The 30 Best X-Files Episodes, Ranked (2024)

There's an X-Files episode for everything. Chris Carter's iconic sci-fi drama, which premiered 30 years ago, on Sept. 10, 1993, experimented with form and genre in a way that pushed the boundaries of what a TV show could do. The X-Files could be a satire of political corruption, an inward-looking horror story, a surreal fable, or a lark; it could be absurd, funny, romantic, chilling.

Structurally, the series helped pioneer the procedural balance between overarching mythology and standalone episodes, as Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson) unraveled a far-reaching government conspiracy one week and chased small-town monsters the next. It was the mythology arc that gave The X-Files its emotional weight in the early seasons, but as the series evolved, the monster-of-the-week episodes took over as its creative center. For the most part, those are the episodes that have held up best, standing as examples of the show's impressive range.

That range also means that aside from the obvious classics, the details of any best-of list come down to personal preference. These are ours. From underrated favorites to Emmy-winning standouts, these are The X-Files' 30 best episodes.

30. "The Post-Modern Prometheus" (Season 5, Episode 5)

Written and directed by Chris Carter

"The Post-Modern Prometheus" might be The X-Files' strangest elevator pitch: a retelling of Frankenstein filmed in black and white and set to the music of Cher. It's stylish and confident, but it can also be a difficult episode to reckon with; the lonely small-town monster sets out to find love by impregnating local women, but the episode is desperate to absolve his behavior, refusing to treat it as rape. And yet as impossible as it is to embrace "The Post-Modern Prometheus" without reservations, it's also impossible to ignore it. When this episode falls into place, it sings. The final sequence, a romantic flight of fancy in which Mulder and Scully rewrite the end of the case to imagine a happier version of the story, one where they take the monster to a Cher concert and share a dance, is transcendent — one of the show's best moments.

The 30 Best X-Files Episodes, Ranked (1)

29. "Irresistible" (Season 2, Episode 13)

Written by Chris Carter
Directed by David Nutter

In the tradition of all the best sci-fi, the scariest monsters The X-Files ever produced were human. Donnie Pfaster (Nick Chinlund) doesn't seem to have any supernatural abilities; he's just a death fetishist with a childlike voice who makes women wash their hair before he kills them. Every detail is nails-on-a-chalkboard upsetting, and Scully is genuinely rattled by Pfaster even before he targets her. On one level, "Irresistible" is a reckoning with Scully's trauma in the wake of her abduction, but the show also allows for her reaction to simply be correct; a person should be horrified by what Pfaster is capable of. It's a chilling comment on the pervasive violence of sexism, one that acknowledges how tragically rational it is to fear the everyday world.

28. "The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat" (Season 11, Episode 4)

Written and directed by Darin Morgan

One-of-a-kind writer Darin Morgan's last episode of the X-Files revival is an updated take on his last episode of the original series, "Jose Chung's From Outer Space." Like "Jose Chung," "The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat" plays with the unreliability of memory. But this episode is more topical with its politics, spoofing The Twilight Zone to make Rod Serling-esque points about the lengths the government will go to avoid taking responsibility for its crimes. It's a satirical obituary for "the truth" in the fake news era — and if the truth doesn't mean anything anymore, where does that leave Mulder and Scully? In a meta take on reviving The X-Files, Morgan gives the agents an identity crisis by jokingly suggesting that they had a third partner (played by Brian Huskey) the whole time, and that their memories of him were erased. But after poking at the show, the episode lands on an affectionate conclusion: Nostalgia may be a danger to the truth, but it's a saving grace for art.

27. "Drive" (Season 6, Episode 2)

Written by Vince Gilligan
Directed by Rob Bowman

"Drive," written by Vince Gilligan and guest-starring Bryan Cranston as a dying man with a hateful streak, has quite a legacy. Cranston plays his role with such complicated, prideful humanity that when Gilligan went on to create Breaking Bad, he showed AMC executives this episode to convince them to cast the actor as Walter White. Still, what makes "Drive" an impressive episode of The X-Files isn't its role in the Breaking Bad origin story — it's just a propulsive hour of action that turns surprisingly affecting. It's driven by Cranston's performance as small-town Nevada roofer Patrick Crump, who blames the government when he and his wife develop a mysterious illness that will kill them if they stop moving. After losing his wife, Crump turns his gun on Mulder and forces him to hit the highway, locking the two of them into an uneasy alliance. The story becomes an apt metaphor for Mulder's own inability to slow down, even when he and Scully have been kicked off the X-Files.

The 30 Best X-Files Episodes, Ranked (2)

26. "Hollywood A.D." (Season 7, Episode 19)

Written and directed by David Duchovny

What's happening in "Hollywood A.D."? Who can say? The case, so defiantly silly that Mulder and Scully are eventually ordered not to solve it, involves a forger of religious documents, but it's really a loose framework for a Hollywood parody, as producer Wayne Federman (playing himself) uses the investigation as inspiration for a film. This is the second X-Files episode to be written and directed by David Duchovny, who takes the opportunity to rib the entertainment industry, the show, and himself (Garry Shandling plays Garry Shandling playing Mulder in the movie, and Téa Leoni plays herself playing Scully). Scully teaching Leoni how to run in heels is one of the show's best wordless gags, and a three-way phone call between the agents and their boss, Skinner (Mitch Pileggi), each in their own separate hotel bubble bath, is a classic snapshot of The X-Files' later years. "Hollywood A.D." is funny above all, and it benefits from Duchovny's innate understanding of the characters. He captures Mulder and Scully in a nutshell when Federman tells the agents, respectively, "You're crazy for believing what you believe, and you're crazy for not believing what he believes."

25. "Field Trip" (Season 6, Episode 21)

Written by Vince Gilligan and John Shiban (story by Frank Spotnitz)
Directed by Kim Manners

The X-Files gets trippy when Mulder and Scully are exposed to hallucinogenic mushroom spores on a mountain known for alien activity. Before their visions eventually merge into one shared attempt to save themselves, the partners hallucinate separate nightmare scenarios: Scully dreams Mulder dies without ever finding proof of extraterrestrial life, and Mulder dreams Scully doesn't question him when he finds an alien. Essentially a more serious take on the classic "Bad Blood," it's a study of how much Mulder and Scully love being challenged by each other. Coming at the end of a season full of memory wipes, time loops, and dream sequences — a season charged with anxiety about how Mulder and Scully define their relationship — "Field Trip" resolves their insecurities by putting them in each other's heads. It's also just weird, as so many of the best X-Files episodes are.

24. "Je Souhaite" (Season 7, Episode 21)

Written and directed by Vince Gilligan

Mulder gets three wishes in Gilligan's directorial debut, which marks Mulder and Scully's last standalone case as partners until the revival. When the agents are introduced to a droll genie (Paula Sorge) who's seen the worst of humanity, they debate whether it's possible to make the world better. "Je Souhaite" walks the line between cynicism and sentimentality: Most people want what isn't good for them, but people like Mulder and Scully are still out there putting in the work. It's a charming, lively episode that feels like it's already wistful for the era of the show it brings to a close.

The 30 Best X-Files Episodes, Ranked (3)

23. "Roadrunners" (Season 8, Episode 4)

Written by Vince Gilligan
Directed by Rod Hardy

"Roadrunners" is the smartest episode of the show's Mulder-less era, a stressful hour that taps into the way his abduction destabilizes the show — and Scully. When she heads to the Utah desert without alerting her well-meaning partner, Doggett (Robert Patrick), her reckless disregard for her own safety does as much to position Scully as The X-Files' new Mulder as her sudden belief in aliens does. "Roadrunners" plays like a creepy short story, evoking the ritualistic mob of Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" and the suffocating isolation of The Twilight Zone's "The Hitch-Hiker," as Scully gradually realizes she's been trapped by a slug-worshiping religious cult. The cult's belief system demands self-punishment; maybe, the episode suggests, Scully's devotion to Mulder does too.

22. "Quagmire" (Season 3, Episode 22)

Written by Kim Newton
Directed by Kim Manners

Mulder drags Scully in search of North Georgia's version of Nessie in this comfortable Season 3 episode, proof The X-Files can never really go wrong when it sends the partners into the woods. There's a domesticity to this one that makes an otherwise typical case feel like a departure; Scully even brings her (doomed) little dog, Queequeg, along for the trip. But what elevates "Quagmire" is Mulder and Scully's meandering conversation when they're stranded on a rock in the middle of a lake. In a vulnerable back-and-forth that spans nearly the whole third act, the agents get philosophical about everything from cannibalism to Moby-Dick, as Scully questions whether Mulder's restless search for "the truth" is any more productive than a hunt for a white whale. By giving its lead actors so much time to just talk, "Quagmire" shows off how sturdy The X-Files' foundation is.

21. "Memento Mori" (Season 4, Episode 14)

Written by Chris Carter, Vince Gilligan, John Shiban, and Frank Spotnitz
Directed by Rob Bowman

The episode that won Anderson a well-deserved Emmy, "Memento Mori" kicks off Scully's cancer storyline in devastating fashion. Her diagnosis was bound to be moving, but what makes "Memento Mori" stick is the way it makes room for messy humanity, like Scully's mother (Sheila Larken) rambling about the traffic on the way to the hospital, or the uncomfortable silence between Mulder and Scully as she tells him about her tumor. The X-Files is rarely halfway emotional — it buries feelings and then lets them explode in fits of melodrama — and "Memento Mori" is constantly jumping from one end of that scale to the other. It's too heavy on flowery voiceover monologues, but that's the show. Anderson and Duchovny, both raw and repressed, tie it all together.

The 30 Best X-Files Episodes, Ranked (4)

20. "Beyond the Sea" (Season 1, Episode 13)

Written by Glen Morgan and James Wong
Directed by David Nutter

The first X-Files episode to flip the script between Mulder and Scully, "Beyond the Sea" reveals how thin the line is between the believer and the skeptic. After the unexpected death of her father (Don S. Davis), Scully finds herself intrigued by menacing death row inmate Luther Lee Boggs (an intimidating Brad Dourif), who claims to be psychic. Against Mulder's advice, she wants to believe him, kicking off a dangerous, Silence of the Lambs-like dance between the young agent and the killer. The moody intensity is good, but the character work is great; Glen Morgan and James Wong understand Scully's contradictions better than any of The X-Files' other writers, and the complexity of Scully's grief takes Gillian Anderson's performance to new heights.

19. "Folie à Deux" (Season 5, Episode 19)

Written by Vince Gilligan
Directed by Kim Manners

The case in "Folie à Deux" is literal in a fun way: A telemarketer suspects his boss is an actual monster who's turning his coworkers into zombies. But there's an unexpected soulfulness to this episode, which goes from a hostage negotiation to a negotiation for Mulder's mind. After Mulder begins to see the boss as the telemarketer does, his erratic search for proof lands him in a mental hospital, leaving him with only the hope that Scully will believe him. It's a monster-of-the-week spin on the kind of humiliation Mulder has endured for years, and it resolves as a testament to the lonely, tragic beauty of his relationship with Scully, who's given herself over to a madness shared by two.

18. "Pilot" (Season 1, Episode 1)

Written by Chris Carter
Directed by Robert Mandel

Very few TV shows know their characters this well from day one. The X-Files' pilot (like the rest of The X-Files) is great because of Mulder and Scully; series creator Chris Carter sketches out with perfect clarity who the show's heroes are and where they fit in a crooked system. The FBI assigns Scully to partner up with Mulder, who's getting too close to the truth, so she'll debunk his work, but she has too much integrity to take the bait. A lot of their first case makes precious little sense on its own, but that doesn't matter. What matters is how well the pilot introduces two characters who will become TV icons but just feel like people: a pair of outsiders in oversize '90s suits who like each other right off the bat.

The 30 Best X-Files Episodes, Ranked (5)

17. "Colony"/"End Game" (Season 2, Episodes 16 and 17)

"Colony" written by Chris Carter (story by Carter and David Duchovny) and directed by Nick Marck
"End Game" written by Frank Spotnitz and directed by Rob Bowman

The X-Files' mythology was razor sharp in this broody two-parter, which dangles the possible return of Mulder's sister (Megan Leitch) over his head only to reveal that she's a fake. "Colony" and "End Game" are the first episodes to introduce concepts like alien-human hybrid clones and the Alien Bounty Hunter (Brian Thompson), which would eventually become muddled but are never more thrilling than they are here, when the Bounty Hunter impersonates Mulder in order to get to Scully. By the end of "End Game," Mulder has tracked the Bounty Hunter to Alaska and nearly died in the process, but in the midst of the story's epic scale, there are smaller pleasures, like Scully and Mulder in a life-or-death game of phone tag, Scully's fanny pack, and Skinner beating up Mulder's informant, X (Steven Williams), to help Scully save Mulder's life.

16. "Tithonus" (Season 6, Episode 10)

Written by Vince Gilligan
Directed by Michael W. Watkins

The X-Files is rarely more haunting than it is in the final 15 minutes of "Tithonus," an episode anchored by Geoffrey Lewis' stoic, unsettling performance as an immortal man named Alfred Fellig. Like the real-life artist Arthur Fellig, better known as Weegee, Lewis' Fellig is a New York City photographer with an eerie knack for being first at the scene of the crime. He cheated Death during a yellow fever epidemic in the 19th century and has been trying to photograph the specter ever since, hoping that if he captures it on film he'll finally be able to die. "Tithonus" is a gorgeous hour that grapples with finding meaning in mortality, turning the show's usual unease with death on its head by suggesting that the alternative is worse. Few lines on The X-Files are as heavy as Fellig telling Scully, "Love lasts 75 years if you're lucky. You don't want to be around when it's gone."

15. "Jose Chung's From Outer Space" (Season 3, Episode 20)

Written by Darin Morgan
Directed by Rob Bowman

Darin Morgan's iconic "Jose Chung's From Outer Space" is self-referential to the extreme, a sci-fi sendup that piles unreliable narrator on top of unreliable narrator until there's no way to tell what's really happening and what's a smokescreen. Maybe alien abduction is real; maybe the government is faking abductions to protect its secrets; maybe both are true at once. Through the eyes of famous novelist Jose Chung (the great Charles Nelson Reilly), who's interviewing Scully as research, Morgan satirizes Mulder's narrow focus — the scene in which he eats a whole sweet potato pie in a diner is an all-timer — and needles Scully for being a good person who is, "nevertheless, a federal employee." Reilly's delightfully peaco*ckish performance keeps the episode humming from one bizarre scene to another, and Alex Trebek guest-stars as a Man in Black. But the episode closes on a note of tremendous loneliness, as everyone grasps separately for meaning based on their own subjective idea of the truth.

The 30 Best X-Files Episodes, Ranked (6)

14. "Small Potatoes" (Season 4, Episode 20)

Written by Vince Gilligan
Directed by Cliff Bole

Gilligan wrote the part of Eddie Van Blundht ("the h is silent") specifically for fellow writer Darin Morgan, whose track record of intelligent scripts adds a new layer to his stupidly funny turn as The X-Files' most pathetic villain. Eddie, a sad-sack janitor and shapeshifter who's caught impersonating multiple women's husbands — and one Luke Skywalker — is a cartoonishly gloomy guy (though, unlike "The Post-Modern Prometheus," this episode is willing to call his crimes what they are). The tale of a loser who tries to become other people, "Small Potatoes" flirts with questions about whether a person can remake their identity, especially when Eddie steals Mulder's face and tries to make a move on Scully. But its first priority is to be a romp. Duchovny gives one of his best comedic performances on the show as Eddie in disguise, and Anderson gets in on the fun with a great deadpan quip about Luke Skywalker's lightsaber.

13. "Duane Barry"/"Ascension" (Season 2, Episodes 5 and 6)

"Duane Barry" written and directed by Chris Carter
"Ascension" written by Paul Brown and directed by Michael Lange

When multiple abductee Duane Barry (Steve Railsback) escapes a mental institution and takes hostages, Mulder is drawn into a tense negotiation that exposes how unprepared he is for the truth he seeks. In the face of Mulder's wide-eyed curiosity, Duane Barry can offer only trauma. That trauma hits home when Barry takes Scully in a shocking cliffhanger, leading Mulder on a desperate, doomed hunt up a mountain. Scully's abduction transformed The X-Files, reshaping the show's mythology and permanently raising its stakes. The two-parter is gripping and often visually arresting, twisting the knife with classic abduction stereotypes — the tractor beam, the little gray men, the implant — to make the point that even when Mulder thinks he knows what to expect, he doesn't.

12. "Monday" (Season 6, Episode 14)

Written by Vince Gilligan and John Shiban
Directed by Kim Manners

A bank robbery gone wrong kills Mulder and Scully over and over again in this dynamic time loop episode, but they're not the ones who remember it. Only the bank robber's traumatized girlfriend, Pam (Carrie Hamilton), knows she's stuck reliving the same day on repeat, and Hamilton's jittery desperation is what makes "Monday" great. While there's plenty of humor in Mulder's no good, very bad day, which starts with a leaking waterbed and spirals further out of control from there, Pam's story is so horrifying that it gradually turns the episode from a comedy (albeit a bloody one) into a tragedy. With the help of director Kim Manners, who finds creative ways to shake up the day each time it repeats, "Monday" keeps viewers on their toes.

The 30 Best X-Files Episodes, Ranked (7)

11. "Humbug" (Season 2, Episode 20)

Written by Darin Morgan
Directed by Kim Manners

Darin Morgan changed the game with this sweet, offbeat episode set in a Florida circus town. "Humbug" is Morgan's first and most restrained script, and it's The X-Files' first mainly comedic hour; you can almost feel the training wheels coming off as the show gets used to his rhythm. But it's still a rebellion, not only against the norms of the show but against Mulder and Scully's definition of normal, which is poked at by a community of circus freaks who can see the agents are the weird ones. "Humbug" has affection for everyone's oddities, both fantastic and ordinary; in one scene, Scully visits an "authentic" P.T. Barnum exhibit called the Great Unknown, which turns out to be an empty trunk — but opening that trunk triggers an exit door to the real great unknown, the outside world. Sometimes The X-Files would rather see the universe as a cool carnival funhouse than a house of horrors.

10. "Triangle" (Season 6, Episode 3)

Written and directed by Chris Carter

The X-Files takes some of its most enjoyable risks in "Triangle," which sends Mulder back in time to 1939 after he goes looking for a ship in the Bermuda Triangle. This is time travel in the style of The Wizard of Oz; all the main characters on the ship are played by the show's regular and recurring cast members, winking at fans with references to their usual roles. Writer-director Chris Carter also pays homage toAlfred Hitchco*ck's Rope by filming each act to look like it's been shot in a single take, adding to the episode's dreamlike quality. Is it only happening in Mulder's head? Does it matter? It's hard to find an X-Files scene more purely entertaining than the long sequence in this episode that follows Scully searching for help at the FBI, or a shot more magical than the moment when she crosses paths with 1939 Scully on the ship. This is The X-Files releasing a pressure valve and letting off some steam. It's a thrill.

9. "One Breath" (Season 2, Episode 8)

Written by Glen Morgan and James Wong
Directed by R.W. Goodwin

As a capper to Scully's abduction, "One Breath" works because it's so intimate. When Scully is found comatose at a hospital, Mulder wrestles with his helplessness and guilt as her family prepares to let her go. Offered the choice between finding out who's to blame for her condition and sitting vigil at her bedside, he has to face the fact that the answers he's after are less important than being with Scully. There's a striking sincerity and vulnerability to the episode that makes even its New Agey mysticism endearing, as Mulder, lost as he is, wanders from one terrific scene to the next. A gruff speech from Skinner is a standout. But the most powerful thing about "One Breath" is what it doesn't do: It refuses to give Mulder the glory of taking revenge or saving the day. Instead, the episode insists that all anyone can control in the face of despair is how they show up for the people they care about.

The 30 Best X-Files Episodes, Ranked (8)

8. "Home" (Season 4, Episode 2)

Written by Glen Morgan and James Wong
Directed by Kim Manners

"Home" is infamous for being so disturbing that it was banned from re-airing on Fox, but its reputation for brutality doesn't do justice to how artful it is. Writers Glen Morgan and James Wong send Mulder and Scully to a small town called Home, where a baby is found buried in a baseball field. "Home" is not interested in subtlety; in a nod to The Andy Griffith Show, the local sheriff is named Andy Taylor (Tucker Smallwood) and his deputy is Barney (Sebastian Spence), and together they represent the last gasp of the dream of rural America. But while The X-Files isn't immune to the romance of Mayberry, "Home" is ultimately about how idyllic small-town America is a myth, one that depends on ignoring a lot of grotesque violence. The sheriff wants to believe that the "modern world" is what's corrupting his town, but the episode's monsters aren't outsiders; they're a local family of prejudiced, disfigured inbreds who've lived in Home for generations, strangling their own bloodline to death because they refuse to adapt. It's an incisive horror story that nails so much of The X-Files' worldview: Progress is scary, but not as scary as what people will do when they fear it.

7. "Paper Hearts" (Season 4, Episode 10)

Written by Vince Gilligan
Directed by Rob Bowman

The best X-Files episode to focus on Mulder is also the one that threatens everything he believes. After building his life around the idea that his sister was abducted by aliens, Mulder accepts the chance that she was killed by a man: serial child killer John Lee Roche (Tom Noonan), a chillingly mild-mannered creep he already sent to prison years ago. When a dream leads Mulder to another of Roche's victims, the killer strings Mulder along with the suggestion that he murdered Samantha too. Beautifully directed by Rob Bowman, "Paper Hearts" is a sad, delicate episode that presents a darker route the show could have taken, one where his little sister's alien abduction is a fantasy Mulder has concocted to distract himself from a more brutal reality. The X-Files probably couldn't be The X-Files if it went down that path, but Mulder wouldn't have integrity if he didn't consider it, and Gilligan's script and Duchovny's wounded performance make it feel possible that Mulder's world might collapse halfway through Season 4. Scully has never believed his sister was taken by aliens, anyway. When Mulder asks, "So what do you think happened to her?" she can't answer. Like everything in this episode, it's too painful to say.

6. "How the Ghosts Stole Christmas" (Season 6, Episode 6)

Written and directed by Chris Carter

The rare holiday episode that holds up all year, "How the Ghosts Stole Christmas" is a playful haunted house story that doubles as a meditation on Mulder and Scully's loneliness. When the agents go ghostbusting on Christmas Eve, they meet a couple of married spirits played by Ed Asner and Lily Tomlin. What follows is like a stage play featuring a pair of comedy legends. The ghosts set out to trick the partners into committing a murder-suicide in their old gothic manor, forcing Mulder and Scully to confront their fears about where their relationship is headed. Carter clearly enjoys playing armchair psychologist for his own characters; this is his wittiest X-Files script. But as much as the episode toys with them, "How the Ghosts Stole Christmas" is ultimately an ode to Mulder and Scully's unconventional romance. Codependency can be festive and fun.

The 30 Best X-Files Episodes, Ranked (9)

5. "Ice" (Season 1, Episode 8)

Written by Glen Morgan and James Wong
Directed by David Nutter

Mulder and Scully meet The Thing in this Season 1 thriller, which sends the partners to a remote Alaskan outpost where a team of scientific researchers turned on each other after coming into contact with a mind-altering parasite. When people start dying on Mulder and Scully's investigative team (which also includes a toxicologist played by Felicity Huffman and a doctor played by Xander Berkeley), the ones who are left have to figure out who among them is infected. Inspired by the same novella as John Carpenter's 1982 horror classic, "Ice" turns fear itself into an X-File. It's a tight, claustrophobic — yet oddly cozy — story from Glen Morgan and James Wong that tests the trust between Mulder and Scully, then affirms it. And the episode's paranoia endures. With every new headline about ancient worms and deadly viruses awakening in permafrost, reality is catching up with "Ice."

4. "Never Again" (Season 4, Episode 13)

Written by Glen Morgan and James Wong
Directed by Rob Bowman

Nothing else on this show feels like "Never Again." The last episode Morgan and Wong wrote for the original series is The X-Files' most defining Scully episode, a risky, edgy, pensive hour that gives her the space to rebel against her all-consuming partnership with Mulder when she works a case alone. In a seedy Philadelphia neighborhood, she has a one-night stand with a man named Ed Jerse (Rodney Rowland), who, unbeknownst to her, has a hallucinogenic tattoo (a misogynistic pin-up girl voiced by Jodie Foster) urging him to murder. Scully also gets her own tattoo, sans hallucinations. It's an ouroboros, a symbol of endless consumption, rebirth, and repetition — a mark of how she sees her life with Mulder. Scully's confession that part of her likes being controlled, even as she chafes against it, is a fascinating glimpse at the screwed up side of a character who's sometimes idealized to the point of sainthood. Her relationship with her partner is one that she chooses, but her liberation will always be flawed. The end of "Never Again" is the best ending of any hour of the series, an awkward office conversation with Mulder that trails off into silence, denying satisfaction.

3. "Pusher" (Season 3, Episode 17)

Written by Vince Gilligan
Directed by Rob Bowman

"Pusher" takes a theme The X-Files is always circling — how far mediocre men will go to hold on to power — and distills it into an incredible standalone episode. In this case, the mediocre man in question is Robert Patrick Modell (Robert Wisden), whose brain tumor has given him the ability to compel people to do whatever he wants. Gilligan gets creative with Modell's unusual skill, which Modell has weaponized so well he can give a man a heart attack over the phone, and Bowman shoots the whole affair with film noir glamour. Plenty of episodes on this list play with the conventions of The X-Files, but "Pusher" is the show at its most classic: a dramatic procedural operating at its highest level. What really makes the hour unforgettable is its standards and practices-defying Russian roulette scene, in which Modell forces Mulder to turn a gun on himself and then on Scully. It's an agonizing confrontation that cuts to the core of Mulder and Scully's partnership, summing up how their care for each other helps them survive being pawns in someone else's game.

The 30 Best X-Files Episodes, Ranked (10)

2. "Bad Blood" (Season 5, Episode 12)

Written by Vince Gilligan
Directed by Cliff Bole

At its peak, The X-Files could be anything, even a sitcom. "Bad Blood," the show's flat-out funniest hour, takes its central gimmick from an episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show: Mulder and Scully disagree on whether their latest perp was a vampire, and the case plays out through their eyes — once from Scully's point of view and once from Mulder's — as they each recollect their version of events. Duchovny and Anderson go all in on spoofing their characters (it's no secret that this is Anderson's favorite episode), volleying some of the best line deliveries of the series at each other in perfect rhythm. "Bad Blood" also features a memorable guest performance from a very game Luke Wilson as a small-town Texas sheriff Scully really wants to impress.

1. "Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose" (Season 3, Episode 4)

Written by Darin Morgan
Directed by David Nutter

In an exceptional case of an awards show getting it right, the extraordinary "Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose" won The X-Files its first two major Emmys. One of those Emmys went to writer Darin Morgan, whose gently absurd script bends the rules of TV storytelling and makes it look easy. The other went to guest star Peter Boyle for his benevolent, dryly funny performance as a psychic with exactly one gift: the ability to tell how people are going to die. Like all of Morgan's episodes, "Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose" is also a comment on The X-Files, a series that cared a lot about "the truth" but ultimately distrusted the answers. Nobody in Bruckman's orbit really wants to find out what he knows about their future, least of all Bruckman himself. Philosophical, darkly comedic, and earnestly affectionate at once, it's a story about how destructive obsession can be and how vital it is to counter it by connecting with other people — a neat summary of the whole show.

The 30 Best X-Files Episodes, Ranked (11)

A previous version of this ranking was published on July 15, 2020.

The 30 Best X-Files Episodes, Ranked (2024)
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