It’s hard to believe that The X-Files turns 20 this year.
Let that sink in for a bit.
TWENTY YEARS ago we were introduced to Fox “Spooky” Mulder, believer in extra terrestrials and all around dreamboat, and Dana Scully, skeptical scientist and flawless ginger queen of all things. Twenty years ago we were introduced to a government wide conspiracy of the highest degree, to alien bounty hunters, to liver eating mutants, to giant Flukemen, to satanic substitute teachers, to lovable conspiracy theorists, to fang-less vampires, to shadowy figures known only by monikers such as Well Manicured Man and Cigarette Smoking Man. And twenty years ago, the most epic love story of all time began.
Yes. Mulder and Scully are even more epic than Rose and The Doctor.
I didn’t discover The X-Files until it hit syndication in the spring of 1998. I had heard about it, of course, but I was a busy and overachieving high school student who was rarely at home in front of the television on a Friday Night (oh how times have changed). I started seeing previews for the movie and was intrigued…and thought that that Fox Mulder guy was AWFULLY pretty. Little did I know the rabbit hole I was about to fall down. At the time, the whole concept of releasing TV shows on video was relatively new…The X-Files started pioneering that trend by releasing select episodes (2 per tape) from the early seasons. I went to my local Blockbuster (God, I am OLD) and checked out as many tapes as they would allow and I devoured them. I then lost my mind when I got to the tape that had “Sleepless” and “Duane Barry” and Scully was abducted and I DIDN’T HAVE THE NEXT TAPE. I started recording all the episodes on FX so I could watch everything in order (even then I was a completeist). I went to the movie all by myself and ended up clutching the arm of the complete stranger sitting next to me whenever anything exciting happened. I wrote LETTERS to a college friend about how in love with the show I was. I hung up an “I Want To Believe” poster in my dorm. I bought companion books. To this day, I wish I had a picture of the look of glee on my father’s face when he presented me with a gift that he totally thought of himself…a vanity license plate that read “XFILES”.
In other words, I had discovered fandom and The X-Files was my gateway drug (as it was for many people my age). It was amazing to discover that I was not the only one who felt this way about a television show. I was astonished to learn that it was completely normal to watch The X-Files and LONG for Mulder and Scully to just kiss already. There was even a NAME for that…shipping. And I had been a “shipper” my whole life and didn’t know it until I delved into the world of The X-Files. I don’t even remember how I found it…I must have been searching for more background on the movie…but one day I stumbled upon the treasure trove that is the Gossamer Archive (that wonderful old school archive still exists today). My GOD! Fan Fiction?! People were writing STORIES about these characters…and they were GOOD!! I can’t even count the hours I spent…hours when I should have been studying…hours when I could have been out socializing…but instead I spent those hours reading stories about my favorite characters. Stories that filled in gaps in episodes, stories that stood entirely on their own and stories where Mulder and Scully FINALLY got it on. It was a marvelous time and I definitely would not be the fangirl I am today had it not been for my obsession with The X-Files.
One of the things that cemented my life partnership with Sage was the discovery that we were both X-Philes. We’ve wanted to do a series on our favorite episodes ever since we launched Head Over Feels, and with the 20th Anniversary Panel at Comic-Con this week, we realized that the time had finally come to do it. But HOW? In a genre bending show like The X-Files how in the world do we single out episodes that are both definitive to the series and ones that meant a lot to us?? Luckily, after we made a preliminary list, we found that most of them were one and the same. We both agreed that we could count two and three parters as one episode, since they encompassed the same story arc. So we set out over this past weekend and marathoned over 25 episodes to narrow our list down to 15. There was a LOT of screaming at each other over Twitter and fighting over gChat, but we emerged from the weekend with not only our friendship in tact but a list that we were both fully satisfied with. I hope you enjoy our picks. I know I do.
The truth is out there.
Honorable Mention: “Die Hand Die Verletzt” (2 x 14)
After paring down our initial list of close to 30 episodes, we were left with 17. Rather than pad the list and bring it up to 20, we opted to go to 15 and give one honorable mention. So…apologies to “Home” (losing that one hurt), but I absolutely could not have a list dedicated to the best episodes of The X-Files without mentioning “Die Hand Die Verletzt” because it was the first episode to genuinely TERRIFY me. And it terrifies me to this day. It starts out very tongue in cheek, with the witty banter that we had to come to expect from monster of the week episodes, but it then takes a VERY dark turn and never looks back.
I may not be an overtly religious person, but I AM a spiritual person (Good God, someone slap me in the face for sounding pretentious) so I firmly believe that you don’t mess with the Devil or Satan Worship. That shit is REAL. I will never forget watching this episode for the first time. I was in the middle of a marathon session, and it was relatively late at night. Everyone else in my family was asleep and our TV room is on the opposite side of the house, so I felt totally and completely ALONE. I was watching in total darkness and was getting more and more freaked out as the episode went on. And then Mulder handcuffed Jim Ausbury and left him alone in the basement, running to Scully’s aid (or so he thought). Cut to demonic substitute teacher Mrs. Paddock chanting. The basement door opens…and a giant snake slithers down the stairs…ever so slowly wraps himself around Ausbury…and then fucking EATS HIM (have I mentioned I have an absolutely crippling fear of snakes?). And then the next shot is THIS:
Cue me screaming and screaming, hitting pause, and running around the room turning on EVERY SINGLE LIGHT. I sat there for several minutes, curled up in a ball, and whispering to myself “It’s only a show, it’s only a show, it’s only a show” before eventually finishing the episode. But I definitely didn’t sleep well afterwards.
Mulder: Did you really think you could call up the Devil and ask him to behave?
15) “Squeeze/Tooms” (1 x 03, 1 x 21)
“Squeeze” was the first “monster of the week” episode of The X-Files and it introduced us to one of THE iconic monsters of the entire series, Eugene Tooms (played by Doug Hutchison, he that would grow up to be the grossest man alive and marry Courtney Stodden), a serial killer mutant who kills 5 people every 30 years, ingests their livers, and then goes into hibernation in a nest made of newspaper and bile (gross). Did I mention he can squeeze himself through the TINIEST crevices in order to get to his victims? In “Tooms”, he tries to get to a victim by coming up through the TOILET…and would have been successful had it not been for some very convenient child-proofing. Way to tap into everyone’s greatest fear, Chris Carter.
What “Squeeze” also does is establish the great cost to Scully’s professional standing by working with Mulder. Her peers don’t take her seriously. They make fun of her and feel sorry for her, calling her “Mrs. Spooky”. Any other person would bristle at this, but Scully defends Mulder right away. She may be able to roll her eyes at his outlandish theories…but if anyone else does? Forget it. They have not earned that right. By the end of the episode, Scully firmly establishes whose side she’s on and who she wants to work with…and that’s Mulder. Their partnership is firmly cemented and it’s only the THIRD episode of the series. Like I said in the intro…greatest love story of all time.
I thought it was a brilliant move to bring Tooms back at the very end of the season. “Squeeze” leaves us with image of Tooms grinning at the small door in his prison cell where his meals are delivered. It would have been very easy to leave it at that because it is always dangerous to try to attempt a “sequel” with a successful villain. But “Tooms” comes at a point where things are beginning to unravel for Mulder, Scully and their investigation of the X-Files. A sense of foreboding pervades the whole episode, and we can see that Mulder knows it…which is why his behavior starts to get erratic and desperate. He feels as if his whole career rests on this case…and as we see in the season finale, in a way it does.
As far as shippery moments, “Tooms” has the infamous iced tea/root beer scene (Oh, the fan fics I have read where there actually WAS iced tea in that bag…) that still gives me feels to this day. When Scully says she wouldn’t put herself on the line for anyone but Mulder, it is an incredibly heartfelt and honest statement. You can SEE the weight of it on both of their faces (the pause that hangs in the air after Scully says that is rife with tension) and to Mulder, there is nothing else more important for this. He is a man who has never had someone who is so unconditionally THERE for him. Until the day Dana Scully walked into his office, he was completely on his own. And now he’s not. So what does he do? He diffuses the moment with flirting. And you can see relief flit across both of their faces as she flirts right back. It’s a defining (and maddening because they are BOTH so emotionally stunted) moment of their partnership and that pure devotion to each other would be an ongoing theme for the rest of the series. Their partnership is about trust. It’s about loyalty. And yes, it’s about love…love in the purest sense of the word. It’s a love that transcends romance while still remaining deeply romantic. Anyone who doesn’t think so is watching the show wrong.
Scully: Mulder, I wouldn’t put myself on the line for anybody but you.
Mulder: If there’s an iced tea in that bag, it could be love.
Scully: Must be fate, Mulder. Root beer.
14) “Dreamland I/II” (6 x 04, 6 x 05)
“Dreamland” is pure fluff and there is nothing wrong with that. One of the defining characteristics of season six is the fact that so many of the stand alone episodes took a bit of a lighter tone (“Dreamland”, “The Rain King”, “Arcadia”, “The Unnatural”) and ALSO they explored more aspects of the Mulder and Scully relationship, especially in a romantic context. I don’t have my shipper goggles on when I say this. Go back and watch those episodes. I’m very right. So while critics and/or lovers of the mythology arc may have had many problems with season six, I, for one, loved it.
Out of all the light-hearted episodes of season six, we singled out “Dreamland” principally for the delightfully comic turn by Michael McKean as Morris Fletcher, the smarmy Man in Black with whom Mulder switches bodies. I know I yell at the Emmys a LOT (and will likely be doing so when the nominations are announced this Thursday) but seriously…the fact that McKean wasn’t even NOMINATED for a guest actor Emmy for this is criminal. The “body switching” trope has been used in many shows (most recently in Community) but Duchovny and McKean pull it off with such aplomb. The homage to Duck Soup (the mirror dance) is pulled off so perfectly that THAT scene alone merits this episode’s inclusion in this post. It is a complete hoot to see how Mulder and Morris muck up each other’s lives from Morris sucking up to A.D. Kersh (a pre-Grey’s Anatomy James Pickens Jr) and calling Scully “Dana” and slapping her ass to Mulder not knowing which kid is which to mistaking his “daughter” Chris’s desire for a nose ring for wanting a nose job to dealing with a marriage that is CLEARLY in shambles (How delightfully shrill is Nora Dunn as Joanne Fletcher?). The Lone Gunmen also make a hysterical appearance where Morris (as Mulder) takes great delight in making fun of them. And the way Frohike gets all riled up when he realizes that something happened to Mulder shows that relationship is one of the unsung brOTPs of the entire series.
The scene where Mulder and Scully meet up to discuss that there is no safe way to switch back and that Mulder will be stuck in Morris’ body forever is heartbreaking. It’s also a testament to the acting skills of both Anderson and Duchovny, because even though it IS Duchovny standing in front of her, you truly believe that she’s not seeing his face. She’s seeing the face of Morris Fletcher but the soul of Fox Mulder…and after everything they have been through together, she admits doesn’t want to go on in her work without THAT soul. It may be Mulder’s body but it’s not HER Mulder. Mulder encourages her to go on…and there is this WEIGHT between them. The weight of EVERYTHING through nearly 6 years of partnership that has gone unspoken…and you almost feel it bubbling to the surface. But much like the root beer scene in “Tooms” one of them (Scully this time) diffuses the tension by flirting. “I’d kiss you if you weren’t so damn ugly,” she says. She may as well have been saying “I love you, please don’t leave me.” And then Mulder sadly pouring a small pile of sunflower seeds into Scully’s hand? ICE COLD, VINCE GILLIGAN. My shipper heart can’t handle these types of feels!!!
Mulder (as Morris): Of course you don’t believe me. Why was I expecting anything different? Your full name is Dana Katherine Scully. Your badge number is… Hell! I don’t know your badge number. Your mother’s name is Margaret. Your brother’s name is Bill Jr. He’s in the Navy and he hates me. Lately, for lunch, you’ve been having this six-ounce cup of yogurt, plain yogurt, into which you stir bee pollen because you’re on a bee pollen kick even though I tell you you’re a doctor and you should know better.
Scully: Look…any of that information could have been gathered by anyone.
Mulder (as Morris): Even that yogurt thing? That is so you. That is so Scully. Well, it’s good to know you haven’t changed. That’s somewhat comforting.
13) “Pilot” (1 x 01)
Nine seasons and two feature films were kicked off by this well-constructed pilot. It’s one of my personal favorite inaugural episodes because it’s so true to the epic reign that would follow.
I cannot watch the iconic first basement office meeting between pragmatic medical doctor Dana Scully and the brilliant, enigmatic agent Fox Mulder without whispering, “my babies…” to thin air. For they ARE such babies. And they are still mine. But really, David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson are pitch friggin’ perfect, straight out of the gate. And their chemistry practically slaps you in the face.
Without the strength and urgency of Mulder and Scully’s partnership, there IS no show. And this episode sows the seeds quite nicely. Like all shippers, I’ve always been partial to the scene where Mulder checks Scully’s bare lower back – BY CANDLELIGHT, mind you – for obvious reasons. But now I see that the purpose of that scene is to show just how off-base the Syndicate was in expecting Scully to remain their impartial mole. First of all, my girl has got INTEGRITY. And secondly, their whole MASTER PLAN was to put her in a position where she has no choice but to trust the very man she was sent to spy on with her life – where he is the only person to go to when she’s in the middle of nowhere and terrified. The Syndicate’s fatal flaw has always been their underestimation of the human spirit, and when they introduced Scully to Mulder, they inadvertently created an adversary that would eff up their plans for years to come.
Scully: …What I find fantastic is any notion that there are answers beyond the realm of science. The answers are there. You just have to know where to look.
Mulder: That’s why they put the “I” in “F.B.I.”
12) “The Post-Modern Prometheus” (5 x 05)
Seasons 5 and 6 of The X-Files were packed with some delightful, little concept episodes. The more convoluted the show’s mythology became, the more fun it was to detangle ourselves from it every once in a while. “The Post-Modern Prometheus” lets us do exactly that, and, in fact, the episode itself might not even be canon reality.
Chris Carter throws all the stylistic influences at the wall in this one. It’s one part comic book, one part fairy tale and two parts vintage monster movie, with a dash of late 90s tabloid culture. PMP is the Stefon club of The X-Files. It’s got everything: Cher impersonators, Jerry Springer, mad scientists, scenes from Mask on a black and white TV, a reporter who looks like a chicken, the guy who played J. Peterman, etc. etc. You either love or loathe this episode. It’s too extreme to evoke any moderate reactions. When’s the last time you saw something this balls-to-the-wall weird on basic cable?
I include it in my favorites largely because it just looks so damn good in black and white. And for the Cher soundtrack. The episode earned seven Emmy nominations in 1998 and took home the award for Art Direction. The plot may be a little all over the place (and I just have to believe that the farmer and the monster impregnated the women in the town in some sort of non-rapey way, for my own peace of mind), but “The Post Modern Prometheus” is stylistically engaging enough to let that slide.
No discussion of this episode would be complete without reference to that bizarre final scene, which still has the power to make me happy-cry. Mulder isn’t happy with the resolution of the case and asks to speak to “the writer.” Next thing we know, Mulder, Scully, The Great Mutato (played by Chris Owens, who would go on to play that weasel Jeffrey Spender) and the townspeople are caravanning to, wait for it, a Cher concert. (Fun fact: Cher is a HUGE fan of The X-Files and the cameo was written to be played by her. She was unavailable, but granted the show permission to use her music and an impersonator.) “Cher” pulls Mutato up on stage with her and then I die, you die, errrrybody dies, because Mulder holds out his hand to Scully and pulls her right up against him to dance to Cher’s cover of “Walking in Memphis.” It’s a little bit magical. So magical that it’s probably not real. The episode opens on the cover of a comic book and closes with the final page, which might mean that the whole thing was fantasy. Real or not real, “The Post-Modern Prometheus” is still abnormally charming, and entirely to thank for my current go-to karaoke standard.
Mulder: This is all wrong, Scully. This is not how the story’s supposed to end.
Scully: What do you mean?
Mulder: Dr. Frankenstein pays for his evil ambitions, yes. But the monster is supposed to escape, to go search for his bride.
Scully: There’s not going to be any bride, Mulder. Not in this story.
Mulder: Well, where’s the writer? I want to speak to the writer.
Choosing the best 15 episodes to represent the legacy of this series was a challenge, to say the least. Not only are there literally a few hundred excellent stories for Kim and me to choose from, but also a responsibility to pay tribute to the show’s genre-crossing genius. If The X-Files, as a whole, is a romantic procedural supernatural comic horror thriller – and it is – then “Ice” is pure thriller.
Glen Morgan and James Wong, dynamic writing duo of the early seasons, are responsible for this bottle episode. (They also wrote “Squeeze/Tooms” and a few other upcoming episodes on the rest of our list). “Ice” is brilliant because it taps into universal human fears. What if the person you know is suddenly not himself? And, even scarier, what if you lose control of your OWN identity? Morgan and Wong strand Mulder, Scully, baby Felicity Huffman and a few other researchers in an ice storm on “the top of the world” and then turn them against each other to find out.
There’s a slight hint that the parasite living in the ice core is of extraterrestrial origin, but otherwise the story calls on a very terrestrial sense of paranoia to be so effective. This is a “hook your friends” episode, especially if they’re wary of getting into bed with a sci-fi series and “getting new friends” isn’t an acceptable solution to that problem. The Mulder/Scully climactic showdown alone is worth the price of admission. Even though this episode can and does stand alone, it also serves to further build the trust between our two heroes early on in their partnership.
I can very easily see an extended “Ice” as a feature film. In fact, paging Chris Carter: a contained, accessible story like this one could be the perfect route to take on XF3. Yes, I will happily accept that producer credit.
Scully: Two worms in one host will kill each other.
Mulder: You give me one worm, you’ll infect me.
Scully: If that’s true, then why didn’t you let us inspect you?
Mulder: I would have, but you pulled a gun on me. Now I don’t trust them, I want to trust you.
And that’s episodes 15 through 11!! What episodes made the top ten? Come back tomorrow as we dissect episodes 10 to 6!