According to Paper Clip‘s Wikipedia page, there is a quote attributed to “the creators” of the show (I’m assuming they mean Chris Carter when they said creators) which says that the episode was likened to the Star Wars trilogy and Sophie’s Choice. It’s hard to argue with that pitch, because this is The X-Files at is most epic in scale whilst never forgetting to be powerfully emotional.
There is a moment in the episode which sees Mulder encounter what looks to be a UFO. We never see the craft fully, just the lights and the tail end of the craft, whilst most of the encounter is played through the look on Mulder’s face and the largest set of lights rising up, only a series of windows allowing us our look at what it is that our hero is encountering. It’s a moment that sums up the majesty, wonder and horror of The X-Files, and is a lovely replay of one of the show’s most iconic moments from as far back as Deep Throat.
It’s funny to be reminded of Deep Throat during this moment because whilst it was only two seasons ago that Mulder had his encounter at Ellis Air Force Base, it was one small craft. Now we have something that the production values of the show is suggesting is even bigger, whilst the mythology has grown more epic in scope and grandeur. It was around this season that talk would begin about taking The X-Files to the big screen, an idea that would reach fruition after the fifth year of the show.
The show has truly become even grander than ever thought possible and if you need evidence of that, one need only look at Paper Clip.
The third season of The X-Files is one in where the show fires on all cylinders, in particularly with the mythology, which sees the show’s philosophy of asking more questions than providing answers still being a powerful attractant of its storytelling, as opposed to something that would prove to be off-putting to many, and whilst we might be still none the wiser as to why The Syndicate and The Cigarette Smoking Man are desperate to hide the existence of extra terrestrial life, they still pose a threat.
By the end of the episode we will have witnessed a three-part story that has seen; Scully grieving her sister due to a horrible case of mistaken identity, the reveal of the existence of a group of men apparently hiding evidence of alien life from the world, a group which Mulder’s father was a part of, and that grand UFO encounter. Of course nothing can be resolved too much, the story is set to be the driving heart of the show after all, and thus the episode can only afford its audience a degree of emotional catharsis and closure as opposed to a narrative one.
There is so much to love here, and it scarcely puts a foot wrong. Whilst The Blessing Way was bravely experimental with its inclusion of spiritual elements, it was its thriller elements that made it fly high and thankfully Paper Clip is predominantly thriller, throwing in a grand set piece, superb performances from everyone, as well as the greatest ever Skinner moment of the show that it simply wants to make you cheer. Mulder, Scully and Skinner may still be fighting the war, but at least there is one small battle they are victorious in.
The moment that Skinner tells the Smoking Man to “pucker up and kiss his ass” never gets old and is without a doubt one of the greatest ever moments that the show ever done. Seriously, has there ever been as great a line-reading as the one that Mitch Pillegi gives when he says those words? The answer is of course, yes.
There is still an element of the Native American and spiritual belief carrying over, but it’s there for more thematic purposes as such, it’s as an intense conspiracy drama that Paper Clip, and this three-parter as a whole, has excelled at. Overall these three episodes have shown that The X-Files was not afraid to push itself in terms of being a more cinematic television drama and it doesn’t come as the biggest surprise that Rob Bowman was the one calling the shots behind the scenes on this one.
There is grandness to the episode’s biggest set piece, the mining facility, a lead Mulder and Scully gain from a former Nazi scientist that was granted amnesty after World War II, a superb piece of casting that sees Walter Gotell from the James Bond series guest star, bringing both a revolting sense of evil and yet an aura of class to the role that just makes his soft-spoken and elegant manner all the more disturbing. The fact that the information comes from a Nazi scientist links the mythology of the show to an all too real piece of history that could have been distasteful in the extreme and yet, it never feels that way, it’s a balancing act that Carter deserves credit for managing to retain control of.
The sequence when Mulder and Scully get there sees a series of reinforced doors, one of which leads to a never-ending tunnel complex which has an equally never-ending series of filing cabinets, the contents of which, like Anasazi, sees The X-Files chill and disturb the audience simply with words, or a small image, or a semblance of an idea that gives one pause for thought and which ends up chilling you to the bone. The inclusion of a tissue sample and the files of both Scully and Samantha, the latter of which was meant to be Mulder’s, coupled with how many files there are, is both imaginative and diabolical and shows the odds against our characters.
If that wasn’t enough the show then throws in a giant UFO, aliens running down the tunnels, and a CIA hit-squad coupled with some of the loudest gun shots you’re ever likely to hear on a television show.
Yet, it’s in the episode’s final moments that it really hammers home its power. The set piece, the UFO, it’s all brilliant, but it’s the character moments in Paper Clip’s final act that really takes the breath away; we have the Skinner scene (always brilliant), but we also get an embittered Krycek threatening to kill the Smoking Man the next time he sees him, a moment that shows that our black-lunged villain isn’t afraid to lie even to the men he is working for, Mulder having an intense moment with his mother when it’s revealed that Bill Mulder made a choice that led to Samantha being abducted by aliens (the Sophie’s Choice of the episode) and a powerful final scene when, upon learning that Scully has lost her sister, both Mulder and Scully make a determination to keep fighting on.
Great drama is nothing without great character, and Paper Clip works so damn well because of moments like this. They can be punch the air brilliant, cathartic and powerful. The revelation that Samantha was not abducted by accident but by design is sobering and horrifying, the scene finishing out not with a bang but with Mulder’s mother sobbing into his shoulder. That the episode ends by revealing that Melissa Scully is dead not with a death scene but the reveal that her hospital bed is now empty, with a mourning Scully still sitting there, is equally sobering. It could potentially end the episode on a downer, but it ends with a call to arms for both our heroes that leaves one excited for where the show can go next.
Even if, like me, you’ve watched the show a hundred times and knows where it goes (the good and the bad), the promise it gives to the audience going forward is intoxicating and brilliant.