventually it wasn’t.

That’s why this episode isn’t pretending to be a legitimate explanation for what happened to Samantha but an exploration of the possibilities. What Gilligan is tapping into is that seed of doubt. Mulder himself stated back in “Little Green Men” (2×1) that he wasn’t sure if his memories of Samantha’s abduction were real, and since then he’s run into a couple of different versions of “Samantha”, or at least her clone.

What is Mulder to believe? Is she still out there somewhere? Is this whole alien conspiracy a ruse as Scully claims in “Paper Clip” (3×2) so that the men behind a set of secret and sadistic experiments can hide their crimes?  It’s an issue that will come up again for Mulder later in the season and will be explored at length in Season 5. But I digress.

Part of the reason I used to not enjoy this episode was because I could so easily dismiss the idea of a serial killer being responsible for what happened to Samantha. The main reason is that I always go into Monster of the Week Withdrawal around this point in the series. We haven’t had a really satisfying one since “Unruhe” (4×2) and “Paper Hearts”, while technically a Monster of the Week episode, is more of a character driven episode than a scary or paranormal one.

That said, it’s satisfying in its real world horror in the same way that “Irresistible” is. And it’s far more satisfying than the one note insanity of “Grotesque”. In the same vein of both of those episodes, there’s very little of the supernatural to speak of, if indeed anything of it exists at all. And that’s just fine because the implication of what Roche is doing to these little girls is worse than the vague fetishism of Pfaster in “Irresistible”.

Not only that, but similarly to what Mulder experienced with Modell in Gilligan’s other masterpiece, “Pusher”, this is an adversarial game. There’s a vast difference between having a Monster to hunt and a Monster to be outwitted. The villains that are a match for Mulder in terms of cleverness always turn out to be the most memorable. (This is why Samuel Aboa in “Teliko” (4×4) can’t pull off what Eugene Victor Tooms does in “Tooms” (2×20). For one thing, he doesn’t have three names. That’s always a tip off.)

Roche is more than just your run-of-the-mill sociopath; he’s a match for Mulder intellectually. It’s another game of which genius can outplay the other. One almost thinks Mulder and Roche could have been friends… if Roche wasn’t a sadistic pervert. At the very least they get each other. Admittedly, the “nexus” idea is a little weak as a plot device. But I suppose Gilligan had to give some sort of a name to their unusual connection. And, after all, this is The X-Files. Something has to remain unexplained.


This season is low on scares but high on character development. It makes sense because the show is a major hit at this point in its run; this means that the writers are trying to keep themselves out of a rut, the audience is calling for more information on their favorite characters and the actors are looking for a way to show off their skills. It only makes sense to give Mulder and Scully more time to shine than they have on their average case.

Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny were more than up to the task. And that Tom Noonan as Roche… whew! He’s so cavalier that he almost transcends being creepy.

And I just love the way that Gilligan has written these characters. I particularly love Scully in his episodes as she’s almost always a woman to be reckoned with. Here her barely restrained anger is palpable and even Roche seems a little afraid of her. Her eyes were saying something along the lines of “I will drop you.” Not only that, when it comes to her partner she knows when to hold ’em and knows when to fold ’em. She chastises him when necessary and ignores his mistakes when the situation calls for it. The strength of her compassion for Mulder in this episode is memorable and considering what episode is coming up in just a few days, it’s an emotional buoy of sorts.

Now Mulder, well, what’s most interesting is that Mulder is coming to the more rational conclusion that his sister was simply kidnapped, not abducted by aliens. Yet he’s coming to a rational conclusion in the most irrational way so that at least we know he hasn’t changed… at all.

David Duchovny really should have gotten an Emmy for his performance in this one.

Scully: You’re right, Mulder. It’s not a match. It’s not her.

Mulder: It’s somebody though.

Oh, what a powerful scene. In a season that’s going to give me lots of reasons to hate Mulder, thank you, David Duchovny for reminding me that I love the heck out of this character.

In closing, I’d just like to note that this episode is another strike against the “Mulder as Jackass” stereotype that’s hijacked his legacy over time. Mulder closes a potential door to the answers he’s seeking in order to save a little girl, just as he’s closed doors and will continue to close more doors for Scully’s sake. Mulder is a deeply flawed human being, but he’s an incredibly humane one as well.



The nexus theory still doesn’t explain how Roche knew what model vacuum cleaner The Mulders had in their house.


In another point of continuity, remember the scene in “Conduit” (1×3) where Scully tries to stop Mulder from digging up the potential grave of Ruby Morris, another little girl lost. Even their positions are the same. The difference in this case is that rather than hinder him, or even just watch him break the rules, Scully puts Mulder’s emotions above procedure and digs right alongside him. I heart these two.

Yep. It’s true. David Duchovny sunk that shot on the first take.

I almost committed a travesty of justice by failing to mention The Magical Mystery Tour of Whimsy that Mark Snow’s score takes us on this episode. Consider it mentioned.

Best Quotes:

Scully: You said it yourself once. You said that a, a dream is an answer to a question we haven’t learned how to ask.


Scully: Don’t you think the car might have been searched at least once already?
Mulder: Not by me.


Mulder: Sixteen victims, John. How come you said there were only thirteen?
John Roche: I don’t know. Yeah, thirteen sounds more magical, you know?


John Roche: How about this? Sink one from there and I’ll tell you.
Mulder: [Nothing But Net]
John Roche: Trust a child molester?


Roche: This man, this man hit me!
Guard: I didn’t see it.
Scully: I did.


Roche: It was Karen Ann Philiponte. She lived in a green rancher in… East Amherst, New York. Minter grew outside her window. I stood outside her window atop springs of mint. It smelled wonderful.
Scully: [Through gritted teeth] What year?
Roche: July… 1974. I had her mother on the hook for an Electrovac Argosy, but at the last minute she said, “Thanks but no thanks.”
Scully: [Drops pen in disgust]
Roche: Oh well.

18 responses to “Paper Hearts 4×8: Tell me about this dream.

  1. Without doubt a masterpiece and one of the best pieces of television produced in the 1990s, it’s high watermark for everybody involved. Duchovny, Anderson, Gilligan, Bowman, Snow, it’s tough, uncompromising, emotionally challenging and in a season which is full of questionable characteristics from Mulder, it’s lovely to see that romantic, noble and sympathetic character back.

    By the way, did anyone else hold their breath for that 20 seconds in the final moments, because I know I did.

    Nice catch with the comparisons with the burial scene from Conduit by the way, Salome 😉

  2. John Roche just always got to me with his proud attitude about what he had done. I love the interrogation scenes in the prison cause you can feel the tension from Scully holding both Mulder and herself in-check from beating the guy up.

    • Absolutely. He’s completely unapologetic, even casual about the whole thing.

      And I just LOVE that you can feel Scully’s desire to crack this guy’s head open, both for Mulder’s sake and the victims. She’s just barely restrained the whole time. “Indignant Scully” gets me every time!

  3. Tom Noonan is so damn chilling as Roche. This is not an episode I relish re-watching because its a difficult topic. What’s funny is that I can watch a full season of Law and Order: SVU without batting an eye, but this episode disturbs every time. Its all in the way the topic is presented and everyone from the actors to the production and writing did an amazing your job.

    I loved your review! It really did the episode justice. Love love love Vince Gilligan! 🙂

    • Isn’t he just a perfect Nemesis for Mulder? I can’t believe I didn’t appreciate that before.

      SVU may suffer from making things a little too open and graphic and thereby losing the tension that you can only get from suggestion. The X-Files played that up perfectly. We never heard exactly what he did to these girls while they were alive, but we can tell by everyone’s reaction to him that it was something sick.

      Thanks, Maureen!

  4. This episode is so pretty, too. Somehow the ‘laser pointer’ gimmick ended up working really well, despite how silly I’m sure it must have looked on paper.

    This episode is a notch above even some of my favorite Mytharc episodes because the ending, while providing the customary unsatisfactory conclusion, doesn’t have that “here we go again” feeling of CSM dropping some trinket off in the room from the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

    Do they ever return to this plot line? I don’t seem to recall them ever finding the last girl. An even more sinister thing to think about is that maybe that last heart was not from a victim at all, but instead some persisting question with no answer to plague Mulder…

    • I think the first few times I watched this episode the laser pointer gimmick *really* felt like a gimmick to me. Maybe with the passage of time my mind has given laser pointers a nostalgic halo of sorts.

      They don’t come back to this particular story line, but the idea of Samantha being kidnapped vs. abducted will definitely make a return come Season 7…

  5. I’ve got to nitpick something, and this is the only group of people I know of who can appreciate nitpicks like this. However, this has been bothering me since I watched this the other day (you’ve inspired me to rewatch as well, though I’m only watching the ones I like, not the ones that are crap). Mulder dreams, then goes to, some park in Manassas (I don’t think it exists, but that’s okay…it happens). When he wakes up and looks for it in the phone book, he finds it in the Fairfax City listing. Okay…while it’s not completely unlikely that Mulder would have a Fairfax phone book, even though at this point he lived in Alexandria (though in FTF, suddenly it was Arlington), which is in a separate county, Manassas isn’t in Fairfax County, so there’s no way he could have found the park in that phone book. Manassas is in the next county, Prince William. Like I said, nitpicky, but it’s something that could have been looked up quite easily.

    Perhaps I need a different hobby.

    • No, stick to your hobby. Nitpicking is always fun, especially if you’ve got special knowledge of the D.C. area. You know, I’ve only recently begun to think about where M&S live. More astute philes probably investigated it long ago, but all I can remember is that they’ve at least been consistent with Scully living in Georgetown. FTF and Provenance (guy trying to kill William looks at Georgetown on a map) come to mind.

      I remember Mulder beginning to tell the cab driver to go to Arlington in FTF before he changes his mind and requests a Georgetown drop-off. I wonder if Arlington is consistent from seasons 6 on?

      I’m guessing the show has given us the usual date/location timestamp from time to time in regards to the duo’s residences, but I rarely pay attention to those.

      • I’d have to double check, but I’m almost positive that, during season 1, Scully lived in Annapolis (I’d have to check Squeeze or Beyond The Sea, or something of that nature). For whatever reason, I remember something about Scully living in Maryland early on. However, don’t quote me on this. Like I said, I’d have to double check.

  6. This is an excellent episode by the entire ensemble. I’m with you all, David should have gotten an Emmy for this one. And thank you for being you, Vince Gilligan. I think it was after this episode that I decided that Vince Gilligan was my favorite writer of the series. This episode was redeeming for me, for Mulder, who up to this point has been a bit of an asshole. I enjoy episodes that push Mulder’s buttons/show his vulnerabilities (aka cases with young girls). I kind of love that this went unsolved too. Not sure why, but it just seemed fitting they never figured out the last victim.

  7. Although I am late to the party but perhaps I am missing something.. After all the information Mulder has been told about his sister e.g seeing the copy of her at the farm with Jerimiah Smith (sorry cant remember the exact episode). Then his mother basically saying that Bill Mulder chose between Fox and Samantha and that she was used as collateral by the syndicate in Paper Clip 3×2… Surely he must know that she was taken by these people rather than a serial killer.

    Am I missing something? I hope so because I really enjoyed the episode but all the past information made me certain that it wasn’t Samantha which took away from the ride.

  8. Pingback: Sein Und Zeit 7×10: If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take. | Musings of an X-Phile

  9. Pingback: X-Cops 7×12: With all due respect, what the **** are you talking about? | Musings of an X-Phile

  10. This may be the only time that Mulder has to crane his head back to look someone in the eye. That Noonan is a tall man!

  11. I’ve always wondered who the little girl is that Roche has on the bus with him at the end. I guess I could find it in credits somewhere, but, anyway, I have always thought she was some of the best casting I’ve ever seen in any show, movie, what-have-you.? She’s so beautiful , she’s practically angelic & with her little voice counting…oh, that scene is so tense. Kids in shows are usually cute (or creepy), but she is really beautiful. She must have come into casting & the casting directors prayed she could follow instructions as basic as sit or stand & she had the part. I like this episode, but I like the creepy murderer cases, although I hate Roche & his smug, self-satisfied attitude as he plays mind-games on Mulder (so I guess Noonan really did his job, eh?); however, the episode itself doesn’t really make sense after everything else we’ve seen on the show regarding Samantha. That’s always been a sticking point for me. Great episode, but it really makes no sense for Mulder to suddenly possibly even believe Roche murdered Samantha, nor does it make sense to expect the viewers to really buy into Roche’s story, either. Taken alone, however, it’s a well written, well acted episode.

  12. I’m currently re-watching them all from start to finish and reading this excellent site in parallel.

    This is a great episode and the bus graveyard location is amazing. I can’t escape the feeling that they must have stumbled across the location and decided to shoehorn it into the show rather than writing the bus graveyard into the show and then scouring the country for a suitable location.

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