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The 30 Best Episodes of The X-Files, Ranked

As The X-Files, that generation-defining phenomenon, celebrates its 30th anniversary (officially Sept. 10th), perhaps the best encapsulation of the show’s legacy can be found in this clip from a panel featuring Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny at the Paley Center on Oct. 12th, 2013.

It’s not possible to embed the clip, because of language restrictions that include its title: “WHAT THE FUCK IS MAGNETITE?” That’s a quote from Anderson as moderator Keith Uhlich attempts to remind the two stars about key plot details from the TV show that they both starred in. It is so very funny to watch Anderson lose her entire mind on stage, and it’s also so very cathartic — because every lifelong X-Files fan has found themselves, at one point or another, having to try to explain what the actual hell happened on this show, and failing miserably to make it make sense for their friends or loved ones.

Over the course of 11 seasons, creator Chris Carter and his writing staff (which included future notable producers like Howard Gordon, Frank Spotnitz, John Shiban, Glen Morgan, James Wong, David Greenwalt, and future Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan) used the paranormal investigations of Agents Fox Mulder (Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Anderson) to explore questions of science and faith. Like many other TV producers in the 1990s, they were also exploring the idea that a long-running TV show could be more than just people solving a mystery each week — there could be ongoing storylines, “mythology” episodes scattered throughout each season that would build up to a larger narrative.

The mythology episodes were counterbalanced by plenty of monster-of-the-week (MOTW) adventures, and within the fanbase there were plenty of people who might prefer one subgenre over the other. Yet there were still great, great examples of both over the course of the show’s long, long run — one which may officially be over, though threats of spinoffs and reboots do constantly lurk in the shadows.

Excluding the movies, there have been 218 episodes of The X-Files, which means that narrowing things down to 30 for this list was tough. But the quality of this show has fluctuated so dramatically over the years that it would be just as tough to come up with a list of the 30 worst episodes — because there are just as many contenders.

Everyone’s experience with The X-Files is different, of course, especially as the years have passed, and the expectation that any of it will make sense has faded. So you should know that this is a list created by someone who began watching the show while it was still airing, riding that roller coaster to the bitter end, and then got back on board for the show’s ill-fated Seasons 10 and 11. (I have been writing about The X-Files on the Internet for decades now; it just took me a while to get paid for it.)

Some personal history played a role in the ranking, as ranking itself is always a highly subjective exercise. But my hope is that you’ll consider these picks as examples of the show at its very best, recommendations to consider if you want to rewatch. That’s why, at the end of the article, you’ll find a list of all these picks arranged chronologically, so you can watch in order if you choose. Because you really should start at the beginning (and no spoilers, but that pilot’s a banger).