So you want to catch up? Let Brian’s comprehensive guide help.
As you may have heard, The X-Files returns soon. As perhaps the most important show of the 90s, and given that it essentially invented the modern form of procedural that most major networks use today, it’s not exactly the easiest show to binge. Clocking in at just over 200 episodes, it would take the average person months to get through (it took me the better part of an entire summer).
In an effort to help make your binging easier, here’s a quick rundown of the absolute, can’t-miss A level episodes in each of the show’s 9 seasons. I’ll try my best to provide some insight into what makes these 40 some odd episodes the best examples of The X-Files wit, intrigue, heart, humor and cold, calculated terror.
Episode 1: Pilot
Sort of an obvious choice, but aside from being the first episode, “Pilot” works to introduce three primary components of the show. First, it’s a great start to the Mulder/Scully dynamic, one so popular that the term “shipping” was invented to describe it. Secondly, the show’s post-USSR, pre-9/11 aesthetic is steeped in paranoia, and that paranoia pervades every frame of this episode. Finally, it’s just a good mystery, the sort that this show loved to leave unanswered.
Episode 2: Deep Throat (Mythology)
Another 21st-century television term that The X-Files invented was “mytharc,” or the concept of a serialized plot that unfolds over specialized episodes. “Deep Throat” is the first, and one of the very best mytharc episodes. It takes the show a little while to figure out what to do with Scully, but her fear and confusion as she comes to realize that Mulder isn’t crazy is one of the most effective sequences the show ever did.
Episode 3: Squeeze
The first “monster of the week” episode, starring Doug Hutchison as a bizarre mutant who eats people’s livers. It’s the show’s first attempt at grossout horror, and it’s incredibly effective. Donal Logue is here, too!
Episode 8: Ice
Xander Berkeley! Felicity Huffman! A bunch of people trying to kill one another in an abandoned arctic research post! The first and best version of what would become an X-Files staple: Mulder and Scully and a bunch of scientists stranded in a remote location with an inscrutable lifeform bent on destroying them. Just a thoroughly unsettling episode.
Episode 10: Fallen Angel (Mythology)
Introduces us to the clash between the UFO sub-culture the show’s distinct paranoia attempted to tap into, personified by Gen-Xer Max Fenig (and more effectively by the Lone Gunmen, who get their introduction in “E.B.E.” later this season), and the rigid militarism of the American Government, represented by Deep Throat and his shadowy cohorts. The special effects are still strangely effective today, despite being nearly a quarter-century old.
Episode 13: Beyond the Sea
Brad Dourif! Holy shit, Brad Dourif. A fairly routine premise is enlivened by Dourif’s performance and, for the first time, a focus shifted almost entirely on Gillian Anderson as Dana Scully. The decision to make Scully more of a spiritualist leads to a lot of unsettling Lynchian imagery, and this, her investigation into a possibly psychic death row inmate, is one of the finest examples.
Episode 24: The Ehrlenmeyer Flask (Mythology)
While charmingly low-key by today’s standards, the first season’s “explosive finale” brought together a lot of disparate threads into one cohesive whole, and produced one of the series’s defining scenes as a climax. I won’t get another chance to single out Jerry Hardin as Deep Throat, which is a shame, because he’s magnificent. Trust no one, indeed.
Honorable Mentions: Conduit, Eve, E.B.E., Tooms.
Skip For Time: The Jersey Devil, Space, Miracle Man, Space.
Episode 2: The Host
Arguably the greatest gross-out episode the show ever did finds Mulder a rebel without a cause and an agent without an X-Files on the hunt for a flukeman who haunts the sewers. Nothing else really needs to be said here.
Episodes 5/6: Duane Barry/Ascension (Mythology)
Gillian Anderson’s pregnancy forced the development of this storyline, wherein Scully is kidnapped by aliens (maybe?), one of the better extended plots the show ever did. Steve Railsback and David Duchovny do great work over the course of these two episodes, which also see the introduction of recurring series villain Alex Krycek.
Episodes 16/17: Colony/End Game (Mythology)
The introduction of the famed Black Oil, which is almost emblematic for the mytharc of the show: initially interesting, eventually inert. Still, these two episodes are sterling examples of what the mytharc did at its best. The Black Oil really was a great concept.
Episode 25: Anasazi (Mythology)
Native American mysticism! Mulder hiding in a storage container filled with alien bodies! Extended World War II allegories! The Cigarette Smoking Man! Albert Hosteen! Even if the third season premiere (and second part of this finale) is cringeworthy, this episode stands as a fantastic cliffhanger and a sign of the show entering its golden age.
Honorable Mentions: Little Green Men, Die Hand Die Verletzt, Humbug, F. Emasculata
Skip For Time: 3, Excelsis Dei, Fresh Bones, Fearful Symmetry
Episode 2: Paper Clip (Mythology)
The very best mythology episode ever made. At its best (i.e., here) this show tied in real-world government conspiracies with alien overlords and mysterious phenomena. There’s a reason the secrets our government hides from us mesh so well with the shadows we create for ourselves, and when those shadows are skittering past you in a warehouse full of tissue samples and smallpox vaccinations, it can be a little overwhelming. That’s what this show did at its pinnacle. Everything moves just a little too quickly to see, is a little too difficult to grab, but if you can just reach hard enough, you can get to it. The truth is out there.
Episode 4: Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose
Season 3 contains, in my opinion, the three best X-Files episodes, and this is the greatest of them. What makes “Repose” so good is, like all of Darin Morgan’s episodes, how it holds the rest of the series — with all its petty mysteries and love stories — at a certain distance, not necessarily mocking it, but not necessarily cherishing it either.
It’s an episode about a lonely old man (a magnificent Peter Boyle) and the strange connections he has with people: namely, he knows how they’re going to die. Mulder and Scully (well, Mulder) try to use his abilities to catch a killer who might also be a psychic. This sounds like a much tenser episode than what it actually is. It’s simultaneously sweet and befuddling, terrifying and strange, and thoroughly thought-provoking. “Repose” has bigger things on its mind than aliens and conspiracies.
Episodes 9/10: Nisei/731 (Mythology)
A very strong pair of mythology episodes that are both set on and move with the pace of a runaway train. Mr X and Mulder’s relationship is adversarial, and is never better than when they chase down a Syndicate baddie as he eliminates the remnants of a Japanese science division.
Episode 12: War of the Coprophages
Another, lesser Darin Morgan episode that is perhaps just a little too cute sometimes, but still exceptionally fun. Mulder is trapped in a small town that is convinced it’s being attacked by weaponized cockroaches, but the real humor comes from Scully’s sardonic, too-bored to care reactions to it all. Aside from Vince Gilligan, Morgan is perhaps the best Scully writer on the staff. She’s the straight woman, the one sane person in a world of crazy idiots, and this is her best episode.
Episode 17: Pusher
Speaking of Vince Gilligan, his first great episode is a simple standalone wherein a man who can make anyone do anything just through the sound of his voice (sound familiar?) goes on a rampage. A sad, impotent man diagnosed with cancer who thinks the world owes him something strikes out agains it. (sound even more familiar?). This man, Robert Patrick Modell, engages in a cat-and-mouse game with the agents that nearly results in Mulder’s death. Vince Gilligan wasn’t quite as mean to Mulder as Darin Morgan was, but he definitely wasn’t above pointing how dangerous Mulder’s obsession was.
Episode 20: Jose Chung’s From Outer Space
The second half of Darin Morgan’s grand examination of life, love and alienation stars another sadly now-deceased character actor: Charles Nelson Reilly as the eponymous Chung. He is, as you might assume, a writer, tasked to pen a new book about an alleged alien encounter Mulder and Scully investigated. Told from the point of view of several characters, it’s a weird, convoluted story about a pair of young lovers, a fighter pilot, a delusional power company worker, a UFOlogist, and a pair of Men in Black who may or may not have had an encounter with aliens and government agents, but certainly have a need to connect with one another somehow or someway.
Honorable Mentions: Piper Maru/Apocrypha, Quagmire, Talitha Cumi
Skip For Time: The List, Syzygy, Teso Dos Bichos, Hell Money,
Episode 2: Home
Here it is: the single most disgusting and disturbing X-File of them all. Concerned with Mulder and Scully’s attempts to apprehend an incestuous family unit bent on murdering anyone who gets in their way, it’s one of a handful of network television episodes infamous enough to be banned. It’s also very good.
Episode 7: Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man (Mythology)
What an actor William B. Davis is. While there are some who, perhaps fairly, wonder if humanizing the Cigarette Smoking Man (aka Smokey, aka C.G.B. Spender) was the right move for the mythology in the long term, as it created a villain who by all rights couldn’t be killed off without losing something important, there’s no question that this episode is worth that potential confusion. Arguably the single most character-focused episode of them all features an exceptional and exceptionally apocryphal backstory for the man who rules the world, as far as the X-Files is concerned, and one of the very best monologues the show ever did.
Episode 10: Paper Hearts
Perhaps the biggest misfire in the show’s mythology was Samantha Mulder. At first, she was Mulder’s raison d’etre, the why to his crusade. The point of it all. Then, she was sort of a stand-in, emblematic of the cost of the sort of business the Syndicate was in. Mostly, though, she was just a red herring. A nonstarter for the plot to kick around when the show couldn’t think of a better reason for Mulder to be involved.
Which is why this episode, which focuses on the possibility that Samantha was one of the last victims of a child killer Mulder put away early in his career, is so powerful. What’s even more powerful is that Mulder, at least in this episode, never really knows the truth. For whatever reason, tying Samantha’s death to a human face makes not knowing much more effective than just aliens.
Episode 12: Leonard Betts
This is the episode that played this show into a Super Bowl. It was a very strong choice. No one would confuse this for Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose, but as I said, Darin Morgan’s episodes were the exceptions. Episodes like this are the rule.
Episode 20: Small Potatoes
Vince Gilligan’s first *really great* episode is also one of the very funniest episodes in the series. Similarly to Darin Morgan’s best, it doesn’t take Mulder very seriously, a gag that pays off immensely when the episode’s villain (played by the very same Darin Morgan), disguises himself as Mulder and just acts like an aloof doofus (though notably nearly seals the deal with Scully). Gilligan’s touch was always a little more deft and light than Morgan’s, and this is a fine example why.
Honorable Mentions: Memento Mori, Tempus Fugit/Max, Zero Sum, Gethsemane
Skip For Time: Sanguinarium, Unrequited
Episode 3: The Unusual Suspects
I haven’t talked much about the Lone Gunmen until now, and for good reason. Until now, they’ve been bit players. Entertaining, of course, but never the focus of more than a few scenes at a time, jumping into Mulder’s world here and there. In this episode, they take center stage, as we see how Byers, Frohike and Langly met. It’s a light episode, fun and frivolous and even a little flirty. I haven’t seen much of The Lone Gunmen spinoff, but I’ve heard it’s quite like this, and that doesn’t sound half-bad.
Episode 12: Bad Blood
Maybe Vince Gilligan’s best episode features the agents recounting their own version of events, Rashomon style, to a bemused Director Skinner. It’s got Patrick Renna AND Luke Wilson, the former cast against type as a “vicious killer,” the latter playing a dashing local sheriff in Scully’s story and a folksy idiot (with gigantic buck teeth) in Mulder’s. The great joy of this setup is less how the two see the world and more how they see themselves and one another. Even in their arguments, they can’t help but describe themselves in ways they think the other would be attracted to.
Episode 15: Travelers
Introducing Frederic Lehne as young Arthur Dales, a character and setting so compelling that I would have watched an entire series about him investigated the first X-Files. In this installment, he tracks a killer mutant (played by Garrett Dillahunt!) while tangling with Mulder’s father and the early Syndicate about the truth of what’s really happening in 1950 America.
Episode 19: Folie à Deux
Vince Gilligan was arguably the funniest X-Files writer, but as you’re familiar with, he can do drama, and he rarely did it better on this show than this episode, which features first Mulder, then Scully falling victim to what they think is a psychosis passed onto them by a crazed telemarketer. What it turns out to be is something more sinister by far, and it makes for a gritty, paranoia-filled case for the two that nevertheless ends up strengthening their bond.
Honorable Mentions: Redux/Redux, Part II, Detour, The End
Skip For Time: Schizogeny, Chinga
Episode 2: Drive
This episode, written by Vince Gilligan and guest-starring Bryan Cranston, is what the former showed to AMC executives to convince them that the funny dad from Malcolm in the Middle could do drama.
Outside of that happy fate, it’s a very good and tense episode. Cranston is great, but so is Duchovny, who veers between wanting to save a man’s life and wanting to kill him for being a vile, angry, racist piece of shit. This is one of the first episodes filmed in Los Angeles instead of Vancouver, and the show uses its new desert setting to good effect.
Episode 3: Triangle
The sixth season is the most experimental the show did, and this episode is a prime example of it. Set in the Bermuda Triangle in 1939, Mulder finds himself thrown back in time and caught in the middle of a Nazi takeover. Confronted with past versions of Scully, Skinner and the Cigarette Smoking Man, he eventually finds his way back to the present. It’s a light, floaty episode with some of the most inventive camera work in the show’s history.
Episode 6: How the Ghosts Stole Christmas
An ode to never being as alone as you think during the holidays, this episode features Mulder and Scully all alone in an allegedly haunted house on Christmas Eve. Two ghosts, played by Ed Asner and Lily Tomlin, are trying to get them to kill one another in a lover’s pact. That’s pretty much the entire episode, and yet, it works as one of the season’s best because of how good Asner and Tomlin are, and how unsure Mulder and Scully are. You think that, just maybe, one of them is lonely enough to do it.
Episode 10: Tithonus
Scully faces a man who cannot see Death in a moody, almost gothic noir. Having cheated death as a child, 150-year-old Alfred Fellig can sense its presence on others, and takes their photos as they die in an attempt to catch Death, so he can look it in the face and finally die. After being confronted by an overzealous agent, both Fellig and Scully are shot, and the former finally looks his foe in the face, taking the death that was meant for the latter and passing on. Fellig works as a dark, humorless reflection of Clyde Bruckman, and he’s the star of a somber, funereal episode veiled in shadows and darkness.
Episode 14: Monday
The X-Files’s attempt at Groundhog Day finds Mulder, Scully and a bank full of innocent civilians dying upwards of hundreds of times before the girlfriend of the perpetrator can finally break the cycle. Some of the blackest humor the show ever did is here, as is a haunting performance from guest star Carrie Hamilton, Carol Burnett’s daughter who unfortunately died less than three years after this episode first aired.
Episode 19: The Unnatural
David Duchovny wrote this episode about an alien pretending to be a Negro League star in the late 40s. Jesse L. Martin shines as Josh Exley, as does Frederic Lehne as Arthur Dales. It’s a completely inconsequential episode that still expertly blends classical Americana with alien conspiracies, 40s racism and a sort of wholesome charm. Duchovny proved to be the best writer of the show’s cast, and this is his most straightforward episode, full of indelible imagery.
Episode 21: Field Trip
For all intents and purposes, this is the last “Monster of the Week” episode Mulder and Scully have together. It’s a good one. Without spoiling anything, it’s a perfect example of why they worked so well together professionally, full of mystery and confusion and ending on a hopeful denouement that lets the viewer know that nothing can keep these two apart for long.
Honorable Mentions: Dreamland/Dreamland II, Three of a Kind
Skip For Time: Agua Mala, Alpha
Episodes 10/11: Sein Und Zeit/Closure (Mythology)
There are some episodes that are elevated by singular moments. This two-parter is one of them. For most of their length, Mulder’s search for answers about his sister Samantha feels rote at best and insulting at worst. This late in the game, do we really care about Samantha? Turns out we do, when “Closure” brings exactly that, in a devastatingly good scene where Mulder finally learns what happened to his sister. If you’ve seen it, you know exactly which scene I mean.
Episode 12: X-Cops
On the opposite side of the spectrum, we have the ultimate FOX 90s crossover, an episode of The X-Files filmed like it were an episode of COPS. Facing one of the most inventive monsters in the show’s stable, Mulder and Scully have to deal with inept police, colorful residents and the threat of cameras everywhere to apprehend a creature that manifests itself as its victims’ greatest fears. It’s funny (this is one of Mulder’s best episodes), a little sweet and greatly enjoyable.
Episode 21: Je Souhaite
Speaking of a funny and sweet episode, this is the final MOTW episode for Mulder as a main cast member, and it’s a fantastic one. Another of Vince Gilligan’s great scripts finds the agents dealing with a literal genie (played with sardonic aplomb by Paula Sorge) who has to deal with a pair of idiot brothers (Kevin Weisman and Will Sasso) and the disastrous results of their three wishes. Eventually, it’s Mulder’s turn, and how he contends with both the lawyer verbiage and the results of his wishes offer great insight into his character and what he considers a perfect world.
Episode 22: Requiem (Mythology)
The end, for real this time, of The X-Files as we knew them comes full circle, as the agents return to the site of their first case and the events therein. In the end, Mulder is abducted, CSM is “dead”, and Scully is pregnant. Nothing would be the same, and while that ended up being for the worst, it’s as fine a way to close out the classic X-Files formula as one could ask for.
Honorable Mentions: The Amazing Maleeni, Hollywood A.D.
Skip For Time: Rush, First Person Shooter, Chimera, Fight Club
Episodes 1/2: Within/Without (Mythology)
Season 8 begins with Scully as our primary protagonist, in a search for Fox Mulder. It’s this search that encompasses most of this penultimate season and gives it purpose. Much has been said about the show’s decline at this point, but S8 (and Robert Patrick, who steps into the role of John Doggett like a old beat cop chasing a perp) is better than its reputation. This is a tense, well-shot and suitably epic opener to what was one of the biggest shows on television by this time.
Episode 6: Redrum
Remember Joe Morton? Remember how good he was in Terminator 2? Remember how sweaty and confused he was? He’s just as good in this episode, which exemplifies perhaps the best thing the eighth season did: side characters essentially hijacking the show to tell their own brief stories. In this installment, Morton’s Martin Wells, an old friend of Doggett, finds himself living in reverse after being arrested for his wife’s murder. His quest to save her life and exonerate himself sees Doggett as a side character and Scully as a tertiary one, and it’s better for it.
Episode 18: Vienen (Mythology)
Mulder and Doggett, BFFs! After his resurrection, Mulder is fired from the X-Files for (reason). The second half of the eighth season sees him as what we always knew he would become: a crazed anti-government obsessive trying to muck up FBI operations into the paranormal. He’s become a paramilitary Max Fennig, a Lone Gunmen with a lone gun. Or two. His conflict with Doggett is a natural one then, given Doggett’s (ahem) dogged pursuit of justice and adherence to his job. They can still work together when they need to (and when Mulder sneaks onto an oil platform where everyone else on board is infected with the Black Oil and wants to kill them). It’s a fun dynamic that propels the most action-centric episode of the eighth season.
Honorable Mentions: Roadrunners, Via Negativa, The Gift
Skip For Time: Patience, Surekill, Badlaa
Episode 7: John Doe
Doggett’s standalone episode finds him isolated, alone and unsure of who he is in Mexico (a Mexico that shares the sepia tone and moral uncertainty of Breaking Bad, which makes sense when you see this is a Gilligan episode). The setup is fun enough to keep your interest, and the payoff, coming when Agent Monica Reyes (a game but overmatched Annabeth Gish, who never really got the chance to replace Scully given that Scully was still on the show) helps Doggett remember who he is. Doggett first remembering his son and then remembering that his son is dead is heartbreaking, and the best scene Robert Patrick had on the show.
Episode 18: Sunshine Days
There are only two Season 9 episodes because Season 9 is generally pretty bad in comparison, but this episode works because it wraps up the show as a whole in a thematic way that the finale never really tries. Guest-starring a pre-LOST Michael Emerson, “Sunshine” finds Scully finally confronting irrefutable proof of the paranormal in Oliver Martin (Emerson), a man who can alter reality to whatever he desires — and what he desires is to live in the TV show of his youth, in The Brady Bunch. The episode’s main conflict comes from Scully’s decision whether or not to turn Oliver in, to prove that Mulder was right all along. In a way, she herself wants things to be like they used to be, in the classic television show she once lived in. The truth is that she can’t, and that nothing she does will bring Mulder back to what he used to be. Nothing can change the past.
David Faustino, another guest star, knows what that is like. For some people, finding out THE TRUTH was what this show had to attempt. For others, the only truth we needed was that the things Mulder and Scully went through meant something. Since this show is set to return to some form of its past self, I find this especially pertinent. Doggett won’t be back, but Reyes will, and so will the Cigarette Smoking Man and the Lone Gunmen, despite their on-screen deaths in later seasons. Capturing that old nostalgia is a risky proposition, and we can only hope is goes better than it did here. The X-Files returns Sunday, January 24th on FOX.
Honorable Mentions: Hellbound
Skip For Time: Lord of the Flies, Provenance/Providence, Scary Monsters, William