The popularity of the X-Files television series can be attributed at least to some degree to the unique combination of humor, mystery, creepiness, scariness, character development, and relationships development. Although the series may be best known for its overarching themes of government conspiracies primarily related to alien invasion, the series featured numerous standalone "monster-of-the-week" episodes that helped maintain interest in the series. Although many fans prefer the episodes that contribute to the overarching mythology, I found that I often preferred the monster-of-the-week episodes. This was reinforced in my mind as I created the list of my favorite 20 X-Files episodes for this post.
This post contains my twenty favorite X-Files episodes at the time of this writing, though the selected episodes and their order might change in the future. Characteristics that seemed prevalent in my favorite episodes included humor, creepiness, and monster-of-the-week stories that seemed at least remotely possible or relatively realistic. I realized that, for me, the creepiest and scariest monsters of the week are those who do not appear to be so on the surface (such as Tooms, Modell, Pfaster, and the twin Eves). This list does not consider the new episodes released in 2016.
20. Unusual Suspects (Season 5, Episode 3)
"Your kung fu is the best."
The 100th episode of The X-Files is "Unusual Suspects" and this episode tells the story of how the Lone Gunmen met each other and met Mulder in 1989. The three Lone Gunmen (Langly, Frohike and Byers) appeared in several episodes before and after this one, but this 100th episode is the one that explains how they came together and how they started consulting with Mulder while he worked in the Violent Crimes Section (before his X-Files assignment).
19. Leonard Betts (Season 4, Episode 12)
"I'm your mother and it's a mother's duty to provide."
The "Leonard Betts" episode provides interesting visual effects and imagery (especially makeup), a gruesome monster of the week whose motives and biological needs are somewhat understandable and for which we can experience a mixture of revulsion and sympathy, and the shocking revelation at the end of the episode that Scully has cancer ("I'm sorry, but you've got something I need."). There are also creepy images such as the severed head of Albert Tanner (Leonard Betts is an alias as is Truelove) moving its eyes and lips, Betts resurrecting out of the bloody water in the bathtub, and new Betts shedding old Betts's body. Dr. Charles Burks is a fun minor character in the X-Files that is in this episode (among others).
18. Chinga (Season 5, Episode 10)
"Let's have fun." / "I want to play."
What makes the "Chinga" episode scary to me is watching Melissa Turner becoming increasingly fearful of her own daughter Polly and her daughter's doll Chinga. Melissa is forced to see people she cares about die moments before they die and knows that her daughter and her daughter's doll have something to do with it, but she cannot stop it, even when it's to herself.
Like "Eve" (also on this list), part of the scariness is the the ability of a young girl (under the seeming spell of a doll in this case) to be the cause of so much death around her. The thought of one being controlled by someone (or something else) to the point of committing significant trauma to one's own body is also frightening. As with many of the scariest of the X-Files episodes, the episode ends with the potential for Chinga to cause more havoc in other lives despite Sully's microwaving of Chinga.
17. Musings Of A Cigarette Smoking Man (Season 4, Episode 7)
"Not even secrets of the darkest men are safe."
This episode fascinates me because it ties historical events together and associates them with the Cigarette Smoking Man in a manner similar to how the movie Forrest Gump ties one man's life to many significant events. The episode is relatively unique in this early part of the series in that it doesn't show Mulder (although his voice is heard) and only shows Scully in footage from previous episodes.
It's a great episode that would be significantly higher on my list if not for Frohike's description of the source of the story he narrates in this episode, "So far, this is based only on a story I read in one of my weekly subscriptions that rang a few bells." I think this implies that the events presented in the episode may or not have actually been part of Cigarette Smoking Man's life and may simply be the Pivotal Publishing's fictionalized version of the manuscript that appeared in Roman à Clef and of which Cigarette Smoking Man said, "This isn't the ending that I wrote. It's all wrong."
16. Small Potatoes (Season 4, Episode 20)
"Scully, should we be picking China patterns or what?"
The episode "Small Potatoes" is perhaps best known for its humor, but it provides that humor in the context of the type of mystery investigation one expects with an X-Files monster-of-the-week story. Although Mulder identifies the suspect "monster" (Eddie Van Blundht with "a silent 'h'") early in the episode, the mystery remains of how Eddie did it.
15. Bad Blood (Season 5, Episode 12)
"Prison, Scully. Your cellmate's nickname is going to be Large Marge."
"Bad Blood" is another X-Files episode that shows how good this series can be at intermixing humor with dark themes. It is funny to see how different Mulder's and Scully's recollections are of the same events and especially how they apparently view each other. Luke Wilson plays a significant role (Sheriff Lucius Hartwell) in the episode and his interactions with Scully (in both Scully's recollection and Mulder's recollection) are humorous.
14. Eve (Season 1, Episode 11)
"We didn't do anything wrong. We're just little girls."
The twin girls featured in the "Eve" episode provide a chilling and "almost could be true" villain. These twin girls take advantage of their seeming innocence to fool adults around them, to kill one of the Eves that created them, and to almost kill Mulder and Scully. Their conniving and creepy natures make them, as a pair, an excellent and scary "monster of the week." The episode ends the same way that many of the X-Files episodes ends: with a creepy hint at what the future might hold (in this case for Eve 8 and the twins - "We just knew.").
13. Arcadia (Season 6, Episode 15)
"Let's get it on honey."
Anyone who has lived with nosy and bossy neighbors in a covenant community or planned community can probably appreciate the humor and story associated with this episode. Mulder and Scully pretending to be married on their undercover assignment presents opportunities for humor that fit well with the humorous interactions with the uptight neighbors in the tightly controlled planned community called "Falls of Arcadia." This is another X-Files episode that mixes humor with dark themes. This probably wouldn't have made my Top Twenty if not for how much fun I had watching the episode poke fun at covenant communities and the neighbors' enforcement of each other following the CC&Rs.
12. Tithonus (Season 6, Episode 10)
"Most people are idiots."
The episode "Tithonus" shares some commonality (especially in terms of themes) with the excellent episode "Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose" (#6 on this list), but has enough differences in the story and in the development of the main character that is the subject of the episode to keep it interesting. As with Bruckman, the viewer feels a mixture of remorse and relief on behalf of Alfred Fellig when he chooses to suffer his ultimate fate at the end of the episode. The "Tithonus" episode features interesting removal of color from the faces of those who Fellig sees are about to die. The episode also features a great guest actor in Geoffrey Lewis, another common characteristic shared with "Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose" (which features Peter Boyle)
11. Paper Hearts (Season 4, Episode 10)
"It's not your fault. It's my fault."
The monster of the week in Paper Hearts, John Lee Roche, is creepy, disturbing, clever, and seems potentially realistic. Roche seems to be controlling Mulder and Mulder's actions in sinister fashion throughout much of the episode and it's disturbing to see no remorse from Roche for being a serial killer of small girls. Mulder lets his overarching desire to learn about his sister Samantha overcome rational thinking and takes Roche out of prison in his custody. When Roche meets and interacts with a girl on an airplane while with Mulder and then later escapes Mulder's custody and kidnaps that same innocent little girl, you cannot help but feel Mulder's guilt and concern.
10. Drive (Season 6, Episode 2)
"Big piles of manure."
With a developing Speed-like story and a great performance by future Breaking Bad actor Bryan Cranston, the episode "Drive" makes many of the "best X-Files episodes" lists. This episode is a reminder of how entertaining an episode contained almost entirely within a vehicle and consisting of dialog among two individuals can be. The episode starts with mystery that turns tense. The relationship between Mulder and Patrick Crump changes from mutual loathing to mutual understanding and a degree of respect for one other and this makes the end of the drive even more difficult for the characters and the viewers.
I also like the very end of the episode when Scully is trying to cover for Mulder with Alvin Kersch. Scully's comment as she leaves Deputy Director Kersch's office is very funny, timely, and easy to relate to.
9. Irresistible (Season 2, Episode 13)
"Is your hair treated?"
Only three "monsters of the week" were featured prominently in more than one episode. One of these is Donnie Pfaster, who appears in both this relatively early episode and later in the seventh season's "Orison." Donnie Pfaster is terribly frightening because he is a serial killer who is very polite and seems passive and even gentle right up until the point he commits the murders. People share information and place themselves in dangerous situations with him because they trust him after his being so polite and seemingly passive. This and the fact that much of Pfaster's behavior seems more realistically possible than many of the monsters of the week, makes him a truly terrifying monster of the week.
Pfaster is so evil and has such a direct impact on Scully that he even gets under Scully's skin (so to speak) and causes her to lose uncharacteristically lose control of her emotions at the end of "Orison."
8. Dreamland (Season 6, Episodes 4 and 5)
"You think I want to go back to that?"
The "Dreamland" episode is actually two episodes with Part 1 as the fourth episode of the sixth season and Part 2 as the fifth episode of that same season. I liked "Dreamland" for several reasons. I especially liked the humor surrounding Morris Fletcher [his interactions with Scully while in Mulder's body, his reaction to Mulder's life (or lack thereof) as he learned more about the body he possessed], and Mulder's interactions with Fletcher's wife and friends while in Fletcher's body. I also really liked the visual effects in the episodes. These included Mulder looking at himself in the mirror and seeing Fletcher's body moving around instead of his body and the images of things and people displaced and amidst one another.
I liked the first part of "Dreamland" a bit more than the second part, but you really need to watch both together to get closure on the first part. I would have rated his episode even higher in my ratings if it wasn't for the fact that all the developments of the episode are essentially "undone" at the end like they never happened (although I like the touch of Mulder's apartment being uncharacteristically clean upon his return to it thanks to Morris Fletcher cleaning it, showing that not quite everything was undone). The "Dreamland" episodes shared characteristics of the overall mythology episodes and of standalone monster-of-the-week episodes.
7. Home (Season 4, Episode 2)
"I think time already caught them."
"Home" is arguably one of the creepiest episodes of a television series known for its creepiness. It may also be the most stomach-turning and disturbing of all of the X-Files's episodes. It starts out creepy, it deals with creepy and traumatic themes, and ends with one of the X-Files's creepiest endings. This is the episode that I have watched least of all episodes on this list.
6. Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose (Season 3, Episode 4)
"How could I see the future if it didn't already exist?"
"Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose" is a classic X-Files episode that makes it on many of the lists of top X-Files episodes for good reason. Peter Boyle's presentation of the character Clyde Bruckman is compelling and the viewer is able to understand the downsides of what at first seems like a "special gift" that Bruckman possesses. There is obvious and more subtle humor mixed with dark themes throughout this episode in a manner that is representative of the way the X-Files has mixed humor and dark themes better than almost any other television series. One feels both remorse and relief for Bruckman as this episode ends.
5. War of the Coprophages (Season 3, Episode 12)
"Anyone who thinks alien visitation will come not in the form of robots, but of living beings with big eyes and gray skin, has been brainwashed by too much science fiction."
This is a fun episode with significant humor both subtle and obvious despite also having X-Files's expected dark themes. Scully has rationale explanations from her remote location for the various deaths that Mulder is investigating that keep turning potential X-Files-worthy murders into conventional murders. There is also the mutual flirting between Mulder and Dr. Bambi Berenbaum and Scully's obvious disgust with that burgeoning relationship.
4. Pusher (Season 3, Episode 17)
"He is just a little man that wishes he were someone big."
I think the "best" (scariest) villains are those that take over ones thoughts and will power. This is what makes the Borg in Star Trek, the Dementors in Harry Potter's stories, and X-Files's Chinga and Pusher so frightening. It is difficult to watch the police officer crying out for someone to stop him from dousing himself with gasoline and lighting himself on fire and then see him do just that despite knowing he really doesn't want to do it. Like another scary X-Files character (Eugene Tooms), Robert Patrick Modell is not killed in this episode and the viewer has to fear that this won't be the last of the "Pusher."
Modell does return in the episode "Kitsunegari," which had some interesting special effects and decent story, but which I did not find as compelling, creepy, or scary as "Pusher."
3. Ice (Season 1, Episode 8)
"We're not who we are."
Reminiscent of The Thing, the episode Ice has drama, mystery, and provides an early testing of the strengthening friendship and loyalty between Mulder and Scully. Between this episode and "Squeeze" (my #2), I knew I was hooked on the X-Files early in the first season.
2. Squeeze (Season 1, Episode 3)
"All those people putting bars on their windows, spending good money on high-tech security systems, trying to feel safe? It ain't enough."
For me, Squeeze was the first truly creepy episode of the X-Files. Eugene Victor Tooms is one X-Files's creepiest villains and this episode, along with the 21st episode of this same first season ("Tooms") are stories that the viewer can feel are almost realistic. The closer they are to being plausible, the scarier the stories. When the "Squeeze" episode ends with Tooms still alive and with a sinister grin as he looks at the opening in the door to his cell for food, the viewer knows that this will not be the last time we see Mr. Tooms and that is frightening.
1. Humbug (Season 2, Episode 20)
"probably something I ate"
Humbug was the 20th episode of the second season. This standalone monster-of-the-week episode featured all of the characteristics that the X-Files are known for, including humor, creepiness, mystery, and a twist at the end. Watching Scully and Mulder deal with and be embarrassed about some politically incorrect behaviors and language and watching Scully's illusionist ability with eating bugs are just two examples of the humor of this eclectic episode. I just flat-out enjoy watching this episode.
There were several more episodes of the X-Files that I wanted to add to this list and could have been persuaded into switching with some of the episodes on my list (particularly those in the bottom five). In particular, there are some episodes that tie into the X-Files mythology that I really enjoyed such as the pilot (starts off the whole thing) and final episode (summarizes the series' conspiracy developments and brings some closure) and some of the two-part episodes. Although my Top Twenty would probably change each time I was asked to create it, I feel like the twenty episodes listed above demonstrate X-Files at its best, at its creepiest, at its scariest, and at its funniest.