It’s a tough job trying to come up with the top ten X-Files episodes of all time. Frankly, I think I should have done the top twenty instead, but that would take too much writing. I’m sure some of these episodes will draw the ire of manic X-Files fans as they search for their favorites. One word of advice to those fans who rate the conspiracy episodes as the highest achievement of the series. You won’t find any of those episodes here. I’m not that big a fan of them, and very few of them can stand on their own anyway.
Gillian Anderson won an Emmy for playing Agent Scully, but she should have won it for this episode. Her descent into madness is nothing less than dazzling. I’m also a big fan of this episode because of its implicit statement that watching too much TV results in an Althusserian interpellation that reduces one’s incipient individuality and turns them into social beings acting without free will.
If that seems like too much to expect from an hour long SF series, then clearly you have never seen an X-Files episode. If you’ve ever had the suspicion that subliminal messages are being carried to society courtesy of television programming, this is the episode for you.
On a somewhat lighter note, Gillian Anderson’s hair has long been a source of interest for many viewers. I can’t really explain how, but Anderson’s hair actually contributes to her performance in this episode. As she slowly succumbs to paranoia, carefully note how her hair changes style. You have to see it to really appreciate what I’m talking about.
Many shows have taken the premise used to greatest commercial effect in the movie Groundhog Day. A classic episode of Xena features that character awakening to the same day over and over again. The X-Files episode Monday takes this gimmick and imbues it with true greatness. A bank robbery attempt keep getting made and it seems only the robber’s girlfriend realizes what is happening. Can she convince Mulder or Scully that they’ve all been through the same thing before? The ending of this episode is as jarring and unexpected as it is perfect.
8) The Post-Modern Prometheus.
Pay attention to that word-postmodern. Although there really isn’t that much postmodernity to this episode, it is no coincidence that the best X-Files are concerned with the reality of truth. (The title is actually a play on the subtitle of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein). This is the only episode filmed in black & white and features John O’Hurley of Seinfeld fame playing a modern day Dr. Frankenstein. The highlight for me is the two vastly different trips that Mulder takes to the local diner. I’m also strangely drawn to the quirky, bizarre, bird-like lady reporter. I always thought there was something there can was worth investigating. It features a mutated hero with a passion for Cher and ends with a Cher lookalike singing Walking in Memphis. But you shouldn’t let that stop you from enjoying it.
The direction and editing of this episode lifts it into the top ten. The story of Mulder going back in time to a ship during WWII is good, but not without its problems. However, it is easy to overlook any flaws due to the sheer fun of watching the story unfold. I like to refer to this episode as the Touch of Evil episode because it contains the single most daring and gorgeously wrought sequence in television history.
Orson Welles’ film Touch of Evil famously opens with a three minute continuous shot that is never interrupted by a cut or dissolve. So much is going on during that sequence that one can only imagine the logistics. There is a sequence near the middle of this episode when Scully goes on race throughout the FBI building trying to get information while not being forced into a situation where she has to give up any information. During the scene she is seek walking up and down corridors, in and out of offices and up and down elevators and you’ll forgive me if I question whether sequence actually could be done without a cut because it sure as hell looks like it was done without any cutting. It almost certainly wasn’t, but the editing is so seamless that you may find yourself asking the question as well.
Later on, editing is exactly the device that turns a pedestrian sequence of events into something memorable. The screen splits and shrinks to letterbox size as the viewer is treated to simultaneous events that reach their zenith during a moment when modern day Scully and the WWII character played by the same actress appear to cross through each other’s alternate realities and hold for just a moment, wondering what just happened.
These are in reality two different episodes and they weren’t presented in “To Be Continued” format, but rather separated by 18 episodes over the course of the very first season. Squeeze was the first masterpiece of the show, featuring what may still rank as the creepiest completely human villain the show ever created. Eugene Tooms has the ability to squeeze into the smallest of spaces and he appears every thirty years to feed on human livers in order to survive for eternity. In Squeeze, Mulder and Scully successfully track him down and he is sent to a mental institution since no one really believes their story. In Tooms, he is up for release and Mulder obsessively trails him hoping to catch him in the act. The finale in which Mulder chases Tooms literally escalates to a level of terror rarely witnessed on the show.
It’s hard to imagine that any X-Files fan finds any episode of the show more disturbing than this one. In fact, I would go so far as to rank this the most disturbing episode of a weekly TV series ever shown on American TV. An in-bred family of genetic mutants keep to themselves and madly attempt to extend the bloodline. Mulder and Scully are brought in to help Sheriff Andy Taylor (I kid you not, that is the character’s name) uncover the mystery of a dead newborn and a missing woman. Oh, by the way, the Sheriff has a deputy named Barney. And this Sheriff Taylor is a black man. On, the ironies!
Everything about this episode is creepy to the extreme. You only get shadowy glimpses of the ravages that centuries of incest can reap on the physiognomy of human beings and that makes it all the more upsetting. This episode is so uniquely disquieting that in reruns its usually contains a disclaimer and during a Sci-Fi marathon held a few years, it was last and out of order of the viewer poll finalists so that it would shown after the family hour.
The highlight for me is the incongruous soundtrack of Johnny Mathis singing the rather upbeat “Wonderful, Wonderful” as a counterpoint to the vicious assault by the Peacock family on two of the main characters. Shortly after this episode first aired, my wife and I took to calling traffic morons “Peacock” in honor of the in-bred ingrates featured in this truly unnerving episode.
4) Bad Blood
Somewhat similar to the episode that ranks as my choice for the best ever, Bad Blood deals with the variance of truth. It is one of the few episodes of the X-Files that deals with vampires and it is absolutely hilarious. We get the story in two versions, with both Mulder and Scully offering up their versions punctuated by visual differences realized on the screen. Keep an eye on Luke Wilson’s teeth and you’ll see what I mean.
3) Small Potatoes
On the surface this isn’t all the special an episode. A baby is born with a tail and we later find out this isn’t all that unusual. What makes this episode so incredible can be boiled down to three words: David Duchovny’s performance. This is the one he should have gotten an Emmy for. Why? At a certain point Duchovny is playing the villain, who is a shapeshifter that can transform himself into any other human, including Fox Mulder. So we basically have Duchovny playing a sad sack losing pretending to be Mulder. He’s amazing! You can actually see that he’s playing someone who is pretending to be the character he actually plays.
Watch him especially when he’s in the hospital room with Christine Cavanaugh (the original voice of Babe the pig!) and notice how he manages to make his face appear more doughy and how he slowly deflates as he is forced to change (on the inside) from the self-assured FBI agent to the loser he’s always been without letting Cavanaugh know he’s not really Mulder. Brilliant. I’m also proud to say that the tails wagging back and forth on the babies in this episode were created by my best friend out of high school Mark Kochinski.
One of the funniest of all the X-Files episodes. Contains what is probably my all time favorite exchange of dialogue in a show vastly underrated for its clever writing:
MULDER: Does Agent Scully know that you’re under her crawlspace?
NUTT (Who is substantially more diminutive in size than Mulder): I was merely repairing the plumbing on this unit. I know what you’re thinking, my friend, but you are grossly mistaken. Just because I am not of so-called “average” height does not mean I must receive my thrills vicariously. Not all women are attracted to overly tall, lanky men such as yourself. You’d be surprised how many women find my size intriguingly alluring.
MULDER: And you’d be surprised how many men do as well.
The plot is classic X-Files stuff. Murder and mayhem among carnival sideshow performers in Florida. The episode begins with the violent death of one of these self-proclaim freaks inside a family swimming pool and gets increasingly more bizarre from there. Along the way you’ll be a man covered in a jigsaw puzzle tattoo (not phony makeup for the role; he’s an actual jigsaw-puzzled human), a guy who pounds a nail up his nostril and, of course, Leonard, who’ll just have to watch to believe. What seems like a straightforward case of going weird for weird’s sake turns by the end into a genuinely fascinating take on the possibilities of genetic maintenance and cloning. If you are one of those people who fear a future of genetically perfect individuals, you’ll appreciate the closing words of Dr. Blockhead.
1) Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space”
If you’ve read my review of the animated film Hoodwinked, you’ll know I’m a big fan of postmodernism. This ranks as the greatest postmodern episode in television history. (Of course, Twin Peaks and St. Elsewhere rank as the greatest postmodern television shows in history. I can’t adequately explain why this episode of the X-Files is greatest ever in a short capsule summary. Not only could an academic paper be written on it, but academic papers have been written on it.
This is the episode that takes the whole X-Files mythology and turns it on its head. Personally, whenever a repeat features that whole alien/government conspiracy story, I tend to only pay half attention. I prefer the stories that are one-offs. This manages to be both. Charles Nelson Reilly plays the famous writer Jose Chung, despite appearing neither Hispanic nor Chinese nor any combination of the two. He is gathering information on a possible abduction of a young couple that Mulder and Scully investigated. Much like Hoodwinked or Rashomon, however, only the truth may be out there, the best we’re ever likely to get is a jigsaw puzzle of various versions of the truth.
Over the course of this episode the viewer is rewarded with a multitude of treats: Former professional wrestler and former Gov. of Minnesota Jesse Ventura and Alex Trebek (playing Alex Trebek) as Men in Black; not one, but two brilliant hypnosis scenes played almost entirely the same but with different characters; Lord Kinbote; an FBI agent truly enjoying a damn good piece of pie (and his name isn’t Dale Cooper); an hilarious takeoff of the Alien Autopsy special featured on Fox Network, home of the X-Files; and, best of all perhaps, the finest description of agents Mulder and Scully courtesy of the infinitely entertaining character of Blaine, which ends with a girly yelp from Mulder upon discovering a bleeping alien body.
But the true meat of this episode attacks the very core of the X-Files. Most of the time the opening credits ended with the phrase The Truth is Out There. This episode takes that idea and basically questions its validity. This episode flatly questions the possibility that any one single factual truth is out there; that reality is a tightly knotted web of possibilities and subjective belief.
Honorable Mention: War of Coprophages.
Warning: If you have an unhealthy fear of cockroaches, avoid this episode. Second only to Home in terms of creepiness, this episode is so good that I can’t good conscience leave it off the list. It’s both funny and disgusting and the highlight is…well..you’ll have to wait for yourself. I’ll give you a hint, however: Don’t be so sure that characters on TV can’t come through the screen and crawl across your television set.
Coming up with top ten X-Files episodes is tough going. There are at least a half dozen more that I might exchange for one or more of these top ten if I were to make up this list a month from now. Also of particular greatness: X-Cops, The Host, The Field Where I Died, Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man, Unusual Suspects, Dreamland I and II, How the Ghosts Stole Christmas, Terms of Endearment, Milagro, and Hollywood AD. Any one of those episodes would probably not only be on many other top ten lists, but might very well top some of them.