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The X-Files 101: Ten “Monster of the Week” Episodes (Seasons 1-5)

Next week sees the release of The X-Files on blu ray for the first time, just over a month before the new six-episode series premieres on Fox in January. We’re running daily reviews of the show (and its spin-offs) between now and the end of the year, but we thought it might be worth compiling some guides for newer viewers who are looking to experience the length and breadth of what The X-Files has to offer. Every day this week, we’ll be publishing one quick list of recommended episodes every day, that should offer a good place to start for those looking to dive into the show.

The first list is the “monster of the week” shows from the first five seasons, which perhaps represents the purest distillation of what The X-Files actually was. On initial broadcast, a lot of attention was focused on the “mythology”, the long-form story about alien invaders who were conspiring with the United States government against mankind. It captured the attention of the nation, generating a lot of buzz and watercooler talk with blockbuster episodes that pushed the sheer scope and scale of nineties television to the limit.

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Despite the fact that the “mythology” garnered a lot of attention on initial broadcast, the “standalones” have arguably aged best. When Mulder and Scully weren’t confronting secret government plots, they tended to explore standalone cases. The X-Files occasionally felt like an anthology series, like The Twilight Zone with an established cast. While few of these standalone stories consciously built upon one another, they did explore all the nooks and crannies of America in the nineties.

The five-year cut-off point is not arbitrary here. The first five seasons of The X-Files were filmed in Vancouver for budgetary reasons, but the Canadian surroundings afforded the show a rich and vivid atmosphere while allowing for a wide range of settings. (Famously, the only surrounding Vancouver couldn’t offer was desert, leading to a somewhat brazen production team to actually paint a quarry red to represent Arizona in the second season finalé, Anasazi.) The show was dark and moody, looking unlike most contemporary television.

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After the release of The X-Files: Fight the Future shortly after the end of the fifth season, the production moved to Los Angeles. The move to Los Angeles caused something of a schism among fandom; some more vocal critics argued that the show never recovered from the move to California, never recapturing the mood that made the early years so distinct. While some pundits are more forgiving, it is hard to argue that The X-Files became a different show in its final four seasons.

Although the following ten episodes are listed in broadcast order, the episodic nature of the storytelling means that they can be enjoyed in just about any order the viewer sees fit. There is no real possibility of spoilers, as the episodes are self-contained. It might be worth starting with the episode that sounds the most interesting rather than watching in chronological order, but they are all pretty great. Incidentally, the revival was shot in Vancouver; as if to affirm the importance of Canada to the production team.

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Beyond the Sea

(Season 1, Episode 13)

Writers: Glen Morgan and James Wong

Director: David Nutter

Original Airdate: 7 January 1994

The X-Files “does”: The Silence of the Lambs.

What it’s about: A killer on death row claims to have a psychic link to two teenagers who have been abducted. In a reversal of the traditional format, Mulder is skeptical while Scully seems to want to believe. But, as she works through her own trauma, how much can Scully trust incarcerated killer Luther Lee Boggs?

Why it’s on this list: The X-Files might appear like a procedural, with its “case of the week” format, but it is not. The show was always anchored in its characters and its performers. Beyond the Sea has all the makings of a formulaic episode of television, but writers Glen Morgan and James Wong keep it rooted in the characters. Gillian Anderson steals the show here, but she is superbly supported by veteran character actor Brad Dourif as a death row inmate who may or may not have psychic powers.

More like this: Morgan and Wong also wrote Ice, another breakout episode of the first season that borrows its premise from a classic horror film. (The Thing, in that case.)

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Humbug

(Season 2, Episode 20)

Writer: Darin Morgan

Director: Kim Manners

Original Airdate: 31 March 1995

The X-Files “does”: Freaks, but with a wry and subversive sense of humour.

What it’s about: A series of murders in Florida bring Mulder and Scully to the small town of Gibsonton, a retirement community for circus and freak show performers. However, as Mulder and Scully chip away at the case, they discover that they might just be the strangest people in this tightly-knit community.

Why it’s on this list: Humbug is frequently cited as the show’s first “comedy” episode, which not entirely accurate. (Glen Morgan and James Wong’s Die Hand Die Verletzt was a biting religious satire with heavily doses of pitch black commentary.) However, Humbug is one of the most effective demonstration of The X-Files nostalgia for the eccentric spaces within the American landscape, the quirky communities eroded by the forces of time and globalisation. The show would return to the theme time and time again, but seldom with such power and wit.

More like this: Kim Manners would go on to become the most prolific director working on the series, directing the last episode of the show’s run. However, his first directorial credit, Die Hand Die Verletzt, has a darker sense of humour than Humbug. It was also the last second season script by Morgan and Wong.

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Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose

(Season 3, Episode 4)

Writer: Darin Morgan

Director: David Nutter

Original Airdate: 13 October 1995

The X-Files “does”: Beyond the Sea, but with existentialism.

What it’s about: Investigating a series of murders around fortune-tellers and psychics, Mulder and Scully come into contact with an insurance salesman named Clyde Bruckman. Bruckman has the ability to foresee how any person will die, including our two leading agents.

Why it’s on this list: Although his script for Humbug had been ecstatically received, writer Darin Morgan opted for a more somber story for his second X-Files script. Trying to offer more of a “straight” episode, the writer made a point to reverse-engineer the script for Beyond the Sea, another episode involving psychic phenomenon. Of course, Morgan’s own wit seeped into the final product. Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose is a sad, funny, clever and insightful episode. Like so many of the show’s strongest episodes, it captures something vital about the human condition.

Don’t take our word for it: Writer Darin Morgan won an Emmy for the teleplay. Guest star Peter Boyle won an Emmy for his performance.

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Pusher

(Season 3, Episode 17)

Writer: Vince Gilligan

Director: Rob Bowman

Original Airdate: 23 February 1996

The X-Files “does”: Breaking Bad, but with superpowers.

What it’s about: Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Vince Gilligan writes the story of a pathetic and average man who decides to transform himself into a master criminal after discovering that he has a tumour. Robert Patrick Modell cannot cook pure crystal meth, but he can control minds.

Why it’s on this list: Quite simply, Pusher is a fantastic example of a simple story well told. The X-Files was blessed with a wonderful writing staff and some of the best directors to work in television. The combination of Vince Gilligan and Rob Bowman produced some of the most exciting edge-of-your-seat television of the nineties, with ratcheting tension and incredible stakes. Gilligan also stakes out a lot of the thematic group he would explore in Breaking Bad, particularly interrogating some of the more toxic aspects of archetypal masculinity.

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Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space”

(Season 3, Episode 20)

Writer: Darin Morgan

Director: Rob Bowman

Original Airdate: 12 April 1996

The X-Files “does”: “How the hell should I know?” (Postmodernism, Pale Fire.)

What it’s about: What initially appears to be a simple alien abduction case becomes a lot more complicated when it turns out that the aliens themselves might have been abducted. As a writer researches his own account of events, the truth is filtered through an increasingly abstract series of lenses.

Why it’s on this list: Darin Morgan points to Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space” as his favourite of the episodes he wrote. Really, that should be enough. However, Morgan uses the episode to poke and prod at some of the core ideas of The X-Files, questioning whether the truth really is out there and whether any of that actual matters in the reality of everyday existence. Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space” is a bold and ambitious piece of television, a story that is not afraid to refuse to make sense as it suggests the true theme of The X-Files is more “alienation” than “alien.”

More like this: Darin Morgan’s other third season script, War of the Coprophages, is often overlooked and well worth a look. Although Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space” is Morgan’s last credited teleplay for the show, Morgan did a rewrite on the episode Quagmire, which serves as a coda to his work on the series.

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Home

(Season 4, Episode 2)

Writers: Glen Morgan and James Wong

Director: Kim Manners

Original Airdate: 11 October 1996

The X-Files “does”: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and all manner of seventies and eighties schlockers.

What it’s about: Mulder and Scully are drafted in to investigate when the body of a newborn baby is discovered buried in a field in the picturesque community of Home, Pennsylvania. As the duo examine the evidence, their attention is drawn towards the mysterious Peacock farm at the edge of town.

Why it’s on this list: Morgan and Wong departed at the end of the second season to launch Space: Above and Beyond, which was cancelled by Fox after only a season. They were not necessarily pleased at returning to The X-Files, and Morgan has conceded that Home was something of an angry lament. The first episode of The X-Files to get a graphic content warning, the show was infamously pulled from reruns and repeats. Shocking and grisly, but also darkly funny, Home critiques the show’s nostalgia for an America rapidly fading from view. Maybe the past is best left to the past.

More like this: Morgan and Wong are credited on four episodes of the fourth season. Three are listed here. The fourth is The Field Where I Died. Although somewhat messier than the other three episodes listed, The Field Where I Died is a very thoughtful exploration of love and loss that remains one of the show’s most divisive hours.

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Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man

(Season 4, Episode 7)

Writer: Glen Morgan

Director: James Wong

Original Airdate: 17 November 1996

The X-Files “does”: Forrest Gump.

What it’s about: Mulder and Scully meet with conspiracy theorists the Lone Gunmen late at night, as a familiar shadowy figure watches from a building across the way. The Lone Gunmen might have uncovered the greatest mystery of the twentieth century: the life and times of a Cigarette-Smoking Man.

Why it’s on this list: The chronology of Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man is impossible to reconcile with the large mythology, but that seems to be the point. Glen Morgan’s script positions the Cigarette-Smoking Man as a colossus standing over contemporary American history, responsible for everything from assassinations to Super Bowl scores. At once a delightful parody of the show’s conspiracy theory stylings, commentary on the arc of history, and moving character study, Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man is the show’s definitive exploration of American history.

Don’t take our word for it: Director James Wong won an Emmy for his direction, moving on to become a feature film director in his own right. (Glen Morgan also became a feature director.)

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Paper Hearts

(Season 4, Episode 10)

Writer: Vince Gilligan

Director: Rob Bowman

Original Airdate: 15 December 1996

The X-Files “does”: Manhunter, complete with Tom Noonan.

What it’s about: After visions lead him to discover a previously unknown victim of a brutal child molester that he helped to catch years ago, Mulder finds old wounds reopening. What if everything that Mulder took for granted about his own childhood was a lie?

Why it’s on this list: In many ways, The X-Files was indebted to the writing of Thomas Harris, who invented the modern forensic thriller with Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs. The show repeatedly emphasised Mulder’s history as a criminal profiler, with earlier episodes like Grotesque allowing Mulder to get inside the head of a serial killer. Paper Hearts reverses the premise, asking what might happen if a serial killer got inside Mulder’s head? Stunningly written, powerfully performed and beautifully directed, Paper Hearts is a classic.

More like this: Vince Gilligan was on a bit of a serial offender kick in the forth season, also writing the oft-overlooked Unruhe.

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Never Again

(Season 4, Episode 13)

Writers: Glen Morgan and James Wong

Director: Rob Bowman

Original Airdate: 2 February 1997

The X-Files “does”: Mid-life crisis.

What it’s about: As Mulder is forced to take overdue leave, Scully finds herself contemplating the direction that her life has taken. Embarking on an impulsive romance with a strange man, Scully discovers she might have more than she bargained for.

Why it’s on this list: The last script written by Morgan and Wong for the show, Never Again had a very strange production history. The original premise had been a ghost story involving Abraham Lincoln. The original plan had been for Quentin Tarantino to direct the episode. The original schedule had the episode airing after the SuperBowl. None of this developed as planned, although the episode does have the voice of Jodie Foster as a psychotic tattoo. Melancholy, thoughtful, profound; Never Again offers a very compelling glimpse of Scully’s inner life.

More like this: Leonard Betts aired directly before Never Again. A superlative episode in its own right, it was also the highest rated episode of the show ever produced. However, the events of Leonard Betts radically alter the context of Never Again, somewhat controversially. Glen Morgan would rather you didn’t watch Leonard Betts before Never Again. Chris Carter would rather you did. Make up your own mind.

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Bad Blood

(Season 5, Episode 12)

Writer: Vince Gilligan

Director: Cliff Bole

Original Airdate: 22 February 1998

The X-Files “does”: Roshomon. Or that episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show.

What it’s about: After an investigation into alleged vampire activity goes horribly wrong, Mulder and Scully recount their own version of events. Unsurprisingly, Mulder and Scully both offer radically different accounts of what actually happened.

Why it’s on this list: The “point of view” episode has become a television staple, but Vince Gilligan rather shrewdly pitches Bad Blood as a comedy comparing and contrasting Mulder and Scully’s perspective. Some of the show’s best laughs come from contrasting their different versions of the same events, cleverly revealing how Mulder and Scully view each other… but also themselves. It is a nice exploration of just what makes the partnership so special, while also suggesting how the two might still disagree after half a decade of chasing little green men.

More like this: Vince Gilligan was on fire during the fifth season, producing three of the show’s best “monster of the week” stories over the year. Unusual Suspects and Folie à Deux garner less discussion than Bad Blood, but they are well worth viewing on their own merits.

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2 Responses

  1. Wonderful. I would substitute Small Potatoes for Bad Blood but really that’s just being picky. Vince Gilligan also had a strong season 6 with Tithonus and Field Trip, both of which I think suit the Vancouver aesthetic. Going farther out, I would add X-Cops and Roadrunners, also both Gilligan, which is not intentional but not really a coincidence either.

    • … I would wait until Thursday before commenting on most of those choices.

      I like Small Potatoes a lot, but the rapey stuff (and the idea that Mulder’s worth is measured in his ability to sleep with Scully) draws me out of the story quite a bit. But it does have my favourite Mitch Pileggi comedy moment ever. (“Twice.”)

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