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The X-Files 102: Ten “Mythology” Episodes

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.

There is no getting around the shadow of the “mythology”, the serialised central narrative of The X-Files which explored a sinister conspiracy between the United States government and alien forces building towards a sinister end. While the show was on the air, the mythology was a focal point for discussion and debate around the show, with many viewers speculating about the particulars of the allegiance between the shadowy syndicate and the mysterious visitors from outer space. It was one of the boldest and most distinctive features of the show.

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It is easy to overstate the influence of the “mythology.” It was not the first serialised prime-time television narrative. Although the form had been popular with soap operas like Dallas and Dynasty during the eighties, it had largely died out once the networks discovered that syndicated dramas did not sell well in syndication. Shows like Hill Street Blues had played with the form, and The X-Files emerged amid a whole wave of more serialised prime-time narratives in the nineties, like E.R. or Babylon 5 or Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

The X-Files was not serialised in the sense that modern television could be argued to be serialised. The mythology was interspaced between standalone stories, with Mulder and Scully often breaking from the apocalyptic threat of alien invasion to investigating volcano spores or lightning powers. The mythology told a single advancing story, but one prone to meander and wander off on tangents or down narrative cul de sacs. Indeed, one of the many problems with the show’s final episode was that it was largely engaged with a mythology that was no longer applicable.

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Still, the mythology was a massive part of the show’s on-going success. It proved that television shows need not assume that audiences were idiots, that it was possible to seed and build threads across seasons without losing the audience along the way. The X-Files was a massive hint in syndication despite the serialisation, and it could be argued that the mythology arguably drove home media sales of the series. (There are four “mythology” box sets on sale that feature only the show’s mythology episodes.)

More than that, the mythology episodes were frequently scheduled to air as multi-part episodes around sweeps. As such, Carter was able to convince Fox to invest in the shows; the episodes were heavily promoted and the budgets were often inflated. With ninety-minute run-times and a larger sense of scale, the production team were able to push the technical limitations of nineties television. All of The X-Files looks great when updated to high-definition, but the mythology looks particularly impressive.

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Although extremely popular during the run of the show, to the point that the show’s first film was essentially an even bigger mythology episode, the mythology’s stock has fallen sharply in the years since the show went off the air. There are a number of reasons for this, but the most obvious is that the mythology ends with something of a damp squib in The Truth. In many respects, The X-Files was one of the first mythology-driven shows that failed to stick the landing; it set a precedent for Battlestar Galactica or Lost.

However, this isn’t necessarily fair. As much as the serialised nature of the mythology might be emphasised, the mythology was never really a story in its own right. Most of the events driving the mythology itself either took place long before the show began or years after it ended. Although the temptation is to approach the mythology as a long-form story, this approach inevitably leads to disappointment. Most often, the serialisation of The X-Files is archaeological in nature; Mulder and Scully peel back the layers on a pre-existing story.

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There are exceptions, of course, most obviously during the fifth and sixth seasons when the show makes a conscious (but ultimately half-hearted) effort to actually start wrapping things up. Nevertheless, the mythology frequently works best as the backdrop for stories. Most mythology two-parters can be savoured or enjoyed with a sentence or two of back story at most, telling a tale that is relatively self-contained and satisfactory on its own terms. There is always the mythology looming in the background, but these are not perpetual cliffhangers.

As such, this list picks mythology episodes based on their quality and their archetypal elements rather than their “importance” to the overall plot. After all, The Truth is technically the most important mythology episode that the show ever produced, but nobody should ever have to sit through that. There is line or two of background information one each entry, explaining what the viewer needs to know before they jump in. To avoid inadvertently spoiling things for new viewers, they can be highlighted to be read.

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The Pilot/Deep Throat

(Season 1, Episodes 1 & 2)

What you need to know going in: Nothing. These are the first two episodes of the show.

Why do I care? This is where the show began. While it’s still rough around the edges, there is a very clear sense of purpose and identity to these early episodes. There is a sense that The X-Files knows what it wants to be, even if it doesn’t know exactly how it wants to be that thing. Plus it’s clear Duchovny and Anderson have chemistry from the start.

Extravagant set piece: Mulder catches his first glimpse of a UFO. Because it’s only the second episode, he doesn’t actually remember anything. (Deep Throat.)

Extra Credit: (After) The first season doesn’t really have a central mythology to speak of, but the UFO-centric episodes Fallen Angel and E.B.E. are both great examples of the show playing with paranoia and conspiracy.

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Duane Barry/Ascension/One Breath

(Season 2, Episodes 5, 6 & 8)

What you need to know going in: The X-files have been closed by the powers that be. (The Erlenmeyer Flask.) Mulder and Scully have been separated, but maintaining contact. (Little Green Men.) Mulder has been assigned a new partner, Alex Krycek, who secretly reports to the Cigarette-Smoking Man. (Sleepless.)

Why do I care? Improvising around Gillian Anderson’s pregnancy, this marks the point at which the show realised it could tell long-form stories on an impressive scale. Duane Barry and Ascension marked the first of what would become an institution; the mid-season mythology two-parter. While the entire trilogy is great, One Breath is the real standout; a thoughtful, introspective, and subversive narrative of trauma and trust by Glen Morgan and James Wong.

Extravagant set piece: Mulder gets his Roger Moore on with a daring cable car adventure. (Ascension.)

Extra Credit: (Before) If you really want to get into it, watch the episodes from the first season finalé though to this point. They represent the show’s earliest attempt at serialisation and are really good episodes on their own merits. (The Erlenmeyer Flask, Little Green Men, The Host, Blood, Sleepless.) You can skip 3, which falls between Ascension and One Breath.

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Colony/End Game

(Season 2, Episodes 16 & 17)

What you need to know going in: Mulder’s sister was abducted when he was a child. (The Pilot, Conduit, Little Green Men.)

Why do I care? The first episode with a story credit by David Duchovny. The actor would go on to shape the mythology; he would also write and direct a couple of episodes towards the end of the run. Samantha Mulder is the heart of the mythology, and this two-parter ties it all back to Mulder’s family trauma. Plus, it introduces the Alien Bounty Hunter, a character who answers the most vital of questions: what if Bobba Fett was a shape-shifting Terminator?

Extravagant set piece: Mulder goes full Frankenstein, chasing a monster to the Arctic and finding a crashed ship in the ice. (End Game.)

Extra Credit: (Before and After) The second season finds The X-Files experimenting with its mythology, trying to find the right voice for these stories. Red Museum and Fearful Symmetry are two notable misfires around this point, both of which serve to set up the “aliens as divine” motif which the show drifts away from and back towards. They are both inessential, even if a background detail in Red Museum comes back into play in The Truth.

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Anasazi/The Blessing Way/Paper Clip

(Season 2, Episodes 25; Season 3, Episodes 1 & 2)

What you need to know going in: Nothing actually. The mythology really begins gearing up from here, but the basics are all established here.

Why do I care? The mythology kicks into high gear here, simultaneously going intimate and epic. Mulder’s family are tied firmly into the conspiracy, at the same point that the show reveals the conspiracy to have a truly international scope. Anasazi puts in place the core storyline that runs through the next four seasons of the show, culminating in Two Fathers and One Son mid-way through the sixth season.

Extravagant set piece: The most memorable image is Mulder discovering a box car full of aliens. (Anasazi.) However, the most thrilling sequence is a visit to a secret government mine. (Paper Clip.)

Extra Credit: None. But the third season is packed with great standalone episodes if you feel like checking them out. Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose comes to mind.

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Nisei/731

(Season 3, Episodes 9 & 10)

What you need to know going in: The government’s sinister involvement with the aliens involves plans for hybridisation. (Paper Clip.) At the end of the Second World War, the United States government smuggled Nazi scientists out of Germany to assist. (Paper Clip.) Scully was abducted. (Ascension.)

Why do I care? The two-parter is an exercise in sheer momentum, building like a runaway freight train. The idea of building a mythology episode around a train is clever, and veteran character actor Stephen McHattie makes a suitably menacing antagonist. More than that, Nisei and 731 work to offer an explanation for the mythology that Scully can buy into.

Extravagant set piece: Mulder proves that he can multi-task, ignoring Scully and hopping a train at the same time. (Nisei.)

Extra Credit: (After) The third season mythology episodes are pretty great in general, so it makes sense to chase Nisei and 731 with Piper Maru and Apocrypha before continuing on to the season finalé with Talitha Cumi. The fourth season sees a bit of drop in quality, with Herrenvolk being particularly disappointing. Tunguska and Terma are narratively disjointed and add little of real worth, but do build on elements introduced in Piper Maru and Apocrypha.

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Tempus Fugit/Max

(Season 4, Episodes 17 & 18)

What you need to know going in: Mulder has a friend called Max Fenig, who was abducted by aliens and experimented upon. (Fallen Angel.) Scully has been diagnosed with cancer as a result of her abduction experience. (Ascension, One Breath, Memento Mori.)

Why do I care? A prime example of “the mythology as backdrop.” Taking a breather from the looming threat that underscores so much of the series, the two-patter focuses on the collateral damage of Mulder’s quest. The mythology never lost sight of those sacrificed to protect the lies underpinning the conspiracy. Tempus Fugit and Max have an epic scale, but they work best as an intersection of lives thrown into turmoil by impersonal machinery.

Extravagant set piece: The whole thing, really. The mid-air abduction sequences are an obvious draw, but even the aftermath of the crash is haunting and cinematic.

Extra Credit: (Before and After) The Scully arc of the fourth season is generally well-loved. There is a nice triptych of Leonard Betts, Never Again and Memento Mori that can be enjoyed before Tempus Fugit and Max. Afterwards, Zero Sum spins a plot thread from Memento Mori into an interesting story.

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Patient X/The Red and the Black

(Season 5, Episodes 13 & 14)

What you need to know going in: The natural form of the aliens is an infectious agent named the black oil that takes control of the host’s body. (Piper Maru, Apocrypha.) The Russians have their own conspiracy involving the alien threat. (Tunguska, Terma.) The end game is colonisation of Earth. (Talitha Cumi.) The Cigarette-Smoking Man has been assassinated by his fellow conspirators. (Redux II.) Mulder is beginning to question his beliefs. (Gethsemane.)

Why do I care? Truly epic in scope, Patient X and The Red and the Black are perhaps the best example of the mythology as “war in heaven”, as the conspirators find themselves caught up in a conflict on a scale beyond their wildest imaginings. There are betrayals and double-crosses as the conspirators quickly discover that even the most meticulous of plans can fall into chaos. Meanwhile, Mulder and Scully have crises of faith. Or lack thereof.

Extravagant set piece: Scully’s hypnosis session, recounting what exactly happened on the bridge. (The Red and the Black.)

Extra Credit: (Before) The Redux trilogy (Gethsemane, Redux I, Redux II) that bridges the fourth and fifth seasons is an ambitious exploration of the show’s core themes. However, it also feels just a little over-extended, particularly in its middle third. Christmas Carol is a great Scully-centric episode. It is let down by the fact that it is followed by Emily, which may be the worst mythology episode in the show’s run. (Only William can compete for that title.)

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The X-Files: Fight the Future

What you need to know going in: The X-files have been closed, again. (The End.) The aliens are planning to colonise the planet. (Talitha Cumi.) They will do this via the black oil. (Patient X, The Red and the Black.) The conspiracy has been experimenting with bees as a way of spreading contagions. (Zero Sum.) The conspirators have been collaborating with the colonists, but also developing a vaccine against the black oil. (Patient X, The Red and the Black.)

Why do I care? The biggest mythology episode in terms of budget and scope, the biggest problem with Fight the Future is that it doesn’t actually do anything with the mythology. However, it uses the mythology quite well as a backdrop for a story about Mulder and Scully, offering perhaps the most quintessential and archetypal of mythology adventures. It also sums things up quite well, proving surprisingly accessible. Count the conspiracy theories the film runs through.

Extravagant set piece: The attack of the bees seems to have latched into the popular consciousness, but the opening sequence is pretty effective. Terry O’Quinn even cameos.

Extra Credit: (Before and After) Extend the matinee to a binge by watching the fifth season finalé (The End) before and the sixth season premiere (The Beginning) after. The structure is a bit wonky, but does lend the story a suitably epic feel. If you want to actually see some of the resolution so deftly avoided by Fight the Future, then Two Fathers and One Son offers a messy (and somewhat haphazard) conclusion to the mythology of the first six seasons.

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Requiem/Within/Without

(Season 7, Episode 22;  Season 8, Episodes 1 & 2)

What you need to know going in: The conspiracy has been torched, but the aliens are still out there. (Two Fathers, One Son.) Mulder was briefly turned into an alien human-hybrid. (Biogenesis, The Sixth Extinction, The Sixth Extinction II: Amor Fati.) The Cigarette-Smoking Man’s efforts to transform him into a hybrid have left him feeling a bit under the weather. (En Ami.)

Why do I care? After Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz hastily wrapped things up in Two Fathers and One Son, the mythology faltered. It stumbled through the seventh season, must like the show around it. However, David Duchovny’s departure at the end of the seventh season provided a much needed shot in the arm. The absence of its leading man provided the show with a sense of purpose and focus, and perhaps the most fulfilling season-long arc in the show’s run.

Extravagant set piece: Scully takes a really long and emotional walk in the desert. No, really, it’s brilliant. (Without.)

Extra Credit: (Before and After) The seventh season mythology is a mess, but Biogenesis, The Sixth Extinction and The Sixth Extinction II: Amor Fati offer one of the most weird and dream-like mythology episodes from the show’s nine-season run; there are a lot of clever ideas, but also a listlessness and lack of focus. Fans who have to know about the fate of Mulder’s sister can watch the atmospheric Sein und Zeit and the heavy-handed Closure. However, the first third of the eighth season is well worth watching in its entirety: Within, Without, Patience, Roadrunners, Invocation, Redrum, Via Negativa.

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Per Manum/This is Not Happening/DeadAlive

(Season 8, Episodes 13, 14 & 15)

What you need to know going in: Mulder is missing. (Requiem.) Doggett has been drafted in to find him. (Within.) Scully is pregnant, and the audience has no idea who the father is. (Requiem.) The conspiracy has been torched, but the aliens are still out there. (Two Fathers, One Son.)

Why do I care? Really, you should just watch the eighth season. The final third of the eighth season represents the most heavily serialised and tightly-focused that the show ever was. The production team are clearly building to say goodbye to Mulder and Scully, with a final run of episodes that resolve the hunt for Mulder and reveal the nature of Scully’s pregnancy. The eighth season reinvigorated the mythology by tightening its focus.

Extravagant set piece: An FBI raid on a UFO cult that leads to one of the bleakest cliffhangers in the history of the show. (This is Not Happening.)

Extra Credit: (After) The final stretch of the eighth season is essentially a long-form narrative allowing the show to close the book on the stories of Mulder and Scully and hand over to two new characters. It is the most serialised that the show ever became: Per Manum, This is Not Happening, DeadAlive, Three Words, Empedocles, Vienen, Alone, Essence, Existence. However, there is absolutely no need to watch any of the ninth season mythology episodes.

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4 Responses

  1. Since nobody asked I would go with:
    Pilot
    Deep Throat/EBE/Erlenmeyer Flask (this could form a pretty interesting 3-parter don’t you think?)
    Duane Barry/Ascension/One Breath
    Anasazi/Blessing Way/Paper Clip/Nisei/731/Piper Maru/Apocrypha/Wetwired/Talitha Cumi (Yes, I just grouped all of season 3 together. It’s pretty solid with The Talapus and Scully’s sister working as through-lines. I guess you have to add Herrenvolk although it’s the weakest of the bunch).
    Memento Mori/Gethsemane/Redux/Redux II (I think the cancer arc would have worked better had it been compressed and I realize I’m leaving out Tempus Fugit/Max and Zero Sum, which are all really good also)
    Patient X/The Red and The Black
    Fight the Future/The Beginning (I like The Beginning as an epilogue for FTF but not The End as a prologue).
    Requiem/Within/Without/Per Manum/This is not Happening/DeadAlive/ThreeWords/Essence/Existence (see season 3).
    That’s 33 episodes to your 23. It’s a lot harder to narrow it down with the mythology.

  2. I’m curious, because the mythology is so dense; what chunks of the show can I safely skip? Season six? Seven?

    • You can pretty much skip extended sections of it without missing much. The mythology is generally insulated enough that you can hop between episodes without only the faintest sense of disorientation. In terms of skippable sections… I’d probably skip nine entirely. You can skip a lot of seven as well. You can get by on a highlights run of seven: The Sixth Extinction/The Sixth Extinction II/Hungry/Theef/Sein und Zeit/Closure/X-Cops/Je Souhaite/Requiem.

      The only real issue is determining what’s lowest priority for you.

      Don’t like comedy or shipping? You can probably skip the sixth season between The Beginning and Two Fathers.
      Only want Mulder and Scully together? You can probably skip the eighth and ninth seasons entirely.
      Only want the mythology to make sense? You can probably skip directly from One Son to Requiem.

      There’ll be a couple of tidy-up “menus” publishing later today, that’ll give a selection of between thirty- and forty-episode themed run-throughs.

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