The third season of The X-Files is brimming with episodes that I could watch over and over. Ranking them is probably a pointless endeavor considering my list changes pretty much daily. Oh well, such is life. Read on and also check out my #7-9 episode rankings!
#6) Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose
I know, I know, I’m going to irk some hardcore fans with this ranking. To many, Clyde Bruckman is the pinnacle of The X-Files–not just the greatest episode in the show’s storied run but one of the greatest episodes of television ever. For me, it’s not at that level. Amazing, yes. But untouchable, no.
What makes this episode amazing? Lets start with Peter Boyle. He is absolutely riveting as Clyde Bruckman and dominates every scene he is in. There’s a slow-building sense of tragedy looming behind Bruckman’s flippant dialogue and dismissive attitude and Boyle nails it. For me, everything in this episode builds and builds to that moment where he tells Mulder “I’ll be dead before you catch this guy”. A heart-breaking moment completely sold by one of the best guest stars to grace The X-Files.
Elsewhere, both David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson are great at playing off of Peter Boyle. They seem like they are having fun and between “auto-erotic asphyxiation”, “negative energy”, and “hits and misses”, the script is filled with memorable moments galore (this is Darin Morgan’s writing after all). But more than that, the many conversations with Clyde Bruckman just carry this existential weight to them. This is sublime writing.
So why, why, why is this not higher on my list? It’s a brilliant script but to me there are also moments that feel like the episode is trying to be more clever than it is. Bruckman seeing grotesque heads in his fridge and on dolls is grim–but never really gets explained at all. A more character-damning example: I don’t understand at all why Bruckman opens the door for The Puppet when Chavez goes into the bathroom. I get that he feels there is no changing fate and nothing he does can or will save anyone. But him opening the door never sits well with me…
Most egregiously though, the climax of the episode relies on the relationship between Scully and Bruckman. While I think its generally effective, it never completely lands for me. I get that Scully is an empathetic character but I don’t feel like the episode actually spends enough time building up Scully and Bruckman’s relationship for it to resonate for me.
Hmmm, I feel like I’m giving off negative energy even though I really do believe in this episode!
#5) Talitha Cumi
I hemmed and I hawed regarding Talitha Cumi’s placement. This episode is flawed as all hell if hell was flawed (which I’m guessing it is). Mulder and Scully just happen to roll up on a fast food shooting at the exact right moment to investigate? Mulder inexplicably thinks his mother having a stroke somehow has anything to do with a man healing people at the restaurant just because she wrote the word “PALM”, despite the fact that nothing about the shooting should have caused Mulder’s “paranoid conspiracy” sense to tingle? And then in an even more unlikely contrivance, “PALM” turns out to be an anagram for Mulder to destroy every fucking LAMP in his family’s summer home. And to top it off, apparently ALL of this came down to the Mulder family hiding an alien ice-pick in a lamp–an alien ice-pick that inexplicably is the only such instrument seeing as Cigarette Smoking Man, X, and everyone acts like its the single most important item to have should colonization begin (and boy does it work like a charm in Herrenvolk!) Logically, this episode is a mess.
But here’s the catch….I LOVE this episode. It may be not be as strong as Anasazi or The Erlenmeyer Flask but this is one hell of a season finale. Logic is not it’s strength but dramatic resonance is. There are so many moments that are imprinted in my brain. Jeremiah Smith healing the people at the fast food restaurant, coupled with a beautiful and haunting Mark Snow score. The Cigarette Smoking Man insinuating something unspeakable but oh-so-reasonable to Mama Mulder in the most lecherous, Cigarette-Smoky way possible. Mulder tearing up his family home to another incredible bit of Mark Snow musical magic culminating in the iconic image of him finding the alien-ice pick. The moment when X abruptly cheap-shots Mulder, starting a brouhaha that their relationship had been building up to ever since One Breath.
But really, the center-piece of this episode is the series of conversations between CSM and Jeremiah Smith. I usually roll my eyes when the dialogue gets overtly flowery or metaphorical…but holy shit these are powerful moments. Just absolutely dripping with thematic richness and emotional resonance, they knock it out of the park. And it’s great to see Bill Mulder and Deep Throat again as representations of how far CSM will go to further his own agenda.
And we finish up with maybe the most action-packed episode of The X-Files. 731 is an incredible conclusion to a two-parter, delivering loads of tension and huge revealing moments but without the flaws of many of the mythology episodes below it on this list.
Lets start with that train-ride which is maybe the most satisfying extended action thriller sequence the show would deliver this side of Drive. Damn, its so fun to watch Mulder scouring the train for Dr. Ishimaru only to get trapped in the boxcar with a piano-wire wielding NSA assassin. And an alien human hybrid. And a fucking bomb. It just keeps escalating! The X-Files isn’t an action show and Mulder isn’t an action-hero but episodes like this show that Mulder and David Duchovny can pull off those beats when used sparingly (something the revival series sorely misunderstands).
But one thing that 731 does that something like Talitha Cumi doesn’t is it doesn’t sideline Scully at all. Scully is off on her own adventure to a former Leper Colony, investigating the origins of the chip put in her neck. Her trip to Virginia is emotionally wrenching; the scene where she stands over the pit of bodies is beautifully shot, scored and acted. In one fell swoop, it actualizes the atrocities of the conspiracy, making it hit home in a very real and relatable way. Gillian Anderson is great as Scully slowly absorbs the depths of evil that she bears witness to in Virginia.
So this episode is a great combination of action and real human emotion. But who am I kidding? 731 climbed all the way to #4 on this list on the strength of that incredible climax. The final minutes aboard the train are some of the most tense moments in the show’s run. Even having seen the episode dozens of times, my heart jumps into my throat when the NSA assassin blindsides Mulder and leaves him for dead. And then X swoops in and delivers perhaps the most potent “Big Damn Heroes” moment, rescuing Mulder and doing the classic “walk casually away from a giant explosion”. The only thing that would have made it better is if X dropped the mic as he walked away from the explosion.