Mulder and Scully’s return to the small screen is big news for fans of The X-Files, but what of the people who haven’t watched the 202 episodes from the show’s nine-year run? Can a viewer begin in medias res or do they have to start from the beginning? Short answer: neither. The best bet is to watch the highlight reel, the most important episodes — the one that provide clues about the characters and bigger conspiracy.
1. “Pilot” (Season 1, Episode 1)
The first of the Files delves straight into big themes. Mulder and Scully’s initial case finds them investigating a series of bizarre murders in the Oregon woods. The episode does a sterling job of establishing all the main elements of the show’s core elements: alien abductions, government cover-ups, and the relationship between its leads. It’s worth noting that Scully is the main character here. She is the one assigned to assist on X-Files cases; it’s through her eyes that we first meet Mulder.
2. “Ice” (Season 1, Episode 8)
Ice is the first genuine monster-of-the-week outing for the show, its antagonist an eons-old parasitic worm freed from the Alaskan ice. Part Deliverance, part The Thing, it demonstrates the series’ early ability to tap into the human side of sci-fi. Those primordial wigglers transform people into murderous rage monsters, a great device for exploring contemporary paranoia.
3. “Beyond The Sea” (Season 1, Episode 13)
Scully’s resolve begins to deteriorate, an early indicator that she’s not the by-the-booker Mulder supposes her to be. Their typical skeptic/believer dynamic is turned on its head, with Scully desperate to believe the frothy rants of Brad Dourif’s crazed murderer, who claims he can communicate with the dead. It’s the first time Gillian Anderson got the chance to cut loose and she went for it.
4. “Duane Barry” (Season 2, Episode 5)
The X-Files isn’t necessarily a show about extraterrestrial activity, but aliens are at the heart of the Mulder’s motivations. Written and directed by series creator Chris Carter, this episode tackles the emotional fallout of alien abduction. Duane Barry holds a travel agency hostage, while Mulder and Scully — operating in separate locales — try to talk him down. It’s Mulder’s first opportunity to call on his own familial experiences with abduction, which plays nicely into the show’s own burgeoning mythology.
5. “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose” (Season 3, Episode 4)
The only X-Files to ever win a writing Emmy was penned by Darin Morgan. His unique tragi-comedy writing style only made it into four episodes total, and are never better realised than in this season three gem. Peter Boyle also won an Emmy playing the titular Bruckman, an old timer with a clairvoyant ability to see how and when everyone dies. His tale is a bittersweet one, humor and pathos dished out in equal amounts as he becomes entangled in the latest X-Files case. A series highlight.
6. “Pusher” (Season 3, Episode 17)
Everyone’s got a rager for mind control thanks to Jessica Jones’s Kilgrave. Pusher is sort of Kilgrave light. Like Kilgrave, he can make anybody do anything they want through suggestion. And, no, he doesn’t use his powers for good — something Mulder and Scully find out when people begin to harm themselves in weird ways. The writer here is Vince Gilligan, who created Breaking Bad.
7. “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space” (Season 3, Episode 20)
This is a shining example of the X-Files’s humor, presented though a meta-deconstruction of an alien abduction case. The big difference between this episode and the others is how it’s told. Unreliable narration is part of how the show works. Clarity is not the point of the X-Files.
8. “Home” (Season 4, Episode 2)
Of all the horrible scenarios the series explored, this episode features the most horrifying and the least science fictional. “Home” sees Mulder and Scully wandering into the decrepit abode of three monstrous siblings. Responsible for a spate of murders, the trio are born from incest and beset with disease. Naturally, the two agents go up against them in their booby-trapped farmhouse. It’s the only X-Files episode (to date) to receive a TV-MA rating.
9. “Never Again” (Season 4, Episode 13)
A Scully-driven episode that seldom makes it onto X-Files best-of lists, “Never Again” is an emotional story. Scully is a badass and Mulder needed to step back for the audience to get to know her.
10.”The Post-Modern Prometheus” (Season 5, Episode 5)
“The Post-Modern Prometheus” was Chris Carter’s homage to Universal’s monsters. This is a standalone episode that revolves around genetic engineering. It has one of the most outrageously un-X-Files endings ever. It’s dumb, but in a great way.
11. “Drive” (Season 6, Episode 2)
The episode that introduced Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan to Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston. Cranston portrays a conflicted man whose racism doesn’t stand in Mulder’s way when it comes to helping him stay alive. He takes the agent hostage in his car, and forces him to drive west across the country, fast. If Mulder slows down, he’ll die, but it’s Cranston’s performance that sells the simple premise. He’s repulsive, but believably so.
12. “Bad Blood” (Season 6, Episode 18)
Another delicious romp into meta-textual silliness. This episode fires on all four cylinders right from the get-go, with Scully and Mulder both recanting the events after the fact. The pre-credits opener finds the pair chasing a supposed vampire, with Mulder staking him right through the heart, right as Scully removes his fake fangs. The highlights are in the delivery; the different opinions of the local sheriff (played by Luke Wilson) present via humorous visual discrepancies. It’s also Gillian Anderson’s favorite episode.