The X-Files: A Beginner’s Guide

By Christina Ladd on

About Christina Ladd

One of the Books & Comics editors at Geekly. She/her. Sailor Rainbow. Glitter and spite and everything bright.



While other people were watching Dawson’s Creek, I was watching The X-Files. (Yes I am bragging; yes I am aware you could have watched both; yes I am a snob.  I will try to tone it down, though.)  This show was formative in so many ways, and it’s held up surprisingly well.  Though it can be jarring to see the outdated flip-phones and bulky monitors, or episodes about the dangers of cable TV, the acting, special effects, and plots are overall still very strong.  With the new series slated to begin filming this summer, now is the perfect time to visit or revisit the iconic Mulder and Scully on their quest for little green men.

Some Themes to Keep in Mind

Unlike the various Star Treks or Alias or superhero cartoons, to name a few geeky staples of the 90s, there was a major focus on–forgive me–alienation.   In so many other geeky universes, the protagonists have the support of large communities, or even entire planets, as they duke it out with their enemies.  The X-Files instead chose to isolate its main characters in a world that largely ignored or jeered at them, or actively tried to harm them for their obsessions and choices.  This show was a balm for anyone who felt different, not because it elevated difference to some superior status, but because it empathized with everyone on the fringes of “normal” life.

The X-Files also had one of the best relationships on TV.  Whether you favor a platonic or romantic view of Mulder and Scully, there’s no doubt that they were distinct individuals and equals, believing in and saving each other in so many ways.

Belief was another huge concern of the show, and both agents are believers in their own ways (it’s simplistic to call Scully the skeptic, though she’s often skeptical).  Mulder believes in his research and his imaginative solutions.  He also believes in himself, and in what other people tell him about their experiences. Scully believes in her training, her critical thinking, and the tenets of her faith.  Belief shaped what they looked for and what they were able to find, but without reducing either to caricatures of their beliefs, and without making everything completely subjective.


The Tone

If you’re going to watch everything, all eight–er, nine, but let’s pretend season nine didn’t happen, eh?–seasons (and two movies), beware the tonal shift that happens midway through.  When it aired, this took years to develop, but thanks to Netflix, it will be more immediate and perhaps more jarring.

The early seasons are much darker, with very few happy resolutions, or even resolutions at all.  Toward season 5, things begin to lighten up and also come into their own; the X-Files stops borrowing (and Scully stops dressing like Clarice Starling) and starts trendsetting.  The mythology becomes more confusing, though, paving the way for the last two seasons, when Duchovny begins the process of leaving (he still shows up intermittently, but his heart’s not in it).  Season 8 devolves rapidly, so really only the first few and last few episodes are really worth it, and 9 is a sloppy mess that only completists and masochists should watch.

The Cast

Fox Mulder (David Duchovny)Xfiles-FoxMulder-small: Obsessed, paranoid, and alone, Mulder is nevertheless fiercely passionate about his cause–the paranormal–and strangely charismatic because of it.  He acts from complete conviction and makes superhuman leaps of imagination to reach his conclusions, wrong as they might sometimes be.  However, he’s often right; not that it makes him any less crazy.

Dana-Scully-dana-scully-21111180-1024-768Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson):  A medical doctor, who has studied physics extensively, and a devout Catholic, Scully lives in this place we call “reality” and is continually tugging her partner back to it.  The show thankfully avoided the stereotype of the “fiery redhead” and made Scully glacially cool, which I mean in both senses of the term.  She doesn’t have time for anyone’s bullshit, except Mulder’s, and even then there’s a lot of eye-rolling.  Still, she’s far more open to spiritual explanations, which Mulder often dismisses as wishful thinking.

Walter Skinner (Mitch Pileggi): Initially an antagonist, Skinner grows over the course of nine seasons to be an ally, confidant, and friend to the agents.  He’s grumpy and exasperated a lot, but pretty loveable all the same.


The Cigarette-Smoking Man (William B. Davis): The shadowy antagonist who personifies all that Mulder and Scully are fighting against.  He lurks around the FBI, looking for things to cover up, obfuscate, or otherwise ruin for the two truth-seeking agents.  He’s sly, self-satisfied, and a huge dick.

Aliens: Are they real?  Probably.  Are they a threat?  Probably.  What do they want?  That depends.  Never fully explained, the aliens function as McGuffins, saviors, threats, allies, enemies, lovecraftian terrors, scientific marvels, our progenitors, and our doom–pretty much the full gamut of narrative possibilities you can imagine.  There’s rich territory here, and The X-Files wears itself out trying to make it all work.

The Government: It’s untrustworthy.  It’s carrying out tests on you, spying on you, and is ready to shut you up if you try to blow the whistle.  Yeah, I know, but this was more far-fetched in the ’90s.  I’m excited to see if/how they amp up the paranoia in the new series now that we accept these truths to be self-evident.

The Plot

The Mythology:

What started as an ominous, lurking threat of government involvement with potentially hostile alien life, by the sixth or seventh season became a bewildering mess of poorly-explained conspiracies carried out by ever-more-numerous factions.  Various governments and powerful individuals were always somehow complicit in covering up alien contact and paranormal research, and there was eventually the consistent threat of “colonization,” though what all of it was for is still not entirely spelled out.  A rule of thumb is that the first and last episodes of every season deal with the mythology, with a few others interspersed between.

Episodes: “Pilot”; “Duane Barry,” “Ascension,” and “One Breath”; “Anasazi,”  “The Blessing Way,” and “Paper Clip”; “Nisei” and “731”; “Piper Maru” and “Apocrypha”; “Talitha Cumi” and “Herrenvolk”; “Gethsemane,” and “Redux 1&2”; “Patient X” and “The Red and the Black”; “The End” and “The Beginning”; “Two Fathers” and “One Son”; “Biogenesis” and “The Sixth Extinction 1 & 2”; and then here’s where things go entirely off the rails, the seventh season finale “Requiem,” followed by “Within” and “Without” and “This is Not Happening” and “Deadalive” and then, the last gasp, “Essence” and “Existence.”  You can then skip to the series finale “The Truth.”  This isn’t even all the mythology episodes but hopefully it pares things down and separates them out.  Good luck.


Mulder’s Sister:

Technically a subset of the mythology, the question of “what happened to Mulder’s sister?” is so powerfully important that it deserves a separate write-up.  Samantha Mulder was kidnapped by aliens, or the government, or a serial killer, and her brother has spent his entire life trying to find out which, and why, and whether he can get her back.  Though the resolution (of a sort) is ultimately unsatisfying, I can’t help but recommend following through with it to the bitter end.

Episodes: “Pilot” (again); “Colony” and “Endgame”; “Talitha Cumi” and “Herrenvolk”; “Paper Hearts”; “The End” and “The Beginning”; “Sein und Zeit” and “Closure”


The Monsters of the Week:

This is a loose term for anything that isn’t in the myth arcs, whether it involves actual monsters or no.  (And really, what is a monster?  The X-files wants you to ask the question, but I’m not going to try to answer it here.)  Everyone has their favorites; these are ones that I find somewhat representative.

Episodes: “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose” (widely considered one of the best episodes, period), “Home” (widely considered the scariest episode), “Pusher” (written by Breaking Bad‘s Vince Gilligan), “Squeeze” and “Tooms,”  “The Host” (source of the famous “flukeman”), “Unruhe”


Bonus Primer: The ‘Shipping:

Yeah, I was a faithful M/S shipper back in the day.  For those of you not familiar with the term or subculture, ‘shippers (“relationshippers”) are those who are invested in a particular pairing–often, but not always romantic–of characters on a show.  K/S or Kirk/Spock, is still the best and most famous example of shipping, but Mulder/Scully is up there with the classics.  There was even a separate archive devoted to entirely to X-Files fanfic (not or the like), and it still exists.

The X-Files existed in the early days of the internet, and devoted several episodes to the (now mostly laughable) terrors of the technology.  (See “2Shy,” “Killswitch,” “Wetwired,” and “First Person Shooter.”)  However, they were also one of the first shows to really embrace their internet fan following, including ‘shippers.  They even named a character after a very active fanfic writer who passed away (Leyla Harrison in “Alone”). Even if you don’t care about the romantic relationship (and it’s certainly possible to view it as devotedly platonic), it’s important to recognize the show as one of the stepping stones that helped create the kind of fan culture we see today. 

Episodes: “Triangle,” “Rain King,” “Arcadia,” “Millennium,”  “All Things,” “Existence”


  1. My problem with the X-Files is the same one I had with Lost. The creators made it seem that they had this intricate plot that they were slowly revealing but really they were just making up $%@# as they went along.

  2. Still loved the crap out of it. Guess I am just a sucker for a good mystery box, even if I am disappointed when the box is opened to reveal a tank full of manatees nudging around mystery idea balls

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