“The truth will save you, Scully. I think it’ll save both of us.”
The X-Files is one of most daring and unashamedly insane shows on mainstream TV of the last 50 years. I started watching it months ago and I am slowly but surely making my way through the entire thing. I know this is slow going, and it’s not that I don’t want to binge it, but I am enjoying the show so much that I don’t want it to end. Plus I work a full time job. So yeah, I’m taking it slow. This has allowed me time to ruminate on the episodes individually, giving me time to formulate an opinion on an episode before binging my way into the next. Even the ‘bad’ episodes like ‘Teso dos Bichos’ (the time Mulder and Scully faced off against angry kittens) contain more bright spots when watched in isolation. So, as I finish the very excellent season 4, I thought I would take a look at what I think are the 5 best episodes (so far).
5. Squeeze (Season 1, Episode 3)
At number 3 is a very early episode, one which quickly showed audiences how weird and frightening the show could go. ‘Squeeze’ is the first monster of the week story the show broadcast and follows Agents Mulder and his skeptical partner Scully. Three episodes in, Scully is still new to the X-Files and still following her original target when she was re-assigned to the department which was to specifically debunk ‘spooky’ Fox Mulder’s paranormal conspiracy theories. The episode sees the pair investigating a series of ritualistic murders with the twist being (and what gets Mulder’s attention) that they were committed by a being seemingly capable of squeezing themselves through impossibly small spaces. And to make matters worse (or better, if like Mulder you like your cases extra implausible) these killings have been taking place in various sprees across the last ninety years.
The episode is the shows first foray into horror, which quickly became one of it’s key genres. The episode has a few horrific highpoints, namely the ending scene where Tooms breaks into Scully’s house. Even though you know Scully isn’t going to come to any particularly real harm, it’s still thrilling. Doug Hutchison as Tooms is the episode’s secret weapon, a performance that relies on the actor being as creepy as possible, without going to ridiculous places. Which is difficult, considering the character hibernates for years and eats human livers for sustenance. It’d be easy to claim Hutchison has a natural creepiness to play the part (he’s best none for the supreme creep Percy Wetmore, in The Green Mile) but the script by Glen Morgan and James Wong is fantastic and does a lot of the heavy lifting. The direction of the episode is great too and very creative (especially the squeezing scenes). However, the credited director (Harry Longstreet) was pretty lacklustre by all accounts, with Wong and another director, Michael Katleman, re-shooting several scenes. Despite this muddled production though, the episode stands the test of time and is one of the pinnacles of the X-Files and horror television as a whole.
4. D.P.O. (Season 3, Episode 3)
Most X-Files episodes can be split into 2 categories: mythology episodes and ‘Monster of The Week’ episodes. As you’ll see from this list, I’m big fan of the MOTW episodes. That’s not to say I don’t like the mythos episodes; their overarching storylines are arguably the best and most consistent stuff in the show. But even with their ups and downs, it’s the MOTW episodes that tend to stick with me the longest. And in at number 5 on this list is the early season 3 MOTW episode, ‘D.P.O.’. The episode is titled after Darin Peter Oswald, the lead character played by an electrifying Giovanni Ribisi. Darin has the power to summon lightning and uses that power to deadly effect throughout the episode.
Like a number of MOTW episodes, ‘D.P.O’ has a daft premise that is massively elevated by the shows fantastic array of actors and clever writing. The set pieces in the episode are fantastic, following Darin’s sociopathic and occasionally psychotic hijinks. They strike the balance between outright horror and broad comedy. The opening scene where Darin fries the high bully in his car is a highlight and is full of dark and clever little details (I love the bit when he sees the little flag ignite). It’s all sound tracked by an awesome live version of the James song ‘Ring The Bells‘ too, making for a very memorable scene. The Scully/Mulder cynic/believer premise is used as per usual but everything about it works. And obviously David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson are their usual charming, eminently watchable selves, but the episode belongs to Ribisi. His quiet homicidal Darin is one of the seasons best characters – and he perfectly contrasted with a wonderful guest appearance from Jack Black, as Darin’s doomed friend.
3. Humbug (Season 2, Episode 20)
At number 4 on our list is another monster of the week episodes and one that, for me, really showcases the blend of humour, horror, and mystery that the X-Files excels at. The episode sees Mulder and Scully investigating a community of circus sideshow performers following a murder. Mulder believes it’s the work of the mysterious ‘Fiji mermaid’ while Scully, ever the sceptic, claims this to be a hoax, a humbug. The first thing to note about ‘Humbug’ is just how funny it is. Most of this can be put down to Darin Morgan – brother of X-Files regular writer Glen Morgan. ‘Humbug’ is Darin Morgan’s first X-Files script (although not his first appearance – he played the Flukeman in episode 2 of season 2 – one of the greatest X-Files monsters of all time) and he would go on to write some of the best and most beloved X-Files episodes of all time (including ‘Jose Chung’s From Outer Space’ and ‘Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose’). Morgan’s writing perfectly strikes that tricky balance of funny and horrific that other shows and movies often struggle with. I also like how Morgan includes gags at the expense of the show itself, like the digs about how handsome Mulder is.
But the humour of Morgan’s script is enhanced even further by the note-perfect performances from David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson, who are totally committed to the bizarreness of the episode (Anderson also apparently actually ate a live bug in that notorious scene). The supporting actors bring a lot of laughs too, especially Twin Peak’s Michael J. Anderson as the monologuing hotel clerk. The always great Vincent Schiavelli makes an appearance also, his arc being the emotional heart of the episode. The script is brilliant, the direction is fantastic (there are some great shots when Scully is in the museum) and the ending is one of the best in the entire run. If you were trying to get someone hooked on The X-Files, ‘Humbug’ would be one of the best places to start.
2. Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man (Season 4, Episode 7)
This one is maybe the most controversial one on the list (although the episodes I’ve omitted might draw more controversy). But ‘Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man’ is such a strange, fun episode, and one that does something completely different with the X-Files formula. It’s also a great acting showcase for one of the X-Files fan favourite characters, CSM – Cigarette Smoking Man, played by the brilliant William B. Davis. The episode see’s Davis’ CSM overlooking a meeting between Mulder and Scully and The Lone Gunmen, sniper rifle in one hand and a cigarette in the other. We learn that Frohike claims to have found out details on CSM’s childhood and early life. From there we see this speculative history unfold, following a young CSM (played by Chris Owens) around various different real world events. As the events are speculative, this allows the writers to get enjoyably far-fetched with CSM’s early life (there is some morbid humour to be had in the ridiculous idea that the CSM is the one who assassinated both JFK and Martin Luther King Jr). We also see CGM through his life meeting different characters from X-Files lore, like Bill Mulder and Deep Throat. A highlight of the episode is watching Deep Throat and Smoking Man reminisce together, while trying to decide which one of them has to kill the alien survivor of a UFO crash.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect to the episode though, is the humanising of CSM. We see he had dreams other than that of being a government spook. He once wanted to be a writer. Using the pen name ‘Raul Bloodworth’ we see CSM’s failed attempts at trying to turn his many adventures into a best-selling book. When he hears his novel is to be serialised in a fiction magazine, we see genuine him expressing genuine excitement. And when he reads the magazine, and is crushed that his ending has been changed, you can’t help but feel sorry for the guy. Whether the story being told actually happened in the X-Files canon, is up for debate. But what is certain is that the episode is hugely enjoyable and is a great showcase for the talents of the wonderful William B. Davis.
1. Home (Season 4, Episode 4)
Putting ‘Home’ as the number one greatest episode in seasons 1-4 is probably no great surprise. The episode is very well regarded amongst X-Files fans and also the wider horror community. And I’m always a fan of when TV shows shock audiences by suddenly deviating into a realm of extreme horror. Obviously, The X-Files had done this before – it could be argued that the show is, at times, as much a horror TV show as a science fiction one. But except maybe with the Flukeman in season 2 episode ‘The Host’, the show had never before been as gruesomely frightening as it is in ‘Home’. The episode famously had the first TV-MA warning for an X-Files episode and spent years out of circulation on reruns because of it’s infamous reputation. Singer Johnny Mathis refused to allow his version of ‘Wonderful! Wonderful!’ in the episode after reading the script. The showrunners instead used a Mathis sound-alike for the famously brilliant scene. And director Kim Manners (no stranger to horror) called the opening scene, with the POV shot of the baby being buried alive, “the most awful shot of my career”. For fellow sick and twisted fans of horror, this is a lot of promising controversy for the episode to live up to. And thankfully, the episode is even better than you could imagine.
Despite the horror, the episode itself features enough of the show’s typical humour and palpable chemistry between the leads that it never feels like something other than an X-Files episode. The cold open sees the aforementioned baby burial scene which his soon discovered by a group of children playing softball. Soon Mulder and Scully are dispatched to investigate the body and the murder’s most likely suspects; the deformed Peacock family. The episode continues to be shocking even after this reveal. The town Sheriff helping Mulder and Scully is brutally beaten to death with his wife and the Sherriff’s deputy is beheaded by a booby trap (and ripped apart) when the agents kick down the door of the Peacock home. It’s all topped off by the grotesque reveal of the armless and legless Peacock family matriarch, the head of the inbred family and mother to all the children.
It’s wonderfully gruesome stuff, if you can stomach it. Refreshingly, much of the horror takes place during the day and is brilliantly directed by Kim Manners. The scenes at the Peacock house are a highlight, as is the already mentioned ‘Wonderful! Wonderful!’ scene where the Sheriff and his wife are brutally murdered. The script by X-Files regulars Glen Morgan and James Wong is once again brilliant and while it doesn’t particularly advance Mulder and Scully’s relationship, it contains all of the fun and sparky chemistry that fans love. It might not be an episode for everyone, but if you’re onboard with the horror and the scares then ‘Home’ has earned it’s place among TV’s greatest episodes of all time.