The X-Files is over … at least for now. As our reboot culture has shown, nothing is ever truly done forever. Although Gillian Anderson has closed the door on playing FBI Special Agent Dana Scully, series creator Chris Carter may not be finished with The X-Files just yet.
Of course, fans also thought the end was near back in 2002, when the original show finished after nine seasons on Fox. Flash-forward to early 2016, when Fox reunited the team for a six-episode tenth season: The revival was a hit right out of the gate, premiering with 21.4 million viewers. But two years later, viewers haven’t responded to season 11 in nearly the same way, even if critics agree it’s been a more consistent offering. Now that we have 16 episodes of The X-Files revival to dissect and discuss, it’s time to do some ranking! From Were-monsters to shape-shifters to Mr. Chuckleteeth to, of course, aliens, The X-Files gave us a lot to consider over its final two seasons.
16. “Babylon” (Season 10, Episode 5)
Two words: Cowboy Mulder. Even fans will tell you that the episodes written by series creator Chris Carter are often the most problematic, but this is the most disappointing of all because it didn’t even add to the show’s out-there mythology. Imagine the pitch: “Mulder takes mushrooms to stop a terrorist bombing.” It’s indicative of how much creative freedom Fox gave Carter in guiding these new episodes that “Babylon” made it through production. This episode isn’t just Islamophobic and dull, it even finds a way to waste the return of the Lone Gunmen. That’s a true crime.
15. “My Struggle II” (Season 10, Episode 6)
Given how season 10 ended, it’s not particularly surprising that ratings nose-dived in season 11. “My Struggle II” is like a bull in a china shop, destroying the show’s mythology with a story about a plague that only Scully can stop. What if this really was it? Just consider the nerve of ending the series on this note, with Mulder apparently dying as Scully looks up into a bright light from an alien spaceship. The tag for the episode is “This Is the End,” and Carter closes with a cliff-hanger! If this ended up being the final X-Files, it would have been one of the worst series finales of all time.
14. “My Struggle IV” (Season 11, Episode 10)
It may not have been as overheated as the season 10 finale, but “My Struggle IV” is still the worst episode of season 11. It’s a sad way to end the mythology of such a great show — not just because of the giant plot holes, but the bizarre choice to separate Mulder and Scully for most of its running time. (Not to mention how it skips past some of the biggest revelations of the season, such as the death of Reyes, and Scully learning that William was essentially an experiment.) While it may not be as egregious as ending with a beam of light, the news of a Scully pregnancy felt plenty manipulative too. Let’s hope The X-Files comes back just so it can end on a stronger note.
13. “Familiar” (Season 11, Episode 8)
While the vision of Mr. Chuckleteeth is absolutely haunting, this episode is a mess in terms of themes and plotting. Carter and company sometimes aim for politically current messages, but the desire to make a statement about witch hunts within the construct of a thriller stand-alone episode backfired. “Familiar” has are some undeniably creepy bits, but it’s simply annoying to watch characters we know and love act inconsistently to serve a narrative.
12. “Ghouli” (Season 11, Episode 5)
This is an hour with good ideas but poor execution. It’s not the first time that The X-Files has tackled the idea of not being able to trust what you see with your own eyes, but the attempt here to weave in Scully and Mulder’s son, William, feels clunky and unrefined. It’s an episode with some strong moments — Anderson can always find the emotional truth in even the cheesiest dialogue — but it’s forgettable overall. That’s a shame, given what it could have added to the mythology of Mulder and Scully’s relationship.
11. “My Struggle III” (Season 11, Episode 1)
Oh, Chris. “My Struggle III” pulls a Dallas by basically retconning the previous season finale under a “it was all a dream” screenwriting trick. And then this episode ends with a gross revelation about Scully’s son! If “My Struggle” left everyone excited at what could come next, this follow-up sapped away the nostalgic draw of seeing Mulder and Scully again. Still, there’s a heated insanity to Carter’s style that peaks here in terms of turning Scully and Mulder into mouthpieces. If you dig the off-the-rails conspiracy vibe, this episode is for you.
10. “Kitten” (Season 11, Episode 6)
Who doesn’t love a good Skinner episode? We learned more about Skinner’s time in Vietnam with this episode, as he’s introduced to a fellow soldier altered by an MK program that made him see demons. It’s a traumatic hour for Skinner, and it gives him new resolve to work within the system to expose its corruption. Sadly, that element of “Kitten” doesn’t really pay off in subsequent episodes, but this is a solid hour for Mitch Pileggi that offers a supporting showcase for Haley Joel Osment. It’s not a bad hour, just one that’s surprisingly forgettable.
9. “Home Again” (Season 10, Episode 4)
When Fox first released the title to Glen Morgan’s season ten offering, hard-core fans hoped that it would be a sequel to the controversial “Home.” Alas, it ended up a mediocre affair that melds urban legends of crusading boogeymen with Scully’s past. The story of the Band-Aid Man was overshadowed by one that Morgan and Anderson clearly found more interesting: the arc of Scully saying good-bye to her mother. Most of this episode is inconsistent, but it does allow Anderson some of her best work in season ten, especially the emotional closing scene in which she mourns with Mulder and the two speak of their missing son.
8. “Nothing Lasts Forever” (Season 11, Episode 9)
There’s nothing particularly special about the majority of the penultimate episode of The X-Files, but then there’s that final scene between David Duchovny and Anderson, which is their best in the whole revival. This episode, unlike “Babylon,” seems to honestly address the end of the series, setting us up for closure instead of the cliff-hanger that eventually arrived. It’s particularly interesting to consider the plot of “Nothing Lasts Forever” in light of the overall response to the reboot, since it’s about a TV star trying to relive faded glory by sacrificing her fans. Some might argue Carter did something similar when he brought back his most famous creation.
7. “My Struggle” (Season 10, Episode 1)
Now we’re getting to the good stuff! There’s nothing quite like a reunion, and seeing Duchovny and Anderson in the roles that made them household names gave “My Struggle” an undeniable energy that the show never totally regains. Sure, it’s an imperfect episode, but there’s something thrilling about watching Carter & Co. go nuts with their own creation, making clear that they had lost none of that conspiracy-driven, alien-loving manic energy. The modern Carter episodes are pointed to as examples of why the reboot doesn’t work, but there’s something truly “out there” about their unbridled insanity that’s almost admirable. If nothing else, this episode allowed us to believe again.
6. “RM9SBG93ZXJZ” (Season 11, Episode 7)
The most ambitious episode of either revival season. First, it leans heavily on fear of technology — there was no greater influence on new X-Files than Black Mirror — which can be a tough sell for viewers who might be watching it on their smartphones. Second, it’s basically a two-hander, featuring only Duchovny and Anderson for the vast majority of its running time. They’re both great in this episode, which is one of the revival’s most physically challenging as well. As we read more and more stories about data breaches and privacy violations, “RM9SBG93ZXJZ” feels remarkably timely. It is a truly modern X-Files episode, instead of just a retread of the greatest hits.
5. “Founder’s Mutation” (Season 10, Episode 2)
Director James Wong is one of the most notable alumni of the original X-Files, graduating to Final Destination and American Horror Story. Wong knows how to bring the genre joy, as he does in this very solid episode about a deadly sound. Duchovny and Anderson slip so easily back into their playful banter and sexual chemistry that it was like they never left. And Wong paces this episode beautifully, creating some actual tension along with a model for the Carter-less episodes of the revival. “My Struggle” may have been the actual premiere, but “Founder’s Mutation” revealed what a modern X-Files could be like at its best.
4. “Plus One” (Season 11, Episode 3)
Chris Carter’s best episode also gives us the best supporting performance from a veteran of the series, Karin Konoval. Playing both Judy and Chuck Poundstone, Konoval is riveting in her dual role. The X-Files always works better when it leaves a little open to interpretation, and in “Plus One,” the exact connection between the twins and the game of Hangman they played allows for some creative mystery. As with the best X-Files episodes, the success of this hour comes down to pacing, and it is perfectly balanced with comedy and suspense.
3. “This” (Season 11, Episode 2)
A much better send-off for the Lone Gunmen than that tease in “Babylon,” “This” is the best non–Darin Morgan episode of the revival seasons. (This one was by the other Morgan, Glen.) It’s a classic puzzle episode as Mulder and Scully follow a series of clues related to the virtual consciousness of Langly, one of the Lone Gunmen. It’s X-Files for the Black Mirror era, imagining that a virtual world that could be more hell than heaven, and it’s paced beautifully from beginning to end. It also asks a whopper of a question: Could Scully and Mulder live on in virtual reality? In a sense, they will for fans of the show.
2. “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster” (Season 10, Episode 3)
The indisputably best episode of season ten is also one of the quirkiest and smartest. X-Files all-star Darin Morgan reportedly envisioned this script as an episode of the short-lived reboot of The Night Stalker, then reworked it in a way that fit Mulder and Scully. And then he brought along Tyler Labine, Kumail Nanjiani, and the fantastic Rhys Darby as a shape-shifting Were-Monster. With playful references to the history of the show — and a reminder that Duchovny is actually better at comedy than he is at drama — this episode offered a bit of everything. It’s the best script of the revival era and it features an unforgettable performance from Darby. The twist at the end even plays into the classic theme that not everything is what it first seems. Only one episode was better …
1. “The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat” (Season 11, Episode 4)
It’s close to a tie between the Darin Morgan episodes, but “The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat” gets the edge for the meta suggestion that pop-culture hallmarks aren’t quite exactly as we remember them. This one doesn’t just reference classic X-Files episodes, it rewrites them, akin to fanfiction or a pseudo-reboot. The episode tops it all off with an alien literally handing Mulder and Scully everything they’ve ever wanted to know, and Mulder throwing a temper tantrum. Funny and insightful about fandom in equal measure, “Forehead Sweat” justifies every eye roll in other revival episodes. Mulder and Scully can come back every year if they can guarantee another hour this enjoyable.