"Paper Hearts" (season 4, episode 10)
In which Mulder discovers an alternate explanation for his sister's disappearance.
"Paper Hearts" spends its entire running time trying to get you to believe a lie. But not really. More than anything, it wants you to think the show will throw away one of its most important structural underpinnings in the service of a monster-of-the-week episode that seems taken from the Millennium writers' room. There's a term for this kind of move: schmuck's bait. TV writers use it to signify any kind of potentially series-changing moments that they've tossed in the middle of the storyline, moments you know will never happen but which they dangle in front of viewers like candy. "Yes, of course, the protagonist will lose his job and have to move to another city, where he'll have lots of wacky adventures. Sure enough, all of the answers to the big conspiracy just happen to reside within this dusty old film canister, rather than evidence designed to raise more questions. There's absolutely no way the hero will survive this season-ending cliffhanger with her life intact!" Schmuck's bait promises a change to the show so fundamental that it wouldn't really be the show any more, if the series went through with it, and it takes a fairly bold sense of purpose to make it stick.
An example, with a spoiler for another series you'll likely want to avoid if you've never seen it (such is the nature of schmuck's bait): When Buffy the Vampire Slayer ended its fifth season, it was on its way to another network, after a season that may have been the most critically acclaimed yet. Sure, the storyline the series concluded its season with had been in the works for two years, but the overall sense the show's current network, The WB, gave off was, "This is it! Nothing more after this!" That, of course, wasn't helped by the storyline, which saw Buffy facing off against a god to save her sister. Buffy seemed to give her life to destroy the god, and the finale ended with a shot of her tombstone, as if to hammer home that she was really and truly and irretrievably dead. Now, the writers immediately got out there in the press to say that she would be coming back the next season (robbing the show of some of its immediate power), which was perhaps necessary for fear of making people think the show was really over and not just moving networks. But the overall effect of that last shot was to say that, "Yeah, we'll bring her back, but it's going to take moving heaven and Earth to do it, and no one will be quite the same once it's over." (To return to our supposed topic, the fourth season of The X-Files ends on a VERY similar beat, but one that does not seem nearly as dire because of how the show chooses to present it.)
I'd say that "Paper Hearts" ultimately works because it's an episode-length version of that final Buffy shot, an episode that respects the viewers who know the show will never give up on the idea that Samantha was abducted by aliens but also wants to tell a really powerful story about the idea that maybe she wasn't. Some of you have been dismissing the episode in comments because Mulder's seen Samantha clones or read government files on her or something like that, and while I suppose that's literally true (and it's hard to imagine the show writing off much of its mythology by having Mulder say, "I was misled about that"), I don't think the episode ever really expects any viewer to think that Mulder will conclusively learn that Samantha was abducted and killed by a very human man who was driven by evil impulses for one simple reason: If Mulder ever learns what happened to Samantha, the show loses one of its chief motivators. And as "Paper Hearts" proves, Mulder is never anything less than compelling when he's motivated by finding out the truth about his sister. In a way, it's a more fundamental and pure mythology episode than the two that precede it, even if it has basically nothing to do with the mythology whatsoever.
The central plot is remarkably simple: Mulder's dreams start nagging him about an old case, one that he thought solved. In the case, he and the FBI took down a man named John Lee Roche (the great Tom Noonan), who had taken 13 little girls, presumably molested them (the episode is coy about this, even as Roche describes himself as a child molestor), strangled them, cut a cloth heart from their nightgowns, then buried them. Of the victims, 13 were accounted for, and Roche confessed to 13 murders. But the hearts were never found, suggesting that there were more victims than the ones that were discovered. Sure enough, once Mulder starts having his dreams, he's able to put together enough information subconsciously about things he never checked to lead him to the body of a 14th victim, another little girl buried in a park. And if there's a 14th, there very well may be more, which means it's either time to get Roche to confess to more murders or find those hearts and count them up. When the hearts are found, Mulder counts 16 and has a dream where instead of being taken by aliens, Samantha is taken by Roche. It's an idea Roche does nothing to dismiss, and the sorts of mania that often grip Mulder in mythology episodes overtake him here. How does Roche know so much about his sister's disappearance? Will Mulder finally find the answers he seeks?
Now, of course, we know watching along at home that the answer to the latter question is "no," because to take away the question of Samantha's abduction (particularly via a decidedly non-paranormal device) would rob the show of something it needs to function. Without Samantha's abduction motivating Mulder, the show would be much less of a show. First, the mythology episodes would come to feel more and more poorly motivated, then you'd start to wonder how Mulder could believe in ANY of this bullshit. So you're waiting for the show to toss off a lackluster explanation for how Roche could know this stuff, and it more than does this, when it suggests that Mulder obsessed about the case so much that it opened up some kind of dream nexus between him and Roche, one that Roche used to his own advantage in trying to get our favorite agent to snap. (Personally, I prefer Scully's explanation that Roche got all of this information from the Internet, though it only explains how he knows so much about, say, Samantha and Mulder playing Stratego if you make the leap that he's somehow reading X-Files fan sites.)
And yet there's a power to the final moments nonetheless. Mulder's gone so around the bend in his attempts to discover if his worst fears about Roche are true that he's taken the killer to Martha's Vineyard to stand in the middle of the Mulder home and discuss how he took Samantha. (It's actually a pretty nifty trick Mulder pulls here, as he eventually reveals that the home is NOT the home Samantha was taken from, but, rather, the home his dad moved the family to after Samantha's abduction, thereby suggesting Roche somehow knows a lot, but the undercurrent of his story is made up.) Still, in his sleep, he dreams of Samantha being taken again, and he somehow frees Roche in the midst of this dream. It's a moment where you really agonize over how stupid the hero can be when he gets in the grips of something like this, particularly when Skinner and Scully come along to tell Mulder he's really screwed things up this time. And it's even more horrifying because the effects are much more easily understandable than when Mulder has something go wrong in the conspiracy storyline. If he doesn't catch up to Roche in time, a little girl's life will be ruined and then ended, and it will all be his fault.
Mulder, of course, catches up to Roche in time (in a nicely shot sequence in a graveyard of abandoned buses, suggesting the ghosts of childhoods long past), and he gets in good with Scully and Skinner again, as he must, but he never gets an answer about that 16th heart. He's pretty sure it doesn't belong to Samantha, but now, there's enough doubt to leave his brain mulling the possibilities. The episode ends, as all X-Files episodes must, with Scully and Mulder talking about what just happened, and then she leaves the room to let him have his thoughts. And the look on his face, held over an astounding amount of wordless screentime, suggests that he knows he did the right thing when he pulled the trigger to save the little girl and kill Roche but that he's haunted enough by doubt now to wish he hadn't, to wish he'd gotten the answer. It might have been nice if The X-Files had strung this storyline out a bit more, made this element of doubt more central to season four, but in this moment, Mulder is very much a man who's lost his faith, who's lost a piece of his core reason for being.
It's worth pointing out that absolutely none of this works without David Duchovny or Vince Gilligan. I'd say that Gillian Anderson gave the great performance of the central players on The X-Files, but Duchovny gave the iconic one. His performance often gets boiled down to a few moments or scenes, one where he seems to stand in for the show itself, a larger-than-life figure of everything it hoped to do. Think about Duchovny's performance, and it becomes a random mix of the guy heading down darkened corridors, flashlight held high, or chasing after alien spaceships or screaming at an informant about just what's happened as the informant smiles bitterly in his face. It's the image of the guy Darin Morgan was always making fun of, and it's an image that grew less and less easy to take seriously as the show went on. Even in season four, the idea of Mulder needed some puncturing, so self-righteous had the writers rather made him, and while the upcoming "Small Potatoes" (another Gilligan episode) did a better job of this, "Paper Hearts" is an essentially serious take on the idea, a Darin Morgan script focused almost solely on Mulder and without jokes. To his credit, Duchovny, who could coast when he was bored, steps up his game, and this episode might boast his finest overall performance of the series (even if it's less immediately iconic, if that makes any sense). The look on his face when he digs into the ground in West Virginia to find the girl who might be his sister is wounded, haunted, driven by impulses he can't bury after nearly 30 years, and it's an almost perfectly wordless acting moment, as are any number of other haunted Mulder stares throughout. Had Duchovny submitted this episode instead of "Small Potatoes" to the Emmys, he might have won a trophy to match Anderson's that season.
Gilligan, meanwhile, firmly reminds us, here, of why he became the best writer on the show for its mid-period. He's already got "Pusher," one classic episode, under his belt, but that episode and the generally solid "Unruhe" didn't suggest Gilligan as capable of much more than very good monster of the week episodes. "Paper Heart" is, at some level, one of those, but it's also much more because it takes the show's central ideas and uses them in the service of a story that's personally fraught for one of the leads. It's an episode that takes the sound structural plotting of the monster of the week episodes and marries them to the emotional impulses of the mythology episodes, in a way the show would rarely try again. There are silly moments here (again, the dream nexus stands out), but the overall impression is that of a very good X-Files episode or police procedural episode haunted by something more, an extra thematic depth that takes this episode from solid and entertaining and kicks it up to the top tier of episodes the show would produce.
And yet there are still fans who reject "Paper Hearts" vociferously, who think it's worthless, despite its many virtues, because they always knew that Roche wouldn't be responsible for Samantha's disappearance. The thing is, Gilligan knows this too, and he knows that you know it. His job is not to convince you that Roche took Samantha. His job is to introduce doubt in your mind, if even for a moment, and, more importantly, doubt in Mulder's mind. The comforting idea of a conspiracy theory is that it removes all room for random chance, that the death and misery that greet our time on Earth can be written off as machinations of the devil or a secret cabal that controls everything that happens. The boldest move of "Paper Hearts" (and, really, most of the best episodes of the fourth season, even as they're episodes fans seem to be wildly divided about) is that it takes away the certainty that some sort of evil order prevails and replaces it with the idea that it all could be random chance. In real life, most of us eventually come to accept this. But in fiction, particularly in fiction where there's a place for everything and everything in its place, it can become disconcerting. "Paper Hearts" resides within that uneasiness, and its suggestion that, yeah, sometimes, it's not your dad turning you over to the aliens, sometimes, it's just a nut with a Camino and a horrible secret, becomes a doubt that nags and can never be entirely dismissed, even as you know the lie is a lie and not true.
- Scully is much more along for the ride in this episode than I remembered her being. Similarly, Skinner is much more the gruff boss from every police procedural ever. I'd count these as flaws, but this is such a Mulder episode that it becomes easy to see it as entirely seen through his point-of-view.
- The episode is also enormously playful, particularly in the dream sequences. For an episode that takes such dark turns, there's a weird sense of whimsy to the dancing laser pointer and to Mark Snow's music, a sense of whimsy that never feels wholly at home, to the episode's credit.
- One of the reasons Samantha's abduction became such a powerful image for the series to return to again and again was the very careful level of detail the writers set up for it. The kids aren't playing just any board game; they're playing Stratego. They're not about to watch just any TV show; they're about to watch The Magician, starring Bill Bixby. All of this makes the abduction seem grounded in a way that contrasts with the weirdness of the rest of the sequence and the rest of the show. Here, it seems to suggest, is where Mulder's life stopped being normal and turned weird. Everything after that was ordained.
- Brief spoilers for the rest of the series: The show doesn't return directly to the question of Roche, to my knowledge, but it always leaves him open as a possibility for Samantha's disappearance, no matter how likely. Even the final, disappointing resolution of the Samantha storyline leaves an outside shot that Roche took her and killed her.
- Finally, Tom Noonan is really terrific here. Sure, he's always terrific, but he makes Roche into one of the series' great human monsters. Gilligan was always talented at making the monsters of the week have personality, and Noonan takes his characterization of Roche and makes it sing.
"The Wild And The Innocent" (season 1, episode 10)
In which the guy from Burn Notice takes his girlfriend on the world's longest outtake from Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska.
I'd never seen "The Wild And The Innocent" before this week (we're reaching a point where I've seen only one or two of these episodes until season two), so I had next to no idea what to expect from it, but the episode title put me in mind of a Bruce Springsteen song, of a tale of people who were facing down their desperation and escaping into the great American unknown, hoping for better days. Springsteen's among my favorite musicians of all time, so I was more than intrigued to see Millennium offer its take on this basic idea. At the same time, I didn't imagine this would be the case and figured we'd be in for more of the usual, more of Frank staring at objects and having flashes of the true heart of evil underneath the world, then tracking down an elegant and stylish serial killer.
Instead, Millennium offers up something very like a Bruce Springsteen song (particularly off his album Nebraska), and it's either one of the series' very best episodes or one of its very worst. I still have no idea. There are elements of it that have a raw, emotional power, like the central story of Maddie and her Angel, but there are elements that are really ridiculous, like the way Jeffrey Donovan's performance as Bobby feels kinda like a kid playing dress-up as the bad guy in the high school play. What I like best about it is what I'm coming to like best about the series. It's yet another episode that suggests the full weight of the evil in the show's world, the way that it rises up and takes hold of people who otherwise would want to lead good lives and sucks them down into its grasp. Rather than completely side with Frank about evil being sui generis or with Catherine about it being the product of upbringing, the series suggests it's a weird blend of the two: Evil is a constant, but it needs damaged people to do anything.
The episode's central character, Maddie, is one of those people. Really, she's along for the ride with her boyfriend, Bobby, who takes her on a murderous swing through numerous states in search of Angel (a concept the show tries to keep mysterious for far too long, long after it becomes obvious who Angel is). Maddie doesn't do much, honestly, until the final moments of the episode. She's just the window the show provides for us into a world that's not completely understandable to the average viewer, a sort of Millennium version of the film Winter's Bone. She's terrorized by a man who threatens to rape her in the teaser (after she's just attended her mother's funeral, no less!), but she ends up stuck in a kind of slow terror with her boyfriend, who's trying to do the right thing but only knows the ways to get immediate results.
It's fairly easy to write off Heather McComb's performance as Maddie at the episode's center. In a lot of ways, it's over-committed, all full of heartfelt speeches (that walk the line between thoughtful and horribly written) and bad accent work. But there's something so compelling at its core that it ultimately saves the episode. When Angel is finally revealed to be Maddie's son (with Bobby, presumably) and she finally takes charge of her life by shooting and killing her boyfriend, thus letting us know why she's been in jail in a few of the snippets we've seen of her talking, there's a kind of tragic weight to the story that shouldn't feel earned but somehow does. McComb, one of those next-big-thing TV actresses that somehow never got going (she's on The Event, of all things, now), is so hyper-committed to the performance that she wins you over with a sense of sheer, earnest devotion to the story, even as you might chuckle at her accent work or the way the show keeps forcing cut segments from Flannery O'Connor stories into her mouth. (Really, it's a wonder that Bobby isn't named "The Misfit.")
"The Wild And The Innocent" is also the fourth or fifth straight episode of Millennium to be an entirely different KIND of show. Sure, they've all revolved around Frank solving crime, to some degree, but the show makes weird tweaks to the formula throughout, and here, it's practically an episode of some weird, true-crime-based anthology show, where the main characters are secondary to the day players, who become the center of a story of how bad choices get passed down through the years, whether anyone involved likes it or not. Sure, we get the usual business about Frank and the Millennium Group (which gets involved for reasons that are largely explained away by the show saying, "Look, Lance Henriksen's a regular, OK?") investigating the crime, and it's always nice to see Terry O'Quinn. But the protagonist of this episode is a young girl who gets taken on a terrifying ride and finally has enough. It's a largely internal story about when one person will finally snap, and I'm surprised it works as well as it does.
And yet there's so, so much stupid stuff around the edges. The identity of Angel is fairly easily guessed (and fairly quickly guessed). Donovan's work as Bobby is often comical. He's trying so hard, and the charisma that would land him lead roles is apparent, but he can't quite nail the accent, and he seems self-consciously aware of how he sticks out like a sore thumb (unlike McComb, who seems convinced she's giving the greatest performance in the history of acting). The story is both weirdly simplistic and weirdly complicated, a blend that doesn't really work in the show's favor. In particular, the final resolution where Maddie decides to leave her son with his adoptive parents because she comes to some realization about the essential nature of evil (and its role within white trash folk like herself) is hilariously reductive, a clear sign of an episode that had probably always had this ending in mind but no solid way to get to it. And yet the story structure is nicely baroque, filled with lots of nice little moments and characters along the way, like shifty-eyed Jim Gilroy, a dark-hearted man who takes babies and sells them to potential adoptive parents (or shady adoption agencies). Gilroy seems like he's going to be the episode's chief villain, but he's not. He quickly gets shunted aside by what Bobby's capable of, even as he's riding along in the trunk. There's something blackly comic about the whole affair that no one involved in the episode seems consciously aware of, even as they keep pushing it on the audience. The Flannery O'Connor comparisons seem even more apt in this light (though she knew how to get a handle on her bleak comedy).
Similarly, Frank and Peter keep getting tossed into the episode, even though they don't really have anything to do. (This is becoming a frequent lament about the show's first season.) It's fun to see them pal around with local law enforcement (including Col. Saul Tigh himself, Michael Hogan), but they don't really add any insight to the episode. Even when Frank announces that he's figured out who Angel is, the audience is likely way ahead of him. The two seem like a useless appendage in an even more obvious way than usual in the episode, and that makes a lot of it feel strangely perfunctory.
And the story here is probably better-suited to a short story or novel or something. Almost all of it occurs inside of Maddie's head, and even though the writers try to clue us in on her thought process via almost constant voice-over, well, the 1013 gang was never very GOOD at writing voice-over, perhaps because everyone involved in the company thought entirely in turgid, pretentious, overwrought monologues. Not really trusting the episode's themes to stand on their own two legs and uncertain of how to let viewers in on Maddie's thought process without the voice-over, the writers then use the Frank and Peter portions of the episode to drive home what we're supposed to be feeling. At one point, Frank stares into the middle distance and says that Maddie's doing everything "for the love of her child," and it's supposed to be profound, but, instead, it seems ridiculous (another common complaint about the show).
Yet, there's a raw power to the story here that overcomes the episode's many, many flaws. For one thing, it's just nice to see a story like this, one that feels more small-scale and human-sized than many of the titanic battles against evil Frank has undertaken up until this point. For another, the constant idea of what people are willing to do for their children is nicely laid in from the very beginning, in a nice scene inside Frank's big yellow house (before the show hammers it into the audience's head, that is). And, ultimately, McComb's performance is so gloriously on-point or hilariously over-the-top that the scenes featuring Maddie vacillate wildly between "good" and "awesomely bad." To bring things full circle, the show's Springsteen-ian sense of working-class people, caught up in dark stories beyond their own making, in cycles they don't know how to escape, even if they want to, is always present, undergirding a lot of what's going on. Ultimately, that's more interesting than the idea of evil as some sort of malevolent presence in people's lives. Sometimes, evil isn't the darkness in the closet; sometimes, it's simply not there. You're just getting wrapped up with the wrong guy and finding yourself hundreds of miles from where you should be, staring into the face of a child who's no longer your own, knowing you should pull the trigger and end this cycle once and for all.
- I wouldn't be surprised if my opinion of this episode changes over time. I tend to like things that are wildly overcommitted, no matter how silly, and that certainly describes this episode.
- Frank's computer and dial-up connection are distinctly 1997 in nature. On the other hand, I'm always impressed by how Millennium seems so much more wired than The X-Files. If The X-Files is about people on islands that are being gobbled up by a larger culture, Millennium is about how the wired world makes evil more present in the lives of ordinary folks.
- McComb had previous experience with the 1013 crew, having played one of the kids in "Die Hand Die Verletzt" on The X-Files.
- As someone reminded me on Twitter, for a guy who has a reputation at being really good at accents, Jeffrey Donovan has sure done a lot of subpar accent work over the years.
- As an adoptee, the show's portrayal of adoption (both as a way for children to escape some sort of dark, foreboding background and the ultimate result of a child-smuggling ring of some sort) strikes me as a little melodramatic, but, well, this IS Millennium.
Next week: Zack checks in on El Chupacabra and some illegal immigrants for "El Mundo Gira," then heads to yet another private community infected by evil on "Weeds."