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10 best episodes of The X-Files, ranked

This year marks the 30th anniversary of The X-Files, one of the most popular genre shows in the history of network TV. Over the course of nine seasons, from 1993 to 2002, series creator Chris Carter and his team of writers took viewers inside some of the strangest and the most horrifying cases of the paranormal that they could imagine. Anything from aliens to demons and monsters was in play, while the show developed its own mythology and an overarching story.

In honor of the show’s 30th anniversary, we’re looking back at the 10 best episodes of The X-Files and ranking them from worst to best. Unlike some of the previous best-of lists for this show, we’re not focusing only on the standalone episodes or the monsters-of-the-week installments. It’s become fashionable to bash the show’s mythology episodes because Carter and Company couldn’t bring the story to a satisfying resolution. But those episodes were a large part of the reason why this show was so fantastic in its prime, and it would be a disservice to the series itself if we didn’t give those stories their due.

10. Requiem (Season 7, Episode 22)

David Duchovny in The X-Files.
20th Century Studios TV

This is not the final episode of The X-Files, but it sure feels like it is. Duchovny had one foot out the door of this show, and “Requiem” finds Mulder almost completely bereft of the purpose that drove him through the first seven seasons. Mulder has found some answers, but never the full truth. And it only led to more unanswered questions.

Furthering the sense of finality, Alex Krycek (Nicholas Lea), Marita Covarrubias (Laurie Holden), and the Cigarette-Smoking Man (William B. Davis) return for seemingly the last time. Yet those reappearances seem less important than the way the episode brings Mulder and Scully closer together than ever before while also simultaneously ripping them apart. By the end, Mulder is gone, and Scully is facing a major turning point in her life.

9. Drive (Season 6, Episode 2)

Bryan Cranston and David Duchovny in The X-Files.
20th Century Studios TV

Drive is The X-Files‘ take on the movie Speed, which puts Mulder behind the wheel at gunpoint by Patrick Crump (Bryan Cranston), a man whose violent illness can only be alleviated by traveling west at high speed. This was before Cranston had a breakout role on Malcolm in the Middle, and it’s also the episode that is widely credited with getting Cranston the lead role in Breaking Bad.

Vince Gilligan, the creator of Breaking Bad, gave Crump some truly vile things to say while he kept a gun on Mulder. And if that was all there was to Crump then no one would remember this episode. Instead, the script allows Crump to become truly vulnerable as his time starts to run out. Cranston’s performance actually makes Crump sympathetic, which was no small feat.

8. One Son (Season 6, Episode 12)

Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny in The X-Files.
20th Century Studios TV

One Son was billed as the episode that was going to deliver the answers that X-Files fans had been waiting years to learn. Unfortunately for the show’s creative team, it seemed like many fans weren’t that happy with the revelations. That’s why this episode tends to be overlooked. The reason it ranks so highly here is that the story is a master class of rising tension and through most of the hour, it feels like the end of the world is at hand.

With alien colonization now all but inevitable, Mulder is promised a reunion with his long-missing sister. Yet in the end, neither the colonists nor the Syndicate that collaborated with them got what they wanted. And after a half-season while they were officially outside of the FBI’s X-Files, Mulder and Scully were back in the place where they belonged.

7. Beyond the Sea (Season 1, Episode 13)

Gillian Anderson in The X-Files.
20th Century Studios TV

The Silence of the Lambs vibes were high in Beyond the Sea, a first-season episode that reversed the traditional Mulder and Scully dynamic. In this case, Scully was the reluctant believer when a serial killer, Luther Lee Boggs (Brad Dourif), claimed to have psychic information about a kidnapping. Boggs also said that he had a message from Scully’s late father, Captain William Scully (Don Davis). To prove his ability, Boggs told Scully details about her father’s funeral that he couldn’t have known.

This episode gave Anderson more of the spotlight as Scully grappled with the implications of Boggs’ powers. But she also chooses not to return for his last message from her father. That turned out to be one of Scully’s defining decisions.

6. Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man (Season 4, Episode 7)

William B. Davis in The X-Files.
20th Century Studios TV

Who is the Cigarette Smoking Man? The man who seemingly had all of the answers had been on the show since the very first episode. But in the semi-comedic episode, Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man, viewers learned that the man who may be connected with every big conspiracy in the decades beforehand was actually a writer at heart who just wanted to be a published author.

Chris Owens played the younger CSM in the flashback scenes, before later going on to portray the character’s son, Jeffrey Spender, in the fifth and sixth seasons. This episode also leaves some doubt as to whether this was truly the Cigarette Smoking Man’s origin or just another story that he came up with to hide the truth.

5. Memento Mori (Season 4, Episode 14)

Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny in The X-Files.
20th Century Studios TV

This is the episode where Scully confirms that she has cancer, which set up a major arc for the series. It’s most notable for the way that Mulder and Scully demonstrate that their relationship has gone far beyond merely platonic work partners, even though a romance between them was a long way off. Mulder was so shaken by the revelation of Scully’s illness that he even floated the idea of striking a deal with the Cigarette Smoking Man to save Scully’s life.

Walter Skinner (Mitch Pileggi) advised Mulder not to do that, for all of the right reasons. .. and then mortgaged his own soul with CSM for the same reasons. The entire episode was a fantastic setup for the events to come.

4. Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose (Season 3, Episode 4)

Peter Boyle, David Duchovny, and Gillian Anderson in The X-Files.
20th Century Studios TV

Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose is usually the episode that people pick for their number one choice of Top 10 X-Files episodes lists. Make no mistake, this episode is a masterpiece. There’s more humanity in this single story than any other episode managed to pull off. And it all comes down to the great performance by the late Peter Boyle as Clyde Bruckman, a cynical man who has a gift for predicting how people will die, including himself.

Darin Morgan wrote some of the greatest X-Files stories put to film, and this was one of his best. The way that Scully bonds with Bruckman is truly special, especially when his prediction about his death comes true. The script and the performances made us care about this one-off character, and that was impressive.

3. End Game (Season 2, Episode 17)

Steven Williams and Mitch Pileggi in The X-Files.
20th Century Studios TV

End Game is the second installment of a two-part episode that had major implications for the entire series. After Mulder was reunited with his kidnapped sister, Samantha Mulder (Megan Leitch), his hopes were dashed when he learned that she was a clone. The clone Samantha and her clone sisters lost their lives to the Alien Bounty Hunter (Brian Thompson).

This episode is also remembered for its intense confrontation between Mulder’s contact, X (Steven Williams), and Skinner which led to a brutal fight over Mulder’s fate. End Game is a fantastic episode from start to finish, and it set the tone for years to come.

2. Ascension (Season 2, Episode 6)

Gillian Anderson in The X-Files.
20th Century Studios TV

The reason why Scully was abducted by aliens so early in the series was because Anderson was pregnant. That turned out to be for the best, because the episode where Scully is taken, Ascension, is one of the show’s finest hours. Alien abductee Duane Barry (Steve Railsback) attacked Scully in the previous episode. But in this episode, Barry succeeds in getting the aliens to take Scully instead of himself.

Ascension also set up Alex Krycek as one of the show’s recurring antagonists. However, the reason why this episode had such an indelible impact was Mulder’s overpowering grief over Scully’s disappearance, and his hope that he could eventually find her.

1. Jose Chung’s From Outer Space (Season 3, Episode 20)

Gillian Anderson in The X-Files.
20th Century Studios TV

It would have been really easy to fill up this list with episodes written by Darin Morgan. He wasn’t a prolific scribe on The X-Files, but his off-the-wall stories and his incredible character work always made his episodes a cut above the rest. And as much as we love Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose, Jose Chung’s From Outer Space is the series’ finest hour. It’s also by far the funniest episode of the entire show.

Subsequent episodes may have taken the wrong lessons from Jose Chung as most of the comedy X-Files stories veered too heavily into self-parody. This one lands every joke, and it also features a truly hilarious performance by Charles Nelson Reilly as Jose Chung, an author who is writing a book about alien abductions. Chung’s interviews with the victims in the latest case, as well as his conversations with Mulder and Scully themselves, reveal wildly different views of what really happened. The offbeat celebrity cameos were also the chef’s kiss. There were some great episodes that came after Jose Chung, but none of them could recapture the lightning in the bottle of this one.

Watch The X-Files on Hulu.

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Blair Marnell
Blair Marnell has been an entertainment journalist for over 15 years. His bylines have appeared in Wizard Magazine, Geek…
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