The X-Files: An Episode Roadmap for Beginners

Feature Juliette Harrisson
1/19/2016 at 4:45PM

The X-Files have us wanting to believe again. Whether you've never seen the show or want to catch up, we have a handy guide.

Editor's note: With The X-Files revival nearly here, we've come up with short cut to catch up on the most important episodes. This article originally ran on Den of Geek UK. 

We probably don’t need to tell you that The X-Files was a phenomenon. Its fandom are credited with originating the terms "shipping" and "Monster of the Week," it brought genre television to the mainstream at a time when most people outside of fandom said the words “Star Trek” with a level of disdain usually reserved for low alcohol beer or decaffeinated coffee, and is made stars of David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson.

And now, The X-Files revival is here. Chances are, there’s a whole generation of fans wondering what all the fuss is about (plus an enormous number of people who watched it at the time but gave up somewhere around Season Six). Besides, we’ve already done roadmaps to Fringe and Supernatural, so it seems only fair to offer a guide to the original – and here it is, your beginners’ guide to The X-Files

Related: Everything We Know About The X-Files Revival

Since part of the aim of these articles is to encourage new viewers, spoilers will be kept to a minimum. However, be aware that due to the nature of the piece, certain elements of world-building, bad guy-revelation, late character arrivals etc. will be spoiled, and looking at the details of one suggested ‘route’ may spoil another.


Route 1: The Conspiracy

Whether or not you’ve watched much of The X-Files, you’re probably already aware that it had an ongoing arc plot relating to aliens and UFOs that started out compelling and gradually became… well, take your pick between “less compelling,” “rather muddled” and “utter nonsense which no one could keep track of and which had become so incomprehensible by the end that the two-part series finale was just a summary of the arc plot for everyone who’d forgotten what it was all about in the first place.”

With that established, if you want to watch all the arc plot episodes and skip all the Monsters of the Week, this is the route for you. Honestly, we wouldn’t particularly recommend it (certainly not past season six or maybe early season seven), and many of the best episodes of The X-Files were Monsters of the Week. But for all you arc-plot junkies, here it is.

Season One:

Pilot

Deep Throat

Fallen Angel

E.B.E.

The Erlenmeyer Flask

The X-Files is the exception that proves the rule that Season One is always a bit iffy – in fact, Season One is one of the strongest seasons of the show. Its Pilot is a quality episode in itself, as well as doing the introductory job of all pilots, and back in Season One the arc plot was still mysterious enough to be truly intriguing.

Season Two:

Little Green Men

Duane Barry

Ascension

One Breath

Red Museum

Colony

End Game

Anasazi

Duane Barry is one of the series’ best episodes overall, and kicks off one of the most compelling strands of the alien conspiracy arc – a happy accident brought about by real life actor availability. The follow-ups, Ascension and One Breath are also excellent, and Colony and End Game benefit from being early enough in the series that we’re not fed up of their themes or misdirects yet.

Season Three:

The Blessing Way

Paper Clip

Nisei

731

Piper Maru

Apocrypha

Wetwired

Talitha Cumi

Season Three introduced new elements that would be ongoing parts of the arc plot for years to come, as well as stepping up the action (and the body count). Wetwired is probably the least essential of these episodes, but worth a look anyway for some quality Mulder/Scully interaction.

Season Four:

Herrenvolk

Musings Of A Cigarette-Smoking Man

Tunguska

Terma

Memento Mori

Tempus Fugit

Max

Zero Sum

Demons

Gethsemene

We can’t trust anything we see or hear in Cancer Man’s Day in the Limelight, Musings Of A Cigarette-Smoking Man, but it’s a great episode, so it’s a must-watch anyway. Elsewhere, the arc plot continues to be extremely personal for Scully and traumatic for both leads. Add Leonard Betts for a reveal connected to the ongoing arc plot. Demons is more focused on character development than plot specifics, so can be skipped if you’re in a hurry.

Season Five:

Redux Parts 1&2

Christmas Carol

Emily

Patient X

The Red And The Black

The End

The arc plot was scaled back a little in Season Five, to make way for major developments in the movie that comes between Seasons Five and Six, but it ramped up in scale and drama towards the end of the season. Add Unusual Suspects for background on some of the main characters and a possible explanation for Mulder’s entire interest in the paranormal.

The X-Files Movie

Season Six:

The Beginning

S.R. 819

Two Fathers

One Son

Biogenesis

Like Season Five, Season Six focused mainly on Monster of the Week episodes rather than the increasingly unwieldy arc plot, but continued to return to the overall story for premieres, finales and sweeps episodes. Add Three Of A Kind for a sequel to Unusual Suspects.

Season Seven:

The Sixth Extinction Parts 1&2

Sein Und Zeit

Closure

En Ami

Requiem

With elements of the ongoing plot starting to drag a little and the show’s future in doubt, Season Seven closed off some threads even as it opened up others. Closure and its Part 1, Sein Und Zeit, are especially moving and Closure does what it says on the tin, closing a chapter of the arc plot in an emotionally satisfying (if slightly cheesy) way. Add Millennium for the finale to Chris Carter’s cancelled series, Millennium. Everyone was very excited about the concept of a millennium back in the late 1990s.

Season Eight:

Within

Without

The Gift

Per Manum

This Is Not Happening

Deadalive

Three Words

Vienen

Essence

Existence

With changes in the main cast to accommodate for the first time, Season Eight returned to the arc plot in a big way, working around actor commitments as well as the demands of the story. Add Invocation and Empedocles for new main character John Doggett’s personal ongoing story arc.

Season Nine:

Nothing Important Happened Today Parts 1&2

Trust No 1

Provenance

Providence

William

The Truth Parts 1&2

Season Nine started out with an effort to add new elements to the story, but as it became clear that this would be the show’s last season, those were later dropped in favour of wrapping up various characters’ arcs, if not the main conspiracy plot. Add Jump The Shark for the finale to cancelled spin-off series The Lone Gunmen (and for the last appearance of these significant characters on the show). Add Release for the conclusion of Doggett’s ongoing arc.

Route 2: Top Monsters of the Week

The term "Monsters of the Week" was coined by and for The X-Files fandom, and over the years the show produced many, many great individual hours of spooky television. This is, inevitably, a highly subjective list of those we think were among the best.

Season One:

Squeeze

Ice

Eve

Beyond The Sea

Tooms (sequel to Squeeze)

Squeeze was the series’ first ever Monster of the Week episode, and what an opener! So good it got a sequel, one of the few that’s as satisfying as its forerunner. Ice is one of the earliest episodes to explore Mulder and Scully’s partnership, while Beyond The Sea is the first to reverse their believer/sceptic dynamic, a trend which would continue with the occasional religious-themed episode until Scully finally gave up disbelieving in most things somewhere around Season Eight. It also features a wonderful, discombobulating-as-ever performance from the fabulous Brad Dourif, cornering the market in creepy genre serial killers. Add Fire if you’re a fan of genre favourite Mark Sheppard and/or bad English accents (Sheppard himself is doing a bad Irish accent for some reason).

Season Two:

Irresistible

Humbug

Season Two was one of the strongest seasons for the conspiracy arc, which produced many of its best episodes, but it also gave us a memorably spine-chilling antagonist in Irresistible’s Donnie Pfaster. Humbug is notable chiefly as the first episode written by Darin Morgan, a member of the writing team who played a small part covered in make-up in The Host, is credited as the main writer on four episodes of the show, and has been praised to the skies by fans ever since, largely because two of his four episodes (in Season Three) were all-time classics.

Season Three:

D.P.O.

Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose

Oubliette

Pusher

Jose Chung’s From Outer Space

D.P.O. is notable chiefly for featuring a particularly strong concentration of later-famous guest stars in perfectly cast parts. Oubliette is a moving exploration of what it means to be the victim of one of the series’ bad guys, while Pusher provides one of the show’s most memorable villains, one of three (along with Donnie Pfaster and Eugene Tooms) to get a sequel later. Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose and Jose Chung’s From Outer Space are Darin Morgan’s two brilliant, all-time classic entries - add War Of The Coprophages to complete the set of his episodes, and Quagmire for an episode he did a lot of work on. Add Grotesque for a strong and spooky Mulder episode. Add Syzygy if you were a teenage girl in the 1990s (trust us).

Season Four:

Unruhe

The Field Where I Died

Paper Hearts

Leonard Betts

Kaddish

Leonard Betts introduces an element of the arc plot, but mostly stands alone, and was considered strong enough by the production team to be aired after the Superbowl, making it the most-watched episode in the series’ run. If you enjoy spooky ghost stories, add Elegy, which similarly refers to the arc plot but focuses on a Monster of the Week. Paper Hearts is partly based on the arc plot, but the main focus is, again, a Monster of the Week, and it’s very good. Small Potatoes is a ‘comedy’ episode which skims over some seriously disturbing consent issues, but is nevertheless quite funny, so add that if you don’t mind suspending real-world concerns about what’s going on.

A note on Season Four’s second episode: Many consider Home to be one of the best episodes the show has ever done. Others (yours truly included) thought it was horrible and never want to watch it again. It was apparently the first episode to get a viewer discretion warning and Fox refused to re-run it for years. So – watch at your own risk! It frequently appears on ‘Best of The X-Files’ lists (and on this Den Of Geek writers' list of the 31 scary TV episodes that truly terrified us - Ed), partly for its thematic richness, partly for its daringly gruesome (for the 1990s) content.

Season Five:

Unusual Suspects

The Post-Modern Prometheus

Bad Blood

Folie À Deux

In Season Five, the show really started playing around with its format, often highly successfully – as the extent of overlap between this list and Route 5 shows. Of these four, Folie À Deux is the closest to a "traditional" X-Files episode, one in which its success lies, as so often, in Mulder and Scully’s relationship and Duchovny and Anderson’s chemistry.

Season Six:

Drive

How The Ghosts Stole Christmas

Monday

Field Trip

Drive, written by Vince Gilligan and starring Bryan Cranston, will be of particular interest to fans of Breaking Bad. How The Ghosts Stole Christmas is a fun romp, while Monday goes a more serious route with the ever reliable time loop concept. Add Tithonus for a strong Scully episode with relatively little Mulder.

Season Seven:

The Goldberg Variation

X-Cops

If you’re looking for a really nice episode of The X-Files, The Goldberg Variation is it. X-Cops sounds like it should be terrible but is really rather good, whether or not you enjoy Cops or its ilk. Add Hungry for an experiment in flipped perspective, and add Hollywood A.D. and Je Souhaite for slightly silly fun.

Season Eight:

Roadrunners

Redrum

Much of Season Eight focused on the arc plot, but when the writers turned their attention to Monsters of the Week, they could still produce a cracker. Redrum is The X-Files’ backwards episode, while Roadrunners is a pretty straightforward but effectively put together bit of American horror.

Season Nine:

John Doe

Audrey Pauley

Season Nine may not have been the show’s strongest, and Doggett and Reyes will never be as popular as Mulder and Scully, but these two episodes prove that they can be perfectly interesting characters in their own right with a strong enough story, John Doe showcasing Doggett while Audrey Pauley focuses on Reyes.

Related Article: I Still Want to Believe - 20 Years of The X-Files

Route 3: The Shipping News

The term "shipping" was coined by fans of The X-Files to differentiate between those "relationshippers" who wanted to see Mulder and Scully get together in a romantic and/or sexual relationship, and those non-shippers (called ‘NoRomos’ at the time) who preferred to see them remain in a platonic friendship and working relationship.

This list is for the shippers; although many of the episodes listed here contain no overt romantic activity, these are the episodes in which Mulder and Scully’s love for each other is particularly important, or they are particularly flirty with each other, or they display any other signs of latent romantic or sexual attraction to each other. In our entirely subjective opinion, obviously.

Season One:

Pilot

Ice

Fire

Although Mulder and Scully’s onscreen relationship remained famously platonic for a long time, the shippers weren’t getting it from nowhere – not too many people run around and display their naked backs to their new co-worker as Scully does in the Pilot (under, of course, extreme and unusual circumstances). Fire sees the first appearance of Jealous Scully, who reappeared every now and again throughout the run – not the best way to enjoy our heroine, but it does imply a more than professional interest in her partner. Add Beyond The Sea for more strong and heartfelt, albeit not overtly romantic, scenes between the two.

Season Two:

Little Green Men

Ascension

One Breath

Irresistible

The bad news is that most of the episodes highlighting Mulder and Scully’s relationship in season two involve Scully being in danger and Mulder trying to rescue her. The good news is that they’re mostly very good episodes. Add Duane Barry for the first part of the story continued in Ascension. Add Red Museum for some very shippy direction of the pair in an otherwise normal conversation.

Season Three:

War Of The Coprophages

Syzygy

Pusher

Quagmire

Wetwired

War Of The Coprophages and Syzygy give us Jealous Scully two episodes in a row, which is rather wearing, but there you have it. Pusher is much stronger, while the Darin Morgan-authored sections of Quagmire elevate that episode enormously.

Season Four:

Memento Mori

Tempus Fugit

Small Potatoes

All the episodes dealing with Scully’s arc plot in Season Four feature Mulder and Scully’s close relationship heavily, but their interactions in Memento Mori in particular stand out. Add Gethsemane for more of that arc, and for the lead-in to Season Five. Small Potatoes is a ‘comedy’ episode relying on an old SF trope, the handling of which is, as always with this particular trope, a little problematic, but it’s an essential episode for shippers nonetheless and features the first over hints that at least one of the two might be interested in being more than friends. Add Never Again for a very brief possible glimpse of Jealous Mulder. Add The Field Where I Died for non-romantic affirmation of the importance of their relationship, though much of it focuses on Mulder and the episode’s guest star.

Season Five:

Detour

The Post-Modern Prometheus

Emily

Bad Blood

Folie À Deux

Detour continues to drop the odd overt hint that at least one agent might be romantically interested in the other. Otherwise, Bad Blood and Folie À Deux are the standouts here from a shipping point of view in this season, with Jealous Mulder making a reappearance in the former, while The Post-Modern Prometheus is well known for a sweet and shipping-friendly final scene. Add Redux Parts 1&2 for more of Scully’s story arc carried over from Season Four and its ramifications on their relationship. Add Christmas Carol for the first part of the story concluded in Emily. Add Chinga for a frequently quoted line of Mulder’s. 

The X-Files Movie

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the show’s big-screen outing ramps up the romantic possibilities more than show itself had up to that point.

Season Six:

Triangle

Dreamland Parts 1&2

How The Ghosts Stole Christmas

Arcadia

The Unnatural

Field Trip

Season Six starts to play around with the idea of Mulder and Scully as a couple more obviously, including old genre standby plots like having to go undercover as a married couple (Arcadia), body-swapping leading to various hi-jinks (Dreamland), monsters of the week who treat the leads as a couple (How The Ghosts Stole Christmas) and whatever the heck is going on in Triangle. The Unnatural and Field Trip offer more standard stories featuring sweet moments between the two leads.

Season Seven:

The Sixth Extinction II: Amor Fati

Millennium

all things

Hollywood A.D.

Requiem

With the arrival of a new millennium, the subtext finally started to become the text. Sort of. Add The Sixth Extinction Part 1 and Season Six’s Biogenesis for context on Amor Fati.

Season Eight:

Per Manum

This Is Not Happening

Deadalive

Existence

Details redacted for spoilers. Add Essence for the first part of the story concluded in Existence.

Season Nine:

Trust No 1

William

The Truth Parts 1&2

The series finale of The X-Files was, frankly, a bit of a mess, but if you’re a shipper, it does at least have one saving grace, so there’s something to be thankful for.

The X-Files: I Want To Believe

Like the series finale, this belated follow-up movie left a lot of people vaguely dissatisfied, but saved itself from complete ignominy for the shippers with some reasonably well judged scenes. We suspect most of the more committed non-shippers had given up by this point anyway. 


Route 4: The B Team

The X-Files was a two-person led show for most of its run, but it did eventually start to add a few more regular characters, and by Season Nine, had worked its way up to four leads (Scully, Doggett, Reyes and Skinner). These are the episodes that focus primarily on Skinner, Doggett, Reyes and/or recurring characters the Lone Gunmen.

Seasons One and Two focus almost exclusively on Mulder and Scully, but watch Tooms for Skinner’s first, rather ambiguous, appearance, One Breath for the beginning of a closer relationship between Skinner and our heroes, and Colony/End Game for an early story in which he works closely with the lead pair.

Season Three:

Avatar

The first specifically written "Skinner episode," and a good one, particularly for its subtle homage to Don’t Look Now.

Season Four:

Zero Sum

Another Day in the Limelight for Skinner. Add Musings Of A Cigarette-Smoking Man for the series’ most important and oddly beloved recurring villain’s moment in the sun.

Season Five:

Unusual Suspects

The Pine Bluff Variant

Unusual Suspects is the first episode to focus primarily on the Lone Gunmen. The Pine Bluff Variant is primarily a Mulder episode, but heavily features Skinner.

Season Six:

S.R. 819

Three Of A Kind

More Skinner in S.R. 819, and more Lone Gunmen in Three Of A Kind. Add Triangle for a story that has fun with Skinner, as well as Mulder and Scully.

Season Seven:

Brand X

Brand X is another Skinner story. Add Hollywood AD for another bit of fun for the whole team.

Season Eight:

Within

Invocation

Empedocles

David Duchovny appears in only about half of Season Eight, so naturally other characters start to come to the fore. John Doggett is introduced as Mulder’s/Duchovny’s replacement in Within (and its sequel Without) and there’s a lot more Skinner in general. Invocation and Empedocles focus on Doggett’s personal ongoing story arc. Add Existence for an especially important moment for Skinner, and add This Is Not Happening for the introduction of Monica Reyes.

Season Nine:

John Doe (Doggett)

Hellbound (Reyes)

Audrey Pauley (Reyes)

Underneath (Doggett)

Jump The Shark (The Lone Gunmen)

Release (Doggett)

In Season Nine, both Skinner and Reyes became main characters while Gillian Anderson stepped back a little, so of course, this season heavily features Skinner, Reyes and Doggett in the majority of its episodes. Add The Truth Parts 1&2 for goodbyes to everybody. Add Provenance and Providence for the return of the Lone Gunmen to the show after a sojurn in their own spin-off. Skinner fans should also be sure to check out the 2008 movie The X-Files: I Want To Believe


Route 5: Format-bending and meta episodes

For its first few years, while The X-Files surprised audiences with the nature of its monsters or the developments in its arc plot, the format of the show remained broadly stable. However, as the years went by, the creative team became more and more willing to play around with that format, producing a variety of weird, sometimes very meta, and occasionally wonderful episodes.

In order to bend a show’s format, you have to have an established format in the first place, so there aren’t any particularly notable format-bending episodes in Seasons One and Two. Various stories, both relating to the Conspiracy arc and Monster of the Week stories, try out different things (such as One Breath, designed primarily to allow new mother Gillian Anderson to spend most of it in bed, or Irresistible, which gives us a different sort of bad guy), but nothing really out there.

Season Three:

Jose Chung’s From Outer Space

One of Darin Morgan’s two all-time classic episodes, and the first to really overtly play with the series’ format and episode structure. Also features that classic feature of meta-fictional episodes, bleeped-out or otherwise disguised swearing, taking advantage of the opportunity to get some semblance of swearing past the networks.

Season Four:

Musings Of A Cigarette-Smoking Man

Can we believe anything we see or hear in this episode? Probably not. Is it brilliant? Absolutely.

Season Five:

The Post-Modern Prometheus

Bad Blood

The Post-Modern Prometheus is what it says on the tin – a post-modernist take on Frankenstein and similar stories – while Bad Blood echoes some of the themes and Rashomon-style techniques of Jose Chung’s From Outer Space, but with an even more broadly comedic tone. Add Unusual Suspects for the show’s 100th episode, which provides some background to the themes of paranoia and conspiracy theorising that have run throughout the show, and might just make you question everything you thought you knew about Mulder.

Season Six:

Triangle

The Unnatural

Triangle is set in and around the Bermuda Triangle and is just as weird and mysterious as that sounds like it should be. It’s also filmed and edited to appear as if it consists of a series of single takes, uses side swipes to move between scenes, and takes place in real time. The Unnatural, the first episode written by David Duchovny, is positively normal by comparison, but its story, set mainly in flashback, and fairy-tale vibe make it stand out. Add Monday for a standard but particularly well done time loop episode.

Season Seven:

X-Cops

Hollywood AD

X-Cops is the show’s mockumentary episode, a crossover episode blending The X-Files with reality show Cops, and works far better than you might think from that description. Hollywood AD, Duchovny’s second script, is the "show-within-a-show" episode featuring Hollywood’s take on Mulder and Scully’s story, and is loads of fun, if slightly silly.

Season Eight:

Redrum

Alone

Redrum is the backwards-episode, a fairly standard story but pulled of well. Alone features the introduction of FBI agent and Mulder and Scully super-fan Leyla Harrison, an obvious audience counterpart named after a real X-Files fan who died of cancer in 2001.

Season Nine:

Scary Monsters

Sunshine Days

Scary Monsters sees the return of meta-fictional in-show super-fan Leyla Harrison, complete with her observations on the changing nature of the team. Sunshine Days is the show’s 200th episode, its penultimate story, and seriously weird. Perhaps us Brits don’t get the love for The Brady Bunch? Still, it does provide an opportunity to address Scully’s changing attitude to the craziness happening around her, and is certainly an offbeat way to end the series’ extraordinary run of Monster of the Week stories.