The X-Files is one of the most vastly influential television shows of all time. It featured both a stunning overarching series plot that wove throughout its run and standalone episodes that could be viewed as short movies, featuring recurring characters that had the ability to scare the hell out of audiences—but somehow, also, had time to make us laugh, too.
Coming soon, The X-Files is coming back for six more episodes! For anyone unfamiliar with the series, or for anyone looking for a refresher course, these ten episodes are some of their absolute best and are a great place to start.
Season 1, Episode 8 – Directed by David Nutter; Written by Glen Morgan & James Wong
“Ice” was, to me, the first truly, utterly scary episode of The X-Files. The pilot, and episodes between then and “Ice” had toyed with greatness and came so, so very close, but this episode was the first one that showed what The X-Files was capable of. Stranded in a snowy outpost, with nowhere to go, Agents Mulder and Scully must not only contend with being completely isolated from all communication from the outside world, but with parasitic worms that enter the hosts and control their very way of thinking.
“Ice” works as an homage to the original and the remake of the film The Thing, and it’s good stuff. It has the look and feel of an undiscovered gem of a movie and is one of the first season’s very best episodes. The first season had its problems—as all first seasons do—but this is not one of them.
“Beyond the Sea”
Season 1, Episode 13 – Directed by David Nutter; Written by Glen Morgan & James Wong
Writing duo Glen Morgan and James Wong, once again under the direction of David Nutter, craft another one of the best season one episodes, introducing and fully fleshing out the world of the X-Files for its audience. Creating an episode specifically to explore the past of a character can be a tricky venture, diverting slightly from the themes set forth in the episodes that preceded it, but challenging one of Agent Scully’s foremost character traits (her skepticism for pretty much all things that Mulder believes) hit gold. We also get to see a bit of Mulder’s past and his own character traits subverted when he himself is unusually skeptical of anything regarding the supernatural, falling back on his past experience as a serial killer profiler for the FBI.
The two agents are investigating a prisoner on death row who claims to have psychic powers. When Scully’s father dies, her world is turned upside down. What follows next in this episode has a beautiful power play dynamic not unlike the one between Clarice and Hannibal in Silence of the Lambs.
Season 2, Episode 5 – Written and directed by Chris Cater
X-Files showrunner Chris Carter both wrote and directed “Duane Berry,” the tragic story of a man haunted by frequent alien abductions that have taken a toll on her emotional and physical health. He’s an unhinged man, and played fantastically by Steve Railsback, inspired in part by the real life story of Phineas Gage. The first part of a two-part episode, this one plays a delicate balancing act with the real world and the supernatural, showing what may or may not be the truth. Is Duane Berry a psychotic pathological liar, or is he telling the truth?
Written as a need to do something with Gillian Anderson, who had become pregnant, and keep her off the show for a while until she gave birth, this episode works regardless of that need. At this point in the show, two seasons in, the characters have become more fully developed and a genuine emotional bond had been forged between the characters and the audience, and “Duane Berry” solidified that bond by showing us just how much we care about what happens to them. When the episode ends, it’s terrifying to see what happens.
“Humbug”Season 2, Episode 20 – Directed by Kim Manners; Written by Darin Morgan
“Humbug” represents the first time the show could do off-the-wall comedy as well as it could do horror, and in this outing, The X-Files has it both ways. It’s just as funny as it is scary. There’s a fine line between what makes something horrifying and what makes something amusing, and teetering either way can confuse an intentional thrill with an unintentional laugh. The scriptwriting and direction here are first rate.
A freakshow is the focus of “Humbug” and the show has an opportunity to display the freaks (is in the 1930’s film Freaks) as being the real focus of sympathy… they’re normal, everyday folks who’ve found a niche and a way to make an honest buck. But, something otherworldly is preying on them and it’s up to Mulder and Scully to find out what it is and put a stop to it.
Also, it has this amazing blooper in which Gillian Anderson, instead of using sleight of hand, straight up just actually chomps on a cricket and eats it.
“Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose”
Season 3, Episode 4 – Directed by David Nutter; Written by Darin Morgan
Fox Mulder’s bizarre sexual activities are first hinted at here with this great exchange:
Clyde Bruckman: You know, there are worse ways to go, but I can’t think of a more undignified way than autoerotic asphyxiation.
Mulder: Why are you telling me that?
Clyde Bruckman: Look, forget I mentioned it. It’s none of my business.
If you need someone to play the absolute silly with the utmost sincerity, the go-to actor at the time was Peter Boyle (may he rest in peace), and he remains one of the best guest starts of the entire series. He plays Clyde Bruckman, a psychic who can see how someone will die and, instead of trying to profit from this gift, he finds it to be nothing but a curse. The psychological pain of being able to see visions that are yet-to-occur have rarely been treated in film or on TV with such a sensitive portrayal. “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose” is not just one of the finest episodes of the X-Files, it’s one of the finest episodes of any show. It’s got a real bittersweetness to it, a melancholy that feels personal, interspersed with some dark, biting humor and utterly macabre death at play.
“Jose Chung’s From Outer Space”
Season 3, Episode 20 – Directed by Rob Bowman; Written by Darin Morgan
Darin Morgan was the king of X-Files episodes that rebelled against the set-in-stone traits of our established characters… not rebelling against the X-Files, but rebelling against television’s standard of always having a show be the same in every episode of every week. When we watch Gunsmoke, we certainly expect Marshal Matt Dillon to speak some wise words and get the bad guy. But, when we watch The X-Files, we want to be thrown off kilter. We want to see Mulder and Scully acting in sometimes odd ways, depending on the case and their emotional attachment to it. That’s only human and watching humans change is always interesting.
Not only does “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space” challenge our preconceived notions about how Mulder and Scully should act week after week, it challenges what we know about reality itself being subjective. Everyone has a story to tell and Jose Chung, author of books about alien abductions and other things that go bump in the night, wants to get to the truth of what happened the night that when Harold and Chrissy were abducted by aliens. Did it happen? Were they abducted by aliens? Or was it another case of a girl being drugged and raped by someone who was supposed to know and trust? What does any of it mean? Mulder’s answer to Jose Chung just about sums it up: “How the hell should I know?”
Season 4, Episode 2 – Directed by Kim Manners; Written by Glen Morgan & James Wong
The X-Files has done funny (“Jose Chung’s”) and they’ve done horrifying (“Ice”), but rarely have they set out to make something so outrageously bloody AND funny as hell. To date, “Home” is the only episode of the series to receive a “TV-MA” rating… a much-deserved rating for how high it sets its sights for rock bottom entertainment.
“Home” concerns the inbred and murderous Peacock family. This episode has it all—it has psychotic hillbillies that murder for their “Mama,” a quadruple amputee who lives under the bed on a rolling board, and a chilling opening that begins with the burial of a mutated, monstrous baby. “Home” plays like an episode of the X-Files that was somehow written by David Lynch, if he’d been going through a serious Texas Chain Saw Massacre phase.
A lot of people cite this episode as being the only one they’ve ever seen, and there’s a reason for it: It has a long history of controversy and actually lives up to it. It’s a total classic.
Season 4, Episode 12 – Directed by Kim Manners; Written by Vince Gilligan & John Shiban & Frank Spotnitz
Most people don’t realize it, but when the X-Files first premiered, it wasn’t an immediate hit. Just like anything else, it took time to build. The first season ranked 105th out of 128 shows. Not… great. The second season increased, ranking 63rd out of 141 shows. Not bad, enough to keep it around and not regret canceling it.
But nothing would prepare the production team for what “Leonard Betts” would hold in store for their ratings, their high water mark for the rest of the show’s run. Premiering after the Super Bowl, “Leonard Betts” is worth mentioning, if for nothing else, for receiving 29.15 MILLION viewers the night it aired.
In classical X-Files form, the episode begins with a seemingly normal accident, an EMT driver being decapitated in an accident, but from there creates a bizarre story about a monster that eats cancer and can regenerate like a worm… with his head gone, the driver simply grows another one. “Leonard Betts” also revealed an important new story arc that encompassed several episodes about Scully being diagnosed with cancer, and tied in with the show’s overall alien mythology being the ultimate cause.
“The Post-Modern Prometheus”
Season 5, Episode 5 – Written and directed by Chris Carter
“The Post-Modern Prometheus” has so much going on in it, and so much that had gone wrong behind the scenes, that it’s a wonder that it even came out watchable. What’s remarkable about the episode is how ultimately fantastic it is in the end.
First off, the show asks us to sympathize was a literal monster, the creation of a mad scientist (hence the name), who acts deplorably by sneaking into women’s houses at night, gasses them and rapes them. It’s a hard pill to swallow… in order to create such a character and have them actually be sympathetic is no easy task, but Chris Carter surely pulls it off. The Great Mutato, you see, just wants to be like us. He never asked to be a monster and what he does is his way of feeling human.
As a direct nod to the classic Frankenstein films from Universal, “The Post-Modern Prometheus” was shot in black and white. Cher was intended to appear in a cameo role as herself, but unfortunately was unable to commit due to scheduling problems. Roseanne Barr was set to appear to, but she couldn’t make it, either.
If I did a terrible job describing why this particular episode of The X-Files is a must-see, just let it speak for itself. Go ahead and check it out on Netflix and the opening set to Cher’s “Gypsies, Tramps & Thieves” should hopefully win you over.
Season 5, Episode 12 – Directed by Cliff Bole; Written by Vince Gilligan
When someone tells a story to the absolute best of their recollection, no matter what the story is, it’s going to differ from someone else’s version of the same account. And such is the basis of Vince “Breaking Bad” Gilligan’s “Bad Blood.” On one cold night, Mulder kills a young man. According to Mulder, he was a vampire. According to Scully, he may have been wearing fangs and a killer, but he was no murderer.
Part of the fun of this episode was seeing the unspoken sexual dynamic of Mulder and Scully played out through barely concealed jealousy. According to Scully’s version of the story, the call they received for help was from a handsome, young law enforcement official who was knowledgeable and knew when to get federal investigators involved. According to Mulder’s version of the story, the law enforcement official (played by Luke Wilson in both versions), is a buck-toothed, barely coherent hick, with a penchant for non sequiturs about Rain Man, toothpicks and gambling.
For all its charms—and “Bad Blood” has a great many—the best moment is the one where, according to Scully, Mulder, covered in mud, laid down in her bed with his shoes still on ate her pizza, cackling like a madman with pride at his own audacity.