Despite a reputation for never explaining its overall plot, there is a coherent narrative behind the grand conspiracy spanning The X-Files‘ nine seasons. Aliens and The X-Files are inseparable, and so while most people often list the “Monster of the Week” eps as their favorites, a true aficionado can’t ignore those beautiful, stark spikes within the show’s larger alien conspiracy. Here are the five essential alien conspiracy episodes.
5. “Nisei” and “731” (Season 3, Episodes 9 & 10)
“Nisei” and “731” dare ask if there are possibilities more horrific than the show’s boilerplate alien colonization plot. Both also push the recurring theme of government experimentation on civilians to its most horrific extreme. Dana Scully uncovers a continuation of Japan’s worst war crimes endlessly replayed on U.S. civilians. While “Nisei” and “731” are among the last instances that Scully’s version of the grand conspiracy feels plausible, it’s hard not to side with Fox Mulder over Scully’s more grounded interpretations.
4. “The Erlenmeyer Flask’ (Season 1, Episode 24)
The Season 1 finale opens with a car chase and ends with Scully clutching an alien body in her hands. It’s the moment where the conspiracy was ready to completely crack wide open, and the finale is payoff for all the viewers who stuck with the show while also thinking, ‘Is this TOO weird to continue watching?’ Mulder and Scully investigate an apparent alien-human hybrid and knock down more doors than ever before, and in the process, uncover covert cloning programs, Syndicate assassins, and alien DNA (fueling subsequent X-Files seasons). Rarely did another episode recapture the general sensation that nothing would ever be the same again.
3. “Duane Barry” (Season 2, Episode 5)
The victims of X-Files‘ alien violence are often plot points along the way to a greater truth. Instead, Duane Barry, an asylum escapee, fights back (in his own way): after taking a room full of hostages, he demands an end to the horrific alien abductions tormenting his mind and body. It’s catnip to Mulder, who is the only one in a position (and willing) to believe Barry. There’s a neat turn in this mid-season episode—as Duane’s abduction memories become more outlandish, Scully uncovers convincing evidence of of his essential instability. We too begin to doubt Mulder. He desires to believe, which begins to resemble a willingness to be deceived.
2. “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space” (Season 3, Episode 20)
Part of what’s so remarkable about this classic is that it’s simultaneously the most outlandish X-Files episode—there are cigarette-smoking aliens! Jesse Ventura and Alex Trebek as men in black!—and the most oddly true to life. People see strange things and distort them with their own eccentricities all the time. Real human beings concocted (and believe in!) anal probes, lizard people, and Xenu of the Galactic Federation. By ditching TV’s objectivity, “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space” got closer to the truth than The X-Files ever did before.
1. “Requiem” (Season 7, Episode 2)
A crashed UFO burns the tree line and a police officer suffers what appears to be an alien encounter. But this Season 7 finale is less an expansion of the alien conspiracy and more an accounting. Mulder is forced to reckon with the limitations of his methods, and the dark possibility that his search for the truth will only end with a beam of light that whisks him away from anyone who might care about the answers. As far as I’m concerned, this is the last episode of The X-Files.