Well, the new six-episode resurrection of The X-Files might have left a lot of fans (myself included) wanting a bit more, in a lot of ways. But since episode six ended on a cliffhanger – a monster huge one at that – we can hold out hope for even more adventures of Agents Mulder and Scully. And that might also mean a return of one of the show’s most prolific writers who wasn’t able to write for this new run… Vince Gilligan! Before he created Breaking Bad and co-created Better Call Saul, Gilligan wrote or co-wrote a whopping 30 episodes of The X-Files from season 2 all the way to season 9.
If you want to hear a great discussion about his beginnings, I refer you to this in-depth discussion as part of the Nerdist Writers Panel from 2012.
In looking up his episodes to decide which ones to really talk about for this, I knew he’d written a lot and for a long period of time, but I was very surprised to remember just how many of his episodes were not only good, but great — some of the best episodes the show ever produced. In fact, of the 30 episodes, there were only four that I didn’t remember by name, and only two of those I didn’t remember once I read the synopsis. Gilligan’s work is that integral to the show.
If there’s one central theme from the bulk of Gilligan’s work on The X-Files, it’s that they’re all about people, either put in strange situations or being the weird or otherworldly thing in a situation. In his “Monster-of-the-Week” stories, he focuses his attention on the monster, all of them being humans with some kind of strange power or horrible curse. This begins right away with the first episode he wrote for the series.
Before he was on staff, Gilligan wrote the third-to-last episode of the second season, “Soft Light.” This one guest stars Tony Shalhoub as a scientist who messed with dark matter and now has a horrible ability. If anyone stands in his shadow, they disintegrate, or get sucked into another shadow dimension or something. It’s a very bizarre episode, but right away it sets Gilligan’s penchant for making us feel sympathy for the devil, which he used to great effect in Breaking Bad later on.
In season 3, his episode “Pusher” is one of my favorite episodes ever, and one I’ve watched a LOT. It features a man who, through sheer force of will, has the power of suggestion. Most people are incapable of resisting him. He talks to them with a quiet, sonorous voice and they just drive into oncoming traffic, or shoot themselves, or in one overweight agent’s case, have a heart attack they can’t prevent. It’s a pretty terrifying power. The character of Robert Patrick Modell developed this power because he was obsessed with samurai and unable to join the armed forces. “Pusher” proved such a great episode it got a sequel in season 5 called “Kitsunegari,” which Gilligan co-wrote with Tim Minear.
Gilligan wrote four episodes for The X-Files in season four, including “Unruhe,” the episode in which Pruitt Taylor Vince is a serial killer and photos of his victims seem to have the psychic impression of monsters. It’s a weird ep. He also wrote “Paper Hearts,” another episode about a serial killer, but this one (played by the excellent Tom Noonan) is in prison and claims that Mulder’s sister is one of his alleged dozens of undiscovered victims. Both of those are about real murderers, but he definitely could still do monsters.
“Leonard Betts,” which guest starred Paul McCrane as the titular Betts, was about a man who ate cancer but also was himself cancer, so if you cut off his head or limbs, another would grow back later. That was the first episode to deal with Scully’s cancer. Gilligan ended the season by writing the delightful “Small Potatoes” about a small town shape-shifter (played by series writer Darin Morgan) who made himself look like handsome or powerful dudes to sleep with and impregnate women. He eventually became Mulder to try to seduce Scully. This episode was a shipper’s dream.
In season five, Gilligan began his shepherding of the characters Frohike, Langly, and Byers, collectively known as the Lone Gunmen, Mulder’s geek contingent contacts. In “Unusual Suspects,” we see the origin of the Lone Gunmen as investigators in their own right, meeting at a convention because of a mysterious woman named Suzanne Modeski. A young Agent Mulder (pre-X-Files) shows up to assist them. Later, in season 6, Gilligan co-wrote the two-part “Dreamland” episodes in which, at Area 51, Mulder switches bodies with pervy CIA man Morris Fletcher (Michael McKean) during a freak accident. While Mulder hates being Fletcher — a family man with a shrewish wife — Fletcher loves being Mulder and even gets a waterbed and puts mirrors on the ceiling.
Later in the season 6 episode “Three of a Kind,” about the Lone Gunmen but set in the present, Suzanne Modeski and Morris Fletcher each make a return appearance, with TLG getting aid from Scully instead of Mulder. In 2001, Gilligan co-created and showran the spinoff series The Lone Gunmen which was comedic and focused entirely on the trio facing threats and mysteries too small for the X-Files themselves, but no less important. This series only lasted 13 episodes, but Gilligan (along with John Shiban and Frank Spotnitz) was able to wrap-up their storyline in season 9 of The X-Files in “Jump the Shark” where the Lone Gunmen give their lives to protect the country.
Okay, back to real time. Later in season 5, Gilligan wrote another of the best episodes ever, “Bad Blood,” which dealt with Mulder and Scully’s disparate points of view around a case of apparent vampirism in a small town. The culprit is a kid who’s seen too many vampire movies but also happens to be a real vampire. Luke Wilson guest stars as the town’s sheriff. It’s one of the funniest episodes they ever did and is a great one for both David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson to show off their comedic skills.
Oh man, Vince Gilligan wrote so many good ones. Let’s speed up a bit. Some of his best during his heyday also included “Drive,” in which Bryan Cranston played a racist who needed to keep driving west or his brain would explode (obviously led to him being cast as Walter White). Another is “Monday” which he co-wrote with John Shiban, in which Mulder and Scully get caught in a bank heist gone wrong and everybody dies, but the would-be-robber’s girlfriend is repeating the day over and over and each time attempts to get Mulder to believe her so that he can prevent the inevitable. So frigging good.
Again skipping around a bit, Gilligan wrote the excellent, “agent-lite” episode “Hungry” which is told entirely through the eyes of the monster, a young man who is a mutant that needs to eat human brains to survive but doesn’t want to. He treats it like an addiction and even goes to an over-eaters support group. Gilligan also wrote the episode “X-Cops” which was just an episode of Cops but with the X-Files crew. Later, he wrote and directed the episode “Je Souhaite” (French for “I Wish”), an episode featuring an incredibly literal genie who can’t help but grant stupid wishes to stupid people even though she tries in vain to make them wish more intelligently.
After a few more episodes, Gilligan fittingly wrote and directed the second-to-last episode of the series, “Sunshine Days,” in which a murder suspect has a weird obsession with The Brady Bunch and has made his house look like the Brady Bunch house through telekinesis. It’s a funny episode and was the last to prominently feature series regulars Annabeth Gish and Robert Patrick before the finale made it all about Mulder again.
And, seriously, I skipped over some really awesome episodes written or co-written by Gilligan just in an effort to keep this essay shorter than 2,000 words. It’d be easy to write several about Gilligan’s work on the show because it was always so engaging, so thoughtful, so out of left field. It’s really no wonder he went on to greatness, and I hope if The X-Files does return for another miniseries so that Vince Gilligan can get another crack at it. His work is legend.
Let me know your favorite Vince Gilligan X-Files episode in the comments below!
Kyle Anderson is the Weekend Editor and a film and TV critic for Nerdist.com. Follow him on Twitter!