25 best standalone episodes of The X-Files

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3. “Paper Hearts”

At his core, FBI Agent Fox Mulder really only has one mission: to find out what happened to his younger sister, Samantha. She disappeared when the two were both fairly young. While others claimed that it was a kidnapping, he believes that she was actually abducted by extraterrestrials. This traumatic event thereafter drove Mulder to look for the “truth”, and specifically to investigate what appears to be a vast government conspiracy.

Most of the time, alien-focused episodes of The X-Files tend to draw from the sprawling “mytharc” that informed much of the series. However, the above paragraph is all you really need to know in order to fully comprehend “Paper Hearts”, from the show’s fourth season.

This time around, characters are beginning to wonder if Samantha’s disappearance may have more to do with a very real and tangible monster. Specifically, attention has turned to John Lee Roche (Tom Noonan), a serial killer who has since been imprisoned for his crimes.

How, exactly, do Mulder and Scully become tangled up with Roche? First, Mulder has a dream. Specifically, it is a very creepy dream in which a red light leads him to an unremarkable park in Virginia. When he wakes and travels to the real-life park, he discovers a girl’s skeleton. Investigators determine that she is one of Roche’s victims.

However, as Scully conducts an autopsy on the remains, she discovers that Roche may have been claiming lives far earlier than detectives had previously believed. Was Samantha one of those unfortunate girls?

Much of the acclaim for this episode centers on David Duchovny’s performance as a grieving older brother. Tom Noonan also deserves acclaim for his truly frightening depiction of a murderer. There are no ghosts or aliens in “Paper Hearts”, but you will feel chilled to the bone nonetheless.