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The X-Files 105: Ten “Non-Top-Ten” 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.

As with any show that has been around a while and built up a critical mass of discourse and discussion, there is generally some consensus around the best episodes of the show. As a rule, the vast majority of top ten episodes might cycle through around the same thirty episodes. This is perfectly reasonable, of course. A good episode is a good episode, and the fact that consensus has built around it only cements that. Still, it’s always good to look at things from a different perspective.

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These are ten episodes that are typically overlooked when compiling lists of top ten X-Files episodes. “Underrated” is perhaps too strong a word for them. This is not to say that they are any better than any of the usual candidates on such lists; they are not “masterpieces” in the way that Beyond the Sea, One Breath or Bad Blood could be said to be masterpieces. Nevertheless, they are hidden treasures, episodes that are not talked about as often as they should be; whether hinting at the show’s underlying themes or pushing the production team in odd directions.

For anybody who has already worked their way through many of the major lists of “top ten” episodes, then these are well worth a look. They are odd and eccentric, often hard to classify. These episodes are frequently an awkward fit for the show itself, whether in terms of their focus or in their tone as compared to the season around them. While this might have made them quite jarring on initial broadcast, this only serves to make them all the more memorable in the years after the original broadcast.

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Aubrey

(Season 2, Episode 12)

Written by: Sara Charno

Directed by: Rob Bowman

Original Airdate: 6 January 1995

Why it’s so frequently overlooked: The actual X-file at the heart of the story is pretty damn crazy, even by the standards of the show. Film and television have long struggled with fairly basic genetic science, but Aubrey relies on a central premise that is so absurd that it is almost impossible to take seriously.

Why it shouldn’t be overlooked: Stripping away the (admittedly) ridiculous premise, Aubrey hits on a lot of the big themes and ideas that underpin the show. Indeed, Aubrey works quite well as thematic set-up for the third season mythology, developing the core themes of memory and identity. The X-Files is a show very much about legacy and responsibility, and Aubrey plays beautifully to those ideas.

More like this: In the early third season, Oubliette tackles many of the same ideas with a bit more subtlety and a greater emphasis on character.

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Hell Money

(Season 3, Episode 19)

Written by: Jeffrey Vlaming

Directed by: Tucker Gates

Original Airdate: 29 March 1996

Why it’s so frequently overlooked: Quite simply, there is no X-file here. Hell Money is the rare episode of the show that has no paranormal element to it, and which can be explained entirely by rational means. The episode also sidelines Mulder and Scully, who do very little over the course of the episode.

Why it shouldn’t be overlooked: The marginalising of Mulder and Scully is the entire point of the episode. The X-Files was quite fond of stories that delved into subcultures existing on the fringe of the mainstream, tying back thematically to the idea of the “alien.” Here, Mulder and Scully wander into a world quite removed from their own, but engaged with many of the same ideas. Hell Money offers an excellent microcosm of the show’s core themes, with James Hong’s anonymous figure serving as an effective surrogate for the Cigarette-Smoking Man.

More like this: Although some of the “subculture” episodes are downright xenophobic in their handling of foreign cultures (Teso Dos BichosTeliko, El Mundo Gira, Badlaa), there are some very moving examples to be explored. In the second season, Fresh Bones very shrewdly side-steps issues of stereotyping to tell a story of appropriation. In the fourth season, Kaddish offers a moving love story against a backdrop of hatred and violence.

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The Field Where I Died

(Season 4, Episode 5)

Written by: Glen Morgan and James Wong

Directed by: Rob Bowman

Original Airdate: 3 November 1996

Why it’s so frequently overlooked: Glen Morgan and James Wong’s script plays fast and loose with continuity, but also with the expectations of shippers. It doesn’t help that the episode is disjointed, the broadcast episode edited down from an hour-long director’s cut to a forty-five minute broadcast cut.

Why it shouldn’t be overlooked: A hauntingly personal story driven by Glen Morgan’s own personal experiences about life, love and second chances, The Field Where I Died is a thoughtful and powerful exploration of the existential ennui nestled snugly at the heart of the show. It is very much a performance showcase for actor David Duchovny, who knocks it out of the park. There is a surprising “leaving it all on the field” quality to The Field Where I Died. It is the lesser of Morgan and Wong’s four season four episodes, but it is still a bold and powerful piece of television.

More like this: Morgan and Wong’s other scripts for the fourth season are essential viewing and bona fides classics: Home, Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man, Never Again. The ninth season would offer a much more conventional examination of reincarnation in the underrated Hellbound.

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Zero Sum

(Season 4, Episode 21)

Written by: Howard Gordon and Frank Spotnitz

Directed by: Kim Manners

Original Airdate: 27 April 1997

Why it’s so frequently overlooked: The fourth season mythology is a mess, for a number of reasons. The production of Millennium and the pre-production on The X-Files: Fight the Future diverted attention from the show, while the writers’ room was in chaos. Zero Sum exists in the shadow of Memento Mori.

Why it shouldn’t be overlooked: Howard Gordon’s contributions to The X-Files tend to be overlooked somewhat, despite the fact that he was one of the formative influences on the show’s first four seasons. Gordon tends to get brushed aside in favour of focus on Glen and Darin Morgan, James Wong, Vince Gilligan, Chris Carter. However, Gordon had a wonderful knack for suspense and tension that plays through his strongest work. His last script (with Frank Spotnitz) is a tense morality play that gives Mitch Pileggi some of his best work on the show.

More like this: Gordon tended to have a wonderful knack for the suspense that would serve him well on later shows like 24 and Homeland. Zero Sum is a prime example, but so are the scripts for the second season’s F. Emasculata and the third season’s Grotesque. Gordon was also one of the stronger writers of the “subculture” episodes, scripting both the second season’s Fresh Bones and the fourth season’s Kaddish.

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Unusual Suspects

(Season 5, Episode 3)

Written by: Vince Gilligan

Directed by: Kim Manners

Original Airdate: 16 November 1997

Why it’s so frequently overlooked: In terms of “classic Vince Gilligan comedy episodes”, Unusual Suspects has the misfortune to sit between Small Potatoes and Bad Blood; both bona fides classics. Also, like Hell Money and Zero Sum, it marginalises Mulder and Scully.

Why it shouldn’t be overlooked: Vince Gilligan is very fond of distancing himself from the mythology, arguing that he didn’t really contribute much to the arc running across the show. On the surface, this seems fair. His only “mythology” credits are on Memento Mori, Christmas Carol and Emily. However, Gilligan did engage repeatedly with the themes of the mythology. Unusual Suspects engages with the idea of conspiracy theory through the character of the Lone Gunmen, three theorists even more paranoid (and perhaps more tragic) than Mulder.

More like this: Gilligan would return to the characters with Frank Spotnitz and John Shiban for Three of a Kind in the sixth season. He would also serve as producer (along with Shiban and Spotnitz) on The Lone Gunmen. His scripts for Drive, Roadrunners and John Doe all obliquely touch upon themes that get to the heart of the mythology (victimisation, patriarchal sacrifice, memory), albeit in a more abstract way than the mythology itself.

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Kill Switch

(Season 5, Episode 11)

Written by: William Gibson and Tom Maddox

Directed by: Rob Bowman

Original Airdate: 15 February 1998

Why it’s so frequently overlooked: There is, quite frankly, no other episode of The X-Files quite like it. In many ways, The X-Files is a show about history and memory. As such, offering an episode about cyberpunk visions of the future written by William Gibson and Tom Maddox seems an odd choice.

Why it shouldn’t be overlooked: There is, quite frankly, no other episode of The X-Files quite like it. Even the attempts to recapture the tone with First Person Shooter in the seventh season would fall flat. In many ways, Kill Switch prefigures both the The Matrix and Harsh Realm; Rob Bowman’s direction foreshadows the washed-out and desaturated pallet that would define the following year’s cyberpunk masterpiece. If The X-Files is frequently about how monsters are losing their place in an increasingly globalised world, Kill Switch suggests a new frontier is just waiting to be explored.

More like this: There are no more like this. The fifth season’s other celebrity writer episode, Chinga by Stephen King, ultimately feels like a pale imitation of both the show itself and the writer’s stronger work. The seventh season’s follow-up First Person Shooter, also written by Maddox and Gibson, is a disaster. Try reading Stefan Petrucha and Charles Adlard’s One Player Only or watching Howard Gordon’s first season episode Ghost in the Machine.

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Terms of Endearment

(Season 6, Episode 7)

Written by: David Amann

Directed by: Rob Bowman

Original Airdate: 3 January 1999

Why it’s so frequently overlooked: The start of the sixth season is a turbulent time for The X-Files, with the show embracing the lighter and sunnier side of its new Los Angeles setting. In that context, Terms of Endearment is something of an outlier. It also features Bruce Campbell, an example of sixth season stunt casting.

Why it shouldn’t be overlooked: Who cares if Bruce Campbell is more instantly recognisable than the vast majority of guest stars from the show’s first five seasons? He is great here. Although the primary attraction of the story is a gender-swapped Rosemary’s Baby, Terms of Endearment works best as an exploration of conformity and normality. Wayne is that most insideous of monsters, the man willing to do whatever it takes in order to have the so-called “normal” life that he so desperately craves.

More like this: The sixth season re-engages with the idea of suburban conformity in Arcadia. However, David Amann returns to suburbia in the seventh season episode Chimera.

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Biogenesis/The Sixth Extinction/The Sixth Extinction II: Amor Fati

(Season 6, Episode 22; Season 7, Episodes 1 & 2)

Written by: Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz / Christ Carter / Chris Carter and David Duchovny

Directed by: Rob Bowman / Kim Manners / Michael Watkins

Original Airdate: 16 May 1999 / 7 November 1999 / 14 November 1999

Why it’s so frequently overlooked: The mythology becomes a bit of a mess around the fourth season, with Herrenvolk. The mythology implodes with sorta-mostly-ending of Two Fathers and One Son. The second half of the sixth and entirety of the seventh season take place in the dead husk of the mythology.

Why it shouldn’t be overlooked: The three-parter that bridges that sixth and seventh seasons is a tonal mess. With the resolution of most of the mythology in Two Fathers and One Son, there is a sense that the production team had absolutely no idea where they wanted the mythology to go. The result is one of the most bizarre mythology episodes in the show’s run. After six seasons of break-neck plotting and pacing, the three-parter meanders and turns at its own pace. Important plot beats happen off camera. Surreal tangents drive the plot. Allegory takes over. Is it any good? Maybe. Is it fascinating? Definitely.

More like this: The seventh season mythology episodes (Sein und Zeit, Closure, En Ami, Requiem) all have an ethereal funereal tone. The deliberate and frantic pacing of the earlier mythology gives way to something a lot looser. It doesn’t always work, but it is an intriguing approach.

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Theef

(Season 7, Episode 14)

Written by: Vince Gilligan, John Shiban and Frank Spotnitz

Directed by: Kim Manners

Original Airdate: 12 March 2000

Why it’s so frequently overlooked: After moving to Los Angeles, The X-Files witnessed a shift in tone that reflected its new surroundings: light and sunny rather than dark and dour. The sixth and seventh seasons are quite light in places. In contrast, Theef is a surprisingly nasty piece of work.

Why it shouldn’t be overlooked: The eighth season gets a lot of credit for getting back to the show’s dark Vancouver roots, both in terms of tone and aesthetic. However, there were some efforts made during the seventh season to get back towards the show’s classic horror sensibilities. It didn’t help that some of these attempts misfired like Millennium and Orison, but it also didn’t help that the season was still populated with lighter fare like The Goldberg Variation and The Amazing Maleeni. Nevertheless, Theef is a delightfully unsettling piece of television. “Poppin’ corn”, anyone?

More like this: Earlier in the season, Hungry is another nice example of the seventh season trying to get back to basics. Although its moral is decidedly uncomfortable in the context of the twenty-first century, Signs and Wonders is also a suitably effective horror story.

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Release

(Season 9, Episode 17)

Written by: David Amann

Story by: John Shiban and David Amann

Directed by: Kim Manners

Original Airdate: 5 May 2002

Why it’s so frequently overlooked: The ninth season is a disaster zone in general, but the final stretch is particularly troubled. The production team spend a lot of time resolving story threads that really don’t need to be resolved. Release is a case in point, a decidedly unnecessary (and somewhat contrived) resolution to dangling threads.

Why it shouldn’t be overlooked: The biggest issue here is the plot. Release relies on a series of contrivances and logical leaps to get where it needs to go. There is no need for the ninth season to offer closure to the murder of Luke Doggett, let alone resolve Brad Follmer’s character arc. However, allowing for the fact that it is completely unnecessary and convenient, Release is a surprisingly moving piece of television. Robert Patrick offers a great performance, while Kim Manners directs the episodes beautifully and Mark Snow provides one of his best scores. Release looks, sounds and feels like classic X-Files, even if it doesn’t hold together in any tangible sense.

More like this: In the eighth season, Doggett explored the death of his son in the similar illogical-but-atmospheric Empedocles. In the ninth season, Doggett confronts the issue again in John Doe.

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