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The 10 Greatest X-Files Episodes

Last week marked twenty years since the first X-Files episode was aired. Totalling nine seasons and over two hundreds episodes – as well as the two feature films – the series was largely the only TV show I watched with any regularity in the ‘90s. The X-Files showed me what long-running TV series could do, with the over-arching story lines, standalone episodes that while wholly accessible on their own, contributed to viewers’ understanding of the characters and the ongoing themes of the show.

In the end, what made the X-Files so good was that it was one of the most consistently well-written shows at the time. You could tune in to any episode and witness a tightly-scripted, tense exploration of a single idea, marrying paranoid science-fiction with horror, mystery and, at times, brilliant comedy. It familiarised us with the Cigarette-Smoking Man, the Lone Gunmen, alien bounty hunters and covert government operations. It made us fear the dark, the unknown, the strange, the bodily horrific, and value the importance of long-life batteries in government-issue flashlights.

Here are my ten favourite X-Files episodes, chosen mainly for what my lasting memories of the show were, what moments I found referencing more than others, what stories I thought captured what the show meant to me across its decade-long run. These aren’t in order of preference, but rather in the order of season.

 

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Gender Bender

I really wanted to put Squeeze in here, as it’s such a classic monster-of-the-week X-Files episode, and one of the first truly scary monsters to emerge in the first season, but I went with this episode of Mulder and Scully investigating a series of murders that lead them to a remote Amish community. This episode really showcases the Vancouver-setting that permeated the first five seasons; the dense, dewy greenness, and the dark, wet horrors that often emerged from the forest.

Key scene: Scully is almost seduced by the magic touch of the pheremonally-enhanced Amish Brother Andrew, and all the ‘90s fears about sex, gender and loss of inhibitions are laid bare.

 

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Beyond the Sea

Another season 1 entry, most notable for Brad Dourif’s presence as the serial killer Luther Lee Boggs, and Don Davis as Scully’s recently deceased father. This is classic X-Files, where the duo are nominally investigating a series of mysterious crimes, but on the other hand are busy dealing with an ongoing personal crisis. And like all good writing and television, the two become entwined and Scully finds unlikely revelation about her father’s death through Dourif’s Boggs, who is revealed as not the villain of the piece, but the pathway towards closure for Scully.

Key scene: Any of the scenes with Scully and Boggs. Dourif is in truly chilling Hannibal Lecter mode, and yet manages to deliver a sympathetic performance, in line with the series’ notion that the more closely you look at something, the less your initial impressions hold up.

 

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D.P.O.

Introducing many people to Giovanni Ribisi and Jack Black, the two appear as typical ‘90s slacker kids in this season 2 episode, with Ribisi’s character having the ability to conduct lightning and manipulate electronic signals. The audience is never in doubt as to who committed the crimes here – all electricity related – its rather the growing realisation of why Ribisi’s character heads down his violent path that is worth watching. Perfectly capturing the disenfranchised youth of small-town America in the ‘90s, Ribisi is perfectly cast, ready to explode – literally and emotionally – at any stage. The plot is one of those X-Files classics that never strays too far into the realm of scientific implausibility, finding medical grounds for most of the outrageous scenes the viewer witnesses.

Key scene: the opening. A perfect cold open, it sets up Ribisi and Black’s characters with expert dread and efficiency, and is a brilliant blending of the violence, the supernatural and humourous.

 

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Home

Probably one of the most terrifying X-Files episodes. This earned a viewer discretion warning for the first time for the show, despite this being a season 4 episode, when all manner of ghastly frights in the night had already been explored. It gives you some idea.

Essentially a corrupted version of the American Dream, this does the house-of-horrors narrative better in forty minutes than many recent Hollywood horror films. The final twist in the story makes this a classic of the genre, and one of the X-Files episodes that can be truly classified as great television.

Key scene: The Peacock brothers – under investigation by Mulder and Scully for connections to a violent crime – launch a late-night attack on the local sheriff, complete with Johnny Mathis soundtrack. Truly macabre.

 

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The Post-Modern Prometheus

There are many humourous entries in other lists of top X-Files episodes, but it’s this one that I like the most. Filmed in glorious black and white, it’s a small-town American take on the Frankenstein story, with the duo following up on a Jerry Springer lead. Referencing not only the Shelley text, but also James Whale’s 1930s film, it taps into their themes of corrupted science, lost fathers and lost sons, and a call for acceptance in a world bred to intolerance.

Superb fun, and probably the only applicable setting for a Cher-inspired soundtrack.

Key scene: the first arrival of the monster, complete with termite tent, stove-top anaesthetic and Cher.

 

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Drive

This episode marked a dramatic shift in the series, and one that was needed. The show was growing too fond of its comedic asides, and in danger of redundancy. For a variety of reasons, production shifted to L.A., and with it the series became simultaneously brighter and drier in tapestry, but more psychological and aggressive in tone. This episode has retrospectively gained attention due to the fact that it stars Bryan Cranston and was written  by Vince Gilligan pre-Breaking Bad, it’s a monster-of-the-week episode without a monster. Cranston’s everyman is suffering from headaches that increase in potency unless he continues to move west, and enlists Mulder’s help in an increasingly fraught road-trip.

Key scene: the opening, where we witness via news helicopter the dangers of the headaches affecting Cranston, and in this scene, his soon to be late-wife.

 

Arcadia

X-Files does gated communities, with Mulder and Scully going undercover as a married couple, looking into supposed crimes behind white picket fences and neighbourhood policies gone crazy. An excellent look at the seedy underbelly to domestic middle-class bliss, with fake-married hijinks aplenty between the FBI agents.

Key scene: any of the marriage play-acting scenes. Mulder demanding a sandwich, Scully and her night-time rituals, or the above scene.

 

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Field Trip

Many cite Bad Blood as one of the best of the series, with its unreliable narrative and multiple points of view. But I prefer this from season 6, which does ostensibly the same thing but in a much more terrifying way. Can’t really go into too much detail, other than that it involves Mulder searching for a missing couple at Brown Mountain, home to all manner of natural mysteries and conspiracy theories.

Key scene: Mulder brings a real-life alien back to his apartment to show Scully. Despite appearances, this is not a spoiler.

 

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Closure

A double episode in the seventh season with Sein und Zeit, this finally puts to rest the speculation and mystery surrounding the disappearance of Mulder’s sister. Initially a driving emotional force for the show, it became a ridiculous burden, as Chris Carter failed to give an answer, preferring to endlessly spin out possibilities.

Here, finally, we get concrete closure, and it’s undeniably terrestrial, while affirming the series’ shift towards a more introspective spiritual zone, rather than one demanding definitive scientific proof of the unprovable.

Key scene: Mulder lets go and so, essentially, does the audience to a lot of the baggage the series had been carrying for a bit too long.

 

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Release

The third-last episode ever, of the ninth season, and my favourite of the John Doggett-era X-Files. Similar in a sense to Closure, this gave Doggett a chance to bring to an end his search for answers about his son’s murder. A markedly different protagonist to Mulder, he thankfully gave some credibility to a show that wasn’t able to sustain the ongoing mythology threads it had instigated, and with Doggett it at least had a character who wasn’t so concerned with the mystery, than with what he had to do to solve the crime.

Key scene: again, the ending, which was filmed with Robert Patrick’s real-life wife playing his onscreen wife.

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