TV lists

The X Files: Top 5 of Season 2

Baz Greenland looks at the best episodes of The X Files' second season as Set The Tape revisits the show before its 2018 return...

The second season of The X-Files was when the show really came into it’s own. Building on the strong foundation of its debut season, the second year soared in its mythology storyline, using Gillian Anderson’s pregnancy to create the thrilling abduction storyline and laying the foundation of the alien colonisation before building to perhaps the best season finale the show ever had.

But it wasn’t just the mythology that shone. Well there were a couple of stinkers, the hit rate was higher than season one and there were some thrilling standalone episodes too. Episodes like ‘The Host’ and ‘Humbug’ (the latter setting up The X-Files‘ penchant for comedy) were some of the many highlights in a season that launched the show into the cultural stratosphere.
With that in mind, I complete the very difficult job of picking the five best episodes of season two…

‘Duane Barry’

In truth, all three parts of Scully’s abduction trilogy could sit in this list. The nail biting aerial tramway pursuit and Krycek s betrayal in ‘Ascension’? Or the harrowing emotional return of Scully in ‘One Breath’? These are huge moments in The X-Files but ‘Duane Barry’ edges out for the intensity of the interplay between Mulder and Barry, which leads to one of the most shocking plot turns in the she’s history.
It’s all down to Steve Railsback’s performance as the psychotic Duane Barry, a man continually abducted having now escaped a mental institution to abduct others in a tense hostage situation, so that one of them can take their place. Enter Mulder, fuelled on his own personal quest, who enter as a hostage negotiator and finds himself connecting with Barry’s plight. The middle act of this episode is superb stuff and worthy of an article of its own. Plus enough cannot be said about the fantastic performance by CCH Pounder.
But there is even more great developments, as Scully learns that Barry was shot and injured in the line of duty and everything he is saying could be a lie. It turns everything on its head, right up the shocking climax as he sets his sights on Scully. It delivers the show first ‘To be continued…’ and The X-Files would never be the same again…

‘Irresistible’

Donnie Pfaster was probably the most disturbing serial killer the show ever had. An episode that has virtually no supernatural element (Scully’s vision of Pfaster’s real visage as a demon could easily be interpreted as a metaphor), this is The X-Files at its most raw, delving into the psychological nature of this ‘death fetishist who has escalated to murder.
Again, like Steve Railsback in ‘Duane Barry’ this episode lives and breathes on the guest performance and Nick Chinlund delivers a skin-crawling, unsettling performance as Pfaster. His manner is cold, unassuming and soft spoken; there is certainly something off about him but the most terrifying aspect is that he is so very real. We’ve seem serial killers explored in numerous TV dramas – from Criminal Minds to Mindhunter – but it feels as if all those criminal psychology-based shows can find themselves inspired by The X-Files and episodes like this one.
It is not easy viewing – the subject of necrophilia is never going to be light viewing – but it is utterly absorbing. The capture of Scully, potentially suffering PTSD from her abduction is harrowing; even knowing that she will survive Pfaster, her scenes are still fraught with tension and Gillian Anderson delivers a powerful performance. The show couldn’t have episodes like this every week, but here, in the midst of season two, ‘Irresistible’ emerged as one of the strongest episodes of that year and one of the greatest serial killer episodes in the show’s entire run…

‘Die Hand Die Verletzt’

Satanic school teachers? What’s not to love? This is probably one of the earliest examples of The X-Files embracing macabre comedy with chilling horror, the kind of dark humour that would be developed further by the likes of Darin Morgan and Vince Gilligan. It’s an episode that doesn’t take itself too seriously; the opening where the parent teacher committee debates the appropriate musical for the school before completing a satanic prayer sets the scene for raining toads, killer snakes and black magic on a stormy night.
There is some quite dark material here; teenager Shannon discovers her eight-year old twin sister was murdered in a satanic ritual but the fantastical nature of ‘Die Hand Die Verletzt’ prevents it from ever becoming too grim. And that’s largely down to the delightfully odd performance by Susan Blommaert’s substitute teacher Mrs Paddock, who has been sent to the school to deal with the wannabe Satanists once and for all.
Mulder and Scully really are just along for the ride; they delve into the dark secrets of the school but never really stop the Satanic threat. Mrs Paddock does it for them, sending a killer python to kill committee leader Jim (Frasier‘s ‘Bulldog’, Dan Butler) and disappears into the stormy night, leaving the stunned agents to try and make sense of the magical havoc they have just encountered.

‘End Game’

 The ‘Ascension’ storyline was the first huge leap in The X-Files‘s mythology, driven by the pregnancy of Gillian Anderson. Without any extraneous forces at play, the next multi-episode story ‘Colony’ and ‘End Game’ saw Chris Carter finally getting his teeth into expanding the show in a thrilling new direction. Again, both parts of the mythology could easily sit in the list of top season two episodes, but it is the scale of the latter which makes the cut here.
‘Colony’ saw the return of Mulder’s sister Samantha, the debut of  Brian Thompson’s shapeshifting alien bounty hunter and the first reference to alien colonisation. But all the events at play were just the tease for ‘End Game’, which saw Mulder go through a similarly harrowing journey as Scully did earlier in the season. Samantha’s return is revealed as a huge lie, a clone that is soon killed and snatching away Mulder’s one chance of a family reunion. It also has many big moments – Skinner punching the answers out of Mr X, and colonisation spelled out properly for the first time.
And it culminates in the thrilling scene on the submarine submerged in the ice in the Arctic, where Mulder tracks down the bounty hunter and is almost killed, setting up the terrific tease at the start of ‘Colony’. It’s an epic sequence, almost movie-like in scale and showed just how far The X Files would go to tell great storytelling.

‘Anasazi’

Burn it! The cliffhanger to season two in ‘Anasazi’ is still possibly the best The X-Files ever did, as Mulder finds himself trapped in a boxcar full of dead aliens and the Cigarette Smoking Man orders its incineration. It’s the culmination of an perfect 45 minutes of television, starting with recovery of secret government documents that will give Mulder the answers he has so desperately been searching for.
The clues to UFO intelligence files, Roswell, MJ12 and beyond encapsulate the thematic quality of this episode, dripping with secrets and paranoia. Mulder discovers he has been drugged and his search for the truth has gained unwanted attention, while Scully is called up to defend their work to senior FBI members (including a cameo from Chris Carter himself). Mulder’s father Bill meanwhile, alludes to secrets of his own, but is murdered by the surprise return of Alex Krycek, now in full villain mode. The strain of everything that has happened that season is keenly felt, and becomes a power cake ready to burst.
There are too many great moments to list; Scully shooting Mulder during the confrontation with Krycek, her discovery of the secret files attaining to her own abduction and of course Mulder’s grim discovery at the end. This was The X Files at a time when its popularity was soaring, and thanks to this terrific season two finale, it was only going to get better…
As for the worst?
Fortunately there are fewer lacklustre episodes than the first season and there is an ambition across every episode of the season that cannot be denied; animals abducted by aliens in ‘Fearful Symmetry?’ This tale of invisible elephants certainly falls flat, but there is a good spark of an idea in there. The killer spores of ‘Firewalker?’ It’s not the most exciting episode for Mulder and Scully to get into after the X Files are reopened, but its inspiration from the likes of ‘Ice’ and ‘Darkness Falls’ gives it some credit. But there is one episode that fails on all levels…

‘3’

Vampires should be a perfect fit for The X-Files, but this entry falls far short of its potential. It takes the idea of sexy vampires long before Buffy the Vampire Slayer but ends up with a limp, unsatisfying episode that sees Mulder encounter three blood suckers in LA, while trying to deal with the loss of Scully.
The fact that it sits between ‘Ascension’ and ‘One Breath’ is definitely a problem, but the potential to explore Mulder’s grief is never developed. There is no chemistry, which considering the lead vampire was Duchovny’s girlfriend at the time is surprising. It fails to offer anything fresh or exciting to vampire mythology and it is ironic that the show would only revisit vampires one more time from a comedy perspective, leading to one of its most popular comedy episodes ‘Bad Blood’ in season five.
Season two of The X-Files was an incredibly exciting time for the show, demonstrating a skill and ambition that ascended the show into the cultural zeitgeist it became. From Scully’s abduction to clones and that terrific cliffhanger, season two had some of The X-Files‘ most epic moments. Top five episodes? This could have easily been fifteen…
Do you agree with the choices? What are you best and worst episodes of season one? Let us know in the comments below…

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