It’s been more than 25 years since the premiere of The X-Files, the award-winning series starring David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson that debuted in 1993 and made everyone believe “the truth is out there.”
FBI Agents Fox Mulder (Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Anderson) returned to the spotlight in recent years for a successful revival of the hit show, which returned to television for its 10th season in 2016 after a 14-year hiatus from the small screen (and an eight-year layoff since The X-Files: I Want to Believe hit theaters in 2008). The warm reception to that six-episode revival prompted the Fox network to deliver a 10-episode 11th season in 2018. While there are currently no plans for a season 12, there are more than 200 television episodes, two feature films, and countless tie-in novels and comic books to keep fans immersed in Mulder and Scully’s adventures tracking aliens, monsters, and strange phenomena.
With that in mind, we compiled a list of 10 episodes that best exemplify why the series is so beloved by those who know it. After considering all 218 episodes across 11 seasons, here are the 10 best installments of The X-Files. If you’re feeling ambitious — or a little nostalgic — you can stream the entire series now on Hulu, or purchase individual episodes and seasons to watch on , iTunes, and other streaming platforms.
You won’t find this episode on many best-of lists, but it’s one of our personal favorites. The story follows Mulder and Scully as they investigate a series of murders that seem to involve an invisible killer, which doesn’t seem like anything special until you finally get a glimpse of the killer and, well — let’s just say this is the only episode of the series that still gives us nightmares.
One of the series’s most heart-wrenching episodes, this 1997 story introduced Scully’s aggressive cancer diagnosis, which would become a recurring plot point throughout the rest of the series. The episode unfolds from two perspectives: Scully’s own efforts to come to terms with her fatal diagnosis and Mulder’s desperate quest for both answers and a cure. Duchovny and Anderson’s characters were brought closer than they ever had been before in this emotional arc that reverberated from this point to the end of the series’ run, and the script earned a Primetime Emmy Award nomination for Chris Carter, Vince Gilligan, John Shiban, and Frank Spotnitz. It also earned Anderson a lead-actress Emmy for her performance in this episode, as well as the entire fourth season.
It’s no surprise that this episode is generally considered to be one of the best chapters of the X-Files revival seasons, given that it brings back the series’s most acclaimed writer, Darin Morgan, for a monster-of-the-week episode featuring two of the most talented comedic actors on television: Rhys Darby (Flight of the Conchords) and Kumail Nanjiani (Silicon Valley). The story has Mulder and Scully investigating a grisly murder in Oregon that might have been committed by a mysterious creature. Darby proves to be the episode’s big scene-stealer in the role of Guy Mann, a mobile phone store employee who may or may not be able to transform into a giant lizard creature. Funny, touching, and thought-provoking in all the right ways, this episode simultaneously served to renew Mulder’s faith in himself and fans’ faith in the series.
Typically considered to be either the best episode of the series or simply one of the best, writer Darin Morgan’s eccentric alien-abduction story is a constantly shifting narrative that doubles back on its own story countless times, and ends up being a brilliant satire of the series itself. It’s the most meta episode in the show’s entire run, making playful use of its unreliable narrators — including Mulder and Scully — to craft a story that only comes close to making sense when you step outside the universe the series had spent three seasons drawing its audience into. It speaks volumes to how groundbreaking a series The X-Files was that one of its greatest episodes is a satire of its own conventions.
One of the greatest legacies of The X-Files is how many now-famous television and movie legends once appeared in the series or had a creative role in it at some point. Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan had been a regular writer on the series for quite a while before he penned this episode about a loathsome man who takes Mulder hostage and forces him to drive across the country due to a mysterious affliction that will kill him if he slows down. While the episode itself is excellent, it’s the casting of Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston as the aforementioned anti-semitic, racist bigot that really makes it fascinating to watch. This was the episode that Gilligan recalled when casting for his own iconic series years later, and it’s worth checking out as a great example of The X-Files’ long-term place in television history.
One of the weirder episodes in the series (which is saying a lot), this surreal spin on the Frankenstein story was written and directed by series creator Chris Carter, and it’s a perfect example of how much fun Carter was willing to have with the series — and how strange the series could be, in all the right ways. At this point in its run, X-Files was already a big hit, so Carter had the freedom to tell a quirky, standalone story that let him toy with fans and show them the series was more than just a weekly scare. Oh, and it was also nominated for seven Emmy Awards the year it aired, winning for Outstanding Art Direction.
This grisly, nightmare-inducing episode about an inbred family of killers was so terrifying and controversial that Fox famously decreed that it would never be aired again after its initial broadcast prompted a flood of complaints from concerned viewers. Ask almost any fan of the series to name the scariest episode, and nine out of ten will say “Home” (and then shudder uncontrollably, most likely). This was the episode that truly established The X-Files as a vehicle for horror stories as much as conspiracy theories, urban legends, and sci-fi tales.
Many loyal fans consider the third season of The X-Files to be one of the series’ absolute best, thanks to a stretch of episodes that find a middle ground between frightening monster-of-the-week stories and the overarching alien investigation mythology that makes up the series. In this particular episode, the alien investigation gets the spotlight— it ties up a couple of loose ends and answers several questions from the previous season’s finale. This episode builds off last season’s conspiracies and secret government schemes to create a rich, complex, and suspenseful storyline. This episode’s overall production is what will stick with you; it’s one of the most striking finales of the series, and, spoiler alert, it involves aliens.
Still fresh off the pilot, ‘Squeeze’ shows viewers that The X-Files can spread beyond just unusual UFO and alien investigations. This tone-shifting episode explores the story of a frightening murderer who can move in and out of any space, no matter how small, to capture his prey. This story launched the monster-of-the-week storylines that quickly became a cornerstone of the show. As Scully becomes the killer’s focus, this episode also reveals a major advancement in Mulder and Scully’s dynamic relationship.
The X-Files further developed its plot and character growth every season, but much of its focus remained on mythology. However, through that plot development, several standalone episodes stick out for viewers. And in certain cases, like ‘Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose,’ viewers see the best of the best stories from the entire series. This show tops our all-time list; it stars Peter Boyle, and the episode ran in October 1995. Boyle eventually won a Primetime Emmy Award for his portrayal of the cynical psychic Bruckman, who gets recruited by Mulder and Scully to assist with the investigation of several murders. Many critics heralded this episode as one of the most excellent episodes of any television show. Writer Darin Morgan also won an Emmy for his involvement in the creation of this story. What’s most poignant about this particular episode is that viewers get a chance to approach life and death from an unusual lens; we see it as a series of external events throughout the plot and an internalized psychological study of our perception of the subject.
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