The Blessing Way: The Essential Episodes of THE X-FILES
The X-Files is returning to TV in January for a six episode mini-series. For some of us – those who happily embrace the fan term X-Phile – nothing could be more exciting. Mulder and Scully are arguably television’s most iconic duo, and the series is responsible for a few of the medium’s finest hours. That said, The X-Files is not something that you are taught in school and its appreciation is not mandated by the state, so it’s understandable if for some reason – be it traumatic childhood memories or being a jock – you missed the seminal series.
For those of you that fit that designation of X-Files uninitiated but are thinking of catching up before the show returns to its rightful place on Fox’s Sunday night lineup I have a message: DON’T WATCH THE WHOLE SERIES.
TV is different than it was in the 90s, and as much as The X-Files played an important role in opening up the possibility of more ambitious televised storytelling, the show is still beholden to the terrible network practices of the time. Massive episode orders that seem almost comical by today’s conservative standards make The X-Files feel bloated to say the least, and for every amazing episode the show’s creative team produced over nine years of airing, there are about 1.5 bad ones. But fear not, dear reader and intrepid truth seeker: You can come to love The X-Files like the rest of us without subjecting yourself to 202 hours of mostly mediocre TV by focusing on all the best parts.
I have personally winnowed down the entire series of The X-Files into the most essential episodes. If you watch these episodes in the order listed below you will have better than passing knowledge of one of the most important television shows ever aired.
(Note: There are two types of X-Files episode: mythology and monster of the week. I have marked the mythology episodes with an * to distinguish them from the rest, as in a few cases, particularly near the end of the series, their essential status is solely based on their importance to the overall story.)
The first season of The X-Files is a great cultural relic as a whole, but for the most part its 25 episodes range from ironically amusing to vaguely racist and sexist. Still, it can’t be denied that season one has its fair share of legitimate scares and compelling conspiracies. Most of the episodes that made this list are foundational to the show’s mythology, but “Ice” in particular is a perfect example of how even from the beginning The X-Files could tell genuinely suspenseful stand alone episodes.
Deep Throat *
The Erlenmeyer Flask*
Season two of The X-Files is notable for its introduction of a number of series staples. The abduction mythology is deepened, series guest star Nicholas Lea is introduced as Alex Krycek, we learn more about the iconic Cigarette Smoking Man and Darin Morgan wrote the first of his legendary episodes (“Humbug”). Also, “The Host” might make you scared of toilets. There is nothing much else worth noting about these ten episodes other than they are excellent, iconic, and were shot around Gillian Anderson’s pregnancy.
Little Green Men*
The X-Files’ third season is its best. It contains the series most wonderful episodes: “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose” and “Jose Chung’s ‘From Outer Space’” – the first of which guest stars Peter Boyle and the latter which is widely considered the best episode the show has to offer (and is my vote for best episode of TV, period). The season also introduces the infamous Black Oil, connects the mythology to real life history and features a young Vince Gilligan cutting his teeth in the considerably violent “Pusher.”
It is also worth pointing out that “The Blessing Way,” which guest stars Floyd Red Crow Westerman, introduces Chris Carter’s strange fetishization of Native American mysticism. It will continue to pop up throughout the series, always feeling awkward and colonial, but at least Red Crow is a great on screen presence.
The Blessing Way*
Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose
War of the Coprophages
Jose Chung’s ‘From Outer Space’*
Season four has the distinction of containing the only episode of The X-Files that was rated TV-MA and was the first to be preceded by a viewer discretion warning. “Home” - which is violent, disturbing, stylish and only barely an X-file - deals with so much incest and infanticide it’s easy to understand why it carries such a heavy reputation. “Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man” is an amazing off-brand episode focusing on possible backstories about its titular character and “Zero-Sum” combines two never fail elements into an excellent hour: killer bees with smallpox and Assistant Director Skinner (number two at the bureau, number one in our hearts).
If it can be said that season four has a distinguishing quality it’s its confidence. The show really takes risks on format and expands its universe in a way only a show with a loyal viewership can, allowing the normally contained mythology to bleed into monster of the week episodes.
Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man
The fifth season sees the mythology of The X-Files ramp up to its climax in the feature film Fight The Future. Lots of conspiracies and lies, lots of shadowy men named after their superficial traits, at least two alien races. Other than that there are some notable monster of the week episodes featuring some extra-fun guest stars, notably Luke Wilson in the Vince Gilligan penned vampire comedy “Bad Blood.”
The Post Modern Prometheus
The Red and The Black*
FIGHT THE FUTURE
The first X-Files feature film is just amazing. While it can stand alone as a sci-fi thriller, Fight The Future contains important developments in the series mythology, high production values that elevate familiar elements you will have come to love by now, a great performance by Martin Landau and even a definitive extraterrestrial answer for one of the agents.
The production of The X-Files moved from Vancouver to Los Angeles after the film, so season six is characteristically warmer than the seasons that came before it. The brighter palette and warmer weather doesn’t affect the quality too much though, as some of the best stand alone episodes pepper this season. Half way through, with “Two Fathers” and “One Son” the initial mythology arc is brought to a close after which a second, much less compelling serialized story begins. Starting with “Biogenesis,” I find it difficult to recommend the mythology episodes, but they will remain on this list simply because they contain important series information.
Three of a Kind
And so we come to season seven, the beginning of The X-Files’ decline into unwatchability. Aside from “X-Cops” which is a wonderful franchise crossover with Cops, the rest of these episodes are mythology centric. Even so, while the overarching story is much less compelling by now, “Sein Und Zeit” and “Closure” serve as an emotional end to one of the series most important ongoing threads.
The Sixth Extinction*
The Sixth Extinction II: Amor Fati*
Sein Und Zeit*
Season eight is remembered mostly for its lack of Mulder and the introduction of Agent John Doggett (Robert Patrick), who many fans hate simply for being associated with the final two years of what used to be a great show. The only episode of the following eight that I think is truly essential is “Vienen,” as it brings the Black Oil back in a fun way, but aside from that, these are just mythology episodes. Watch them if you want the story, but by now you can start reading a wiki if the conspiracy isn’t doing much for you at this point.
This Is Not Happening*
The final season of The X-Files sees a dramatic change to the title sequence and only features Mulder in the clip-show style finale. If you’re still around for the mythology you might as well also throw in “Jump The Shark,” but only if you have an hour to waste. I do highly recommend “Sunshine Days” though, which is the series final monster of the week episode in which Doggett and Reyes (the season’s new agent) investigate a Brady Bunch-themed homicide. It serves as an example of how good writing and excellent guest stars could have produced charming X-Files episodes without the original agents had the show gone on to a tenth season. Everything else here is mythology for completionists.
Nothing Important Happened Today*
Nothing Important Happened Today II*
Trust No 1*
And there you have it: the only 76 episodes of The X-Files you need to watch in order to understand why it’s loved, why it’s revered and, if you stick around through those last ones, why it is mourned. There is a second movie too, the 2008 feature I Want To Believe, but trust me, some truths are best left hidden.