There's an X-Files episode for everything. Chris Carter's iconic sci-fi drama churned out 218 episodes and two movies over a span of 25 years, experimenting with form and genre in a way that pushed the boundaries of what a TV show could do. The X-Files could be a satire of political corruption, an inward-looking horror story, a surreal black-and-white fable, or a time travel romp; it could be absurd, funny, romantic, chilling.
Structurally, the series helped pioneer the procedural balance between overarching mythology and standalone episodes, as Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson) unraveled a far-reaching government conspiracy one week and chased small-town monsters the next. It was the mythology arc that gave The X-Files its emotional weight in the early seasons, but as the series evolved, the monster-of-the-week episodes took over as its creative center. For the most part, those are the episodes that have held up best, standing as examples of the show's impressive range.
That range also means that aside from the obvious classics, the details of any best-of list come down to personal preference. These are ours. From underrated favorites to Emmy-winning standouts, these are The X-Files' 25 best episodes.
Mulder gets three wishes in this delightful Vince Gilligan episode, which marks Mulder and Scully's last standalone case as partners until the revival. The hour introduces the agents to a genie who's seen the worst of humanity, pushing them to debate whether it's possible to make the world better. "Je Souhaite" walks the line between cynicism and sentimentality — most people want what isn't good for them, but people like Mulder and Scully are still out there putting in the work. Plus, Gillian Anderson gives one of her best comic performances on The X-Files when Scully gets her hands on an invisible man.
In the tradition of all the best sci-fi, the scariest monster The X-Files ever produced was human. Donnie Pfaster (Nick Chinlund) doesn't seem to have any supernatural abilities; he's just a death fetishist with a childlike voice who makes women wash their hair before he kills them. Every detail of the character is nails-on-a-chalkboard upsetting, and Scully is genuinely rattled by Pfaster even before he targets her. On one level, "Irresistible" is a reckoning with Scully's trauma in the wake of her abduction, but the show also allows for her reaction to simply be humane; a person should be horrified by what Pfaster is capable of. It's a chilling episode about how rational it is to fear the everyday world.
One-of-a-kind writer Darin Morgan's last episode in the X-Files revival is an updated take on his last episode in the original series, "Jose Chung's From Outer Space." Like "Jose Chung's," "The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat" plays with the unreliability of memory. But this episode is more topical with its politics, spoofing The Twilight Zone to make Rod Serling-esque points about the lengths the government will go to avoid taking responsibility for its crimes. It's a satirical obituary for "the truth" in an era of fake news — and if the truth doesn't mean anything anymore, where does that leave Mulder and Scully? In a meta take on reviving The X-Files, Morgan insists there's no way to bring back something beloved and make it as good as it was, but he almost disproves his own point with how good this episode is. It's the smartest and most self-aware episode of the revival, but it's affectionate, too. Nostalgia may be a danger to the truth, but it's a saving grace for art.
Written and directed by David Duchovny, "The Unnatural" is a fanciful short story about the value of unnecessary things. The majority of the episode flashes back to Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947, where an alien named Josh Exley (Jesse L. Martin) has fallen in love with the game of baseball. Ex wears the face of a Black man so he's less likely to get recruited to the majors and risk exposure. His talent earns him enough attention that he's assigned a protective detail in the form of a cop (Fredric Lehne) he winds up befriending. "The Unnatural" plays like it honestly believes "not seeing color" can solve racism, and its folksy 1940s treatment of Blackness leans hard on stereotype. But as corny as it is, it's also charming and sincere in a way few X-Files episodes are. Ex's love of baseball, a stand-in for all the "useless but perfect" things that make life worth living, is poetic and just a touch bittersweet; it's an affair that's never meant to last. Mulder, hearing the story in the present, keeps trying to connect it to the bigger alien conspiracy, but in this tale finding a hidden meaning is not the point. Like Ex learned, enjoying something is value enough. The episode ends on one of the show's happiest scenes, a flirty baseball lesson Mulder gives Scully so they can share a useless, perfect night.
The first and best X-Files episode to flip the script between Mulder and Scully, "Beyond the Sea" reveals how thin the line is between the believer and the skeptic. When her father dies unexpectedly, Scully finds herself intrigued by menacing death row inmate Luther Lee Boggs (a terrifying Brad Dourif), who claims to be psychic. Against Mulder's advice, she wants to believe him, leading to an intense, Silence of the Lambs-like dance between the young agent and the killer. It's a fascinating look at a new side of Scully as a character, and it's also the first episode that showed what heights Gillian Anderson's performance could reach.
Darin Morgan's "Jose Chung's From Outer Space" is as meta as they come, a playfully bizarre episode that layers narrative on narrative until there's no way to tell what's really happening and what's a smokescreen. Maybe alien abduction is real; maybe the government is faking it; maybe both are true at once. Through the eyes of famous novelist Jose Chung (the great Charles Nelson Reilly), who's interviewing Scully as research, Morgan satirizes Mulder's relentless curiosity (the scene in which he eats a whole sweet potato pie in a diner is an all-timer) and needles Scully for being a good person who is, "nevertheless, a federal employee." The beauty of this episode is that it's simultaneously about how people find logic in a solitary existence and about how Alex Trebek is a man in black.
The X-Files gets trippy when Mulder and Scully are exposed to hallucinogenic mushroom spores on a mountain known for alien activity. Before their visions eventually merge into one shared attempt to save themselves, the partners hallucinate separate nightmare scenarios: Scully dreams Mulder dies without ever finding proof of extraterrestrial life, and Mulder dreams Scully doesn't question him when he finds an alien. Essentially a more serious take on the classic "Bad Blood," "Field Trip" is a study of how much Mulder and Scully love being challenged by each other. It's also just weird, as so many of the best X-Files episodes are.
"The Post-Modern Prometheus" could be The X-Files' strangest elevator pitch: a black-and-white retelling of Frankenstein set to the music of Cher. It can also be a difficult episode to reckon with; the lonely small-town monster sets out to find love by impregnating local women, but the episode refuses to treat his behavior as rape. And yet as impossible as it is to embrace "The Post-Modern Prometheus" without reservations, it's also impossible to ignore it. When this episode falls into place, it sings. The final scene, a flight of fancy in which Mulder and Scully take the monster to a Cher concert and share a dance, is transcendent — the best scene of the whole series.
Mulder drags Scully in search of North Georgia's version of Nessie in this gem of an episode. The highlight of "Quagmire" is a scene that's become known as the conversation on the rock, a long, vulnerable back-and-forth between the partners that spans nearly eight minutes of the episode. Stranded in the middle of a lake, they get real about everything from cannibalism to Moby-Dick, as Scully questions whether Mulder's restless search for "the truth" is any more productive than a hunt for a white whale. By giving its lead actors so much time to just talk, "Quagmire" shows off how sturdy The X-Files' foundation is.
Mulder questions whether his sister was really abducted by aliens when a dream leads him to child killer John Lee Roche (Tom Noonan), who's up there with the show's creepiest human villains. Roche, already in prison for killing 13 young girls, strings Mulder along with the suggestion that he killed Samantha too, and another young girl gets pulled into the crossfire. "Paper Hearts" is a sad, delicate episode about how painful closure can be, and it features one of Duchovny's best dramatic performances on The X-Files.
Darin Morgan changed the game when he introduced comedy to The X-Files with this sweet, offbeat episode set in a Florida circus town. "Humbug" is Morgan's first and most restrained script — you can almost feel the training wheels coming off as the show gets used to his rhythm — but it's still a rebellion, not only against the norms of the show but against Mulder and Scully's definition of normal, which is upended by a community of circus freaks. "Humbug" has a real sense of wonder at the world's oddities, and it builds to one of The X-Files' funniest kickers.
If you like Breaking Bad, thank "Drive," an episode written by Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan and guest-starring Bryan Cranston as a dying man with a hateful streak. Cranston plays the role with such complicated humanity that Gilligan would later show AMC executives this episode to convince them to cast the actor as Walter White. But what makes "Drive" a great episode of The X-Files isn't its role in the Breaking Bad origin story — it's just a propulsive hour of action that turns surprisingly affecting. Cranston's character develops a mysterious illness that will kill him if he stops moving, so he takes Mulder hostage and forces him to hit the highway. "Drive" is Speed with more anger at the government.
Very few TV shows know their characters this well right off the bat. The X-Files' pilot (like the rest of The X-Files) is great because of Mulder and Scully; it sketches out with perfect clarity who they are and where they fit in a crooked system. The FBI assigns Scully to partner up with Mulder, who's getting too close to the truth, so she'll debunk his work, but she has too much integrity to take the bait. A lot of their first case makes precious little sense on its own, but that doesn't matter. What matters is how well the pilot introduces two characters who will become TV icons but just feel like people: a pair of outsiders in oversize '90s suits who like each other right off the bat.
The episode that won Gillian Anderson a well-deserved Emmy, "Memento Mori" kicks off Scully's cancer storyline in devastating fashion. Her diagnosis was bound to be moving, but what makes "Memento Mori" so good is the way it makes room for messy human moments, like Scully's mother (Sheila Larken) rambling about the traffic on the way to the hospital or the uncomfortable silence between Mulder and Scully as she tells him about her tumor. The X-Files is rarely halfway emotional — it represses feelings and then lets them explode in fits of melodrama — and "Memento Mori" is constantly jumping from one end of that scale to the other. It's too heavy on Chris Carter's flowery monologues, but that's the show.
"Tithonus" doesn't get as much attention as most of the other episodes on this list, but it's among The X-Files' very best. The episode is anchored by Geoffrey Lewis' stoic, unsettling performance as an immortal man named Alfred Fellig. Like the real-life artist Arthur Fellig, better known as Weegee, Lewis' Fellig is a photographer with an eerie knack for being first at the scene of the crime. He cheated Death during a yellow fever epidemic in the 19th century (making this episode an especially chilling watch in the time of a pandemic) and has been trying to photograph the specter ever since, hoping that if he captures it on film he'll finally be able to die. "Tithonus" is a gorgeous, haunting hour that grapples with finding meaning in mortality. Few lines on The X-Files are as heavy as Fellig telling Scully, "Love lasts 75 years if you're lucky. You don't want to be around when it's gone."
Best remembered as the episode where Scully gets a tattoo, "Never Again" is edgy by X-Files standards, in the sense that it dares to let Mulder and Scully's relationship get uncomfortable. The last episode Glen Morgan and James Wong wrote for the original series, it's a pensive hour that gives Scully the space to rebel against her all-consuming partnership with Mulder when she works a case alone. She develops an attraction to a man named Ed Jerse (Rodney Rowland), who, unbeknownst to her, has a hallucinogenic tattoo (a misogynistic pin-up girl voiced by Jodie Foster) urging him to murder. Their one-night stand, which the episode, frustratingly, only hints at, also exposes the show's uneasy relationship with Scully's sexuality: She goes on one date and it literally goes up in flames. More X-Files episodes should have explored this side of Scully, but "Never Again" hits harder for the way it breaks the mold.
The X-Files takes some of its most interesting risks in "Triangle," a wildly fun adventure that sends Mulder back in time to 1939 after he goes looking for a ship in the Bermuda Triangle. This is time travel in the style of The Wizard of Oz; all the main characters on the ship are played by the show's regular and recurring cast members, winking at fans with references to their usual roles. Writer-director Chris Carter also pays homage to Alfred Hitchcock's Rope by filming each act to look like it's been shot in a single take, adding to the episode's dreamlike quality. Is it only happening in Mulder's head? Does it matter? It's hard to find an X-Files scene more purely entertaining than the long sequence in this episode that follows Scully searching for help at the FBI, or a shot more magical than the moment she crosses paths with 1939 Scully on the ship. "Triangle" feels like The X-Files is releasing a pressure valve and letting off some steam, and it's a thrill.
Scully's abduction changed the course of The X-Files, reshaping the show's mythology and permanently raising the stakes for Mulder and Scully. When multiple abductee Duane Barry (Steve Railsback) escapes a mental institution and takes hostages, Mulder is drawn into a tense negotiation that exposes how unprepared he is for the truth he seeks. In the face of his wide-eyed curiosity, Duane Barry can offer only trauma. That trauma hits home when Barry takes Scully in a shocking cliffhanger, leading Mulder on a desperate, doomed hunt up a mountain. "Ascension" is one of the show's most visually stunning episodes, and "Duane Barry" is one of its most gripping. The X-Files discovered its full potential here.
As a capper to Scully's abduction, what makes "One Breath" work so well is how intimate it is. When Scully is found comatose at a hospital, Mulder wrestles with his helplessness and guilt as her family prepares to let her go. Offered the choice between finding out who's to blame for her condition and sitting vigil at her bedside, he has to face the fact that the answers he's after are less important than being with Scully. The most powerful thing about "One Breath" is what it doesn't do: It refuses to give Mulder the glory of taking revenge or saving the day. Instead, the episode insists that all anyone can control in the face of despair is how they show up for the people they care about.
"Home" is infamous for being so disturbing that it was banned from re-airing on Fox, but its reputation for brutality doesn't do justice to how artful it is. Written by Glen Morgan and James Wong, the episode sends Mulder and Scully to a small town called Home, where a baby is found buried in a baseball field. "Home" is absolutely not subtle; in a nod to The Andy Griffith Show, the local sheriff is named Andy Taylor (Tucker Smallwood) and his deputy is Barney (Sebastian Spence). Together they represent the last gasp of the dream of rural America. The X-Files isn't immune to the romance of Mayberry. But "Home" is ultimately about how idyllic small-town America is a myth, one that depends on ignoring a lot of grotesque horrors. The sheriff wants to believe that the "modern world" is what's corrupting his town, but the episode's monsters aren't outsiders; they're a local family of prejudiced, disfigured inbreds who've lived in Home for generations, strangling their own bloodline to death because they refuse to adapt. It's an incisive story that sums up so much of The X-Files' worldview: Progress is scary, but not as scary as what people will do when they fear it.
The rare holiday episode that holds up all year, "How the Ghosts Stole Christmas" is a playful haunted house story that doubles as a meditation on Mulder and Scully's loneliness. When the agents go ghostbusting on Christmas Eve (Mulder goes willingly; Scully not so much), they meet a couple of married spirits played by Ed Asner and Lily Tomlin. It's like a stage play featuring a pair of comedy legends. The ghosts set out to trick the partners into committing a murder-suicide by turning their old gothic manor into a funhouse that forces Mulder and Scully to confront their fears about where their relationship is headed. Writer-director Chris Carter clearly enjoys playing armchair psychologist for his own characters, but as much as he ribs them, "How the Ghosts Stole Christmas" is ultimately a heartfelt tribute to their unconventional romance.
Mulder and Scully meet The Thing in this Season 1 thriller, which sends the partners to a remote Alaskan outpost where a team of scientific researchers turned on each other after coming into contact with a mind-altering parasite. Inspired by the same novella as John Carpenter's 1982 horror classic, "Ice" is the first example of the show's long tradition of turning fear into an X-File. It's a tight, claustrophobic story that tests the trust between Mulder and Scully, setting up what becomes a central element of their partnership: They can only save themselves by saving each other. It also hinges on potent debates about virus containment. From crews trapped on Arctic research expeditions to worms and deadly diseases awakening in melting permafrost, reality is catching up with "Ice."
Vince Gilligan answers the question "What if The X-Files were a sitcom?" with "Bad Blood," the show's flat-out funniest episode. In a gimmick inspired by an episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show, Mulder and Scully disagree on whether their latest perp was a vampire, and the case plays out through their eyes — once from Scully's point of view and once from Mulder's — as they each recollect their version of events. Duchovny and Anderson go all in on spoofing their characters (it's no secret that this is Anderson's favorite episode), knocking it out of the park with some of the best line deliveries of the series. "Bad Blood" also features a memorable guest performance from a very game Luke Wilson as a small-town Texas sheriff Scully really wants to impress.
"Pusher" takes a theme The X-Files is always circling — how far mediocre men will go to hold on to power — and distills it into an incredible standalone episode. In this case, the mediocre man in question is Robert Patrick Modell (Robert Wisden), whose brain tumor has given him the ability to compel people to do whatever he wants. Writer Vince Gilligan gets creative with Modell's unusual skill, which he's weaponized so well he can give a man a heart attack over the phone. But what makes "Pusher" unforgettable is its standards and practices-defying Russian roulette scene, in which Modell forces Mulder to turn a gun on himself and then on Scully. On top of being one of the most nail-biting scenes of the whole series, the confrontation highlights how Mulder and Scully's care for each other helps them survive being pawns in someone else's game.
The extraordinary "Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose" won The X-Files its first two major Emmys for a reason. One of those awards went to writer Darin Morgan, who turns out a darkly comedic script that bends the rules of TV storytelling and makes it look easy. The other went to guest star Peter Boyle for his benevolent, dryly funny performance as a psychic with exactly one gift: the ability to tell how people are going to die. Like all of Morgan's episodes, "Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose" is also a comment on The X-Files, a show that cared a lot about "the truth" but ultimately cared very little about answers. Nobody really wants to find out what Bruckman knows about their future, least of all Bruckman himself. It's a sweetly philosophical story about how destructive obsession can be and how vital it is to counter it by connecting with other people — which turned out to be the point of the whole show.
Check out more great '90s series to watch here.
This story was originally published on July 15, 2020.
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