With the new X-Files reboot premiering at New York Comic Con today, it’s more imperative than ever that you catch up with the expansive mythology that turned this television show into a pop culture phenomenon.
A good part of what makes The X-Files such a television classic is the elasticity of its premise, its ability to show shape-shifting mutants and depressed psychics alongside the more standard horror fare of vampires and werewolves.
But the real action of the show, of course, has to deal with the presence of extraterrestrial life in our midst and their plans of (re)colonizing the planet. Across nine years (and the first feature film, Fight the Future), X-Files meticulously laid out the alien colonists’ agenda, the American government’s secret collaboration with them, and the final, desperate battle for control when everything was torn asunder in the final few seasons.
Even though only a handful of episodes were dedicated to spinning this overriding mythology each year, they clearly stand out as the best of what showrunner Chris Carter and his talented writing staff had to offer. In honor of the fast-approaching “event series” this winter, we present our best of the best, the 12 Best Mythology Episodes of The X-Files.
One Breath (season 2, episode 8)
Two episodes previously, Special Agent Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) was abducted, though whether by an UFO or a helicopter is left up for debate. At the start of “One Breath,” Scully has mysteriously arrived in an area hospital – just how, exactly, no one is able to say – and the comatose agent is left struggling for her life.
There are so many great scenes that ensue, it’s amazing to think they’re all contained in the same episode. Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) goes mad in his efforts to discover who did this to his partner, including pointing a gun at the head of the Cigarette-Smoking Man (William B. Davis) – who gets real, substantive lines of dialogue for the very first time in the show’s history. Assistant Director Walter Skinner (Mitch Pileggi) confesses his own paranormal experience during Vietnam, similarly cracking his character open for the first time. Scully’s recently departed father, Captain William Scully (Don Davis), comes to visit her in spectral form as she lies dying in bed, delivering one of the show’s most beautiful soliloquies, about the preciousness of life.
But the real gold here is the eerie landscape Scully finds herself in as she nearly slips over to the other side, including the mysterious Nurse Owens (Nicola Cavendish), who is the only figure to bridge Scully’s two worlds. At the end of the ep, when Scully has awoken, she asks about the kindly old nurse, but there is no record of that person working in the hospital at all.
Anasazi (season 2, episode 25)
It’s tempting to call “Anasazi” one of the best season finales in television history. Mulder finally gets his hands on the evidence of alien life he’s been seeking for the past several years, but it’s encrypted in an almost alien language (literally, as it would turn out) – Navajo.
As Scully begins to attempt to have it decoded, Mulder becomes more delusional and unhinged, the result of a Cigarette-Smoking Man-backed cover-up. Alex Krycek (Nicholas Lea), the traitor who attempted to infiltrate the X-files and kill Mulder earlier in the season, returns to put a bullet in Bill Mulder’s (Peter Donat) head. Oh, yeah – Mulder’s father is also revealed to be a former member of the government conspiracy (informally referred to as the Syndicate), and he was about to confess all his life’s sins to his estranged son when he meets his untimely end. Finally, in the episode’s cliffhanging scene, the Smoking Man decides to take the gloves off and have Mulder himself clipped.
When coupled with the fact that “Anasazi” was the show’s first three-parter (something which would become a tradition for most season finales/premieres), it’s easy to see how X-Files’s mythology would never be the same again.
Apocrypha (season 3, episode 6)
“Apocrypha” was the first installment to establish a particular narrative wrinkle that would serve The X-Files well for its subsequent six years (and counting): even though it’s the second chapter of a two-parter, it opens with something of an interlude – in this case, a black-and-white flashback to 43 years earlier – before picking the story back up.
And what a story it is. The Black Oil (which is ultimately revealed to be named Purity) is showcased for the first time, and the imagery it produces is simultaneously horrific and strangely beautiful – a thick substance that infects individuals by penetrating their eyes, nose, mouth, and ears, it takes over its host’s consciousness, making him a slave. It was such an effective piece of dramatics, the writers would return to it time and again throughout the show’s run, making it the backbone of the aliens’ colonization plans.
And then there’s the final image – a screaming Krycek, abandoned by both the extraterrestrials and the Cigarette-Smoking Man, left in a room to die a slow death – which remains one of the most effective scenes contained in any of the mythology episodes.
Terma (season 4, episode 9)
A direct sequel to the “Piper Maru”/“Apocrypha” two-parter, “Terma” is, again, the concluding half of a two-part episode. Emboldened by their growing budget and pop-culture ubiquitousness, Chris Carter and his writing staff decided to truly blow open the mythology installments’ production, packing in as much action, geographical locations, and plot twists as they possibly could.
And “Terma” certainly delivers. Alex Krycek, who managed to escape his fate the previous season, has tricked Fox Mulder into taking him to Russia, where he defects and has the FBI agent imprisoned in a gulag. The Russian government, it transpires, has its own conspiracy to find a cure to Purity – which is where the prisoners at the gulag come into play, as unwitting test subjects – and while the Syndicate is aware of the Russians’ program, the opposite isn’t true. Krycek’s revelations spark a new Cold War between the two governments and even results in Mulder’s forced infection with the Black Oil in the previous ep (don’t worry – it’s a dormant strain).
Mulder, of course, manages to ultimately escape the prison, but Krycek pays a price for his (latest) defection: when he encounters a group of escaped gulag inmates, they assume he’s also been exposed to Purity and chop his arm off with a red-hot machete, since the left arm is where the alien substance resides in the body. It’s a suitably creepy plot twist.
Memento Mori (season 4, episode 14)
Forget the wide-ranging recurring cast, the myriad conspiratorial revelations, the unforeseen twists. Though “Memento Mori” packs all these, it has something even better: personal consequences and emotional ramifications.
After being abducted in the second season and having a microchip removed from the base of her neck in Season 3, Dana Scully develops a particularly nasty form of cancer – an all-too-common outcome for all the female alien abductees. Framed by emotional exchanges between the two leads and some of the most poetic dialogue the series has ever produced, Scully attempts to meet her impending demise with humility and grace – which alone makes the episode worthy of inclusion on any “greatest of” list.
But then there’s Mulder’s side of the story. Attempting to save his partner, yet again, he uncovers a chilling new permutation of the Syndicate’s experimentation efforts: the doctor assigned to treat Scully is secretly there to ensure her speedy demise, in an effort to dispose of the (living) evidence. There’s also the little matter of her being rendered infertile from the abduction testing procedures, which ultimately comes as a savage blow to Scully, and the self-sacrifice of Assistant Director Skinner, who offers himself up to the Cigarette-Smoking Man in exchange for a cure to Scully’s illness.
Zero Sum (season 4, episode 21)
Some entries on this list secured their spots because of the sweeping nature of their premises or the cliffhanging nature of their endings. “Zero Sum” has neither of these elements going for it; instead, it is a tightly focused and plotted affair, and it is one of the rare episodes to focus on Walter Skinner.
When a package containing genetically modified, smallpox-carrying bees accidentally opens in a mail routing center, killing one of the employees, a mysterious man is dispatched by the Syndicate to cover its tracks – disposing of the evidence, burning the woman’s body in an incinerator, and impersonating Agent Fox Mulder to prevent his actual inclusion in the investigation. This man is none other than Skinner, which is a heart-breaking revelation, as he’s been forced to compromise nearly every single one of his ethics in a futile attempt to save Scully’s life.
Even more emotionally wrenching is the episode’s climax: a second package containing the killer bees makes it to its proper destination, an elementary school in South Carolina, whose playground becomes the testing ground for the bees’ effectiveness. Even though the only casualty is an adult, and even though there’s not one drop of blood or gore shown on film, it’s an absolutely chilling reminder of just how brutal the Syndicate can be.
Gethsemane (season 4, episode 24)
The fourth season finale opens on Dana Scully entering Fox Mulder’s apartment and being asked to identify a body there, which was the recipient of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. “It’s Mulder,” she says, and the rest of the episode unfolds in a flashback, getting audiences up to speed with the development.
It’s obvious that there’s no possible way Mulder truly is dead, but the questions of what has happened and why Scully would lie are so intriguing, and the fallout from their answers is so potent, “Gethsemane” easily ends up being one of the most character-rich installments The X-Files ever produced.
Here’s the story: a Department of Defense employee named Michael Kritschgau (John Finn) contacts Mulder and Scully and details at great length how the supposed UFO phenomena are just an elaborate cover-up by the government in order to distract from its real agenda, which is advanced weapons development. This most definitely includes Scully’s cancer, which was deliberately given to her in order to make Mulder believe all the more fully. Now that she’s quickly approaching the end stage, it’s a devastating blow for the both of them.
The ramifications of this episode are manifold. The two-part season five premiere continues the fancy narrative footwork of intertwining flashbacks with the present Mulder-has-killed-himself story, and it results in an interesting character arc for Mulder, who becomes a skeptic for the first half of the subsequent season. It’s some of the best writing the show ever saw, short-term or long-form.
The Red and the Black (season 5, episode 14)
The Cigarette-Smoking Man, presumed dead since the fifth season premiere, returns to the fold, though he’s now living a quiet life out in the mountainous wilderness of Canada. Special Agent Jeffrey Spender (Chris Owens), a recurring character introduced just the previous episode, is revealed to be Cancer Man’s son. Alex Krycek defects once again, this time from the Russians back to the Syndicate, taking their working version of the Purity vaccine with him. Marita Covarrubias (Laurie Holden), who is supposed to be Mulder’s newest government informant, betrays both her secret employers (the Syndicate) and her just-revealed lover (Krycek) in an attempt to make herself a survivor of the impending alien invasion. Scully witnesses an alien abduction firsthand, and Mulder sees a brand-new player on the colonization scene: the Alien Rebels, who seal all bodily orifices in order to insulate themselves from the Black Oil.
Phew. If that’s not enough to make “The Red and the Black” one of the best mythology installments of all nine years, it at least nabs the consolation prize of being perhaps the most jam-packed episode.
One Son (season 6, episode 11)
Without putting too fine a point on it, the “Two Fathers”/“One Son” two-parter is one of the biggest risks a television show has ever taken in the medium’s history. After five-and-a-half years and one feature film, Chris Carter and his writing staff felt that the overriding mythology had reach a saturation point of convolutedness and, as such, decided to end it. No more human-alien hybrids. No more killer bees. No more Syndicate, in fact – by the end of “One Son,” it’s all been swept away.
With alien colonization now imminent, the Alien Rebels ride in to save the day, herding nearly all of the Syndicate’s members together and executing them. The only individual to escape the purge is the Cigarette-Smoking Man, whose real name is finally revealed to be CGB Spender. Mulder is strangely demure during the proceedings, almost defeated by the weight of the truth unfolding around him – including, at long last, the real explanation for what happened to his sister, who was abducted 26 years earlier. And Agent Jeffrey Spender is executed by his father for both not being enough like his half-brother, Fox Mulder, and for joining him.
“One Son” concludes the best two-parter the series ever produced and marks the triumphant end to the show’s original mythology. And the fact that Carter never quite knew what to make of his narrative after this, resulting in a floundering few years, does little to counteract its breathtaking achievement.
Requiem (season 7, episode 22)
“Requiem” is an impressive – if, admittedly, long-overdue – introduction to the post-Syndicate mythology. The alien colonists have decided to return to the abductees that were originally used by the Syndicate for a whole new round of experimentation, which brings Mulder and Scully back to the site of their very first case (as depicted in the pilot). It is here that Mulder himself is abducted, and it is here that both Scully and Skinner come face-to-face with their own existential crises: Scully discovers, much to her wonderment, that she miraculously has become pregnant, while Skinner is finally forced to confront the paranormal in the form of the aliens that whisk Mulder away.
And in case Mulder’s (semi-permanent) departure from the series just isn’t quite enough, there’s the grand return of both Alex Krycek and Marita Covarrubias and CGB Spender’s own (possible) demise at the hands of his two former comrades-in-arms. All these developments have fundamentally impacted The X-Files’s narrative direction – for the better – to this day and are sure to find a resurgence in the upcoming event series.
The Gift (Season 8, episode 11)
Agent John Doggett (Robert Patrick), a main character for the show’s final two seasons, arrives at Squamash, Pennsylvania in his continued efforts to locate the missing Fox Mulder. Having already uncovered that Mulder was suffering from a terminal brain disease, Doggett learns that Mulder came to the small town in order to be healed by a soul-eater, a creature that can cure an individual’s illness by literally eating him, absorbing the ailment, and then regurgitating the leftovers, which eventually solidify back into human form. The conceit is, needless to say, a powerfully compelling one.
It’s also used to maximum character and plot effect. In flashback form, audiences get to see Mulder, sympathetic to the soul-eater’s miserable existence, attempt to put it out of its misery rather than have it save his life. And when Doggett tries to finish the job, he is shot at almost point-blank range by the townsfolk, who aren’t keen to have their resident miracle-worker taken away from them. The grand resolution? The creature cures Doggett of his death by digesting it, allowing himself to finally shuffle off of this mortal coil.
Existence (season 8, episode 21)
This is the series finale The X-Files deserved to have, providing more than its share of plot twists but also a little thing called emotional closure. (It’s also one of the few episodes to effectively juggle all four of the show’s leads, from Mulder and Scully to Doggett and Monica Reyes [Annabeth Gish].)
Scully is in labor, but no one has any idea what the child will be (is he Mulder’s or the result of yet another extraterrestrial plot?). The seemingly unstoppable human replicants – which Mulder narrowly missed becoming himself – are the most effective villains the show ever created, and they are used to suitably haunting effect as they converge on the helpless Scully. Reyes is assigned to the X-files in order to help unearth a brand-new conspiracy in the FBI’s ranks; Alex Krycek finally receives his just desserts; and the arrival of baby William Scully is heralded with religious iconography (including casting the Lone Gunmen as the three wise men).
And the final scene? Mulder and Scully allowing all their remaining barriers to be broken down at last and acknowledging the simple truth that has laid at the heart of the entire series: they are in love with one another.
It is such a dramatically satisfying denouement, The X-Files has yet to deliver a better mythology installment in the last 14 years.
Are there mythology episodes that are more deserving to be on this list? How do you think the event series’s continuity will pick up – or ignore – what has come before? Let us all know in the comments section below.