Despite most of the original series airing in the 90s, The X-Files remains a curiously popular phenomenon into the 21st century. Much of this is due to the dynamic at the heart of the show. Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson), believer and skeptic, influenced other TV pairings and couples emboding similar viewpoints – from Booth (David Boreanaz) and Brennan (Emily Deschanel) on Bones to David (Mike Colter) and Kristen (Katja Harbers) on EVIL.
But The X-Files, at its peak, also defied the odds: it was a cult classic that made it to mainstream popularity while providing the template for other shows to tell serialized stories in a largely procedural format. And it re-energized science fiction and mystery thriller television. It’s arguable that we wouldn’t have LOST without The X-Files. Without Vince Gilligan‘s work on the show, we might not even have the Breaking Bad or Better Call Saul we know and love today. It’s not an exaggeration to say that The X-Files played a major role in shaping the TV we’ve loved over the past two decades.
Yet The X-Files was also a show with major flaws. In earlier seasons, those flaws could be charming. In later seasons? They could be downright aggravating. And most of the time we don’t even want to discuss what the reboot was trying to accomplish. Ranking seasons is thus a fun and interesting exercise; when the show was doing well, it was doing really well, and when it wasn’t, it flirted with disaster.
So – without further ado, we give you Screen Speck’s Ranking of The X-Files‘ Seasons, presented in descending order for your & the search engines’ pleasure.
1. Season Four
The X-Files Season 4 is where the show really hits its stride. It knows what it wants to be, and, most importantly, Mulder and Scully’s dynamic has grown into the duo ultimately responsible for the fan phenomena known as “shipping.” While Season 4 continues to have fantastic “Monster of the Week” (MOTW) episodes and expands on The X-Files‘ compelling larger plot, it also finds time to focus further on the characters themselves. This season boasts episodes like “Unruhe,” in which Mulder and Scully investigate a series of abductions where strange and impossible photographs are the only clue. Their relationship is tested when Scully is abducted again.
Season 4 also illuminates the infamous Cigarette Smoking Man’s (William B. Davis) backstory in “Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man.” In “Never Again,” tension comes to a breaking point between Mulder and Scully as she acts out over feeling treated like a sidekick to Mulder rather than a partner. We also delve further into Mulder’s trauma over his sister’s abduction in “Paper Hearts,” with Mulder investigating a serial killer and his possible involvement in his sister’s disappearance. This episode shows Mulder straining under the lack of closure and suggests possibilities for what happened to Samantha beyond alien abduction. Season 4 gets our #1 spot for managing to take an already compelling and successful show to new heights, further exploring characters and relationships while upholding the same single-episode excellence we saw in previous seasons.
BEST EPISODES: “Unruhe”; “Paper Hearts”; “Never Again”; “Small Potatoes”
WORST EPISODES: “Teliko,” “El Mundo Gira,” “The Field Where I Died”
2. Season Five
“Quintessential X-Files” is the best way to describe its fifth season. The show wasn’t quite at its peak (according to this critic at least), but had definitely found its creative footing. It’s one of The X-Files‘ most experimental seasons in terms of technical and narrative proportions. While the series’ mythology remains at the center of everything, Season 5’s MOTW episodes are some of the show’s best. It leans in on humor and camp with episodes like “Humbug” and “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space” without compromising the chilling horror for which the show is well-known. A few examples of the latter are the notorious “Bad Blood” and “The Post-Modern Prometheus.” Both pushed The X-Files‘ creative boundaries into more ridiculous territory the show had already started exploring in some of its earlier show episodes.
“Bad Blood” (written by Vince Gilligan, who went on to create one or two other things) shows a more playful side to Mulder and Scully, one that poked fun at the utter absurdity of the FBI having a jurisdiction dedicated to obscure paranormal activity. Mulder enlists the help of Scully to solve a murder in Texas that he believes is the result of a vampire attack. Scully, ever the skeptic, doesn’t believe vampires exist but begrudgingly goes with Mulder to investigate. Modeled after an episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show, “Bad Blood” is a reconstruction of the murder in which each version of the events, as told by Mulder and Scully, is more ridiculous than the next – including an overly exaggerated guest appearance by Luke Wilson that had a very jealous Mulder giving him buckteeth in his retelling.
It’s not often you get two distinctly innovative and memorable episodes in a single season, but The X-Files Season 5 fires on all cylinders. From “Bad Blood” to “The Post-Modern Prometheus,” and everything in between, the season is a standout for The X-Files and science fiction in general.
BEST EPISODES: “Bad Blood,” “The Post-Modern Prometheus,” “Detour”
WORST EPISODES: “Patient X,” “The Pine Bluff Variant,” “Redux”
3. Season Three
The X-Files Season 3 is the show’s first great season. It’s an embarrassment of riches, really, when you consider that Season 3 contains a) the show’s best mythology episodes, b) several of its funniest episodes, and c) many of the more well-constructed MOTW episodes. After Scully’s abduction in Season 2, episodes focusing on the alien-government conspiracy feel more personal for both of our beloved protagonists – a feeling that only grows in Season 4. The three-episode run of “Anasazi,” “The Blessing Way,” and “Paper Clip” expands the scope of the government conspiracy in shocking and realistic ways, tying together the historical horrors of World War II and its aftermath with the U.S. government’s cover-up of extraterrestrial life. The X-Files’ mythology episodes work best when they remain focused on the creation of the alien-human hybrids, before the show’s mythology got convoluted by the Syndicate and its plans for alien colonization on Earth. In this regard, the aforementioned “Paper Clip” and the one-two punch of “Nisei” and “731” are textbook excellence.
Season 3 also introduces some of The X-Files‘ most memorable villains, monsters, and heroes. “Pusher,” written by the one and only Vince Gilligan, featured Robert Modell (Robert Wisden), a man who could bend other individuals to do his will. And before Gilligan would become the show’s funniest writer on the show, there was Darin Morgan, who wrote some of the most deeply human, funny, and tragic stories on TV. When we speak of The X-Files coming into its own in Season 3, we really mean that Morgan understood the philosophy and tone of The X-Files more than anyone else. He understood the way human pain, alienation, and mortality, while sorrowful, could also be mined to hilarious tragicomic depths. “Clyde Bruckman’s Finale Repose,” often topping the list of best X-Files episodes, perfectly encapsulates the unique blend of genres The X-Files always aimed for. Other top-notch Morgan episodes in Season 3 include “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space” and “War of the Coprophages,” both episodes that could rival Season 5’s “Bad Blood” for Most Hilarious X-Files Outing.
Overall, Season 3 is terrific because its episodes best articulate the show’s philosophy: the quest for the truth is a lonely road, usually bound to end in failure…but how lucky you are if you find someone to love along the way.
BEST EPISODES: “Paper Clip”, “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose,” “Pusher.”
WORST EPISODES: “2Shy,” “The Walk,” “Teso Dos Bichos”
4. Season Six
The X-Files Season 6 has a tough job: it’s the one that directly follows the first X-Files film, Fight the Future. And it’s delivered in new, often delightfully odd ways. Season 6 is perhaps The X-Files‘ most playful and experimental, featuring standouts like “Triangle” and “How the Ghosts Stole Christmas.” “Triangle” takes some risks with storytelling and cinematography, using split screens to show the characters crisscrossing the same spaces at different moments. At the same time, Scully and The Lone Gunmen search for Mulder, who has fallen through time into the past, while a snazzy jazz number plays in the background. It’s not only different for The X-Files – it’s incredibly fun. Plus, “Triangle” is the first episode where we get a Mulder/Scully kiss on screen (even if it is a past-life version of Scully). And who could forget “How the Ghosts Stole Christmas,” packed as it is with Mulder-and-Scully shipping highlights sprinkled throughout a Christmas ghost story as amusing as it is spooky.
BEST EPISODES: “How the Ghosts Stole Christmas,” “Triangle,” “Rain King”
WORST EPISODES: “Trevor,” “Terms of Endearment”
5. Season Two
Generally speaking, it’s a grand uncertainty, whether a show’s sophomore season can improve upon its debut. With The X-Files Season 2, the issue is never in doubt. While not exactly a grand departure from Season 1, the second season cements the show’s overall mood, creating a balance between mythology and MsOTW. Gillian Anderson’s pregnancy became part of the narrative through Scully’s abduction arc and raised the series’ stakes inadvertently. After Scully returns without a single memory of her abduction, she becomes the source of all truth, for which Mulder has searched since the alleged abduction of his younger sister Samantha.
Aside from cementing The X-Files‘ mythology, Season 2 also emphasized the strong bond between Mulder and Scully. Episodes where Scully is “missing” give us a distraught Mulder who can’t bear the guilt over her abduction. Once she’s back, Mulder’s guilt only grows – especially when Scully demonstrates the physical effects of the experiments carried out upon her during the abduction. Tensions only mount when Scully’s sister Melissa is murdered, and Mulder and Scully are separated when they shut down The X-Files unit. In the long run, though, this only strengthens their relationship. The only people they trust are each other.
Some other notable episodes in the MOTW format are “Irresistible,” where the monster is based more closely in real-world circumstances and shakes Scully to her core. There is also “Død Kalm,” where aging is the source of all evil. While The X-Files Season 2 is more concerned with the series’ overall mythology, its stand-alone episodes lean into exploring more immediate problems, like violence against women, America’s long-standing colonization of Haiti, and even sexual assault. While not as overwhelmingly paranormal as Season 1, tackling topics like these make Season 2 was one of the show’s more ambitious.
BEST EPISODES: “Irresistible”, “The Host,” “Humbug”
WORST EPISODES: “3”, “Firewalker,” “Fearful Symmetry”
6. Season One
The X-Files Season 1 is a story of epic highs and lows. We’ll start with the good. The pilot is fantastic and immediately establishes Mulder and Scully’s dynamic. Season 1 also has some of the very best standalone episodes of the whole series, including some of its most memorable monsters (Tooms, anyone?). By the end of The X-Files‘ original run, the alien mythology is so convoluted and boring you can be forgiven for not remembering how enticing things were in the beginning. Episodes like “Fallen Angel,” “EBE,” and “The Erlenmeyer Flask” echo the tone and visual imagery of the best Cold War thrillers, questioning government authority and reckoning with the crimes the United States committed in order to remain the world’s superpower.
But the show had yet to balance the tones it would learn to control over the next couple of seasons. The result is that for every episode that feels like an all-time great, The X-Files gives us one that’s just as bad, or hokey – or, worst of all, outright boring or offensive. “Ghost in the Machine” is a hilariously bad episode about a person getting killed by a thinking computer. But it’s followed up by “Ice,” The X-Files‘ brilliant take on John Carpenter’s The Thing, which deftly builds tension and paranoia through isolation and offers a string of fun guest actors to boot. This back-and-forth was part of the show’s beguiling charm in its early years: one episode makes you wonder how this particular story made the cut, and the next episode strikes a note so heavenly you’re inspired to argue that The X-Files is the best show on TV.
BEST EPISODES: “Beyond the Sea,” “Ice,” “Squeeze”
WORST EPISODES: “Ghost in the Machine,” “Space,” “Young at Heart”
7. Season Seven
In a sense, The X-Files Season 7 is even more disappointing than 8 and 9. When the show moved its production from Vancouver to Los Angeles after Season 5, it lost its notable look, something I will always find disappointing. I associate The X-Files with the Pacific Northwest’s dreariness, something that Southern California just doesn’t have. Despite this, Season 6, while often faulty with the show’s own mythology, still had many wonderful standalone mysteries and monsters. And Mulder and Scully’s dynamic is still thoughtful and engaging. The X-Files had lost much of its look, but the show remained in its prime.
Then it nosedives. The X-Files Season 7 is largely devoid of anything notable or even interesting. By this point, the mythology is so convoluted it barely makes sense at all. Duchovny is present mostly to fulfill his contract. And every story feels like an empty retread of something from a previous season. So many big choices are bizarre, from Scully running away with the Cigarette-Smoking Man and not telling Mulder to the conclusion of Samantha Mulder’s story. What was Kathy Griffin doing here? Why are we getting a follow-up to Donnie Pfaster’s story five seasons later, especially when similar follow-ups to Eugene Tooms (Doug Hutchison) and Robert Modell didn’t work? Season 7 is The X-Files running on autopilot, no longer knowing what to do with its alien conspiracy, failing to say anything new about its leads. Worst of all: it’s just boring.
Yet Season 7 is still better than Season 8 or 9 because Duchovny, though on autopilot, is still around – which is better than him being gone. And there are a few precious moments worthy of recognition. Like Mulder and Scully’s first real kiss! Or the beautiful moment they share at Mulder’s doorway at the end of “The Sixth Extinction II: Amor Fati.” Or Gillian Anderson’s directorial debut. A handful of Season 7’s episodes also stand the test of time, predominantly “X-Cops,” a crossover event with FOX since-derided Cops. And watching Scully run back and forth in the background of this scene in “Hollywood A.D.” is one of The X-Files‘ funniest sight gags.
Still, there’s not a whole lot to latch onto in The X-Files Season 7. And when its episodes are bad, they for some reason thud even harder than in years past. (Again: What is Kathy Griffin doing here?)
BEST EPISODES: “Je Souhaite,” “X-Cops,” “Hollywood A.D.”
WORST EPISODES: “Fight Club,” “First Person Shooter,” “Brand X”
8. Season Eight
Ah, The X-Files Season 8. This one suffers from the unfortunate problem of Mulder and Scully no longer serving as the main characters. This is the season when Chris Carter began testing his theory that The X-Files could continue without Mulder or Scully in the lead. So Season 8 sees Mulder on the run and Scully partnered with Agent Doggett (Robert Patrick). While this season has a few decent individual episodes, no sane person can deny that Mulder’s absence is insurmountable, and Scully and Doggett simply lack the dynamic of Mulder and Scully. Finally, like other seasons since Fight the Future, The X-Files Season 8’s overarching plot lacks direction.
The second half, though, is quite an improvement, thanks to the return of Mulder and his touching reunion with Scully in “Deadalive.” Other than that, though, everything feels a bit scattered. Despite Mulder and Scully’s reunion, The X-Files still feels like it’s trying to fit a square peg into a round hole, scrambling to pass the torch to new agents Doggett and Reyes (Annabeth Gish). But at least Season 8’s two final episodes are highlights. Everyone rallies together to protect Scully from super soldiers while she gives birth to her child, and she and Mulder finally officially acknowledge their relationship on screen.
BEST EPISODES: “Deadalive,” “Existence,” “Essence”
WORST EPISODES: “Salvage,” “Empedocles,” “Via Negativa”
9. Season Nine
How does one of the most iconic pieces of television media end? In The X-Files‘ case, not exactly with a bang – more like a long, laborious breath. One long overdue. After David Duchovny’s departure the year before, it was painfully evident there was no way to fill the void. It wasn’t so much that he made the entire series; rather, they, Duchovny and Gillian Anderson, were the heart of the show. The two of them created a perfect symbiosis, and with that helped viewers through The X-Files‘ darkest periods.
While the series’ overall quality dropped drastically with The X-Files Season 9, those who’d been die-hard fans of Mulder and Scully being more than friends got their moment of victory in the series finale. The X-Files‘ sees Mulder and Scully chatting in a dingy motel bed, the conversation mirroring their meeting in the pilot episode. They touch foreheads in a pointed nod to their love and affection for one another – and to the dynamic that had viewers hanging on to their every interaction for nine years.
BEST EPISODES: “The Truth”, “William,” “Release”
WORST EPISODES: “Sunshine Days,” “Lord of the Flies,” “Jump the Shark”