The heart of The X-Files has always been in the recesses of Mulder's mind, in his relentless search for his sister and his implacable pursuit of memory. What is unchangeable is the fact of Samantha Mulder's disappearance. The agency of that event is a matter of some contention: Mulder asks Scully if she has ever believed that Samantha was abducted by aliens. Without saying so in so many words, Scully makes plain her doubt of this scenario.
We have seen Fox Mulder find and lose his sister in various ersatz forms in past episodes, yet her very existence is still a mystery. Was that really a clone of his sister in "Colony"--or a clever fake? Were those silent little girls of "Herrenvolk" really clones--or another lie? Are they still alive, or has Mulder been deceived? There are so many ways to interpret the various "Samanthas" we have been shown, that Mulder's confusion on this issue is completely understandable. Particularly so in light of his self-doubt in "Little Green Men", when he confessed to Scully that he was not sure the "abduction" even happened as he remembered it. So when a convicted child killer hints that he may know very precisely what happened to Samantha Mulder in November of 1973, Mulder is overwhelmingly compelled to listen.
A remorseless sociopath, John Roche culled his victims, all young pre-adolescent girls, from the families of people to whom he sold vacuum cleaners door-to-door. Almost immediately, Mulder discovers chilling evidence that Roche was involved in his sister's disappearance. Roche taunts Mulder, relishing yet another victim squirming under his thumb, until Mulder finally springs Roche on a Federal release order. Mulder's intent is for Roche to lead him to Samantha's grave. Instead, Roche turns the tables on Mulder and escapes, taking a child hostage. Mulder is faced with the nightmare of an escaped predator armed with his own gun and badge, with Assistant Director Skinner breathing fire over his blunder. In the end, Mulder uses memory itself as the trap in which he catches John Roche in a web of lies.
Mulders parking-lot dream rescue shows, for once, what a healed Mulder would look like. As he clasps his sister/self in his arms with a grin of pure relief and redemption, the deadpan mask drops and we see a Mulder full of joy, as he might have been before grief and failure and guilt turned him partly to stone.
We finally get to see a loving, tender Fox as he hugs his mother, obviously still grateful to have her. Maybe Mulder is beginning to break past his own defenses and connect to other people, after a lifetime of being frozen by the trauma of his childhood. Yet he is still the sharp-witted hunter wily enough to outwit his prey. Mulder starts out as the victim of Roche's mind games (Roche: "Pick her out...Are you sure you want that one?") and then snares Roche in his own net when he deliberately takes Roche to the wrong house to test his "memory" of abducting Samantha. Throughout, Duchovny gives us a three-dimensional Mulder who now truly trusts Scully, who lets her into his pain as he appeals to her for help. I particularly liked the scene in the morgue, where he discovers that the body he recovered is not his sister's. "It's not her. It's somebody, though." This scene let him do what he does best--show us Mulder struggling to control so many emotions at once--grief, loss, relief, anger.
Gillian Anderson, for her part, shows us a Scully determined to defend her partner even from himself. When Skinner rightly threatens to yank Mulder off the case for hitting a prisoner, she defends her partner. One of the most telling moments comes when Mulder, digging away barehanded at what may be his sister's grave, calls for her help. After a moment of hesitation, she joins him.
Tom Noonan, as the obscene John Roche, turns in a terrifying and naturalistic performance, perfectly nuanced. It's a portrait of a man for whom the only borders are the bars of a cage; when released he knows no restraint, no boundary, no limit. A complete outlaw, he savors the savage murders of sixteen innocents, reliving them as the peak experiences of his life. His glee as he taunts Mulder's belief in little green men from outer space, his satisfaction as he relishes the prospect of breaking Mulder with the fine points of Samantha's murder, and his cowardice in the face of Mulder's anger were all rendered in fine detail, as artless as breathing.
I cannot omit my applause for the surreal dream sequences in this episode, which fitted so seamlessly into the overall fabric of the story. Especially good was the parking-lot bit, where the unlocking of the car and the release of Samantha parallels Mulder's unconscious unlocking of Roche's handcuffs and the release of his prisoner.