Tuesday, January 19, 2016

The X-Files - Seasonal Awards (Best & Worst)

Or, in other words, the best and worst episodes of The X-Files, by season!

I've kind of started doing this in each of the individual season overviews, but I would like to bring them all together in a post that discusses what I consider to be the highlights and the low points of the series. I'm combining them together here as the best and worst of each season in the interest of softening the negative feedback with some positive.

A Note on Spoilers: I will endeavor to keep the spoilers to a bare minimum throughout this post, but it bears mentioning that it becomes increasingly harder to talk about mythology episodes without spoiling anything the further in the series you go. So if you're concerned about spoilers, you might want to keep that in mind.

Season 1

Best Mythology Episode: The Erlenmeyer Flask
Reason: The mythology was pretty basic in the first season, but it was also captivating in its simplicity, with vague hints of a wide-reaching government conspiracy involving contact with intelligent extraterrestrial life. All of the season's full-on mythology episodes are good, from the pilot (which set up the premise of the entire show), to Deep Throat (which introduced Mulder's first top secret informant), Fallen Angel (in which Mulder investigates a crashed UFO), and E.B.E. (which explores Deep Throat's trustworthiness, or lack thereof), but the highlight is probably the season finale, in which the series' mythology really begins to crystallize. The episode is heavy on action, and the stakes are high. We get our first damning look behind the scenes of the alien conspiracy, and the startling conclusion has lasting ramifications.

Best Freak-of-the-Week Episode: Beyond The Sea
Reason: Writers Morgan & Wong are clearly the MVPs of the first season's standalone episodes. Fans are also fond of Ice (a paranoid, claustrophobic thriller that pays homage to John Carpenter's The Thing), and both Squeeze and Tooms (which feature the series' first iconic freak, the liver-eating genetic mutant Eugene Victor Tooms), but the clear standout in my mind is Beyond The Sea. Guest starring Brad Dourif in the captivating role of a death row inmate haunted by remorse after a last-minute temporary stay of execution opens up a psychic line of communication with the dead, the episode also features the first significant emotional hurdle Scully will have to overcome, and the first opportunity for Gillian Anderson to show her range as an actress.

Worst Episode: Born Again
Reason: The first season is relatively unpolished, and relies heavily on formula. Apart from the occasional exception (like Beyond The Sea), this show would take a couple of years to really hone the format and begin to regularly churn out remarkable freak-of-the-week episodes. Among the least popular episodes of the first season are two of Chris Carter's non-mythology scripts - The Jersey Devil (which thwarts fans' expectations for a cryptid appearance), and Space (marred by laughable special effects) - as well as Ghost in the Machine (the first of several "hard sci-fi" episodes throughout the series, with a premise about a murderous artificial intelligence). But while admittedly not being good episodes, I think each of those has redeeming qualities, whereas Born Again is an utterly forgettable late season rehash of previously explored themes.

Season 2

Best Mythology Episode: One Breath
Reason: In a season where the mythology really began to take off, I have no trouble picking a favorite, as I believe it is one of the all-time best episodes (mythology or otherwise) in the entire series. The premiere, Little Green Men, is a moody re-introduction to the show after its first season break; Colony/End Game is an atmospheric - if at times frustrating - treatment of the mystery of Samantha's disappearance, as well as a bombastic introduction to the character of the Alien Bounty Hunter; and Duane Barry/Ascension is a thrilling ride that builds to a heartbreaking climax, while also featuring Krycek's birth as a villain. But One Breath trumps them all, with Mulder questioning his purpose in light of the possibility of Scully's death, and some of the most memorable scenes from two of the series' best supporting characters - Mulder's second informant, X, and the sinister Cigarette Smoking Man.

Best Freak-of-the-Week Episode: F. Emasculata
Reason: The freak-of-the-week episodes are consistently better in the second season, but still have room to improve. Among the most memorable and well-liked are included The Host (which introduces another of the series' most iconic freaks - the sewer-dwelling Flukeman), Irresistible (an unsettling episode about a "death fetishist" named Donnie Pfaster, that manages to scare without involving the paranormal), and Die Hand die Verletzt (a scary fun episode about a bourgeois Satanic cult, that includes lots of neat special effects). But my vote for best goes to F. Emasculata, a fast-paced thriller that merges The Fugitive with Outbreak, putting Mulder on the trail of two escaped convicts while Scully studies the lethal disease they may be introducing to the general population. (If you're wondering why I didn't mention Humbug, see my post about the most over- and underrated episodes, coming soon).

Worst Episode: Aubrey
Reason: Ask most fans, and they would unilaterally cite 3 as not only a seasonal low point, but one of the worst episodes of the entire series. It's a dismal episode filmed during Gillian Anderson's maternity leave that fails in its attempt to make vampirism erotic. Personally, I don't think it's all that bad, and David Duchovny's unaffected reading of his lines appropriately conjures the depression of a Mulder who has lost his Scully. Fearful Symmetry (where it's the animals at a zoo that are being abducted by aliens) is another episode that gets a lot of flack, but I honestly don't understand why. If you want to talk about dull episodes that just make me bored, Excelsis Dei and Aubrey are this season's worst offenders. And while the former is expectedly taken to task for its relatively glib treatment of the subject of rape, I feel the latter has even less going for it. That I can't remember enough to go into more detail aptly demonstrates how little of an impression it made on me.

Season 3

Best Mythology Arc: Anasazi/The Blessing Way/Paper Clip
Reason: I'm not trying to cheat by including the previous season's finale here - it just doesn't make sense to split them up, and I count this as a third season arc because two thirds of it (a majority!) takes place in the third season. Nisei/731 (a thrilling train chase of a two-parter which explores the government's involvement in alien abductions) is good enough to take this spot - certainly more so than Piper Maru/Apocrypha (despite introducing the Black Oil, and giving Scully the exciting opportunity to confront one of her tormentors), and the lackluster season finale. But it can't trump the scope and revelations of what I lovingly refer to as "the merchandise trilogy", which I consider to be the peak of the entire series' mythology - developed to a certain level of maturity, but still young enough that its passion isn't dimmed by age and cynicism. The three-parter introduces the evil machinations of the Syndicate, and dials the danger up to 11 by pushing the Smoking Man into a corner, while giving A.D. Skinner an opportunity to show his true colors once and for all.

Best Freak-of-the-Week Episode: Jose Chung's 'From Outer Space'
Reason: Many fans call the third season the series' best, and for good reason. To me, it represents the height of the show's mythology, and while I think the freak-of-the-week episodes are a little more polished and consistent in the following season, there are still several here that are deserving of high praise. The best of these is Darin Morgan's Jose Chung's 'From Outer Space', a brilliant and funny deconstruction of everything The X-Files stands for, that I feel comfortable naming the best non-mythology episode in the entire series. Also written by Darin Morgan, Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose (guest starring Peter Boyle as a cynical psychic insurance salesman) is also very good. As are, in my opinion, Pusher (one of Vince Gilligan's best episodes for the series, about a self-taught samurai who can push his will onto others), Grotesque (a gothic psychological thriller that pushes Mulder to the limits of sanity in pursuit of a killer who claims to be possessed by a gargoyle), and Quagmire (another fun episode that represents the series' best treatment of cryptozoology).

Worst Episode: Oubliette
Reason: I would have to disagree once again with collective fan opinion that the worst episode of the third season is Teso dos Bichos - an "ethnic" episode about a South American jaguar spirit. That the alleged jaguar spirit turns out to be (spoiler!) a herd of sewer cats is beyond silly, but I actually think it's a neat idea. Anyway, it's not a good episode, but worst of the season? The Walk (about a quadruple amputee who kills via astral projection) isn't great, but for pure drudgery, I have a hard time choosing between Oubliette and Syzygy. The former is a serious episode about a photographer's assistant who kidnaps a young girl, but falls victim to tired clich├ęs, overwrought emotions, and an unlikable protagonist. And the latter is Chris Carter's first (but not his last) ill-advised attempt to imitate Darin Morgan's humor, which falls utterly flat. Since I'll have plenty of other opportunities to roast Chris Carter's non-mythology contributions to the series, I'll go with the former.

Season 4

Best Mythology Episode: Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man
Reason: I would say that the mythology in season 4 isn't as good as the seasons that came immediately before or after it. Certainly, the main conflict of the season - explored in Memento Mori and continued in Zero Sum - is devastating. And the nostalgic return of an old friend in Tempus Fugit/Max is a cozy detour, while Tunguska/Terma is an exciting (if confusing) trip to Russia. But there isn't one arc that really stands out, in my mind, until the finale (which is continued into the next season). If pressed, however, I think I would pick Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man as my favorite mythology episode of the season, even if most of the events it depicts are not canon. It's still an interesting examination into the head space of the series' primary villain, with a back story that does more to build up his legacy than deconstruct his character.

Best Freak-of-the-Week Episode: Paper Hearts
Reason: As I alluded to above, the quality of this season's freak-of-the-week episodes is consistently good, but there are still a couple that stand out from the crowd. And in the long run, it turns out that I like Paper Hearts more than Home, which is a suitable demonstration of the passing of the torch from old school writers Morgan & Wong, to newcomer Vince Gilligan. Home, with its reputation as one of the grittiest episodes of the series - thanks to a stark murder sequence, and the subject of inbreeding and infant mortality - is still very good. But, in my opinion, Paper Hearts (which daringly posits an alternative explanation for Samantha's disappearance, and stars Tom Noonan as John Lee Roche, a child killer with a chillingly callous demeanor) is even better. I consider it Mulder's version of Scully's Beyond The Sea from the first season. Small Potatoes is another popular episode from this season, marking Vince Gilligan's first step in becoming the most successful writer to carry on Darin Morgan's legacy of humor, but the fact that I don't like it nearly as much as most fans do reflects my general bias against comedy episodes.

Worst Episode: The Field Where I Died
Reason: This time, it's unanimous. There are a few episodes even in this season that fall below the line of average (Teliko, Sanguinarium, Never Again, Kaddish, and Elegy all have their problems, although I rate El Mundo Gira, Unrequited, and Synchrony considerably higher than most), but even they're halfway decent at worst. The Field Where I Died, on the other hand, is just dreadful. It's a strong contender for worst episode in the entire series. It's well-intentioned, from what I've read (and the writers - Morgan & Wong - are certainly no hacks), but poorly-considered as an episode of The X-Files. The split-personalities-as-former-lives idea has some merit, but the episode suffers from melodrama, positing a one-off character as Mulder's soul mate (instead of Scully!), and the long, drawn-out closeups of David Duchovny crying make you just want to shut it off.

Season 5

Best Mythology Arc: Gethsemane/Redux/Redux II
Reason: The mythology picks up again after a relative lull in the fourth season, starting with the finale, Gethsemane, and continuing into the fifth season two-part premiere, Redux/Redux II. This devastating three-parter destroys the foundation of Mulder's belief in the alien conspiracy, while resolving a significant plot thread involving Scully's health that was introduced in the fourth season. It's a slow burn of a three-parter, but it builds to an exciting climax, with far-reaching implications (even if many of those implications will be rescinded shortly). The mid-season two-parter, Patient X/The Red and the Black, is also excellent, and (unlike the lukewarm season finale) worthy of rewarding. It brings together two disparate threads of the show's mythology for the first time, and sows the seeds that will ultimately prove to be the Syndicate's downfall. But that this unfortunately also results in the eventual collapse of the show's mythology does not reflect on the quality of these two episodes.

Best Freak-of-the-Week Episode: Bad Blood
Reason: Although season 5 represents a swell for the series' mythology, the freak-of-the-week episodes suffer instead. Both of these trends may be a result of the crew's focus on filming the movie, Fight The Future (which takes place between seasons 5 and 6) - injecting gravitas into the mythology, while drawing energy away from the standalones. Regardless, whereas previously there had been a split between the serious and funny episodes, this season marks the first time that a general air of levity pervades the series on the whole (a trend that would contribute to the series' downfall in the sixth and seventh seasons). There are still some good, quality episodes in this season (including The Lone Gunmen's first feature episode, Unusual Suspects), but nothing that really stands out head and shoulders above the rest. This trend towards comedy is reflected in my pick for best freak-of-the-season - Vince Gilligan's Bad Blood - which humorously explores Mulder and Scully's differing investigative approaches via the Rashomon effect, in the wake of an apparently accidental slaying of a fake vampire.

Worst Episode: All Souls
Reason: The popular choice for worst episode this season is Schizogeny (an episode about teens involving an orchard of killer trees), but again, I didn't think it was all that bad (when did "crazy premise" become synonymous with "bad episode", hm?). On the other hand, I thought Chris Carter's black-and-white directorial experiment The Post-Modern Prometheus - despite being a loving tribute to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein - was a pretty abysmal episode, but I think I'll get more into the reasons for that in my post on over- and underrated episodes, coming soon. Still, I feel hesitant to award it worst episode of the season, because at the very least it's ambitious. So I'll choose instead All Souls, one of a few episodes in the series that explores Scully's devotion to Catholicism, which I think (contrary to popular opinion about how brilliant and rife with dramatic potential her completely irrational conflict between her faith and her skepticism is) is just an utterly ridiculous trait that significantly mars Scully's otherwise admirable character. The episode also struggles under the weight of trying to reconcile Christianity's "one true God"-style cosmology with a fictional world that's already been developed to be quite mystically diverse.

Season 6

Best Mythology Arc: Fight The Future
Reason: I'll admit straight out that it's probably cheating to even include the movie as part of any season on the show (although it belongs between the fifth and sixth seasons). But let's be honest. Fight The Future is as good as the mythology ever was on The X-Files, and, unfortunately, it only went downhill afterwards. Perhaps the movie revealed too much, because starting in the sixth season, Chris Carter dedicated himself to winding down the mythology. But the answers were never as satisfying as the questions that came before - not least of which because they only led to more questions that were never sufficiently answered. And though Two Fathers/One Son finally "explains" - in vague terms - the conspiracy the Syndicate was involved in, and shows how it ultimately leads to their downfall, it's just not as big or as bold or as exciting as the movie.

Best Freak-of-the-Week Episode: Milagro
Reason: On the whole, the sixth season - which was the first following the crew's move from Vancouver to L.A., and the first in the wake of the feature film - represented a drastic shift in tone, with far more light-hearted episodes than usual, and a stronger emphasis on the unresolved sexual tension between its two leads, which heretofore had never been a focus of the series. But it still contained some very strong freak-of-the-week episodes. One of the best is Monday, which expertly sprinkles humor into a rather non-straightforward X-File involving a repeating time loop. Even better is Field Trip, which plays around with the viewer's expectations, while alternately exploring what lies at the core of Mulder and Scully's quests, and why they work best together. But the best of them all is Milagro, which is as uncomfortably captivating as Scully finds the awkward-yet-charismatic writer who commands an uncanny link between fiction and reality. In my opinion, it's good enough to go head-to-head with the best episodes of the earlier seasons.

Worst Episode: The Unnatural
Reason: Fans have little good to say about Alpha - a kind of dog version of season 3's Teso dos Bichos - which fumbles the challenge of presenting therianthropy in a sympathetic enough context. But at least it's a traditional, serious X-File. I could point out a number of ill-considered episodes in this light-hearted season that I enjoyed less - like The Rain King, which spends too much time making out a Valentine's Day card to the oblivious Mulder and Scully, or Dreamland, which is far too dedicated to comedy than its premise of infiltrating legendary top secret military installation Area 51 would demand. I'm also tempted to point my finger at Chris Carter's latest directorial effort, Triangle, but I'll have more to say about that in my upcoming post on over- and underrated episodes. But the episode that irritates me the most is David Duchovny's first directorial credit, The Unnatural. If it were just a baseball episode, I could write it off as being boring, but it insists on tying itself to various aspects of the show's mythology - the grey aliens in the era of Roswell, and the Alien Bounty Hunter - in a way that feels flippant and disconnected with the central themes of a show about extraterrestrial life and government conspiracy.

Season 7

Best Mythology Arc: Biogenesis/The Sixth Extinction/Amor Fati
Reason: We've come to a point in the series when the most interesting mythology episodes aren't necessarily the most relevant. While this season contains the ultimate resolution to Mulder's central quest in Sein und Zeit/Closure - the mystery of his sister's disappearance (it's pretty disappointing) - and a once-potential-series-finale in Requiem, which leaves Mulder off on a cliffhanger that would change the show irrevocably, it's the season-spanning three-parter that most resembles the old glory of years past. Even still, it's a shadow of what came before it, and a harbinger of the increasing importance that religion would have to the mythology in the last couple of seasons. But at this late point in the series, this is as good as it gets.

Best Standalone Episode: En Ami
Reason: It's sad to say that, although representing a superficial return-to-form, replacing the light-hearted episodes of season 6 with darker, grittier episodes, season 7 suffers from a certain sense of ennui that comes from a cast and crew working too hard for too long without enough vacation time. Even the energy transferred over from the cancelled Millennium series isn't enough to save it; although it results in a very good crossover episode (predictably titled Millennium), as well as a sequel to season 2's Irresistible featuring the return of Donnie Pfaster, in the episode Orison. Also good are the bread-and-butter episodes Signs & Wonders, Theef, and Brand X, but none of them really stand out above the others. My favorite single episode in the whole season is actually a standalone mythology episode, En Ami, which was written by William B. Davis (who plays the Cigarette Smoking Man), and constructs a compelling conspiracy that plays on Scully's instincts as a doctor.

Worst Episode: Fight Club
Reason: In a season that alternates between trying unsuccessfully to capture past glories, and ditching everything in a sloppy dash to the finish line, there are plenty of episodes that could take the place as worst of the season. I personally didn't find much to enjoy in either The Goldberg Variation or The Amazing Maleeni, both of which lean too far toward the goofy end of the spectrum. First Person Shooter - about a tacky virtual reality game - is a sad followup to season 5's Kill Switch, and one of the most likely points at which to credit the series for jumping the shark. Gillian Anderson's first directorial credit - all things - while effective on a personal level (perhaps), manages to be even more ill-suited to the themes of the X-Files (see: Scully converting to Buddhism) than David Duchovny's episode in the last season. But stinking beyond them all is one of Chris Carter's worst scripts in the entire series, Fight Club, which combines the ineffective humor of Syzygy with the dubious acting talent of not one, but two Kathy Griffins. It is, without a doubt, one of the worst episodes in the entire series.

Season 8

Best Mythology Episode: Three Words
Reason: Season 8's mythology is an improvement over the previous season's, thanks to the driving force of the mystery behind Mulder's disappearance. The two-part premiere, which introduces Agent Doggett, is okay, but the finale, in which many things finally come to a head, is even better. But, pound for pound, your best bet is the four episode streak that starts with Per Manum, and continues through This Is Not Happening/Deadalive, before concluding with Three Words. The last episode is probably the best, because it puts Mulder back in the saddle, and constructs the most compelling conspiracy this show has had since its golden era. But enjoy it while it lasts, because the quality of this mytharc takes a drastic dip from which it will never recover in the ninth season premiere.

Best Freak-of-the-Week Episode: Via Negativa
Reason: I think a lot of fans would choose Roadrunners as the standout freak-of-the-week episode from this season - and it's a good choice. Stranding Scully in a remote desert town with strange inhabitants, it's one of the more Scully-centric episodes in a season dedicated to distracting audiences from Mulder's absence by replacing him with newcomer Agent Doggett. But it's the Doggett-centered Via Negativa that I enjoyed even more, which examines the visceral psychological effects of the ill-prepared Doggett's work on paranormal cases, through a series of nightmarish, Lynchian dream sequences. It's one of the best episodes to showcase Robert Patrick's considerable acting talent, and is my pick for all-time greatest episode from the post-Mulder era of the show.

Worst Episode: Salvage
Reason: Badlaa is almost certainly the popular choice for clunker of the season, due to its ridiculous premise about a homicidal Indian "munchkin" who transports himself inside the body cavities of his victims, and its unrelenting dedication to crossing over the line into bad taste. But you know what? I admire it for its courage to commit to its premise, and its dedication to being a truly memorable episode. And if it leaves you feeling thoroughly creeped out, that's really not the worst thing you can say about an episode of The X-Files. Worse, perhaps, are those episodes that are just bland and boring - like Surekill and Salvage. And while the former features an intriguing subject (X-ray vision) - even though it tackles it in an unsatisfying manner - the latter is an unoriginal tribute to Robert Patrick's previous work on Terminator 2.

Season 9

Best Mythology Episode: The Truth
Reason: I think a lot of fans consider The Truth to be a lackluster series finale, but I'm going to be honest with you. After several seasons of declining quality, one reaches a point of considerably lowered expectations. The Truth does not rival the series' best mythology episodes during its golden years, but it's a welcome return to form after a whole season without Mulder, and it does an admirable (if inevitably imperfect) job of tying together nine years of convoluted mythology threads. And look at its competition - the rest of the mythology in the ninth season was at a series' all-time low.

Best Freak-of-the-Week Episode: Release
Reason: Even as bad as season 9 was, it had its fair share of decent episodes (as long as we're ignoring the mythology). Doggett and Reyes are no Mulder and Scully, but their investigation of cases like 4-D, Audrey Pauley, and Underneath are still worth viewing, in my opinion. Vince Gilligan's John Doe is definitely a highlight of the season, but personally, I like Release. In addressing (for the last time) the tragedy that befell Doggett's son, it gives Robert Patrick one last time to flex his acting chops before the series finally went off the air.

Worst Episode: Improbable
Reason: I'd be tempted to put a lot of this season's mythology in this spot - especially the thoroughly bland Nothing Important Happened Today two-parter, which is responsible for explaining away Mulder's disappearance in the ninth season in an utterly unsatisfying manner. Perhaps worse, Trust No 1 wallows in an unearned level of emotional intimacy attached to Mulder and Scully's relationship that just grates on the nerves - but the episode at least partially redeems itself with its cynically paranoid view of government surveillance. Even more grating are the immature shenanigans of a Jackass parody in the episode Lord of the Flies. But trumping even that is yet another Chris Carter creation - the thoroughly ridiculous Improbable - featuring a wise-cracking, butt-shaking, lip-syncing Burt Reynolds, which (again) commits the cardinal sin of disregarding the proper tone for the series. It's just way too damn optimistic and life-affirming to be an episode of The X-Files.

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