Welcome back to my Season 2 rankings! This time we’ve got our first comedy, our first time saying goodbye to Glen Morgan and James Wong , our first chance to witness Chris Carter’s direction, and our first real instance of action-hero Mulder.
9 – Humbug (85/100)
I love The X-Files because when it’s clicking, very few shows can top it’s character development and dramatic intensity. When I pick just one episode to watch, its usually one that gets my adrenaline going or makes me want to cry (yes I’m a sucker for Paper Hearts).
But you know what? Its a testament to this show’s incredible versatility that some of it’s best episodes are comedies. Humbug is the first such episode and it’s quite a catch…
Now Humbug is not pure comedy (if it was, it likely wouldn’t have scored so high). Darin Morgan is great at writing dark comedy with real drama and pathos. Here, he perfectly combines a solemn tale about acceptance with oodles of clever humor. For every surreal gag where Scully eats a cockroach, there is a heartfelt speech from Lanny about not being wanted. We have a hilarious diatribe from the hotel manager where he accidentally and correctly stereotypes Mulder but that makes it much more impactful when the hotel manager is murdered. When Mulder strikes the classic, all-American-white-alpha-male-pose at the end, this is balanced out with…actually screw that, that pose doesn’t need to be balanced by anything. It’s one of the greatest visuals in the history of this show and I would watch 42 minutes worth of that shot.
Humbug sets the template for so many future episodes and that’s why it makes #9 on this list.
#8 – Die Hand Die Verletzt (86/100)
Some of my love for Die Hand Die Verletzt may be due to nostalgia since this was the second ever episode I ever saw. Some of it may be because, despite being deathly afraid of them, I’m a sucker for scenes involving snakes that have been possessed by servants of the devil. But honestly, is there anything in Die Hand Die Verletzt to dislike? We get excellent Mulder and Scully interactions (toads and parachutes are a killer combination), terrifying set-pieces (pig dissection(s), the aforementioned snake sequence, and that amazing ending in the locker-room shower), and a strong villain in Mrs. Paddock. There are even moments of real drama (something that many standard Monsters of the Week ignore) with Shannon’s memories being particularly heart-wrenching.
But perhaps the most unique part of Die Hand Die Verletzt is how it doesn’t take all of that dark morbid material too seriously. The opening with the teaching staff transitioning from being uptight wholesome pricks into uptight devil-worshiping pricks is genius.
Really, there is only one bad thing about Die Hand Die Verletzt. It’s a bitch to write out that title over and over.
#7 – Ascension (86/100)
There had been great episodes prior to Ascension. Beyond the Sea, The Erlenmeyer Flask, Ice….these are all episodes that are better IMO. Hell, the next one on this list is Duane Barry which is the superior episode of this two-parter. But Ascension gets up to #7 on this list for one reason – it absolutely wrecks me emotionally. This is due to many things but lets focus on two things primarily: Mark Snow’s amazing music and David Duchovny’s incredibly raw performance. These go hand-in-hand to show just how utterly lost Mulder is in this episode. Just check out that scene after Mulder meets with Mr. X and sits in the car staring blankly out the window while that amazing and restrained music plays. Or those final moments where he talks to Mrs. Scully about her daughter and then stares mournfully up at the sky. Its all so emotionally manipulative, but dammit, its so powerful!
The driving force of all that emotion is Scully and the sense of loss felt throughout. But whats impressive about this episode is how many memorable moments there are. There’s Scully’s abuction, the tense scene with the patrol cop, Mulder’s action-hero shenanigans on the ski-lift, Mulder’s interrogation of Duane Barry, Krycek’s betrayal, Mr. X being a badass like only Mr. X can be, and Skinner giving me chills with his final scene. His delivery of “as of right now, I’m reopening the X-Files…that’s what they fear” is sheer perfection.
So why is it only #7? Despite all of my praise, the episode feels a bit scattershot. The direction by Michael Lange is very utilitarian and doesn’t elevate the episode the way someone like Rob Bowman or Kim Manners can. This episode has some incredible pieces but as a whole, it falls below my top six of the season (all six of which score 90 or higher).
#6 – Duane Barry (90/100)
Lets get the obvious out of the way and talk about what makes Duane Barry so memorable…
Completely pointless speedo scene aside, this episode is remembered because of the cliff-hanger with Scully being kidnapped. It’s tense, terrifying, and absolutely perfectly executed.
But that ending alone wouldn’t launch this episode up to #6. No this is #6 because it is one of the most intense episodes in the annals of The X-Files. Duane Barry is Chris Carter’s directorial debut and it is phenomenal. Very few episodes match this level of intensity (maybe episodes like Drive and Folie a Deux) and it does not feel like a first effort. He gets riveting performances from everyone and this is maybe the most technically sound episode up to this point. The entire hostage situation and give-and-take between Mulder and Duane Barry keeps me glued to my seat, even on my 33rd re-watch. The chemistry between David Duchovny and Steve Railsback sizzles and its a major reason an episode that is so constrained in terms of scope could be so damn good. Plus, this is the first episode that we see actual aliens wandering around so that’s a positive. And did I mention Mark Snow’s amazing score?
Really, the only reason this episode isn’t in the top 5 is because the last ten minutes are a bit of a come-down after the first thirty minutes (other than the very ending). But those first thirty minutes are borderline classic.