An incredibly busy season for its creator, Chris Carter, the fourth season of The X-Files arrived on the airwaves during a very eventful time for Ten Thirteen Productions, what with a second series arriving around the same time, Millennium, a change in time slot, going from Friday at 9pm to an equivalent slot on a Sunday night, and with plans afoot to begin production on a big screen feature film at the end of the season.
It would not have been remiss to expect the fourth year of The X-Files to drop the ball, but amazingly the series arrived that year all guns blazing, with famed writers Glen Morgan and James Wong returning to the series, and Vince Gilligan, after one episode apiece for the second and third seasons, set to make his mark on the show with a body of work that still stands as some of the best of the series to this day. The fourth season would see the series deliver a series of incredibly provocative, dark, intense and controversial work that still stands as some of the best of the series to this day, and as a highlight of the entire show.
In broadcast order, here are the best episodes (and the weakest) of Season Four…
The stars of the writing staff during the first two seasons, Glen Morgan and James Wong were absent during the third season in order to go create their own series, the sadly cancelled before its time Space: Above and Beyond. Returning to the world of Ten Thirteen Productions and delivering work for both The X-Files and Carter’s new creation, Millennium, they arrived with a controversial bang with “Home”.
Venturing into themes that are less supernatural than normal, “Home” feels like The X-Files equivalent of 1970’s shockers such as The Hills Have Eyes and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, venturing into rural horror, complete with shocking bouts of violence, dark comedy, not to mention touching on themes of incest and inter-breeding that proved deeply shocking to American audiences when the episode premiered in October 11th 1996.
Finding itself banned for years on American television, Morgan and Wong weren’t even able to bring the episode’s most notorious characters, the Peacock family, for a proposed sequel on Millennium when they took over as showrunners for that show’s second season. For all all its controversies, it’s easy to overlook that “Home” is deeply funny as well as dark, and is probably the darkest joke that the series ever delivered. On top of it all, the episode would mark a triumphant return for two of the series greatest ever voices, beginning a run of controversial work, some of which would leave audiences and fans in emotional tangles.
It also marks some of the late, great Kim Manners greatest work as a director, and if viewing on DVD or Blu-Ray, the alternate cut with different audio in the teaser sequence is the required version, giving its opening scenes a darker air than the sanitized broadcast airing.
An incredibly underrated episode, Vince Gilligan’s first effort for the fourth season was actually meant to be the second episode of the season, but was so well liked by the Fox Network that it was held over until the fourth in the run so as to be the first episode of the show to air when the series moved to Sunday nights after three seasons as a highly rated cult Friday night hit.
For a writer famed for his light-hearted work on the show, it’s easy to overlook that Gilligan also delivered some of the most darkest moments in the series as well, and with “Unruhe” he delivered one of his tautest and most underrated thrillers, a serial killer thriller that only has a tangible link to the supernatural, similar to another masterpiece coming up shortly, complete with an unnerving guest performance from Pruitt Taylor Vince as Gerry Schnauz, as well as powerful work from Gillian Anderson.
While it does build to a climax where Scully is kidnapped by Schnauz, and has Mulder working hard to save her, Mulder’s attempts are not the bread and bone of the final act as much as the fantastic words and performance from Gilligan’s script and Anderson and Vince. A small-scale masterpiece simply waiting to be rediscovered.
‘Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man’
The directorial debut of James Wong, DGA rules meant that he couldn’t be credited alongside Glen Morgan for writing the script, although as usual, this is very much a collaborative effort between both noted X-Files auteurs with regards to the writing. As always with Morgan and Wong’s fourth season efforts, the episode was not without controversy, this time most of it stemming from behind the scenes due to its climax that saw the definitive television villain of the 90’s assassinating beloved Lone Gunmen member Frohike in its final scene, a change that makes its “they changed the ending” final act all the more funnier.
Inspired by The Unauthorized Biography of Lex Luthor, “Musings” gives William B Davis a chance to shine, while also giving Chris Owens a wonderful star making role within the show, the first of three roles he would portray within the show.
An apocryphal tale that feels as if Oliver Stone is calling the shots on it, the episode is a gorgeous fever dream of X-Files inflicted takes on world-famous conspiracies (JFK, Martin Luther King), along with an almost satirical eye on the ins and outs of the show’s most iconic villain, and the mythology itself, not to mention cine-literate, throwing in references to Apocalypse Now, JFK and Forrest Gump.
Debate over whether its events are actually real or not still hangs over it to this day, but it works best as a subtle satire, not to mention an in-show response to NBC’s attempt to cash in on the success of the show at the time of “Musings” premiere with their own show, Dark Skies, a period drama that mixed X-Files-style intrigue and 60’s American history. Either way, it’s a blisteringly brilliant work and still stands as one of its greatest creative and artistic triumphs.
Another tale of violent crime with a barest hint of supernatural activity from Vince Gilligan, this time Gilligan goes to town with the most emotionally central element of the series’ mythology, by making the audience and Mulder question the abduction of Samantha by making it possible that an all too real world serial killer may have been responsible and not the more fantastical element that comes from extraterrestrials.
With one of David Duchovny’s best performances on the series and a chilling guest performance from Tom Noonan, the episode is a compulsively dark drama that has the capability of leaving your stomach in knots in a way that makes it a shock that the same writer would give audiences the delightfully silly “Small Potatoes” later in the same season.
The series does throw in a suggestion of supernatural suggestion towards the end, but this is an episode that works best as a dark crime story, that takes one of the most fantastical elements of the series and drives it onto a darker level, at least for one episode. Enhanced by superb cinematic direction from Rob Bowman and a gorgeously haunting score from Mark Snow, this is a series highlight from everyone involved.
It was such a shock at the time, and came across as a major game changer for the show. After hinting in season three that Scully could possibly develop cancer as a result of her abduction experiences, the series actually went there in season four and paid of its hint with a devastatingly compulsive thriller that didn’t wrap the story up in an hour and continued it into the mythology for the remainder of the season, and early into season five.
Boasting no less than four writers, Chris Carter, Vince Gilligan, John Shiban and Frank Spotnitz’s script feels as it has come from one mind, boasting emotional drama, thrilling set pieces and one of Chris Carter’s atypical voiceovers that actually works well within the drama and is delivered beautifully by Gillian Anderson.
Pretty much everyone gets their moment to shine, and is a mythology episode that does what the mythology of the show did so well when the series was at its peak; it factors the story through the characters and their arcs rather than trying to go epic with space ships and pretentiousness, something that would hurt the series a little at the end of season six and the beginning to season seven.
Everyone does such good work in front of the camera, from Duchovny and Mitch Pillegi to William B Davis, but the real star here is Gillian Anderson. The delivery of her voice over, to the character’s resistance to treating her illness, to her defensiveness in front of Mulder over her nosebleed during a key moment, it’s indicative of why she is constantly regarded as one of the best actresses working today.
The final moments between Mulder and Scully are also some of the most beautiful the show has ever delivered.
And the worst…
‘El Mundo Gira’
An unfortunate part of a double bill delivered by John Shiban, “El Mundo Gira” was Shiban’s third script for the show, and immediately followed his work on season three’s “Teso Dos Bichos”, arguably the show’s worst ever episode. “El Mundo Gira” comes pretty close.
Dreadfully unsure of whether or not it wants to be a comedy or something more serious, the tone veers all over the place, and its use of soap opera cliches is embarrasing and nowhere near as funny as it thinks it is, while it feels as if it wants something to say about immigration, but it gets lost amongst dumb jokes that are never funny.
Amazingly Shiban would rebound in the fourth season by collaborating on “Leonard Betts” and “Memento Mori”, while as a solo writer he would deliver the astounding “Elegy”, a beautifully crafted and haunting drama that would give Gillian Anderson another chance to show how damn good she is, along with a wonderfully creepy narrative that tells its story amazingly well.
In a season filled with gems, “El Mundo Gira” is best avoided.
What is your favourite episode of The X-Files: Season 4? Let us know!