In anticipation of The X-Files’ new season, we’re looking back and celebrating our favorite episodes. This is the list of the top 10 mythology episodes. Head here for the list of the top 10 standalone episodes.
There’s a debate amongst X-Files fans of as to which episodes most warrant rewatching: the episodes that ties into the series’ larger narrative or those that were standalone. Traditionally, those who proclaim the superiority of “Monster of the Week” usually outnumber those who extol the virtues of the mythology, and it’s not hard to see why. Standalone episodes are more accessible to the casual viewer. You don’t need to know about black oil, alien bounty hunters, or Mulder’s missing sister. All you need to know is the show has two characters, male and female, believer and skeptic, investigating cases that may or may not be paranormal in nature. The other reason, I think, the mythology episodes are not remembered as fondly involves the way the series wrapped up that mythology. Really, the series had no long-term plan as to how to wrap up its over-arching narrative, and it spun out of control in a bigger, evermore difficult to comprehend mess as the series went on. Every time viewers thought they’d been granted a piece of the X-Files puzzle, someone would show up in the next episode and say. “No, that guy was lying. This is what’s really going on,” repeated ad nauseam. It’s hard to invest in figuring out a mythology when it rewrites itself so frequently. Watching mythology episodes now can feel like eating a beautifully decorated, but burned, cake. Sure, it looks great, but you know there’s a bitter, unsatisfying center that spoils anything it might have going for it.
Here’s the problem with ignoring the mythology episodes: you miss a lot of great episodes. When the show was airing (and in its prime), you couldn’t wait for the next mythology episode, because they were awesome. Here are the ones you can’t miss. To be clear, I’m technically recommending more that 10 episodes here because I’m recommending story arcs, whether they are one-, two-, or three-parters. It’s just easier to experience a full story that way.
10) “Erlenmeyer Flask” (Season 1, Ep. 24)
Much of the series’ first season was built upon standalone episodes, some good, some not. Sure, government conspiracies were hinted at, but not in the sense that they were serving one vast, elaborate conspiracy. This episode, the Season 1 finale, hinted that there was something bigger than simply strange cases being buried and forgotten (which really was the initial premise of The X-Files), and that Mulder and Scully were close enough to the truth that their very partnership could be viewed as a threat. The show may have done better mythology episodes in its run, but this episode hinted of the greatness to come.
9) “Talitha Cumi/ Herrenvolk” (Season 3, Ep. 24; Season 4, Ep. 1)
Seasons 3 and 4 probably represent the series at its pinnacle. There were great mythology twists, classic standalone episodes, and they balanced each other perfectly. This finale felt like the culmination of everything The X-Files had been building towards for the past 2 seasons. The alien bounty hunter is back (played with steely, dead-eyed menace by the unintimidatingly named Brian Thompson) as well as someone who claims he can tell Mulder “everything” he needs to know. Throw in Mulder’s mother suffering a stroke, clone reappearances, and the appearance of possibly deadly honeybees, and this 2-parter shows the kitchen sink tendencies of the series that initially elevated and eventually sank it. We don’t know that here, though, and it’s a great finale/ premiere.
8) “Requiem” (Season 7, Ep. 22)
A lot of people thought Season 7 might have been The X-Files send-off season. Ratings were starting to drop and it was common knowledge that David Duchovny wanted to move on to other projects. Looking back on Season 8, it’s better than I realized at the time. I think I was too caught up in missing Mulder anguish to appreciate the creative resurgence the show had in his absence. However, had this been the series finale, it would have seemed fitting. The mystery of Mulder’s sister had been resolved this season (in hideously frustrating fashion), and the syndicate was in ruins. It seemed as good a time as any to wrap the series up. Mulder and Scully are called back to the case that first brought them together back in the pilot, and everything seems to come full circle. Mulder even kinda gets the only ending that may have ever made sense for him. Of course, the series came back and much of Season 8 is left dealing with the fallout of this episode, and much of it works, but this finale and its cliffhanger feel like a satisfying end.
7) “Nesei/ 731” (Season 3, Ep. 9-10)
The X-Files was usually on Mulder’s side. Sure, Scully would say something that any rational person would at least admit made sense, but Mulder’s belief in aliens and the government conspiracy to bury the truth was always going to be right. This 2-parter from Season 3, however, does at least attempt to give some credibility to the idea that yes, there might be a conspiracy, but it may not involve aliens. The truth may be more horrifying, but also more mundane. Maybe it’s just a conspiracy between corrupt, powerful men and other corrupt, powerful men. Granted, it was probably never going to be that simple, but it’s fun that these episodes even entertains such a notion, and Part 1 has one of the series’ best cliffhangers.
6) “Piper Maru/ Apocrypha” (Season 3, Ep.15-16)
The Alien Bounty Hunter was a good series monster, an unstoppable force perpetually colliding with Mulder as an immovable object. However, the black oil may have been one of the most horrifying concepts The X-Files mythology ever gave us. Everything about it was terrifying, from the way it oozed its way into a host, skating over his/her eyes and took over said individual completely to the idea that it was simply sitting, patiently waiting at the bottom ocean for someone to find it. It taps into that primal fear of losing control of one’s body. This would be enough for me to recommend this 2-parter, but these episodes also have Scully grieving her sister, wrongly murdered because of this vast conspiracy (Anderson’s grief and rage make for especially compelling drama), and one of the grimmest ending shots the series ever presented.
5) “Gethsemane/ Redux/ Redux II” (Season 4, Ep. 24; Season 5, Ep. 1-2)
The back half of Season 4 was defined by Scully’s cancer diagnosis, how she would fight it, how it would affect her, and how it would inspire Mulder to fight even harder to better understand what the Syndicate was doing. Season 4’s finale and Season 5’s 2-part premiere do a lot of wrapping up. Scully’s cancer plotline is resolved, Mulder is pushed to the emotional breaking point, and there’s an apparent character death (This is The X-Files, so we know it probably won’t stick, but it’s a satisfactory twist, nonetheless.). After this, the series is never really quite as consistently satisfying.
4) “Memento Mori” (Season 4, Ep. 14)
As referenced above, Scully’s cancer diagnosis gave the show a whole new emotional core. Scully was no longer just pursuing the truth because of devotion to Mulder; she was fighting for her life. Now, instead of just looking for his sister, Mulder was going to lose the one person he couldn’t bear to lose because of this conspiracy. With this one plot point, all the stakes heightened. This episode is brilliant because it actually gives the central characters time to grieve, and Anderson and Duchovny both play their emotional beats as raw, unassuaged grief. Anderson gets most of the attention in this episode, but Duchovny is also terrific. He shows how alone Mulder will be without Scully in his life, and how much he cannot bear to lose her. It’s a brilliant bit of both mythology and character building.
3) “Colony/ End Games” (Season 3, Ep. 16-17)
One of the most emotionally engaging bits of mythology running through The X-Files involved Mulder’s quest to find out what happened to his sister when they were children. It gave an emotional resonance to a quest that could have otherwise felt abstract and uninvolving. Here, for the first time, we see how haunted Mulder is by the loss of his sister by having her returned to him. Eventually, the series would overplay the “Samantha’s back. No, really. We mean it this time.” card, but here it’s shocking and effective. Plus, “Colony” has one of those great X-Files cliffhangers that really works. You cannot load that next episode fast enough.
2) “Anasazi/ Blessing Way/ Paper Clip” (Season 2, Ep. 24 Season 3, Ep. 1-2)
Here, we’re presented with major revelations (Mulder’s dad knows the Cigarette Smoking Man?!), an effective season finale cliffhanger, and some of the Syndicate’s most ruthless actions. However, sometimes it’s the most mundane images that appeared the most sinister, and “Paper Clip,” with that never-ending tunnel of file cabinets is the show at its best.
1. “Duane Barry/ Ascension/ One Breath” (Season 2, Ep. 5-6; 8)
We’re forgetting about the episode “3” that happens in the middle of these episodes and treating this like a 3-parter. This was the mythology run the series was kind of forced into, because Gillian Anderson became pregnant and had to be gone for a few episodes. The solution? She’s abducted, first by a crazed, possible abductee for who Mulder had some sympathy and then by aliens. She is returned to a hospital, near death and both Mulder and her family have to deal with their grief. From this simple bit of convenience plotting, we eventually find out Scully has a chip in her neck, she’s just one of many who have said chip, and removing the chip may cause cancer. So much of the mythology springs from this run of stories, and it’s the mythology twist no one planned to create.
The X-Files is available to stream on Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime. Plus, it just came out on Blu-ray.
Are there other episodes you think we should have included? Some we should have excised? Let us know in the comments! Make sure to check out our list of the top 10 standalone episodes.