Thursday, November 26, 2015

Top 12 freak-of-the-week episodes

Please see Top 24 Hours of The X-Files for an introduction to this list.

Top 12 freak-of-the-week episodes

#12: S1:E1 "Pilot"
Written by Chris Carter
Directed by Robert Mandel

Premise: On their first case together, Mulder and Scully's investigation of a series of alleged alien abductions is frustrated by attempts at a government cover-up.

Comments: Ostensibly a mythology episode, at this early stage, relying on zero foreknowledge, the pilot works fantastically well as a standalone episode. Plus, the alien abductions that are investigated are not directly related to anything else in the mythology, so they could just as well be considered a freak-of-the-week. The X-Files would put out better and more mature episodes throughout its run, but the pilot remains a captivating introduction to both the main characters and the central themes of the show, as well as the murky atmosphere that would become a hallmark of the series.

#11: S3:E4 "Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose"
Written by Darin Morgan; Directed by David Nutter

Premise: Mulder and Scully enlist the help of a cynical life insurance salesman who can foresee people's deaths, in order to track down a fortune teller killer.

Comments: Darin Morgan employs his trademark humor and skill at misdirecting the audience in this award-winning episode, while also dabbling heavily in philosophical themes relating to the debate between free will and determinism, proving that his legacy encompassed more than just the humor that other writers tried more and less successfully to imitate. In his titular character - inhabited by the venerable Peter Boyle - he creates a witty counterpoint to the flashy model of show business psychics by depicting the pessimistic pseudo-reality of a man whose psychic abilities involuntarily haunt him with precognitive visions of death. It's a fun, thoughtful, depressing, funny episode from one of the show's most celebrated writers.

#10: S3:E17 "Pusher"
Written by Vince Gilligan
Directed by Rob Bowman

Premise: Mulder engages in a battle of wits against a professional assassin with nothing to lose, and the ability to push his will onto others.

Comments: Vince Gilligan would go on to become one of the show's primary writers in the middle and later years, but this was his breakout episode, and one of his best in the serious vein. Starring Robert Wisden as a man with the ability to push his will onto others, it is as much a psychological thriller as a nihilistic character study, that builds to a nail-biting climax. Singled out as the freak-of-the-week's only worthy adversary, Mulder must find a way to face the insurmountable threat of mind control, without losing his life - or Scully's - in the process.

#9: S4:E2 "Home"
Written by Glen Morgan & James Wong
Directed by Kim Manners

Premise: Following the discovery of an infant buried alive, Mulder and Scully investigate an inbred family in a small town resistant to change.

Comments: Notorious for the fact that it required a content advisory warning for its extremely disturbing subject matter, Home is an episode whose reputation precedes it. Written by founding writers Glen Morgan & James Wong, this is the closest the series ever got to the pure horror of a slasher film. Yet, it is a cleverly written episode that effectively manages to frighten not purely due to presenting the viewer with shocking images, but largely on account of the unsettling subjects it broaches. This is ably demonstrated by the fact that this is paradoxically one of the brightest and sunniest episodes the crew ever shot in Vancouver.

#8: S3:E22 "Quagmire"
Written by Kim Newton
Directed by Kim Manners

Premise: Mulder and Scully investigate a series of deaths attributed to a stateside analog of the Loch Ness monster.

Comments: Like a mini sci-fi channel movie at its best, Quagmire strikes a comfortable balance between being a traditional freak-of-the-week episode, and one of the funnier deconstructions of the show and its characters (it's not hard to believe the rumors that an uncredited Darin Morgan assisted with the writing of the script). Nowhere is this more apparent than in the infamous scene dubbed by fans as the "conversation on the rock", in which a desperate and stranded Mulder and Scully wax philosophical while awaiting their probable demise. This is also The X-Files' best treatment of cryptozoology - a theme that was surprisingly not more prevalent in the series.

#7: S3:E14 "Grotesque"
Written by Howard Gordon
Directed by Kim Manners

Premise: A senior agent at the FBI requests Mulder's assistance in closing the case on a series of murders attributed to possession by a gargoyle, that persists even after the prime suspect is taken into custody.

Comments: As far as straightforward, dark and serious episodes go, this is one of my favorites. It has a very gothic atmosphere, appropriate to its theme of possession by the evil spirit of a gargoyle. Kurtwood Smith guest stars as one of the more memorable rivals Mulder has had at the FBI, who doesn't like his outlandish theories, but cannot deny his singular ability to solve cases. The episode mixes in a little bit of murder mystery, but is primarily a psychological thriller in which Mulder gets to show off his prowess as a criminal profiler, to a point of obsession that he risks going too far into the mind of a murderer. It has a dark palette and an oppressive atmosphere that I find just delightful.

#6: S6:E18 "Milagro"
Teleplay by Chris Carter
Story by John Shiban & Frank Spotnitz
Directed by Kim Manners

Premise: Scully becomes the target of affection for a crime novelist whose expert skill with words has an uncanny hold on reality.

Comments: For an episode from the misguidedly light-hearted sixth season to make it onto this list, you know it has to be good - and Milagro is fantastic. The episode hinges on John Hawkes' quiet intensity, in the role of a writer utterly devoted to his work. Gillian Anderson also gets a chance to shine, as her initial discomfort at the writer's unsolicited, but strangely charismatic advances slowly grows into an inexplicably magnetic attraction. The same could be said of the viewer's reaction to this episode, which is a love letter to the art of writing fiction.

#5: S2:E14 "Die Hand die Verletzt"
Written by Glen Morgan & James Wong
Directed by Kim Manners

Premise: Mulder and Scully investigate a series of deaths in a superstitious New England town that has connections to a Satanic cult.

Comments: I'm a sucker for stories about the devil, and it's a theme The X-Files approached many times throughout its run. But this episode that posits a town where Satanism is just another religion - one held by its community leaders - is my favorite. I also consider it one of the series' best examples of the standard, by-the-numbers freak-of-the-week format. Morgan & Wong's final outing before taking a temporary hiatus from the show, it manages to construct a dark atmosphere while simultaneously being downright fun. It's a great episode to watch on Halloween. There are a ton of great effects, including pillars of flame, toads raining from the sky, squealing pig fetuses, and a gigantic snake that can swallow a man whole. Plus, the idea that Satan would send an emissary to punish his own believers for their lackluster devotion serves as an appropriately frightening warning to those dabbling in the occult.

#4: S2:E22 "F. Emasculata"
Written by Chris Carter & Howard Gordon
Directed by Rob Bowman

Premise: In a corporate plot involving government conspiracy, Mulder joins the U.S. Marshals in tracking down two escaped convicts, while Scully studies the lethal disease they may be carrying into the general population.

Comments: This is an exciting and memorably gruesome episode - an edge-of-your-seat thriller that borrows much from the "outbreak scenario" playbook, while tying it to the show's central theme of government conspiracy. But rather than paint that conspiracy in black-and-white as usual, this episode takes advantage of its emergency situation premise to toy with the idea that sometimes withholding information can be for the greater good, forcing Mulder to reluctantly consider the conspirators' perspective for once. This episode is also a perfect example of how the show could ratchet suspense through two parallel storylines by splitting Mulder and Scully up, ultimately building to a delightfully pessimistic conclusion.

#3: S4:E10 "Paper Hearts"
Written by Vince Gilligan
Directed by Rob Bowman

Premise: A prophetic dream re-opens an old case, causing Mulder to question whether his sister could have been one of the unclaimed victims of an incarcerated serial killer.

Comments: This is my favorite Mulder episode, and my favorite episode penned by Vince Gilligan. Much like how Beyond The Sea shows Gillian Anderson's range, this episode does the same for David Duchovny, as an uncommonly vulnerable Mulder faces down a monster in a unique position to exploit his greatest weakness. The episode dares to posit an alternative explanation for the disappearance of Mulder's sister, but it does so with aplomb, and to fantastic dramatic effect. Tom Noonan guest stars as an incarcerated child killer, whose calculating intellect and callous disregard for the feelings of others renders him frightening even in chains. This is a grim episode, but it is The X-Files at its most deadly serious best.

#2: S1:E13 "Beyond The Sea"
Written by Glen Morgan & James Wong
Directed by David Nutter

Premise: A family tragedy puts Scully's skepticism to the test, as the agents track down a serial killer with the help of a death row inmate who claims to be psychic.

Comments: In a season when the show was still finding its footing, developing its trademark formula and atmosphere, Beyond The Sea is the first episode that really stands out. It's also the first episode that showcases Gillian Anderson's emotional range as an actress. Due to a family tragedy, the usual dynamic is flipped around, making Mulder the skeptic and Scully the believer for once. Brad Dourif puts in a memorable turn as a sympathetic villain marked for death, and haunted by his inevitable fate. I contend that this episode is every bit as good as any traditional hour released in later seasons.

Written by Darin Morgan; Directed by Rob Bowman

Premise: An acclaimed author attempts to parse the events following an alleged alien abduction for the subject of his latest novel.

Comments: Nostalgia may play some part in my high opinion of this episode, but to say that that's the sole reason I've rated it so highly would do a disservice to its quality. It is both Darin Morgan's funniest, and smartest script, deconstructing the central themes of the show - alien abductions and government conspiracies - while playing around with the idea that the truth that Mulder so desperately seeks is a subjective entity. As is characteristic of Darin Morgan's scripts, it is infused with just enough human pathos to keep it emotionally grounded, while the overall impression is one of sheer, unbridled fun. Less an example of a typical episode of The X-Files, this is what the show could look like at its very best.


Written by Frank Spotnitz
Directed by Tony Wharmby

Premise: Agent Doggett slowly loses his grip on sanity while investigating the case of a cult leader who opened his third eye and found God while walking the path of darkness.

Comments: If ever there were a late-series episode (we're talking John Doggett in place of Fox Mulder late) that deserves to make it onto a "best episodes of The X-Files" list, it would be Via Negativa. This episode is the most Lynchian the series ever got, with haunting imagery and nightmare dream sequences. It addresses the puzzling question of why a man who found God would go on a homicidal killing spree (I personally favor a Lovecraftian interpretation), and forces Doggett to confront the potential for evil that may lie dormant within.


  1. Awesome list! Although I'm not familiar with all of them, someday I will be. This part caught my eye:

    #10: S3:E17 "Pusher"
    Written by Vince Gilligan

    The creator of Breaking Bad! That's mighty interesting.

    Anyhoo, nothing says Thanksgiving like that scene where Mulder eats the entire sweet potato pie. 'Cause that's exactly what I tend to do to pumpkin pies around this time!

  2. Yes!

    Did you know that Vince Gilligan was one of the primary writers on The X-Files? He did an episode in season 6 called Drive that starred Bryan Cranston, fyi.