The List: Top 10 ‘The X-Files’ Episodes

The X-Files premiered 30 years ago this week. While I was a latecomer to the series, it quickly became one of my favorites. No matter how ridiculous the case, there was something indescribably wonderful about the partnership between Agents Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson). (This also explains why episodes and seasons when they’re not together tend to suck.)

As someone who ended up not carrying about the show’s overarching alien mythology – especially when it got too convoluted for its own good – you’ll notice most of my favorites don’t have much impact on future stories. But that’s why it’s my list.

10. “Redrum” (Season 8, Episode 6)
Easily the best episode of the post-Mulder years, this hour provides a showcase for the great Joe Morton. He plays Martin Wells, a Baltimore prosecutor who finds himself bloodied in a jail cell with no idea how he got there. En route to another prison, he’s shot and killed by his father-in-law. But then he wakes up again, alive and clean. As his days progress backwards, he slowly begins to piece together what happened to him and his murdered wife. Scully and Doggett (Robert Patrick) barely factor into this episode, as Wells does most of his own investigation and faces his own reckoning.

9. “Drive” (Season 6, Episode 2)
It would be easy to put this episode on the list because of the connection forged by its guest star (Bryan Cranston) and writer (Vince Gilligan). But it has so much more to offer than an intense dry run for Breaking Bad. Cranston excels as the bereaved, bigoted hostage taker. Like his late wife, he’s got a ticking time bomb in his brain, forcing Mulder to drive him west as fast as possible. While the episode as a whole is thrilling, it endures because it refuses to make its characters all good or all bad, and has a throughline of plausible government conspiracy running through it.

8. “Home” (Season 4, Episode 2)  
The show’s most disturbing episode already had a cult following before the show became widely available on DVD and streaming. Removed from syndication packages due to its graphic content, it took on an almost mythical status. Of course in 2023, its violence isn’t that shocking. But its story of a family of inbred shut-ins still is. It’s not only the scariest the show has ever been, but also the saddest.

7. “The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat” (Season 11, Episode 4)
It’s pretty much impossible to look at the two revival seasons as anything but a failure. The Season 10 finale (“My Struggle II”) belongs with the series’ worst episodes, alongside “Space” and “First Person Shooter.” And while its very last episode wrapped up some threads in a somewhat satisfactory way, the whole endeavor feels mostly like a very expensive shrug. Still, I’d happily watch more Mulder and Scully adventures any day. Especially if they’re like this one, one of two written by series MVP Darin Morgan (the other, “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster,” barely missed this spot). Brian Huskey (who’s appeared in everything from The Bourne Identity to Veep to my beloved Best Week Ever) shines as an escaped mental patient who spends the entire episode trying to convince Mulder and Scully he was their partner for years before he got “too close to the truth.” The episode playfully toys with the “Mandela effect,” and satirizes the misinformation epidemic, marking the revival’s only successful attempt at drawing on current events.

6. “Leonard Betts” (Season 4, Episode 12)
The show’s most-watched episode – thanks to a coveted post-Super Bowl spot – shocked long-time fans and newcomers alike. This perfectly structured hour begins with title character (Paul McCrane) getting decapitated, then walking out of the morgue like it was just a bad headache. It ends with a stunning revelation about Scully that impacted her (and Mulder) for years to come.

5. “Squeeze” (Season 1, Episode 3)
While many fans and critics will point to a later episode as the moment when the show went from good to great, I think this was its first high. That first season varies wildly in quality, but this early Monster-of-the-Week case showed just how effective and unsettling the series could be. Real life creep Doug Hutchison plays Eugene Tooms, a mutant who can stretch his body into tight places. His killing spree precedes his hibernation period, which adds a ticking-clock element to Mulder and Scully’s pursuit. Despite a difficult production in a sometimes messy season, this still stands as one of the best episodes of the series.

4. “Colony” / “End Game” (Season 2, Episodes 16-17)
Before creator Chris Carter let the mythology get out of control, he and Frank Spotnitz wrote many thrilling two-parters, including this one. Called in to investigate a series of murders of abortion providers, our duo end up near death multiple times after encounters with an imposing alien bounty hunter (Brian Thompson). But Mulder also gets put through the emotional wringer, as he gets help from a woman claiming to be his long-missing sister Samantha. Exposure to toxins and subzero temperatures are nothing compared to that pain.

3. “Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man” (Season 4, Episode 7)
William B. Davis made for a perfect foil as the mysterious Smoking Man for many seasons. Seemingly pulling the strings of every red herring or locked door for Mulder’s search into extraterrestrial life, it soon became clear he was just making it up as he went along. His amorality and arrogance got revealed as a bluff in this episode. Whatever world events he influences, he still comes home to an empty apartment or hotel room, with nothing but a pack of Morleys and a typewriter to keep him company. He’s still pure evil, but he’s a person with hopes and dreams, too.

2. “The Post-Modern Prometheus” (Season 5, Episode 5)
Even if I didn’t rank it as the greatest episode ever, it still contains the greatest moment of the series: Dissatisfied with the unhappy ending afforded the Great Mutato, Mulder demands to see “the writer.” Whether the rest of the episode is “real” or not is immaterial. It doesn’t get better than Mulder dancing with Scully at a Cher concert while the crowd cheers on the “monster” they wanted to kill just minutes before.

1. “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose” (Season 3, Episode 4) 
Honestly, I could have put all six episodes Darin Morgan wrote on this list. That’s how much I love his scripts that focus on outcasts and lonely hearts. But this remains his best, and he (and guest star Peter Boyle) were rewarded with well-deserved Emmys. Boyle plays the title character: an insurance salesman who can foresee how people die. While this episode has an unavoidable morbid nature, it’s still filled with Morgan’s offbeat humor and humanity. For me, it simply doesn’t get any better.

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