With the news that The X-Files is coming back for a six-episode event series to Fox next year, it’s as good a time as any to look back at the show that hit the zeitgeist and become an important part of pop culture. X-Files was a weird sci-fi show that should not really have caught on with the mainstream if you were to look at it on paper but it did because it had two amazing leads with fantastic chemistry and some of the best writers and directors around. Vince Gilligan, Glen Morgan, James Wong, Frank Spotnitz, Darin Morgan and of course creator Chris Carter gave us not only amazing “mythology” episodes about a coming alien invasion but stand-alone “monster of the week” episodes that ranged from horrific to hilarious. Directors like Rob Bowman, Kim Manners and David Nutter elevated the show to essentially mini-movies every week.
But what were the best episodes? The most memorable? The good news is that they feature a mix of humor and suspense and aliens and monsters. Focus on different aspects of the characters. The bad news? While there were certainly good episodes throughout the 9-season run the vast majority of any Top 20 list would mostly feature seasons 1 through 5 (which led up to a feature film, prior to season 6). And I’m doing a Top 10 list. That brings it closer to seasons 1 through 4, primarily. Why? Maybe some of it was creative fatigue, but a lot of critics and fans will agree that the main problem was that they overarching story about the alien invasion never seemed to be planned out with a definitive ending. So it got more confusing and unwieldy as more elements were introduced. But initially? It was tight and intense and absolutely reflected the public’s growing fear and distrust of our own government.
I couldn’t include a lot of episodes that I and many others adore. So I’ll quickly say that there are at least honorable mentions to episodes like Beyond the Sea, Bad Blood, Small Potatoes, Ice, Paper Clip, the pilot, X-Cops, Triangle, and many more. That said, if you strongly disagree with this top ten list, please reply with your thoughts on what belonged that was not included.
10. Jose Chung’s From Outer Space (Season 3, episode 20)
This episode was an early example of The X-Files realizing that it could be funny. Not only that, it could work really well while being really funny. Fox Mulder is so driven and dedicated to believing almost any supernatural idea that it’s really easy to undercut that with some nonsense and have a deserved laugh at his expense. And that extended to the show itself as well, like in this episode. It actually focuses primarily on Agent Scully, the skeptic. She’s interviewed by an author she admires (Charles Nelson Reilly!) who wants to write about UFOs and alien abductions. Along the way, the story is told from multiple points of view, almost all of them unreliable narrators. It still shows a great dynamic between Mulder and Scully who have different interpretations but work together well, supporting one another.
9. Deep Throat (Season 1, episode 2)
The only reason this is a little lower on the list is because it was an early mythology episode without some of the intrigue that was to come. But it established the model and did it well. It also introduced Jerry Hardin as a government whistleblower who gives Mulder hints at where he should look to blow a massive conspiracy open. And it was only episode two! In fact, it fine tunes elements about the Pilot episode that seem off – that episode presented itself as a true crime story and needed to give faces to both informants and conspiracy members. You don’t know who you can trust early on, including Mulder and Scully’s direct superior, Assistant Director Walter Skinner. You definitely get the sense that many in the government would not hesitate to kill Mulder and Scully, FBI agents, if they could get away with it.
8. War of the Coprophages (Season 3, episode 12)
An early episode that went intentionally campy and self-parodying, it’s still a great mystery dealing with a small-town dealing with a cockroach problem. People are dying and Mulder speculates that a cockroach he catches (and which immediately disintegrates) is mechanical. Scully believes people are dying from natural causes. It’s funny and it involves a lot of crap and methane.
7. 731 (Season 3, episode 10)
731 is the second of a two-part episode where Mulder risks his life to prove a human-alien hybrid has been created. The being was created seemingly by the same government conspiracy members who have created a deal with aliens to invade our planet in the near future in exchange for sparing them from becoming slaves. It’s a big step forward, if what Mulder’s being told is true. The wrinkle is that you are never sure how much of the truth is being discovered and how much is a fiction told to Mulder that he’s willing to believe. By the end, while Mulder isn’t sure what he found because he loses his hard evidence, we the audience are pretty sure he was right. It’s built up to be a pretty convincing and scary idea of the powerful selling away the rest of humanity while also possibly working to betray the aliens.
6. Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose (Season 3, episode 14)
Season 3 really was the high point for this show. A great mix of escalating conspiracy details combined with rock-solid stand alone episodes, like this one. It actually earned actor Peter Boyle an Emmy for his performance as Clyde Bruckman, a mopey psychic who can tell how people will die. Instead of reading fortunes, he sells life insurance so that at least the family’s of the people he sees are taken care of. When other psychics are being killed off by a serial killer, Mulder and Scully recruit him. It’s actually a morbid but funny episode with fantastic work between both Mulder and Scully and Scully and Bruckman.
5. Piper Maru (Season 3, episode 15)
This episode is another mythology episode about the aliens so a detailed synopsis would only make sense if you’ve seen other episodes. That said, it totally stands on its own as a rock solid episode that introduces the idea of a mysterious, possibly sentient, black oil that can move between people and control them. It features Mulder and Scully going in completely separate directions to work the case. Both of their investigations are interesting, but the show does work best when they work together. Actress Gillian Anderson has some great material when her character Scully is told that the investigation into her sister’s murder is being closed. Meanwhile, Mulder tracks someone all the way to Hong Kong (and yeah, that’s a bit outside of the FBI’s jurisdiction). But the best element in this episode is a salvage vessel, the Piper Maru, dredging up a WW2 fighter plane only to find the guy inside still alive. It only gets weirder from there.
4. Die Hand Die Verletzt (Season 2, episode 14)
This was an early episode that really amped up the horror. Sometimes X-Files was eerie like a Twilight Zone episode, and sometimes it could escalate more into a good Tales from the Crypt story. This is the latter, where teachers at a small town public school try to cover up that they were devil worshipers as teenagers. It comments on insincere religious followers in that way. A substitute teacher that is new to town just may be the devil. It’s pretty intense.
3. Squeeze (Season 1, episode 3)
Quite possibly the most iconic “monster of the week” is Adrian Tooms, who can constrict his body to fit through the tiniest of openings. At least that’s Mulder’s theory (Mulder is pretty much always right). Guest star Doug Hutchison just nails it as the creepy Tooms. The effects used to show him squeezing into small areas are really creepy. And there’s more to Tooms than just his ability to get into tight places. He’s a real creep is what I’m trying to say. This episode was the 3rd overall episode and the first not to be about aliens. It really was important because it showed that X-Files could be about more than just the alien conspiracy. It opened the show up to many different types of stories.
2. Home (Season 4, episode 2)
I would be willing to bet that the vast majority of X-Files fans would agree that Home is the most terrifying episode of the show. It’s because it’s also the most grounded of any episode. No aliens or monsters or mutants with powers. There is something bad going on, but it’s not supernatural. The episode begins with kids playing baseball and accidentally stumbling on something in the ground that bleeds. It’s a baby with horrible birth defects which brings the FBI in. Mulder and Scully work great in this episode and it builds in its disturbing creepiness to a powerful and dramatic conclusion. Not for the faint of heart.
1. Anasazi (Season 2, episode 25)
One thing The X-Files always did well was cliffhanger season finales and the best one was probably Anasazi for season 2. Season 3 picked up the pieces with a 2-parter that form an amazing trilogy. But the best episode is probably this one. At its core, this is what X-Files was about. We learn that Mulder’s family history is more complex than we may have assumed, giving him a personal stake in the conspiracy when his father is murdered by a rogue FBI agent. It builds on the personal and also features some of Mulder and Scully’s best work together. You can tell they care about one another even if they have different viewpoints on what’s going on. It also features some great action sequences including Mulder jumping off a bridge onto a moving train, a train car in the desert getting blown up, helicopters, assassins with piano wire. It’s packed with twists but it’s also efficient in its storytelling. Great stuff.