In light of recent events leading to a supposed continuation of The X-Files next year (in truncated, six episode form however), everyone can’t get enough dissecting the strangest cult-show turned multimedia cultural extravaganza ever to grace the small screen. In honor of this news, and to throw my take into the mix, here are my top nine episodes of The X-Files.
9. Ice, Season One
So, let’s get this out of the way: The X-Files didn’t start out with a showstopper. The first season is very much a fair-weather, foot-in-the-water affair, dabbling in themes inconstantly and half-heartedly, while everyone in front of and behind the camera was still getting their footing. But a few episodes shine through; “Squeeze”, the first monster-of-the-week episode, is a real blast, and the later “Darkness Falls” does wonders with a trapped-in-closed-spaces premise. They aren’t “Ice” though, which suffers a little by rather openly ripping off John Carpenter’s The Thing but remains, easily, the best episode of the season, and one of the show’s most suspenseful.
Pairing things down to the basics, the episode finds a crew of scientists trapped in an arctic station where a variant of … ahem, brain slug … is taking their bodies over unnoticed, coaxing them to doubt one another’s identities. Especially coming right around the time of the much-hyped pile of noble intentions that was the over-wrought, turgid “Space” – the series attempting to go “big” in all the wrong ways – this small episode showed that this new dog already had a few tricks of its own. Take for instance the way it externalizes the doubt and contention very much present in the Mulder/ Scully relationship at such an early stage, reminding how little reason there was for them to actually trust one another when their life philosophies were so different. Plus, if you’re going to do a rip-off, you can do a lot worse than ripping off one of the best horror films ever made.
8. Irresistible, Season Two
No episode of The X-Files just plain works like “Irresistible”, a modern day Psycho (minus the meta-text, the deconstructive formal brilliance, and the commentary on casting…but hey, we’re not claiming The X-Files is Hitchcock material here). “Irresistible” is one of the few episodes (arguably) to sacrifice any interest in the paranormal whatsoever (although, as a crippling season seven episode with the same bad guy reminds us, the show just couldn’t help itself sometimes). Lacking such lofty ambitions to dissect the American consciousness, government lies, and our old alien friends, it achieves a primacy of purpose like no other episode. There’s nothing “up” with Donnie Pfaster (a chilling, breathy Nick Chinlund equal parts Anthony Perkins and Peter Lorre). He simply likes dead people, he wants parts of their bodies, and he is willing to kill for it. That’s it; there’s no explanation or sense of need to comment on anything about Pfaster, to “figure him out”. Implacable and even banal, he just is, and he never leaves, and this unexplained everyday quality to the horror make it all the more insufferable and queasy.
This isn’t the last time this needs to be said, but for all the marvels found in seasons three and four, the show lost something when it got ambitious and playful. Earlier, in the middle of season two, with “Irresistible” and another famous episode released back-to-back (we’ll get to that soon enough though), the show found its horror credentials, took them by the throat, and shoved them right in our face like television never had before. There were more adventurous things to come, but for pure horror, “Irresistible” is where it’s at.
7. Bad Blood, Season Five
After Darin Morgan, undeniably the show’s most consistent writer with only four scripts to his name (all of them exemplary), left after season three, Vince Gilligan saw an opportunity. Finding himself in a slightly more playful mood regarding his tenure with the show, season four and five saw him expand his repertoire beyond his city-bound techno thriller bread-and-butter. This season five high, presenting Mulder’s and Scully’s separate interpretations of a case involving small town vampires in which Mulder may or may not have killed an innocent child, represents the height of his irrepressible snark, and it arguably says more about Mulder and Scully than any other episode of the show. Of all the screwier late season episodes, “Bad Blood” feels the most limber, yet it packs a mean (even mean-spirited) punch as it explores the subjective storytelling of the show and confronts the ways Mulder and Scully bias the show’s tone and mood. Rendering the implicit explicit isn’t exactly the most subtle idea, but there’s nothing wrong with being obvious, especially when the obvious belies devious little ticks and tricks lying in wait underneath.
6. Jose Chung’s ‘From Outer Space’, Season Three
The single most meta-textual, challenging episode of the entire nine season run of the show, could “Jose Chung” have existed anywhere but season three? Darin Morgan, not content with having produced the show’s two best comedy episodes and essentially having opened the door for one of the most playful mainstream television shows ever in the process, just had to distill the entire essence of the show’s mythology, and self-critical characterization in one episode. His mind couldn’t rest until it had been done. Thus, we have “Jose Chung”, a tad cryptic and clinical for what is at heart a self-mocking satire of the show and its fans (Mulder greatest among them). No episode bears quite this much necessary dissection to understand, and maybe no episode should bear this much weight on the series, but Jose Chung stands tall nonetheless. Released just when the whole “we don’t have a conclusion for this episode…ALIENS!” bent of the early seasons was at its peak, “Jose Chung” takes the scalpel of satire right up to the show’s throat with a self-reflexive commentary on how the mythos is all a bit daft, ain’t it? Not to be outdone, it also reaffirms the essence of the show and its characters with a subtle undercurrent of “but we could be right, and besides, if you can’t trust us, why trust them?”. Morgan balances us on the knife’s edge of self-hate and self-love; seldom has having your cake and eating it too been so satisfying.
5. Pusher, Season Three
Before that other cultural touchstone he went on to unleash upon the world, “Pusher” was Vince Gilligan’s finest hour, all the more-so because it is a perfect showcase for the refined bluster and modernist tech heavy presence he brought to his writing projects. “Pusher” introduced arguably the show’s greatest single-serving villain (technically a double, but the thought of a return was a few years away as of season three). Robert Patrick Modell (Robert Wisden) is gifted with the ability to control the mind’s of others, making them do his bidding, kill for him, or kill themselves, but the great trick of the episode is that he has to work for it. It is no mere snap of the finger; he has to coax his targets, setting them and coaching them to murderous intent through mind tricks and mental discontent. It is his nine to five, in other words, and that very mundane fact contrasts him with the series early rogues gallery; he seems like a regular dude, hurting for chess pieces to play with, and this every-day quality to the evil – very much the essence of Gilligan’s core strength as a writer and the crux of the five season television divining rod Breaking Bad – separates this episode from the pack.
4. Humbug, Season Two
The show’s first bonafide comedy episode earns points for retaining the darkness the show mastered in season two and somewhat lost when season three went mainstream and modulated its comedy for popular thrills. At some level, “Humbug”, the first of Darin Morgan’s unprecedented four episode run in the writer’s chair, plays like a more mature, thoughtful episode of the then-popular Tales from the Crypt. Something about this one just feels cheeky, even naughty in its exploration of the love and loss in an ostracized community of carnival performers in rural Florida. One of the earliest Americana episodes of the show, when it was still finding its footing in American mythology, “Humbug” cleverly plays on the imagery of “the other” in a way that heavy-handed, leaden later episodes just didn’t understand. Certainly, it helps to have Kim Manners in the director’s chair (most of the great episodes of the show have a habit of finding either Manners or Rob Bowman at the helm); he knew how to direct with an eye toward space and camera movement, and showcases a surprising amount of visual wit for a mid-’90s TV show.
Above all, it is an empathetic episode, without being dishonest about the painful, curious looks it throws the performers’ way. It is limited in how sympathetic it can be to the “others” in this regard, just like an America that always insists on “otherizing” even those it wants to help. For all its empathy, the show still wants to earn mileage in trotting out carnival performers and having us look at them. “Humbug” understands its limits, implicating both itself and us in watching the performers it brings out. Wonderfully sly bits, such as where Scully and a carnival performer peek looks at each other in unison, achieve the match of perverse playfulness and subtle social-commentary on the nature of horror, the nature of the unknown, and the nature of the underprivileged, that always hid beneath the show’s surface. It makes us look, and makes us confront the fact that we are looking.
3. Die Hand Die Verletzt, Season Two
Perhaps the most underrated episode of the show, “Die Hand Die Verletzt” joins other season two entries like “Irresistible” in really nailing the show’s down-and-dirty horror credentials, before the writers would fly off in wild and prismatic directions with the onset of season three. But this exploration of the murder and mayhem in small found town New England folklore has it all: unmitigated horror credentials and careful articulation of mood and atmosphere often lost to the early show’s directors, wonderful shadow-play, a thoughtful dissection of suburban America and the out of the way places part and parcel with the show’s perverted variation on the American Dream. Add to this some playful storytelling that captures and subverts the moralism inherent to old-school fire-and-brimstone American fables, and perhaps best of all, a snarky, undercurrent that sees the show dabble in blackened humor before it was cool for the writers to seem so playful. Kim Manners is back in the director’s chair again (seriously, this guy made the later Stephen King written episode watchable, no easy feat), and few episodes see the show playing with atmosphere, playing in the dark, quite as well.
2. Home, Season Four
After its best year in the wildly experimental season three, there was only one way to properly kick off the next season: going home. The show did exactly that at the beginning of its fourth season with a descent into the pure horror very much lying forgotten in the series roots, yet never seen again. “Home”, the infamous “banned from television” episode, saw the show return to its origins in chilling Americana myth-making. This story of a psychotic, murderous inbred American family very much occupies the same mental space as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, that of an urban “modern” nightmare about the lost corners and out of the way places of American past we’ve long hidden from ourselves in our championing of the small-town American lifestyle.
“Home” chills to the bone with gruesome, macabre heavy hitters, but it’s the sly, sarcastic critique of American lore in the show’s use of Johnny Mathis and old muscle cars that hit home the most. Juxtaposing this classic Americana with murder and mayhem asks us if we’re ready to take the bad with the good in our championing of American lifestyle, to really look into the heart of what it will entail to retain this definition of the American past we like to love so much. And what do you know, Manners is around again, and it is fitting that this may be the best directed episode of the show; so much of the horror is derived through the way the romantic lighting to soothe this small town warmth keels over into harsh, garish expressionism. Just as small town America reveals itself in a scarier light when the brightness looks the other way.
Ultimately, it’s the little touches, like when Mulder stands up for the mysterious ethos of the town as a place where the American Dream and the American Nightmare intertwine, that expose a multifaceted, conflicted interpretation of American society so central to the show’s anxious understanding of American life. If the show is afraid, and horribly afraid at that, of the conservative need for tradition, it is deeply unsure of what to do with a certain rural, small-town weirdness so central to the American spirit, a spirit rapidly and assuredly sanding itself out circa the show’s present day of the mid-’90s. Too many episodes of the show tackled “fads of the time”; “Home” is one of the few to look into the past, the present, and the future, and in doing so, it remains timeless.
1. Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose, Season Three
Death looms large in The X-Files, but never with the mournful, existential purity that forms the backbone of “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Respose”. Loneliness also centers the show – the loneliness of small towns, the loneliness of believers, the loneliness of a possibly insane FBI agent and the very sane agent he drags down with him. But never have loneliness and death intersected and found enemies of one another like in “Final Repose”, an episode that flips the script by making the unknowable truth of death a haunted, wonderful beauty for the tired eyes of life. Light and bottled with snark without ever sacrificing mournful weight, “Final Repose” remains the most melancholy episode of the show, welcoming Clyde Bruckman (a series standout, Peter Boyle) like an old friend. Then, it has to confront the fact that he wants to die, and when it is done cowering, it must quaver at something far scarier: no matter how much he wants to pass on, he can’t.
Touching in the way it visually privileges Scully’s own fears about death rather than Mulder’s somewhat standoffish, even superior tone regarding the affair, Bruckman develops a touching relationship with Scully for her earnest commitment to her beliefs, rather than Mulder for his mocking, somewhat smarmy belief in his. Then again, maybe Mulder has no choice but to laugh off his fears and poke fun at his beliefs; society, always pointing and laughing at his commitment, sure won’t let him take himself seriously, and as a mental coping mechanism, maybe he can’t either. Certainly, the humor lets him attain the necessary social appearance of self-doubt to hide his firm commitment to the unknown, and Bruckman is one of the few figures to really tackle Mulder on the nature of his commitment to himself.
All of this character commentary is wrapped up in such a nervy blanket of equal parts warmth and coldness, creating a self-contained story like few others in the series that still implies the larger breadth of the show with enough confidence to leave details out and hint rather than hand carry. It is the episode of the show that hurts the most, that feels the most genuine remorse even as it is playing around with character logic and poking fun at the quickness with which the show resorts to death as a cop-out for genuine fear and danger. It is the most special episode. And the best.