Fox’s paranormal series The X-Files, starring David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson, premiered Sept. 10, 1993. On its 30th, we’ve ranked every episode
There’s so much to love about The X-Files, a show that debuted 30 years ago. The truly bonkers sci-fi elements, the conspiracy theories, and of course, the delightful chemistry between Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson). Viewers embarked on rollercoaster of a journey, experiencing some of the highest highs television has to offer, while also slogging through plenty of low moments (“Tesos Dos Bichos” still haunts me, just as it does David Duchovny) – but throughout the show’s run, it represented something far more than just aliens and conspiracies.
At its heart, The X-Files was a show for those that didn’t fit the mold, who saw the world just a little differently and were resolute in their beliefs, while also tackling that idea which so many of us share: fear of the unknown. The central mythos of The X-Files, while eventually convoluted and crazy, was an elegant metaphor for this, as were the countless Monsters-of-the-Week that delighted and enthralled us for a decade, and still do to this day.
The X-Files isn’t a small show, though, instead spanning 11 seasons and two feature films. Having said that, to mark the 30th anniversary of this wonderful show, here is Rolling Stone’s ranking of every single episode of The X-Files (and two feature films). Crack open a packet of sunflower seeds, ensure your “I Want To Believe” poster is pinned up, and enjoy.
The Truth Is Out There.
Season Three, Episode Seven – “The Walk”
While Season Three is arguably the best of the entire series, it also provides the home for some of the most egregious episodes ever put to screen. ‘The Walk’ is precisely that. A quadriplegic veteran is killing others in the military hospital via astral projection – sounds straightforward and spooky enough, sure.
But there’s an undertone that disabled people can only affect the world around them through supernatural means, and their lives are in essence, over, that sits very, very uncomfortably in my core. Detestable television.
Season Eight, Episode Ten – “Badlaa”
There’s a recurring theme in this list that when The X-Files tries to tackle culturally-specific paranormal phenomenon, it tends to miss the mark veer into insensitivity. ‘Badlaa’ is no different, as it deals with an Indian mystic who has stowed away in the body of an American and is now on a murder spree.
On top of the cultural issues, it’s also just really fucking bad. Hard pass.
Season Three, Episode Eighteen – “Teso Dos Bichos”
An episode so bad that it led to members of cast and crew wearing t-shirts which read “Teso Dos Bichos Survivor.” No more needs to be said.
Season Five, Episode Nine – “Schizogeny”
Childhood abuse isn’t a topic to fuck around with. Nor is it a topic you should use to tell a story about spooky trees. Zero out of ten.
Season Seven, Episode Twenty – “Fight Club”
One of my dreams is the invention of a device that can remove specific memories from your consciousness. Once all the trauma and terrible decisions have gone, ‘Fight Club’ is getting swiftly deleted.
Season Nine, Episode Nineteen – “The Truth”
Deep breathes, everyone. ‘The Truth’ is the worst series finale in television history. Whatever you think about The Sopranos fade to black, the Seinfeld gang going to jail, or whatever the hell happened in Game of Thrones – the conclusion to Season Nine of The X-Files comfortably takes the title.
It doesn’t make a lick of sense, and nine seasons of character development is somehow left by the wayside for… well, for nothing really. Mulder is put on trial by the military for murdering a Super Solider (sigh) and everyone fights to free him, while the episode essentially becomes a clip-show, recapping the entire mythology. When the episode ends with Mulder and Scully laying on a motel bed together while the FBI hunts them down, you wonder if there might be some big emotional moment coming to see the show off with a bang or a shock. You would, of course, be wrong. Mulder doesn’t even ask about their son. Just abysmal television. Season’s Ten and Eleven helped rectify this ending somewhat, but it doesn’t change the fact that it just felt like a slap in the face to so many millions of people.
Season Six, Episode Thirteen – “Agua Mala”
There are two kinds of “bad” episodes when it comes to The X-Files. There are the ones that are bad in a quite offensive way, literally, such as the pretty horrific ableism in Season Three’s ‘The Walk’ or the dreadful depiction of childhood abuse in Season Five’s ‘Schizogeny’. The other kinds are the ones where it’s just straight-up bad television, from the writing to the performances, with everything in-between.
‘Agua Mala’ falls quite squarely into the latter category, with every performer acting as if they wish they could be anywhere else.
Season Nine, Episode One – “Nothing Important Happened Today”
The phrase “What the fuck are we doing?” comes to mind when you think about 99% of Season Nine, and its opening episode firmly falls into that category. Just a heap of shit being thrown at the wall, with none of it sticking.
Season Nine, Episode Two – “Nothing Important Happened Today II”
Season Eight laid a lot of work to invest us in Doggett and Reyes, and somehow the Season Nine opener drastically shifts their characters to ones we no longer recognise. Mix in the atrocious Cary Elwes character, and you’ve got a stinker of an episode.
Season Seven, Episode Thirteen – “First Person Shooter”
God, this episode is dreadful. In an attempt to tackle video games and the world of virtual reality, ‘First Person Shooter’ offers up nothing positive to write about. One of the very worst episodes of The X-Files, and frankly, one of the worst episodes of television in the last thirty years. You almost feel embarrassed for the performers when you watch it, it’s that bad.
Season Two, Episode Seven – “3”
Thankfully, The X-Files would tackle the idea of vampires much better later on in the series, because ‘3’ is an unmitigated disaster of an episode. It plods long with Mulder looking into vampiric deaths out in California, while also having a weird sexual tension with one of the ‘vampires’. It just doesn’t work.
Season Six, Episode Sixteen – “Alpha”
As the owner of the sweetest dog in the world, who watches television with me, this episode really doesn’t do it for me. However, Mulder getting a new copy of his beloved “I Want To Believe” post is a pretty sweet moment.
Season Nine, Episode Three – “Dæmonicus”
Monica Reyes was done so dirty by the writers here, giving her another dud episode centring around her spiritual connection to the paranormal. It’s a bit like The Exorcist… but you know, if it was shit.
Season Nine, Episode Nine & Ten – “Provenance” and “Providence”
You can make the argument that ‘Provenance’/’Providence’ are The X-Files at it’s most incoherent. The Super Soldier plotline of the mythology is forgotten here, which normally would be a good thing, but it’s replaced with a cult that wants to escape Earth in a spaceship they believe contains a physical manifestation of God.
No one looks like they want to be here anymore, and given the story, it’s understandable. I’m grouping these episodes together because honestly, the quicker you’re past them, the better.
Season Three, Episode Nineteen – “Hell Money”
Pros: Lucy Liu stars, and it’s always delightful seeing her on screen.
Cons: Literally everything else.
The Chinese Mafia have essentially set up a pyramid scheme to trade in body parts, and it all just feels like a load of hooey.
Season One, Episode Seven – “Ghost in the Machine”
Similar to ‘I Robot… You, Jane’ from my Buffy ranking earlier this year, this episode is so painfully 1990s. A computer achieves sentience and starts killing people.
Season One, Episode Nine – “Space”
‘Space’ is one of those episodes that makes you question whether you actually like this show. There’s a scary face on Mars that is actually an extra-terrestrial spirit which goes on to possess and astronaut. It’s somehow both incredibly silly and just painfully dull.
Season Two, Episode Nineteen – “Død Kalm”
Ghost ships are a fun storytelling device, and it could’ve led to an interesting episode. Sadly, the effect of the ship is that it makes Mulder and Scully look about 300 years old. The elderly-person makeup has to be seen to be believed.
Season Two, Episode Eleven – “Excelsis Dei”
Ugh, this episode should be cast into the fires of Mount Doom. Residents of a home for the elderly can astral project themselves, and one of them rapes a nurse. It’s just grim and handles a sensitive subject matter with all the grace of a baseball bat to the skull.
Season Eight, Episode Nine – “Salvage”
It’s a pretty bad episode, but there’s something fun going on in the background. Given that Robert Patrick’s most famous role is as the “Molten Metal Man” in T2, there’s some fun irony in seeing him star in an episode of The X-Files in which the villain is a man slowly turning into metal. Other than that though, ‘Salvage’ is just a bit shit.
Season Two, Episode Eighteen – “Fearful Symmetry”
Invisible zoo animals rampage a town. That’s all the analysis you really need.
Season Four, Episode Three – “Teliko”
Various African and African-American people are found dead with their skin pigmentation having turned completely white, and it’s just not a good episode. The show, for all its triumphs, never quite tackled race in a positive way.
Season Six, Episode Eighteen – “Milagro”
‘Milagro’ feels like the sort of self-indulgent episode with an overwrought script that writers think will be critically acclaimed, but in reality, just feels exactly that – self-indulgent and overwrought. The episode goes heavy on monologues from the villain, a troubled writer with an obsessive infatuation with Scully.
Season Seven, Episode Five – “Rush”
Even an appearance from the excellent Ann Dowd couldn’t save this episode about a murderous teenage speedster. Ironically, ‘Rush’ couldn’t end quick enough.
Season Four, Episode Six – “Sanguinarium”
You have to marvel at just how bad ‘Sanguinarium’ is. The story is incoherent, and there’s a load of gore spattered over the top of it to help you forget.
Season Five, Episode Seventeen – “All Souls”
A rare mention for Scully’s now dead daughter, Emily, as the agents investigate a series of killings centered around young girls, who may or may not be angels. Ultimate “That Guy” Glenn Morshower is the killer, secretly a demon in disguise so he can transfer the girls power to the Devil. Yeah.
Season Nine, Episode Eight – “Hellbound”
I’m not a fan of episodes where the sole purpose is tantamount to shock value, so it’s not surprising the “people being skinned alive” episode sits pretty low. On top of that, we’re dealt another Reyes-centric episode that just isn’t very good, making a ham-fisted attempt at a past-lives story. It really is a shame that her character never received the same quality as Doggett did when it came to character focused episodes.
Season Six, Episode Seven – “Terms of Endearment”
The X-Files does its own little twist on Rosemary’s Baby, but even a fun appearance from horror icon Bruce Matthews can’t save this episode from the heap of forgettable episodes.
Season Two, Episode Fifteen – “Fresh Bones”
This is less a criticism of The X-Files and more a criticism of a wider television culture. Shows developed the tendency to tackle foreign cultures in a way that just fed into some really unpleasant stereotypes. ‘Fresh Bones’ is no different, with the focus centring voodoo and Haitian refugees. Not for me.
Season Two, Episode Three – “Blood”
In a similar fashion to Season One’s ‘Ghost in the Machine’, ‘Blood’ does its best to convey a fear in rising technology as electronic devices in a small town are causing hysterical acts of violence. Just doesn’t work sadly and stands out as a quite forgettable episode.
Season Nine, Episode Five – “Lord of the Flies”
The tagline for this episode might as well have been “My name is Aaron Paul and welcome to Jackass!”, as the soon to be Jesse Pinkman makes homemade stunt videos with his friends and one of them dies because flies eat his brain or something. The culprit is a kid who can control insects because he’s part insect himself. It’s hard to not imagine everyone checking out at this point.
Season Two, Episode Twenty-One – “The Calusari”
Intending to be a dark and ominous episode about evil spirits, it just lacked any real punch. It handles Romani culture moderately well, but it’s just another episode about evil twins/children, and it just feels like one too many visits to the well.
Season Seven, Episode Seven – “Orison”
Five seasons on from his initial appearance in the excellent Season Two episode ‘Irresistible’, The X-Files returns to the well of Donny Pfaster – death fetishist and all-round creep. It’s an unnecessary episode that takes away from how special his original appearance was.
Season Two, Episode Twelve – “Aubrey”
There’s an interesting premise in ‘Aubrey’, of a murder trait passed down through the generations. It’s a mostly fine episode of The X-Files, but it falls pretty flat in the end.
Season Nine, Episode Four – “4-D”
‘4-D’ could’ve been a really interesting episode, were it not for the complete lack of answers it offers as to how a parallel universe exists and how Reyes perceives it. Like much of Season Nine, it frustrates you no end.
Season Three, Episode Five – “The List”
‘The List’ had the difficult task of following the greatest episode of The X-Files, and unsurprisingly, it really struggles. It’s about a death row inmate who promises to return from death and kill five people, and while it’s not a bad episode, it’s a significant drop-off from the previous installment.
Season Five, Episode One – “Redux”
Season Five opens with confirmation that, no, Mulder is not dead. Because of course he’s not. There’s a pretty weird twist in ‘Redux’ as well, as Mulder’s search for a cure to Scully’s cancer leads him to a metal vial containing… water.
Season Seven, Episode Sixteen – “Chimera”
‘Chimera’ tries a lot, but ultimately fails at telling a story of scary suburbia. Season Six’s ‘Arcadia’ is far superior.
Season Six, Episode Eight – “The Rain King”
‘The Rain King’ is a silly little mess of an episode about a man who claims to control the weather, withholding rain unless you pay a fee. While his powers are false, another local weatherman actually does possess the power, which were manifestations of his love for a woman he couldn’t have.
Season One, Episode Sixteen – “Young at Heart”
It’s pretty tough to care about an episode in which the central premise is figure from Mulder’s past has de-aged thanks to salamander DNA. John Barnett – the villain in question – is pretty creepy, but overall, ‘Young at Heart’ is just a bit forgettable.
Season Nine, Episode Six – “Trust No1”
‘Trust No1’ is tremendous swing for the fences, and in a season lacking much quality at all, that’s admirable. The problem is that the show is stuck, and the flaws are so evident here. It’s a Mulder-centric episode that doesn’t feature David Duchovny, with a Super Soldier spy in the government trying to track him down to kill him.
Maybe the episode could have worked, had it not further muddied the already bland Super Soldier plot with a Mulder body double leading Scully to some rocks that are basically kryptonite. It’s all so ridiculous by this point.
Season Five, Episode Eleven – “Kill Switch”
Hey, it’s another episode of The X-Files covering the dangers of technology. Shock horror, it still isn’t good.
Season One, Episode Six – “Shadows”
Nope, this one isn’t good. A woman’s former boss (and maybe biological father) returns as a vengeful shadow to protect her while killing those who wronged him, set against the backdrop of a Middle-Eastern arms deal.
Season Five, Episode Eight – “Kitsunegari”
The X-Files just couldn’t help itself when it came to bringing iconic villains back for another go around, and sadly, they never nailed it outside of Eugene Victor Tooms. ‘Kitsunegari’ sees the return of Robert Patrick Modell from Season Three’s ‘Pusher’, who once more engages in a game of cat and mouse with Mulder, but this time, it isn’t quite what it seems.
It’s a perfectly fine episode of television, but the show struck gold with ‘Pusher’, and they didn’t need to add anymore to that arc.
Season Eight, Episode Five – “Invocation”
A real up-and-down episode of television, only really held together by Scully and Doggett’s interactions. A kid who disappeared ten years ago reappears, without having aged a day. The plot is there, but it’s all a bit messy to go any higher on this list.
Season Eight, Episode Eight – “Surekill’
‘Surekill’ is just quite bland frankly, the sort of filler that feels wholly forgettable. It’s not “bad”, but it’s certainly not memorable in any way.
Season Nine, Episode Twelve – “Underneath”
‘Underneath’ is making a play for sympathy, depicting an innocent man who splits into two, and his counterpart commits murders for which he takes the blame. But it never really grabs hold of you enough for you to care quite frankly.
Season One, Episode Twenty-Two – “Born Again”
It’s just a bit of a snoozefest, quite frankly, feeling too much like a standard police procedural and less like the show The X-Files was meant to be.
Season Six, Episode One – “The Beginning”
‘The Beginning’ is mostly disappointing, and it’s the start of a frustrating period for The X-Files as the overarching mythos starts to spin wildly out of control, becoming more and more convoluted. There’s a fun moment as an agency official mocks Mulder by laying out the complex plot of alien colonisation, hinting at least some self-awareness about how much the show would struggle moving forward.
Season Seven, Episode Nine – “Signs and Wonders”
The spiritual successor to Season One’s under-appreciated ‘Miracle Man’, ‘Signs and Wonders’ presents another sharp look at mysterious religious fanaticism, this time with some pretty scary snakes in tow.