For fans of the The X-Files, excitement is building as they await the imminent arrival of the first brand new episodes of the show in 14 years. However, for those who have never seen a single episode, or perhaps those who were only casual fans to begin with, the idea of diving headfirst into all 9 previous seasons might be daunting at best.
In order to help you get a handle on the show’s history, here are ten of the most essential episodes of a television show that defined an era. This list will cover one vital episode of each season of the show with the final entry being the most indispensable episode of them all.
‘Squeeze’ (Season 1, Episode 3)
‘Squeeze’ was the very first monster-of-the-week episode for the series and followed Mulder and Scully’s investigation into a series of bizarre murders, which leads them to an ageless, liver-eating genetic mutant with the ability to contort himself to fit into confined spaces.
What is most exciting about this episode is how the show’s writers didn’t take their first monster directly from folklore; no werewolves, vampires or zombies. Instead, they create a monster from the collective unconscious that preys on the unspoken fears of the everyday. He represents the ancient dark, the old world infringing on the new, despite all of our intelligence and technology; that our seemingly irrational fear of the dark might not be so irrational after all. This is a theme The X-Files will return to again and again, and it all starts here.
‘Duane Barry’ (Season 2, Episode 5)
Multiple abductee Duane Barry, determined that the aliens are coming back for him, kidnaps Agent Scully so he can offer her as a replacement to the aliens who have been tormenting him. Hot on his trail, Mulder chases him to Skyland Mountain, arriving too late to save Scully, who is taken up into an alien spacecraft.
The abduction of Scully is one of the show’s biggest events and set in motion what would become the series’ over-arching, serialized mythology. Beyond the immediate narrative however, the episode put in place many of the elements that come to be known as the show’s trademarks; blinding white lights, small grey aliens, metallic implants and shadowy government agents with their own agenda are all given an early airing here. Before there was any talk of alien bounty hunters or the black oil, there was ‘Duane Barry.’
‘Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose’ (Season 3, Episode 4)
Clyde Bruckman (an Emmy-winning turn from the terrific Peter Boyle) is a psychic whose ability allows him only to see how people are going to die. His life is turned upside down when he discovers the body of a murdered fortune teller in a dumpster behind his apartment building which brings him into the orbit of Mulder and Scully.
Written by Darin Morgan, this hilarious episode finds the show firing on all cylinders. There is a real flow to Duchovny and Anderson’s chemistry here with Morgan’s ability to cast the heroes in a particular light being the most fascinating; his version of Mulder is a borderline lunatic, overly excitable and ready to jump at any conclusion no matter how far-fetched, while his version of Scully is extremely tempered and focused, yet not so rigid in her skepticism that she cannot at least entertain the prospect of the fantastic. ‘Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose’ will set the standard for the show’s more comedic episodes going forward and gave the writers the courage to push the envelope and take more risks with the show’s format.
‘Home’ (Season 4, Episode 2)
After the corpse of an infant is discovered, Mulder and Scully arrive in a small town to investigate. After an autopsy uncovers that the baby was inflicted with myriad deformities, the agents discover the Peacock family, who are bound by a tradition where mother and sons try to keep the family line going through a method of procreation warped by biological seclusion, a method they will kill to protect.
This early episode of season 4 proved how much The X-Files could still find ways to shock and provoke. It is the only episode reportedly banned by Fox to ever be repeated on the network after its initial airing. ‘Home’ provides a terrifying vision of the horror that lies beneath what the world deems civilization. There is a wilful ignorance to the violence of the past, but the Peacocks represent its continued existence, that the skeletons may be in the closet, but it is going to take more than a locked door to keep them there.
‘Bad Blood’ (Season 5, Episode 12)
A series of exsanguinations in a small Texan town leads Mulder to believe that the populace are falling prey to a series of vampiric attacks. Scully, on the other hand, believes it is most likely they are chasing a serial killer who merely believes he is a vampire. Can the two agents reconcile their differences to get to the bottom of the case?
The Vince Gilligan-penned ‘Bad Blood’ shows not only how differently Mulder and Scully approach the same case but also how they relate to one another. Mulder sees himself as a crusader for the truth but sees Scully as a sarcastic naysayer who doesn’t understand how important the work on the X-Files is, while Scully sees herself as an exasperated babysitter for a hyperactive man child. This hilarious but profound episode is an invaluable insight into the two heroes and their internal world, not only as defenders of the truth against a far reaching global conspiracy, but also as people with real habits and peccadilloes.
‘Field Trip’ (Season 6, Episode 21)
While investigating the apparent murder of a married couple that may be linked to extra-terrestrials, Mulder and Scully end up as food for an enormous fungal entity that pumps them full of hallucinogens, causing their dreams to become reality.
In this dream world, Mulder and Scully finally get the validation from each other that had been searching for during their entire partnership, however, they cannot accept this new reality at the expense of the insistent questioning and counter-arguments of their partner, and are able to shake free of the entity’s grip. This late entry from season 6 finds the agents on a journey of self-discovery where they realize that their polarity is not so much a hindrance as a necessity and brings into focus what makes their partnership so strong.
‘X-Cops’ (Season 7, Episode 12)
The supernatural world of Mulder and Scully crosses over into the reality series Cops as the documentary crew follow the two FBI agents while they investigate a rampaging monster that just might be fear incarnate, with hilarious results.
Probably the final time the writers will successfully push the boundaries of the format, ‘X-Cops’ is a found footage episode that finds Mulder even more determined than ever to pursue his latest quarry, as capturing evidence of the supernatural on camera is too good of an opportunity to pass up. In contrast, Scully is naturally camera-shy, trying to reconcile her determination to solve the case with her feelings of embarrassment over the whole ordeal.
‘The Gift’ (Season 8, Episode 11)
In season 8, Mulder has disappeared and is replaced as Scully’s partner by John Doggett. His investigation into Mulder leads him to a small town in Pennsylvania where he comes across a “soul eater”, a creature from Native American folklore that Mulder was seeking in order to cure a terminal illness he had been keeping secret.
In the absence of Mulder, Doggett became a fascinating character in his own right, and with ‘The Gift’ the show was able to reconcile Doggett’s new relationship with the old guard, while exposing to him the supernatural world that he now was in close contact with. When his own life is saved by the eventually sympathetic “soul eater”, Doggett finds that his what-you-see-is-what-you-get attitude is no longer enough to get him by in the world of The X-Files, and what he thought was the truth was really just one version of it, and that the real truth was indeed still out there.
‘Sunshine Days’ (Season 9, Episode 18)
Scully, Doggett, and new agent Monica Reyes discover a man who has the ability to reshape reality as he sees fit, except this power has a downside: it is slowly killing him. The team have to decide if they are willing to pursue definitive and undeniable proof of the paranormal at the cost of an innocent man’s life.
As the second-last episode of the original run of The X-Files, ‘Sunshine Days’ is a funny, beautiful and heart-breaking send off for the show. It encapsulates everything that Mulder and Scully’s pursuit of the truth meant at its core; despite the agents’ driven and often personal crusade, at the end of the day their investigations were all about helping people. In every small town, in every situation, there was always a person who needed to be avenged or a monumental wrong to be righted. This episode proved that this was always the case, that rather than just looking outwardly for the truth, that we should be looking inward too.
‘Pilot’ (Season 1, Episode 1)
The most definitive episode of The X-Files has to be the ‘Pilot.’ This is the episode that started it all and brought together one of television’s greatest investigative teams. When Scully is sent down to the basement by the FBI brass to keep tabs on the upstart Mulder and they follow up their first investigation of alien abductions in Oregon, it becomes evident from their first dialogue exchange that the show was going to be something completely different from the norm.
What is so remarkable about this episode was how the central relationship and the initial format of the show appeared fully formed. It would certainly evolve over time, but taking another look at ‘Pilot’ again shows just how assured Chris Carter was in the idea for the show from its inception to execution. The show would become more bombastic over time, but in its beginnings it felt like The X-Files had been forged directly from the zeitgeist. No wonder it took the world by storm.