Thursday, June 9, 2011

The X-Files Plays The Millennium Card With "Unruhe" And Mulder Gets Character With "Paper Hearts!"

The Good: "Paper Hearts" is an awesome character episode, "Unruhe" is damned creepy
The Bad: Pacing in both episodes, Medium
The Basics: When Mulder is forced to reopen an old investigation because a new victim is found, it offers him a chance for closure!

The X-Files in its fourth season had some real competition from its sister series Millennium which was in its first season. However, for all of its horror, Millennium worked rather hard to stay grounded in reality. The X-Files was for the supernatural, Millennium was for the horrors humans commit upon each other (at least at its start). As a result, there is some sense to "Unruhe" being an episode of The X-Files instead of Millennium.

The character elements of "Paper Hearts" demand that that episode is an episode of The X-Files. It's one of the best Mulder episodes of the series and the intensity of his character's obsession is wonderful. Furthermore, the supernatural element that is thrown in keeps it as an episode of that series. Both episodes, though, deal with serial killers, which is very much like Millennium. "Paper Hearts" has an intensity that is more character-driven and tragic as Mulder is strung along, but it too has a lot of the adult intensity more commonly associated with the spin-off as opposed to The X-Files.

In "Unruhe," Mulder and Scully are called to a small town where a woman has been abducted. The only clue to her abduction appears to be a photograph, taken by an elderly drug store clerk, which is an image not of reality, as he took it, but rather of the abductor's imagining of kidnapping the woman. Mulder quickly theorizes that the abductor has the innate ability to imprint his desires on unexposed film.

Soon, the body count is rising as abductees return lobotomized with an ice pick and Mulder and Scully search for the criminal responsible. Unfortunately, in their search, they come across the right guy, but he gets away and at the next opportunity to find him, Mulder finds an image of Scully being abducted!

In "Paper Hearts," Mulder begins to have dreams that turn out to be prophetic, as his dream clues him into the location of the body of a little girl, long dead. The case is instantly recognizable to Mulder as the body he discovers from his dream's clues is wearing a nightgown with a heart-shaped section cut out of it. Mulder recognizes the pattern as that of a child molester he put away several years prior.

Scully is able to identify the body rather quickly and in the process, Mulder is shocked to learn that the identity reveals that the killer - now locked up serving thirteen consecutive life sentences - was killing much earlier than he initially thought. Mulder begins an obsessive search for the man's collection of cutout hearts, which reveals that there are two unaccounted for victims, one of which appears to be Samantha!

"Paper Hearts" relies entirely on the viewer's knowledge of the Mulder backstory and rather refreshingly does not rehash it in the episode. For those who do not know that Samantha Mulder was abducted - presumably by aliens, according to every episode before this one - the episode informs the viewer just enough, but the details of the abduction that have been mentioned and shown in prior episodes are treated as known by the viewer. In other words, those not versed in this backstory and the prior illustrations of it, are likely to be lost.

The episode mixes a straightforward monster-of-the-week (in this case of the serial killer variety) plot of The X-Files up with the whole dream nexus idea. Mulder soon theorizes that he has developed a connection of sorts with the killer and that is how he was able to find the first body and the collection of hearts. It is Scully who rather cleverly reasons that the connection is likely not a one-way connection and that makes much of the episode truly risky for the protagonists.

Annoyingly, though, the title is misleading and problematic. The hearts shown in the episode are fabric, cloth hearts cut from the outfits of each of the killer's victims. The fetishist quality of his obsession with the hearts is creepy and makes for one of the more interesting characters on The X-Files.

"Unruhe" is just plain freaky and visually, it is one of the most creepy episodes of The X-Files in psychological terms. For sure, there are other episodes that are more graphic, but this one has actual frightening images, like the photographs showing the women desperate and screaming and the simple terror of the killer picking up his ice pick near the end.

The problem with "Unruhe" comes from fans who pay attention to the details. Following "Clive Bruckman's Final Repose" (reviewed here!) some of us decided to take Bruckman seriously. It was a pretty fair bet, first he was always right in the episode and second, killing off Scully seemed like a longshot. But the thing is, when Bruckman declared that Scully never dies, it gutted much of the horror of the situations she was subsequently put in. As a result, in "Unruhe," fans could have done without Scully being abducted (though there aren't truly any other female character the viewer cares about to take her place, so we understand why the writers did it).

"Unruhe" is scary, but ultimately, it is very much an average episode of The X-Files.

On the other hand, "Paper Hearts" is a masterwork character study. The repeatability of the episode is a little lower than some might like because such things as the final dream Mulder has seem obvious in retrospect and the seeming need to create an unexplained phenomenon seems more like overkill than genuinely necessary. In other words, the intensity of the character elements with Mulder rather obsessively searching for the hearts and Samantha sit quite well on their own. The dream nexus idea is more mundane than the intensity of the character elements. Indeed, I was far more impressed that the writers remembered the detail of Mulder carrying an extra firearm on an ankle holster than the dream nexus.

Scully is once again given a chance to appear both intensely loyal and strong-willed on her own in both episodes. She takes risks for Mulder in "Paper Hearts" and she does a fair job of holding her own in "Unruhe." By this point, Scully has moments when she serves as Mulder's conscience and his balance and in this episode it works wonderfully.

But because of the intensity of the episode, "Paper Hearts" is the clear winner on this tape and that is very much a David Duchovny tour-de-force. Duchovny plays Mulder as strung out and emotionally lost in a way that is more desperate and longing than previous episodes. This is a great performance for Duchovny because he is forced to differentiate his performance from other times when his character is strung out in different ways, be it from exhaustion, being poisoned with LSD or taking a severe beating. Duchovny succeeds and this is one of his most memorable and deeply human performances of the series.

For those still stuck with VHS, this is still worth it!

[Given that VHS is a rapidly dying medium, a far better investment would be The X-Files - The Complete Fourth Season, reviewed by me here!
As well, those who already love The X-Files will find The X-Files - The Complete Series to be an even better buy, here!
Thanks for reading!]

“Unruhe” – 5/10
“Paper Hearts” – 8/10
VHS – 5.5/10

For other television season and series reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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