With 201 episodes across nine seasons, The X-Files has left behind a staggering legacy – almost too much to go through for all those fans who might want to get caught back up after all this time away from Agents Mulder, Scully, Doggett, and Reyes. And then there are all those newcomers to the paranormal fold who may want to get a good sampling of what X-Files has to offer before checking out its long-awaited return to television with the “event series” this January.
Either way, here’s your answer: a list of the best of the best of what showrunner Chris Carter and his amazingly talented writing staff cobbled together across one of the best runs in television history. Yesterday, we covered the 12 Best Mythology Episodes of The X-Files, but today, we take on the series’ heralded “monster of the week” standalone episodes, those that don’t detail the delightfully complex mythology regarding extraterrestrial life here on Earth and the government’s efforts at keeping it quiet.
In fact, we not only excised the mythology eps, but also all those that even tangentially affected the overarching narrative; each of these 12 chapters really can be approached without knowing anything of alien colonists, the Syndicate, or Purity.
With that explanation out of the way, let’s get into our 12 Best Standalone Episodes of The X-Files.
Squeeze (season 1, episode 3)
“Squeeze” is only the third episode in the series, but it’s actually the first to establish the monster-of-the-week format (the previous two installments are both mythology-centric, dealing with alien abductions and the government’s cover-up of them). As such, a lot was riding on co-writers Glen Morgan and James Wong nailing the landing, which they did in spades – “Squeeze” is a suitably creepy, atmospheric, and intriguing story, more than appropriate for launching the template that would serve the show for ten seasons (and counting).
More impressive still, even after 198 subsequent installments, the episode is still one of, if not the, most inventive premises The X-Files ever did: a body-contorting mutant goes into hibernation every 30 years and awakes only to feed on human livers, which provide the sustenance he needs for the next cycle. The character of Eugene Victor Tooms was such a creative success, the writers ended up bringing him back for a victory lap (“Tooms,” the 21st episode of the first season) – the first of only a small handful of times the show would ever allow repeat appearances of one-off “monsters.”
Eve (season 1, episode 11)
Despite their creativity, most season one episodes are, unfortunately, unable to hold a candle to all of the chapters that followed (if only because Fox didn’t decide to adequately fund its surprise mainstream hit until the tail end of season two). “Eve” is one of the very few exceptions to this rule, delivering both a story that can stand toe-to-toe with its successors and imagery that haunts viewers long after.
The impressiveness starts right away, with a fake-out that makes viewers first believe that either vampiricism or cattle mutilations will be the focus of the installment (which is some pretty deft footwork in and of itself) – and that says nothing about the final twist, when the real culprit of the string of murder cases is revealed. Then there’s the premise itself, which revolves around two twin girls from different biological parents on opposite sides of the country, who are apparently involved in some type of Cold War-era supersoldier cloning program. That’s quite the full narrative slate, and it’s expertly handled, making the finished product seem like the product of a much more experienced show.
The Host (season 2, episode 2)
Some X-Files episodes linger in the memory because of an interesting concept, a haunting sequence, or a remarkable performance. “The Host” is memorable because of its central monster: the “Flukeman,” a mutated lifeform resulting from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster eight years earlier that can best be described as part flukeworm and part human being. If that sounds disgusting, you have to see it in full motion to fully appreciate the finer points of its horror potential.
(Okay, we have a confession to make: “The Host” is the one possible exception to our no-mythology rule. The episode is actually the second of a six-part run in which the X-files are temporarily shut down and Agents Mulder and Dana Scully [Gillian Anderson] are transferred to other assignments. In addition, this is the first appearance of a brand-new character known only as X, who becomes Mulder’s new inside-government informant [after the death of his predecessor in the first season finale]. Still, the iconic nature of the ep more than makes up for these continuity caveats.)
Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose (season 3, episode 4)
It took The X-Files a long, cautious time to realize that it could add comedy to its repertoire, but once it did, it plunged fearlessly ahead, using the narrative technique to wonderful effect. “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose” is the first installment to wield it so often and so well, permeating the entire story with a sense of humor that is breathtaking to behold on a horror series.
It’s only appropriate, then, that this chapter is also easily one of the most melancholic in the show’s history. Clyde Bruckman (Peter Boyle) is an insurance salesman who has the peculiar psychic ability to see how individuals are going to die, including himself – and the sense of futility that accompanies that gift gives Bruckman a particularly dark sense of humor. Boyle’s performance as the dour Bruckman – which won him an Emmy – easily steals the show, producing the best laughs (predicting Mulder will die of autoerotic asphyxiation and mistakenly calling a water boiler a “fat white Nazi stormtrooper”) as well as the most heartfelt moments (his and Scully’s tearful goodbye).
Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space” (season 3, episode 20)
Just because Darin Morgan ended up writing one of the best-ever episodes in “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose,” he had to one-up himself later the very same season with his penultimate X-Files teleplay, “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space.”
The episode is, in short, a wonderfully demented, fabulously funny, and almost incomprehensibly convoluted tale. It tells the same event – the alien abduction of a pair of teenagers – from several different perspectives, all of which are being stitched together by author Jose Chung as he attempts to conduct research for his latest book (the titular From Outer Space). The magic the episode weaves comes not only from the interplay of these different narratives working together to create one overarching story, but also from seeing the characters from the different point of views; having the one-off Detective Manners swear by invoking a constant stream of “blanekty-blanks” is priceless, but nowhere near as much as hearing Duchovny do an uncharacteristic soprano shriek of fright.
Home (season 4, episode 2)
“Home” opens with an infant being buried (though, to help appease Fox’s censors, its cries were removed, leaving room for debate as to whether the baby was still alive or not). It ends with a deformed man having sex with his equally-deformed, quadruple-amputee mother in order to ensure the continuation of their inbred family line. In between, there’s a graphic take on Home Alone’s booby-trap-laden house and one of Mulder’s most famous lines ever, revolving around sheep and bestiality.
In short, it’s easy to see why “Home” was the first (of only a handful) of X-Files episodes to feature a viewer discretion warning, why it was the very first ep to be taken out of reruns (at least, initially), and, finally, why it has been listed as one of the most seminal episodes of the series. But perhaps its greatest accomplishment is in the reflection of its central-most theme, the “us-vs.-them” mentality that so plagues humanity, in several different forms throughout the story: North versus South, small-town versus big-city America, nostalgia versus modernity, outsiders versus family members.
Bad Blood (season 5, episode 12)
“Bad Blood” subverts, at nearly every single turn, a number of tropes, both universal and X-Files-specific. The main focus is on vampires (a subject barely touched upon during the show’s nine-year run), but these are unlike the blood-sucking creatures depicted in popular culture – they have glowing green eyes, need to incapacitate their victims by drugging their pizzas, and use fake teeth in order to puncture the skin.
And the delivery method of “Bad Blood’s” story lies in two decidedly different versions of the same series of events, as both Mulder and Scully present their recollections to their supervisor, Assistant Director Walter Skinner (Mitch Pileggi). The two versions betray their biases and accentuate their characterizations of one another; Mulder is overly demanding and insensitive in her version, while Scully is persnickety and dismissive in his (which is to say nothing of the local sheriff, who is presented alternatively as handsome and charming or buck-toothed and a yokel).
The Pine Bluff Variant (season 5, episode 18)
The X-Files’s versatility has been represented on this list in the form of comedies and graphic horror, but “The Pine Bluff Variant” takes it to a whole new level: political intrigue.
Agent Mulder is approached by a right-wing militia group called the New Spartans for possible inclusion in their anti-government plots; his career-long denouncing of the government and its conspiracies of silence on a whole host of subjects has made him an attractive recruit. Little do they know, however, that Mulder is working as a mole to infiltrate the group – but little does Mulder know that he, in turn, is being used by the militia’s leader as a pawn in his efforts to root out those members that are attempting to oust him in a coup. By the end of the episode, it’s revealed that the leader is himself a covert government agent, despite his willingness to unleash chemical weapons on innocent civilians to maintain his standing within their ranks.
The final question “Pine Bluff” leaves the viewers with is, perhaps, even more haunting than mutated monsters or alien abductors: how far is the government willing to go in order to prevent even greater atrocities?
Triangle (season 6, episode 3)
Sometimes, X-Files is at its best not when it’s gruesomely creepy or cleverly humorous, but when it’s downright surreal. “Triangle” is a strong example of why this is so: sneaking aboard the RMS Queen Anne, which disappeared in the Bermuda Triangle right after the outbreak of World War II, Mulder quickly realizes that he has somehow traveled back in time to September 1939, with all of the show’s cast – both main and recurring – portraying various German, English, and American historical personages. Intercut with this (typically in split-screen form) is Scully and the Lone Gunmen (Bruce Harwood, Tom Braidwood, and Dean Haglund) searching the modern-day Queen Anne, which has reappeared in the Bermuda Triangle, for any sign of the missing Mulder.
What truly pushes this installment over the edge into unforgettable territory, however, is the method in which it’s filmed. Each of its four acts is designed to function as one single, 11-minute take, making the whole story unfold in real-time. Impressive doesn’t even begin to describe the results.
X-Cops (season 7, episode 12)
This is, hands down, one of the most inventive premises the show ever produced.
The episode starts on Cops’s opening credits, and it’s filmed entirely from the point-of-view of that television series, with Mulder and Scully only seen through the lens of Cops’s camera crew – and, yes, videotape was utilized instead of film, along with several of that show’s cast and crew. This makes “X-Cops” something of a flirtation with the found footage subgenre of horror cinema, and it also makes it only the second episode to be told in real time (after “Triangle,” of course).
That the subject of the X-file is an entity that feeds off people’s energies and manifests itself as their greatest fears is just further creative gold, creating a situation which maximizes the ensuing humor and the immersiveness of the situation, something which found footage is so incredibly adept at doing.
“X-Cops” was easily one of the biggest risks the show took in all nine of its years, and it’s easily one of its biggest successes. Here’s to hoping that even though episode writer (and Breaking Bad creator) Vince Gilligan isn’t returning with next year’s limited series, his experimentalism gets carried forward.
Badlaa (season 8, episode 10)
Let’s be honest upfront: “Badlaa” is perhaps the weakest of all the episodes on this list; its execution is competent but not spectacular, and its scares are standard rather than exemplary.
But the installment has a lot going for it, which more than makes it worthy of inclusion. The premise is among the most novel, featuring a tiny, paraplegic Indian beggar that can not only manipulate others’ senses (essentially making him invisible, for instance), but who can also climb into individuals’ anal cavities and hitch a ride (how? He’s a Siddhi mystic, of course). And the character development is nothing short of sublime, with Scully, now the de facto head of the X-files, realizing that her approach to these cases, in specific, or the world, in general, will never be as intuitive or as brave as Mulder’s was – a beautiful moment for a character who only really started undergoing any real growth within the last year or two.
And for all those in need of memorable moments in their list of seminal X-Files eps, “Badlaa” even delivers here: the telltale creak of the beggar’s cart he’s forced to move about on will send chills down anyone’s spine, and the blood-soaked damage he causes his hosts ranks as one of the grossest scenes in the show’s history – no easy feat, in either case.
Improbable (season 9, episode 13)
There are few episodes (or films!) across The X-Files’s tenure that have as much unabashed fun as “Improbable.” Looking at its premise, it’s easy to see why: Burt Reynolds plays a divine being – yes, probably God – who absolutely delights in the patterns of the world, both natural and manmade; he plays checkers, adores music (especially French and Italian), and even runs a card game on the side of the street. His festive spirit permeates the whole installment, with some of the characters engaging in some meta-theater to sing its soundtrack and an elaborate crane shot sweeping a Little Italy street festival for the grand climax.
“Improbable” is also notable for the pairing of its main characters: at this point in the show’s run, it is John Doggett (Robert Patrick) and Monica Reyes (Annabeth Gish) who sit in the X-files office, with Scully serving as a type of guiding light and medical advisor. This time, it’s the female agents who team up to take on the serial killer (who murders based off of numerological data – another novel twist), with Doggett taking a back seat in the investigation.
“Improbable” is so much fun, it almost makes up for the existence of the ninth – and extremely flawed – season.
Did we miss a classic? Do you think the event series – along with its cadre of returning writers – will be able to have some entries make it on this list? Be sure to sound off in the comments below.