The X-Files celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, which means 25 years of alien invasion subplots, horrifying monsters-of-the-week, and a lot of Mulder/Scully sexual tension. There are hallmarks of the series that everyone knows: the little grey men, the Cigarette Smoking Man, standalone episodes like “Home” and “Humbug,” and the mythology, like Scully’s son William and Mulder’s search for his missing sister. But those larger touchstones mean that some great episodes often slip through the cracks. If you’re embarking on The X-Files for the first time, or whipping out your copies to celebrate the 25th anniversary – or the 20th anniversary of film, The X-Files: Fight the Future, which was released this week in 1998 – here’s a list of some of the best episodes of the series that never make the “top” lists, and that are sadly under-appreciated despite adding plenty to the show’s canon and quirkiness.
“DARKNESS FALLS” SEASON 1, EPISODE 20
This episode is most notable for Scully’s ridiculously 90s puffy coat, but it’s actually quite good on its own merits. It’s mostly just Mulder and Scully traipsing through the woods, being stalked by deadly insects, but there’s some truly creepy imagery–bodies trapped in giant webs–and a fun guest appearance from Titus Welliver. Also, Scully’s puffy coat.
“DIE HAND DIE VERLETZT” SEASON 2, EPISODE 14
This witchy episode remains my most-watched of the series, because it’s crazy and fun and ridiculous in that quintessential X-Files way. Mulder and Scully investigate a small town where the teachers, who used to be devil worshippers, have accidentally unleashed hell on their students. Think The Faculty but with a coven instead of aliens. The X-Files only rarely got into the occult, which is a shame, because when it did, it had a blast.
“SYZYGY” SEASON 3, EPISODE 13
This is the episode that gave us Scully’s classic give-no-fucks line, “Sure. Fine. Whatever.” But other than that, it’s not exactly a beloved entry, garnering poor reviews and criticisms about the friction between the show’s leads. As they investigate a small town, where thanks to a bizarre planetary alignment, two teenage girls are wreaking deathly havoc on their fellow citizens; Mulder grows flirty with a local detective, which prompts jealousy and annoyance in Scully. It speaks to the growing feelings between the two, but makes for some unpleasantness. Still, the plot of this episode is a lot of fun, and the witchy teen girls give it a Craft-y feel. (Ryan Reynolds also pops up as a guest star in the opening scene.)
“QUAGMIRE” SEASON 3, EPISODE 22
“Quagmire” is a popular episode with Mulder/Scully shippers for the lengthy scene the two share on a rock – lovingly dubbed “CotR,” or “conversation on the rock,” by fans – but it rarely gets recognition as an all-around great episode of the series. Mulder and Scully investigate a Loch Ness Monster-like creature in a Georgia town, that is attacking locals. They investigate the monster, who eats Scully’s dog, and get stranded on a rock, where the famous conversation happens. It’s a tender, revealing character study of an episode, with a great monster to boot.
“THE FIELD WHERE I DIED” SEASON 4, EPISODE 5
This episode opens with one of The X-Files groan-inducing voiceovers, but don’t let that discourage you; this is a really fantastic episode that plunges deep into Mulder’s psyche. While investigating a cult compound in Tennessee, Mulder connects with a woman who reveals that she knew him in a past life. While under hypnosis, he remembers several of his past lives, and the deep connection he has to the people around him, who also appeared as different people in these past lives, like his sister, Samantha, and Scully. The episode reveals several touching layers to Mulder, who can get a little distracted in his quest for truth. It’s nice to see him so human.
“HOW THE GHOSTS STOLE CHRISTMAS” SEASON 6, EPISODE 6
I probably could have dedicated this entire list to Season 6, which is a semi-controversial season of the show with a lot of ballsy, weird standalone episodes. None is so crazy as “How the Ghosts Stole Christmas,” which finds Mulder and Scully trapped in a haunted mansion on the holiday, with ghosts played by Ed Asner and Lily Tomlin.
It’s a schlocky, goofy episode, but the rapport between Mulder and Scully has never been funnier or more intense, and it culminates with them literally killing each other (which is really just a vision from the spooky house, but still). The closing scene, where the pair exchange gifts, is truly special.
“THE RAIN KING” SEASON 6, EPISODE 8
Another Season 6 episode, this one finds Mulder and Scully investigating strange weather phenomena in a small Kansas town, which a man named Daryl Mootz claims he can control, and has dubbed himself “The Rain King.” It’s a silly premise but this episode has a lot of heart, and a sweet love story at the center. It’s a bright episode, both visually and emotionally, a nice respite from the gloominess the series can get overwhelmed by. It also pays nice homage to The Wizard of Oz.
“ALL THINGS” SEASON 7, EPISODE 17
Gillian Anderson wrote and directed this episode, so it’s a personal one for both her and Scully. It’s also the first time a woman directed an episode of the show, and it shows, as the mood and tone is decidedly more intimate, the perspective shifted. The writing is wobbly in places, but it reveals things about Scully that we wouldn’t have known without Anderson’s touch, like an affair she had with a professor that informs much of her worldview. The episode explores concepts like Buddhism and alternative medicine, which stand in contrast to Scully’s Catholic surgeon roots, and offer a nice counterpoint.
“ROADRUNNERS” SEASON 8, EPISODE 4
The Mulder-less seasons of The X-Files can be hard to sit through, and his absence drowns much of what’s going on. But Season 8’s “Roadrunners” is a magnificent monster-of-the-week that doesn’t need Mulder to make it powerful. In the episode, Scully is working alone, investigating a cult that thinks a worm-like creature is the second coming of Jesus. Scully is captured by the cult, but eventually saved by her new partner, Doggett (Robert Patrick), which strengthens their rapport. Doggett always had big shoes to fill, and this one, he does a good job of actually filling them.
“SUNSHINE DAYS” SEASON 9, EPISODE 18
This is an episode about a murder suspect who lives in a replica of the house from The Brady Bunch and has telekinetic powers. The man is played by Lost‘s Michael Emerson, and the episode was written and directed by Vince Gilligan, who would later create Breaking Bad. What else is there to say about why this is so brilliant? Had this been in the show’s tender years, and if Mulder had actually been around, it would probably be more significantly remembered. It deserves to be.
Those are our picks, but what about you? What is your pick for most underrated episode of The X-Files? Let us know in the comments!
Images: 20th Century Fox Television