The show’s crux was, and always will be, paranoia, and the best episodes drew viewers into that same state of anxiety and uncertainty, convincing us that the real-world may be just as labyrinthine and essentially mysterious.
5. “Field Trip” (Season 6, Episode 21)
“Field Trip” unmoors FBI agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully from any attachment to objective reality, and takes a run at philosophical questions of perception (“How do you know you’re not just a brain in a vat?”). Sealed in the digestive tract of a giant fungi, Mulder and Scully’s chemical hallucinations provide layers of deception and nested realities. This episode is also a reminder of how easily we can be manipulated; luck only saves Mulder and Scully from succumbing to a deadly, deceptive flytrap that kills by giving everyone exactly what they want.
4. “The Pine Bluff Variant” (Season 5, Episode 18)
Since the episode aired in 1998, the FBI has developed an unsavory reputation for goading unstable young men into bombing plots they would have never orchestrated on their own. Are our intelligent services, in effect, creating terrorists to arrest and terrorist plots to foil? Can an undercover agent get too caught up in the group he or she is meant to undermine? Mulder infiltrates an anti-government militia already rife with unsettling government connections, making “The Pine Bluff Variant” an episode ahead of its time.
3. “Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man” (Season 4, Episode 7)
The X-Files’ infamous antagonist The Smoking Man (William B. Davis) is elevated to mythic, history-altering heights. “Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man” posits a completely alternate history, invisible to everyone but sad, old bureaucrats for whom secrecy — and the power it hides — has become an all-consuming mania. Not only did The Smoking Man kill John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., but he fixes trials, sports games, and elections, all during within the confines of daily morning meetings.
2. “E.B.E” (Season 1, Episode 17)
Though this cross-country, UFO-chasing adventure unveils a massive conspiracy, the most chilling moment in “E.B.E.” is a small one. After rolling her eyes at The Lone Gunmen’s paranoid rant about the tracking capabilities of our currency’s anti-counterfeit strips Scully breaks open her pen to find a dense network of circuitry and transistors. “They” could be listening … anytime, anywhere.
1. “Drive” (Season 6, Episode 2)
Buoyed by a paranoia-fueled performance from Bryan Cranston as Patrick Crump, an anti-Semitic conspiracy theorist, “Drive” finds Mulder trying to save the one survivor of a horrific government mishap (or was it done on purpose?). Heads explode, a cover-up is afoot, and Mulder reenacts Speed while Scully investigates one of the series’ most eerie crime scenes. Mulder dismisses Crumps’ fear of a “Jew FBI,” but the (cold) lesson of “Drive” is that even off-target paranoia can essentially be correct about the lengths bureaucracies will go to cover their tracks.