10 must-see episodes of The X-Files
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With so many new series popping up on streaming services and DVD with every day, it gets harder and harder to keep up with new shows, much less the all-time classics. With TV Club 10, we point you toward the 10 episodes that best represent a TV series, classic or modern. If you watch those 10, you’ll have a better idea of what that series was about, without having to watch the whole thing. These are not meant to be the 10 best episodes, but rather the 10 most representative episodes.
The X-Files is one of the most important, influential drama series ever made, but it’s often written off as just another science-fiction series that had an overly complicated mythology and fell apart toward the end of its run. (If it weren’t for Twin Peaks, the series would have been the original example of this type of show.) Running for slightly more than 200 episodes over nine seasons, the show had an overarching storyline about the presence of alien life on Earth, which eventually got to a point where it simply made no sense. The X-Files became so associated with that storyline that it gradually became a laughingstock.
Yet for much of its run, this was the best drama of its era, a strange, spooky show that tried lots of different things and succeeded at many of them. It seized the nation’s interest in a way few science-fiction series had before or since, and its long-form storytelling made television safer for serialized narratives. Is it any wonder that many of the best TV writers of the ’90s and ’00s were associated with this show? The figures of Mulder and Scully—a believer and a skeptic, tasked to investigate unexplained crimes with possible paranormal connections—became totemic figures for a prosperous nation that seemed convinced it was on the brink of apocalypse.
The series’ charms may be even more evident to contemporary audiences in its stand-alone episodes. By turns scary, thrilling, and hilarious, the stand-alones were much less interested in the “truth” of the alien invasion and much more interested in reviving the model of ’70s one-and-done cop shows. Such programs had lost favor after the ’80s series Hill Street Blues introduced serialization into the cop drama. There were still detective shows, but they were considered low-rent. The X-Files took the basic structure of those ’70s cop shows, but it also added a will-they/won’t-they intrigue between its two leads and an elastic structure that could lead to a monster movie one week and a small-town comedy the next. The dark, serialized dramas and science-fiction shows that followed were influenced by X-Files, but the C.S.I.s of the world were as well.
Want to get to know The X-Files, but don’t have time for all those episodes? Here are 10 that will give you a better idea of what the show was all about:
“Ice” (season one, episode eight): The series’ first season is good, but it doesn’t reach the heights of later years. The first sign that this show had a shot at really being something special came in this riff on The Thing From Another World, which strands Mulder and Scully in an Arctic research station with scientists and an alien worm that infects people and causes them to erupt in homicidal rage. With a young Felicity Huffman in a key guest role, the episode makes great use of claustrophobia and the uneasy but growing alliance between the heroes.
“Duane Barry” (season two, episode five): Directed and written by series creator Chris Carter, this episode throws a bomb into the midst of the series’ slow-building “mythology.” (Among other things, The X-Files coined this term for a series’ overarching storyline.) Mulder and Scully—separated by FBI higher-ups controlled by the shadowy conspiracy working with the alien menace—contend with a frequent alien abductee who’s taken a number of hostages. The storyline, made necessary when co-star Gillian Anderson got pregnant in real life, blows up everything that’s come before and packs a shocking climax.
“Paper Clip” (season three, episode two): The series’ third season was its best, for both stand-alones and mythology episodes. One of the most powerful ideas behind the mythology was that the alien conspiracy was just a thinly veiled version of real-world conspiracies that erupted after World War II, as the United States and Soviet Union scrambled to control the globe. The series had more viscerally terrifying moments, but one in this episode—in which Mulder and Scully confront a room filled with files that suggest malicious intent—is its most existentially chilling moment. Just what does our government want with us?
“Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose” (season three, episode four): Writer Darin Morgan was responsible for only four X-Files scripts, but his erudite, witty writing both invented a new, comedic mode for the series and gained him the acclimation and adoration of TV writers throughout the industry. This episode is his most immediately accessible accomplishment: a melancholic, funny story of an old psychic who can see without fail when and how every person alive will die. Morgan won an Emmy for his script, the show’s only writing award, and in the world-weary Bruckman, the show found a man afflicted by strange phenomena who really just couldn’t give a shit.
“Pusher” (season three, episode 17): Though the show had many great writers, it never had one who worked in as many modes as Vince Gilligan. Gilligan could write monster episodes. He could write comedic episodes. He could write alien conspiracy episodes. And he did so with seeming ease. He went on to create current critical darling Breaking Bad, but this is his first great television episode, a thrilling game of cat-and-mouse between Mulder, Scully, and a man who can make people do anything he wants simply through the power of suggestion.
“Home” (season four, episode two): The X-Files has always been slightly overrated as TV horror. It primarily provided “shock” scares, with monsters lunging out of the dark, rather than the building unease more typical of series like Twin Peaks. Yet this episode is as scary an hour as TV has produced. Kim Manners, one of the series’ most reliable go-to directors, lensed an alternately terrifying and funny script by Glen Morgan and James Wong to such great effect that the Fox network pulled the episode from the rerun rotation and only broke it out again around Halloween. The conceit? A small town is haunted by three grotesque brothers, the products of incest, and Mulder and Scully are trapped in their haunted house, Texas Chainsaw Massacre style.
“Small Potatoes” (season four, episode 20): After Darin Morgan left the show at the end of season three, many of the show’s other writers tried their hands at comedic episodes, but only Gilligan proved as adept at mixing them with the series’ underlying melancholy as Morgan. This episode is Gilligan’s finest comedic achievement, as he rips apart some of the series’ most sacred tenets—like Mulder being a super-cool guy, or Mulder and Scully having the suggestion of romantic entanglement without ever actually acting on it—in the service of a goofy story where a shapeshifter takes over Mulder’s life. The series was always about desperate loneliness, but in “Small Potatoes,” that extends to the leads as well.
“The Post-Modern Prometheus” (season five, episode five): Another from Carter, this time playing around with the show’s film style and format. This was something the series did more and more often in its later seasons, and this is one of the first experiments, as Carter films everything in a simultaneous tribute to Universal monster movies and comic books. A modern spin on the Frankenstein story about genetic engineering, the episode’s finest achievement is how Carter builds everything to a rare happy ending, then suggests simultaneously that such an outcome is an impossible dream for all involved.
“Field Trip” (season six, episode 21): In its later seasons, after the show became a zeitgeist-defining hit, The X-Files subtly shifted from a collection of monster tales and urban legends to something more akin to an attempt to explain the dark underbelly of America’s obsession with pulp narratives. As such, the show’s sixth season is obsessed with stories that seem real, but actually aren’t. This late entry—in which Mulder and Scully are trapped by a fungus that emits hallucinogens that make them believe their greatest dreams are coming true—shows how the series would never be as good as its best seasons again, but could still be remarkably effective.
“Vienen” (season eight, episode 18): Conventional wisdom holds that viewers can stop watching once Mulder leaves the show, once David Duchovny decided to pursue other opportunities. Yet the show’s eighth season, which makes him a recurring player, is solid throughout, particularly in this late-season entrant that abruptly makes the series’ alien-conspiracy storyline relevant again, as the strange virus called “the black oil” overtakes an offshore oil rig, to terrifying, fascinating effect. Guest star Duchovny and new character Doggett (Robert Patrick) go off to explore, with bad results. It’s a fine example of a show past its glory days, nevertheless finding a way to make itself relevant again. (The ninth and final season, though? That one, you can skip.)
Availability: The complete run of the series is on DVD, and it’s also currently available on Netflix streaming.
Next week: Go back to one of the most influential sitcoms ever made, as we tell you the 10 episodes of All In The Family you must watch.