Friday, August 28, 2015

This book is really, truly great...and no, I'm not just saying that. Here's why.

Hello, everyone! If you know me, I've probably already begged you to go pre-order my wife's book, She Is the End, now competing in a publishing contest on Inkshares. And I've probably already shown you this great video she made (if you haven't watched it yet, click the link and do so now; it's worth it). And I've probably already told you the book is really, truly great.

Now these are the things a supportive husband is supposed to do. I'll admit, if my wife wrote a book that I didn't personally think was great, I would still help her promote it, just because she wrote it and I'm a supportive husband (though I would probably shy away from directly saying "It's great," if I could avoid it). I'm sure, seeing as how I'm married to her and all, when I say "her book is really great, you should read it," most of you think, "of course he'd say that, he's her husband."

But honestly, the book is really, truly, great, and I'm not just saying that because my wife wrote it. I'd say that even if I came across this book knowing nothing about the author. As the husband of Cara (alias A.C. Weston), I have been in the very privileged position of being able to read most of her book well in advance of anyone else. You can read the first two chapters on the Inkshares site (or, if you prefer, download a pdf of the first chapter on her website), but so far I'm the only person who's been able to read further. And thus, I'm not only in the incredibly lucky position of being the book's first reader, I'm in the position to be it's first fan. Which I am.

The honest truth is, even if I wasn't already madly in love with the author, I would fall madly in love with this book. And so, to prove it, I'm going to get real specific about exactly why I love this book, and why I think you will too. Not only will I declare that She Is the End is a classic in the making, but I offer you the reasons why I love it so much:

1) The characters.


Think of your favorite TV show. What kept you watching, episode after episode? I'm going to guess the characters were a major part of it. Maybe you first tuned in because it had a nifty premise, and maybe the stories are engaging, and the execution of the show is top-notch. But the characters are really the heart of any good show, and they are what the fans obsess over and love.

I picked TV as an example because it is an ongoing medium; sometimes books and movies, being more singularly contained, can skate by with just a nifty premise or thrilling action or, if it's literary, Thematic Material of Great Importance. But not TV, at least not for long. And by the time you get a few chapters into She Is The End, you will be as attached to the characters as you are to those on your favorite TV show. You will want to spend more time with them, you will agonize when bad things happen to them or when they make poor decisions, and you will feel real relief and cheer when they succeed.

Cara's greatest skill as a writer, in my opinion, is creating really interesting, believable and ultimately endearing characters. This is no small feat, and something few authors do as well as she does. Cara's characters are not carbon copies of characters from other stories, nor are they simple or one-dimensional. All of them are alternately lovable, endearing, frustrating, flawed, noble, dishonorable, brave, cowardly, resolute, conflicted--in a word, human. And while the plot, action, setting, pacing, and themes of the novel will also blow you away, I submit that the characters are the heart of the novel, and my wife's greatest accomplishment.

2) It is unique and original.


I truly can't think of any other books, movies, TV shows, or comics that are quite like She Is the End. And that's a good thing. It's not a clone of anything; it's not trying to be the next Twilight or Hunger Games or Harry Potter or the next anything. It is it's own thing, utterly original and enthralling because of it.

Now the downside of this is that it makes the book hard to describe or pitch to people who haven't read it.  I can't just say, "It's like_______ meets ______, only in space."

This is not to say that I can't name some things that aspects of it remind me of. Off the top of my head, I'd say that the character relationships, dialogue, and the overall tone of the thing remind me a lot of a Joss Whedon-helmed television series, especially Firefly. The plot unfolds at a break-neck pace that often gives me the feel of a Michael Crichton thriller at full tilt, pausing for some great character-centered scenes in between. It is often very fun and frequently humorous, calling to mind the tone of Star Wars: A New Hope, The Fifth Element, and the film of Guardians of the Galaxy. Despite this light tone the work manages to grapple with serious issues, calling to mind the works of socially-conscious writers such as Margaret Atwood and Octavia Butler. It frequently confronts its characters with ethical dilemmas reminiscent of the very best Star Trek television episodes, but never ends up as didactic or preachy as that show could get. The world-building is immersive and you get a really richly-layered sense of the history of her universe, reminiscent of Dune, but without the need for long appendices. Throughout, there are shades of Ender's Game, Asimov's The Foundation Trilogy, and X-Men comics thrown in.

And, while the overall plot is an intergalactic space opera of epic proportions, most of the action takes place on earth in relatable real-world environments, which makes for a very interesting contrast. If books with werewolves and magic, etc,  that take place in recognizable cities can be termed "urban fantasy," then you might call this an "urban space opera." And lastly, Cara's prose itself is very well-written and engaging with a strong authorial voice, as recognizable and engaging as Kurt Vonnegut's or J.K Rowling's prose is in their works.

But these are all just crude approximations, attempting to describe something original in terms of other things, when really it is its own thing. Cara is very aware of previously existing sci-fi tropes and genre conventions, and while she includes many of them, she does so specifically to comment on them, add something new, or approach them from an angle we haven't seen before.

3) It is full of surprises.


The book has almost nothing in common with the films of Quentin Tarantino, or the Coen Brothers, or the show Breaking Bad. However, I mention these examples because they are some of the few pieces of media that have consistently given me something otherwise lacking in other entertainment: a genuine sense that I do not have the slightest idea what is going to happen next.

This is something that is also true of She Is the End. Most books, movies, and TV shows pull off the trick of making us feel suspense despite the fact that, in the end, the story concludes more or less how we always knew and hoped it would. There's nothing wrong with this, but it is refreshing when something comes along that is able to truly pull the rug out from under the audience with a surprise that throws everything you assumed into question and the whole future into uncertainty.

She Is the End is chock full of such moments, and I hope you will be as thrilled by them as I was.

 4) It is actually about something.


Look, I mostly like my entertainment to be entertaining, and all other concerns are secondary. But it is nice when something manages to make me think about larger issues, so long as it's not in a "take your medicine" way. This is the kind of book that you could write detailed papers on in an English class, should you so choose (though let me just stress, you don't have to look at it this way; if you merely want to be entertained, the book will not disappoint).

Cara is a very socially-conscious, thoughtful, and philosophical person, and her book is full of questions and themes that resonate deeply with the world today.  At the core of the book is an examination of the tension between justice and mercy, but there are also examinations of gender and racial politics, of inequality, of the tension between security and liberty, of colonialism and imperialism and its legacy, and more. But it never gets preachy or didactic, and I believe that you can enjoy this book no matter what your beliefs, philosophy, or politics are. Wherever you are coming from, though, it might make you think, and that's a good thing.

But again, don't get me wrong. This is not some high-fallutin' literary thing that is very important and deep, but not actually enjoyable. The reason I'm most impressed at how the book manages to address larger themes is the fact that it does so while still being super entertaining. Which brings me to my last point:

5) It is fun.

It's as simple as that. Reading this book is really, really enjoyable. It shifts seamlessly from being a page-turning thrill ride, to being a hilarious ensemble comedy, to a gripping drama, to a political potboiler, and back again. I laughed out loud frequently, and it's a testament to her characters (see #1) that most of the humor is character-based (e.g., "Oh, that's just like Goren to do that.."). But it is equally exciting, surprising, and suspenseful.

It is just thoroughly entertaining, from start to finish. And what more can you ask for than that?

*           *            *
I could go on, I really could. There's so much more I could say about what makes this book great, but you don't need to take my word for it. Pre-order the book and find out yourself!

Thursday, August 27, 2015

The Complete X-Files (Abridged), or, How to Enjoy a 201 Episode Series in Only 80 Episodes

The X-Files is my favorite show. I was young when I first started watching (probably too young for this show), and it was the first TV series where I ever crossed over from merely enjoying it to being a bona fide fan, seeking out everything related to the show and of course never missing an episode (at least, until near the very end; more on that later). It's been streaming on Netflix and Amazon Prime for some time now, and I've been wanting to do a complete re-watch, a hankering given even more urgency by the announcement of an all new, six episode miniseries in January.  I've also been promising my wife, who never got into the show, that I would show her what it's all about.

The problem is, there are two-hundred and one episodes, plus two feature films. I don't have time for 201 episodes of anything, even my all-time favorite show. I can barely keep up with the current TV shows I'm into, let alone something that debuted 20 years ago and that I've watched before.

And so I created the following viewing list for my wife and I, boiling down 201 into a more manageable 80. Enough to get a sense of the whole series, without actually watching the whole series. I share it with you, the internet, in the hopes some may find it useful.

Of course, I'm not the only person out there to create a list of which X-Files to watch. The only reason I created my own is that I wasn't satisfied with what was out there. The other lists that I could find mostly fell into two camps: very short lists of the very "best of" the show, and lists of all the mythology episodes. (For those new to the show or it's fandom, you should know that most X-Files episodes can be categorized as either "monster-of-the-week," denoting a standalone investigation, or a "mythology," denoting an episode that connects with a series-spanning over-arching conspiracy story.)

Examples of the "best of" lists can be found here, here, here and here. Examples of the "mythology only" lists can be found here, here and here.

Neither list really satisfied what I was looking for, which was to re-live the experience of watching the show straight through, but in less time. One of the main appeals of the show was the way it balanced the anthology format with a continuing storyline, alternating between Monster of the Week and Mytholog, and so I dodn't want to focus on one and not the other. While the Mytharc was thrilling when the show was at the height of its power, skipping the standalones would ruin the pacing and result in a much more melodramatic and self-serious show; the MotWs were essential part of the balance. Moreover, some of the series' very best episodes were MotW, and some of the Mythology eps were real stinkers. And so, I pored over various episode guides and summaries to refresh my memory, and came up with the following list.

My criteria for what episodes made the cut were as follows:

-Any particularly great episodes are included
-Any episodes that contain an especially important character development are included (unless they are truly terrible episodes)
-Any episodes that contain an important and game-changing plot development in the series' ongoing mythology are included (unless they are truly terrible episodes)

And so here its is, a guided tour of the series that balances the best of the Monster of the Weeks and the Mythology, allowing you to follow the storyline and enjoy the show all the while skipping over the mediocre and outright bad episodes. I've added some comments on some and a few notations, for those who may wish to be even more selective.

Now, if some of you would prefer just a short sampling of the "best of" the series, I've made that easy enough as well: any episode with an asterisk *in front of it is, in my personal opinion, one of the very best of the whole series. Watch only those, and you'll get a whirlwind greatest hits tour of 25 episodes.

I've also labeled which episodes are a part of the ongoing Mythology, so if you'd rather just watch those, or would rather skip those and just watch the standalone shows, you have that option as well.

Episodes in [[brackets]] are ones I'd recommend skipping, but that are unfortunately tied directly (as part of two or three-parter) to a far superior episode. Completists may want to suffer through these, otherwise I've linked to plot summaries.

Lastly, I've made one more notation in deference to my wife, who has a much lower tolerance for gore, extremely gross, or especially disturbing content. While most X-Files episodes are a little spooky and are frequently a bit grisly/gross, I've added a double-asterisk after the title** of any episodes with especially graphic/gross/disturbing content, so that sensitive viewers have the option to skip those.

The Truth is Out There! Enjoy!

Season 1

Number of episodes in season: 24  Number to watch: 7

Pilot- (1.1)

"Sorry, nobody down here but the FBI's most unwanted."
The first two scenes after the teaser (in which Scully is assigned to monitor/debunk the X-Files department, and Scully and Mulder first meet) are essential viewing.  The rest of the episode is optional. It’s not bad, especially for a pilot, but there is nothing here that isn’t done much better by the series later on (even later this season). It’s kind of interesting seeing what amounts to a thesis statement for what the show’s formula will be, and to see how many of the show’s iconic elements are already in place, albeit in nascent form—but I’d rank the pilot as more of an interesting curiosity for die-hard fans rather than essential viewing.

Deep Throat (1.2)

The show’s second episode feels much like a second pilot, re-stating the shows themes and reestablishing the premise and characters. It’s pulled off a bit more assuredly than the pilot itself, and benefits from a much more exciting third act, though the show is still finding itself. Features the introduction of recurring character Deep Throat.

Squeeze (1.3) 

The first true "monster of the week" episode. Guest star Doug Hutchison  turns one of the show's oddest and cheesiest concepts--Eugene Victor Tooms, a super-stretchy liver-eating serial killer--into one of the series' most memorable villains.

Mulder and Scully head to Iowa, which looks a lot like Vancouver.

Conduit (1.4)

Some good Mulder characterization (including the first of many flashbacks to Samantha Mulder’s abduction) in an overall solid episode.

*Ice (1.8)

The series’ first great episode. It’s a riff on The Thing that hews so closely to the original that it’s a wonder there weren’t any lawsuits, but who cares—The Thing is awesome, and it’s truly fun to see Mulder and Scully placed in this situation.

*Beyond the Sea (1.13)

Some great Scully characterization and magnificent performances from Gillian Anderson and guest Brad Dourff make this the highlight of season one. It’s the moment the writers apparently realized that Gillian Anderson is a great actress who could do much more than they had given her thus far.

E.B.E (1.17)

The introduction of the Lone Gunman!

The Erlenmeyer Flask (1.24) (mythology)

Most would argue that the series’ ongoing mythology starts earlier (by this metric, it includes the Pilot, Deep Throat, Conduit, and E.B.E.), though not me. Although those episodes involve aliens and other elements that would play into the overarching story, for my money this episode is the first time that events in one episode directly carry over into the story going forward. If you’re watching this series (or season one) for the first time, before you watch this episode, it’s worth noting that Deep Throat has appeared a number of times in the episodes we’ve skipped, so his presence is well established by this point.

Season 2

Number of episodes in season: 25  Number to watch: 11

Little Green Men (2.1) (mythology)

*The Host (2.2)**
The Flukeman! Enough said.
Sleepless (2.4)

The introduction of Alex Krycek, who eventually becomes one of the series’ most interesting recurring characters. I’m not sure how much of his arc the writers had planned, but knowing where the series eventually takes him, it’s particularly fascinating to re-watch this episode and see how he is introduced.

Duane Barry (2.5) and Ascension (2.6)  (mythology)

The series’ first true two-parter mythology episode, which from this point on would become one of the show’s staples.
One Breath (2.8)

We skipped an episode, but here we have the resolution (of sorts) to the story begun in “Duane Barry/Ascension”.

Die Hand Die Verletzt (2.14)

Colony (2.16) and End Game (2.17) (mythology)

*Humbug (2.20)

I found this awesome fan art, adapting the poster from Todd Brownings classic Freaks, by artist jjendl.
The first of only four episodes all-star writer Darrin Morgan wrote, all four of which are among the very best of the series. Set in a town full of off-season sideshow performers, this was also one of the first episodes that showed how funny the show could be.

Anasazi (2.25) (part one of three, mythology)

Part one of a three-parter that spans the gap between seasons two and three. The middle section, “The Blessing Way “(3.1), is one of the absolute worst episodes of the show, unfortunately sandwiched between two great episodes in which major elements of the ongoing mythology are established. This is where the mythology really kicks into high gear, and the first and third parts of this triptych are absolutely essential to the story going forward.

So what to do?  I don’t believe in “doing my homework,” suffering through 45-minutes of terrible television just to get to “the good stuff” later on. I don’t have time for episodes that must be endured rather than enjoyed. Luckily, not much actually happens in “The Blessing Way,” (one of the episode’s many problems), thus making it fairly easy to skip. 

My advice is to watch “Anasazi,” then read my notes below (or this summary), and then proceed to the excellent “Paper Clip.”

Season 3

Number of episodes in season: 25  Number to watch: 11
Yes, I'm suggesting you skip this nonsense.
[[The Blessing Way (3.1)]]

Notes on “The Blessing Way,”  (so that you can skip it), to be read after watching “Anasazi.” **SPOILERS AHEAD**

The most pressing question after the cliffhanger ending of “Anasazi,” is, of course, “How could Mulder have possibly escaped the boxcar?”  As it turns out, the writers had no idea, either, so they begin “The Blessing Way” with a massive cop-out in which Mulder is found, unconscious, under a bunch of rocks nearby. And that’s all the explanation we’re going to get. Sorry. Even for a show built around never quite being able to answer questions, it feels like a cheat.

That’s only the beginning of the episode’s troubles. “Anasazi” introduced Navajo code talker Albert Hosteen, and even in that far superior episode I can’t help but cringe every time he speaks (especially in one of his insufferable voiceover monologues). He is little more than a walking stereotype, there just to spout ancient wisdom and aid Mulder, never given motivation or characterization of his own. I like the idea that the government involved Navajo Code Talkers in its conspiracy, but the way the show handles this part of the plot is pretty awful. This is the post-Dances With Wolves ‘90s, so pop culture’s depictions of American Indians have thankfully moved past the hostile, animalistic savages of classic Westerns, but only to the equally stereotyped spiritual, peaceful, and eco-friendly noble savages. It’s a more positive stereotype, perhaps, but no less of a stereotype (and no less racist). While Hosteen and his awkward New Age-y pseudo-Indian mysticism are present in “Anasazi” and “Paper Clip,” they take center stage and absolutely dominate in “The Blessing Way.”

Much of the episode follows Mulder in dreamland (or something), lying unconscious on a table floating in the sky as various dead characters offer him words of encouragement and platitudes. For some reason, Chris Carter felt that the best way to follow a tense action-packed cliffhanger was with an episode mostly devoted to his main character lying there doing absolutely nothing. In addition to the racism and complete lack of drama, these scenes are also incredibly hokey. They make Chuck Norris’s vision quests on Walker, Texas Ranger seem classy in comparison. Unfortunately, these Mulder-floating-in-the-sky scenes make up most of the runtime; there’s some good stuff with Scully here, but you have to suffer through the Mulder scenes to get to them.

So here’s what you need to know in order to skip to the next episode:

-Mulder survived, somehow (again, we’re never really given an explanation), and is revived from his coma by some Navajo ritual.
-Scully’s doctor finds an implant in her neck

-After warnings from a member of the Cigarette Smoking Man’s cabal (the Well Manicured Man, as he is known in the lore), Scully becomes convinced that Skinner is trying to kill her.
-Scully’s sister Melissa shows up at Dana’s apartment, only to be shot in the head by Krycek (who thinks she is Dana)
-Scully confronts Skinner at Mulder’s apartment, and the episode ends as Mulder shows up, leading to a tense Mexican stand-off of guns drawn.

And that’s it. If you want an even more detailed longer summary, try this
here. But most of this info will be recapped, so don’t worry about it. On to “Paper Clip,” one of the very best mythology episodes!

*Paper Clip (3.2)

Now, with part three of this story (see above), things really get good.  The shadow of Watergate and Vietnam had hung over this show since the beginning, but with “Paper Clip” the story is now tied directly to the most horrific events of WWII, the Holocaust, and the Cold War.

Every X-Files fan has their own opinion about when the mythology went off the rails, but the consensus is that at some point it got way too complicated and ridiculous to support itself.  While this is true, I’d submit that the mythology was pretty convoluted and ridiculous from the beginning, but that it initially worked because A) it affected the characters in believable ways, and B) it mirrored real-world history. On this latter point, “Paper Clip” marks the first explicit attempt to use the alien conspiracy as a lens through which to view the all-too-real horrors of the 20th century, and that is what gives this episode and many of the great mythology episodes such power. In my opinion, the mythology jumped the shark not so much when it got too complicated and implausible, but when the mythology began to drift further into completely fictional territory, and when the many traumas that Mulder and Scully had undergone began to be out of sync with the characters’ ability to return to the status quo in time for the next monster-of-the-week. The plots of season three’s two-parters are plenty far-fetched, but they are grounded in the historical reality of actual government conspiracies, and in the emotional realities of the two main characters.  

*Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose (3.4)

This Darrin Morgan-penned episode is often named as the series’ best. My money is on Morgan’s “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space,” but this one is certainly in the running. Peter Boyle guest stars.

Nisei (3.9) and 731 (3.10)

Revelations (3.11)

Includes a nice Scully/Mulder role reversal, exploring Scully’s religious faith and the fact that, when it comes to organized religion Mulder does not “want to believe,” and can be as stubbornly closed-minded as anyone.

*The War of the Coprophages (3.12)

Cockroaches! Mass hysteria! Darrin Morgan wins again!

Piper Maru (3.15) and Apocrypha (3.16)

*Pusher (3.17)

An early episode by Vince Gilligan, who would go on to write many of the series’ best, and eventually create Breaking Bad.

*Jose Chung’s From Outer Space (3.22)

My favorite episode of television, ever. Period.  It gets at the nature of memory, of storytelling, of reality, all while providing a perfect encapsulation of everything the series is about and being terrifically funny. This richly-layered episodes definitely rewards repeat viewings. I have watched this literally dozens of times and I appreciate something new about it each time.

Quagmire (3.22)

Okay, I’ll admit this is not one of the great episodes, and, in fact, ranks among the cheesiest; but I have a soft spot for it, mainly due to a really great scene in which Mulder and Scully are stranded on a rock in the middle of a lake, leading to a memorable exchange of dialogue.

Talitha Cumi (3.24) (mythology, part 1 of 2)

Season 4

Number of episodes in season: 25  Number to watch: 16

Herrenvolk (4.1) (mythology, part 2 of 2)

*Home** (4.2)

The scariest, most disturbing episode of television, ever. Beyond the shock value, however, is some real thematic weight, good character work, and an all-around great episode.

The Field Where I Died (4.5)

One of the things I admire about the show is it's ability to completely alter its tone and style from episode to episode, while still remaining consistent with its lead characters. While the series had a few stock types of episode that it usually alternated between (the scary Monster of the Week, the funny Monster of the Week, and the Mythology episode), from this season forward the series increasingly broke form by trying various cinematic styles on for size, re-imagining the series as an Oliver Stone-esque conspiracy thriller, as a slasher horror film, as film noir, as a classic Universal monster film, as a reality show, and so on.

This episode is The X-Files as an utterly serious, prestigious Oscar-bait drama. As such, it's an actor's showcase, full of long scenes and monologues and close-ups of actors emoting. The heart-breaking content, lush cinematography, bittersweet score, complete absence of jokes (apart from one jab about the flukeman), and downer of an ending all combine to make this one of the most somber and contemplative episodes the series ever did,  a fascinating departure from its status quo.

*Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man (4.7)

The Cigarette Smoking Man gets his own origin story. 

Tunguska (4.8) and Terma (4.9)

*Paper Hearts (4.10)

Some of the best character development for Mulder is met by some of David Ducovony’s finest acting.

Never Again (4.13)

Leonard Betts (4.14)

Memento Mori (4.15)

Tempus Fugit (4.17) and Max (4.18)

*Small Potatoes (4.20)

Another one of the absolute best “funny” episodes.

Elegy (4.22)

Demons (4.23)

Gethsemane (4.24)
(mythology, part 1 of 3)

Thus begins another three-parter in which we end chapter one supposedly wondering if Mulder is dead or not. As with the season 2-3 “Anasazi/The Blessing Way/Paper Clip” arc, part two is the weakest link, largely marking time between two superior episodes. Parts 1 & 3 aren’t quite as compelling as “Anasazi” and “Paper Clip,” but neither is “Redux” (part 1) as dismally bad as “The Blessing Way.” Meanwhile, important story beats in the ongoing mythology occur in these episodes. Ignore the obnoxiously unsubtle Christ symbolism given to Mulder in this episode and it’s decent.

Season 5

Number of episodes in season: 20  Number to watch: 8-10 (depending on if you skip the episodes I’ve deemed optional)

[[Redux]] (5.1) (mythology, part 2 of 3)

Guess what? Mulder is not dead! At least they explain it this time. Still, this middle chapter of a three-parter is pretty weak, hence the brackets. Consider watching it optional; if you’d rather not sit through a mediocre-verging-on-bad episode just to get to the pretty good episode that follows, you can find a detailed episode summary here.

Redux II (5.2)
(mythology, part 3 of 3)

Some pretty major plot developments and much better storytelling in this episode justify my including the previous two entries.

*Unusual Suspects (5.3)

The Lone Gunmen get their own adventure, which is far better than any of the episodes on their short-lived spinoff series were.

*Post-Modern Prometheus (5.5)

A fantastic homage to Frankenstein, complete with gorgeous black-and-white cinematography.

Christmas Carol (5.6) (mythology)

An emotional and very low-key Scully-centric episode that unfortunately leads into a not-so-great episode.

[[Emily]] (5.7) (mythology)

A disappointing conclusion (which, by this point in the series, were becoming more common) to the story arc started in the excellent “Christmas Carol.” It’s on here merely for those wanting closure from the previous episode. Otherwise, enjoy this episode summary and spend your time elsewhere.

*Bad Blood (5.12)

Using the multiple-perspectives story structure of “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space” to even more comedic effect, this great episode features Scully and Mulder each recounting their own version of a story involving a small Texas town full of vampires. Featuring Luke Wilson and that kid from The Sandlot!

Patient X (5.13) and The Red and The Black (5.14) (mythology)

The strongest mythology arc of the fifth season. There are still a few good and plenty of watchable (if overall weaker) mythology episodes to come, but if you are not terribly taken with the mythology, now would be a decent time to jump ship. In that case, watch the 1998 movie after this and consider that the end of the ongoing story, and just enjoy the standalones from this point forward.

Folie a Deux (5.19)
Named after a french idiom meaning "a madness shared by two," the title of this episode literally describes the plot, which, like the title, works as a nice metaphor for Mulder and Scully's position by this point in the series. 

[[The End]] (5.20) (mythology, part one of two)

The mythology begins to decline pretty steadily from this point on, though there are some good moments amidst the self-importance and increasingly silly plotting. My recommendation, if you're watching this streaming or on DVD, is to watch only the last scene of this episode (at about 42 minutes in, four minutes from the end), then move on to the movie.

The 1998 movie,  X-Files: Fight the Future, goes here. Watch it before proceeding to Season 6.

With some extra cinematic flair (and budget), the overarching conspiracy story transfers fairly well to the big screen. Perhaps a little disappointing as a big “event” movie, but it works well when viewed as merely a decent two-hour episode of the show with added production values. I’m not a huge fan of the ending (especially Scully being asleep for it), but that’s pretty much par for the course with The X-Files: a really gripping build-up to a disappointing non-conclusion. Enjoy the journey and relax about the destination would be my advice, and there’s lots of cool set pieces in this film, which feels like an alien conspiracy take on the cross-country adventures of North By Northwest (complete with a cornfield scene).

Season 6

Number of episodes in season: 22  Number to watch: 11

Many fans place season six as the moment The X-Files officially jumped the shark, though I think that is mainly due to the decline in the quality of the mythology episodes.  I don’t disagree that this is where the mythology began to lose it, but those that dismiss season six are missing out on some of the very best monster-of-the-week episodes. While the mythology episodes wavered uncomfortably between trying to wrap things up and trying to keep the plates spinning indefinitely, the show’s creative team seems to have felt newly liberated to take chances and experiment with the standalone stories, and they produced some of the show’s best work. This is actually my favorite season of the show, based on the strength of its standalone stories.

*Drive (6.2)

Bryan Cranston guest stars in a script by Vince Gilligan, a formula for great television if there ever was one. This episode begins what I think is the series’ best uninterrupted run of great standalone episodes.

*Triangle (6.3)

Before Alfonso Cuaron and Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu were wowing audiences with their long, unbroken takes, this playful episode showed how powerful the technique could be. Plus, it has a fun alternate-reality version of all the major characters set during WWII! The thrilling chase scene set to Benny Goodman particularly jumps out in a show that usually is scored with completely ambient music.

*Dreamland (6.4) and *Dreamland II (6.5)

Mulder switched places with a Man in Black, played by This Is Spinal Tap’s Michael McKean! Though a two-parter and nominally connected to the mythology, this is really more of a standalone story, and a very funny one at that.

*How the Ghosts Stole Christmas (6.6)

On Christmas Eve, Mulder and Scully are explore a house haunted by the ghosts of Lily Tomlin and Ed Asner. Another example of how, at the height its powers, the show could seamlessly blend humor and horror all in service of real character development.

Two Fathers (6.11) and One Son (6.12)

This isn’t the end of the mythology (it goes on for another three seasons), but enough plot threads are concluded here that this would make a decent end point (probably a more satisfying one than we are eventually given). From this point on, this list will be skipping far more mythology episodes than it includes.

*Monday (6.14)

Groundhog Day during a bank robbery, with Mulder just happening to be there.

*Arcadia (6.15)

Mulder and Scully pose undercover as married couple Rob and Laura Petry in an exclusive gated community. What’s not to love?

Milagro (6.18)

The Unnatural (6.20)

Field Trip (6.21)

It’s fair to say that season six went to the “our characters are hallucinating” well a few too many times, but when the episodes are this good, who cares?

Season 7

Number of episodes in season: 22  Number to watch: 8 

Hungry (7.3)

Finally, a monster-of-the-week from the monster’s point of view. 

Sein und Zeit (7.10) and Closure (7.11) (mythology)

Provides closure (of a sort) on the abduction of Samantha.  Not a terrible pair of episodes, but given the seven seasons of build-up regarding this particular story thread, it is inevitably a bit disappointing.

*X-Cops (7.12)

Perhaps the last truly great X-Files episode, this uses the format of Cops to great effect.

En Ami (7.15)
A well-written Cigarette Smoking Man centered episode.

Hollywood A.D. (7.18)

Tea Leoni and Gary Shandling play Scully and Mulder in a movie is being made about them. Like most of the good late-period X-Files  episodes, here is another fun break of format.

Je Souhaite (7.21)

Requiem (7.22) (mythology, part one of three)

Season 8

Number of episodes in season: 21  Number to watch: 12

So here’s the bad news: the best of The X-Files is unarguably behind us. There are some solid episodes ahead, but nothing truly great, and the ratio of bad to good episodes inverts from this point on. I’ll confess that, when the series first aired, I bailed on the show toward the end of this season (along with most other viewers), which felt like a traitorous betrayal considering I had been loyally devoted to the show for years. But I was in high school and had a social life, and moreover the show just was not making a compelling enough case for itself. I’ve since caught many of these episodes in syndication, and there are some surprisingly decent ones, but since I hadn’t seen the whole season, my reviews of this and the next season are increasingly dependent on my cross-referencing the reviews of others, such as The AV Club, and TV Shrine.

The good news? Though it will never again measure up to the bar set by earlier seasons, if taken on its own terms the show is still capable of being pretty entertaining. Here are the decent episodes among the show’s generally lackluster last couple of seasons.

It’s also worth noting that with this season, the serialization of the show expands beyond just the “mythology” episodes, tying even the monster-of-the-week shows together with parts of the ongoing storyline in a way more reminiscent of today’s serialized dramas. That’s not to say we won’t be skipping over much of the season; but it’s worth knowing that each episode contains some new detail about the ongoing arc.

Within (8.1) and Without (8.2)
(mythology, parts two and three of three)

The search for Mulder is now going to drive the ongoing story arc.

Redrum (8.3)

Via Negativa** (8.7)

The Gift** (8.11)

Per Mannum (8.13)

Not for the first time, Gillian Anderson’s performance and a bit of Scully character development turns this from a mediocre to pretty good episode.

This is Not Happening (8.14) and Deadalive (8.15) (mythology) 

Vienen (8.16) (mythology)

Alone (8.19) Essence (8.20) and Existence (8.21)

This should have been the end of the series. It very well could be. You don’t have to watch anymore. Really, you don’t. You’ll probably be more satisfied if you stop here.

Though, technically, the series did have one more season, so if you’re really curious to sample at least something from season nine, here you go: 

Season 9

You’re still here? Very well, then. Where seasons seven and eight were marked by a steady decline in quality, this is where the show takes a nose-dive into being a legitimately terrible show. Of the twenty episodes in the last season, here are four worth watching: 

Improbable (9.13)

Mulder and Scully meet God—or at least, a God-like being—and he’s played with great gusto by Burt Reynolds. This fun casting choice redeems the rest of a rather lightweight and sometimes boring episode.

Sunshine Days (9.18)

An actually pretty good episode that somehow got stranded in the wasteland of season nine. Oddly enough, it was among the worst-reviewed of the season at the time it aired, probably since everyone knew that it was the second to last episode of the show, and it felt strange that the show would devote that space to a one-off homage to The Brady Bunch. Time has been kinder to it, though, and it’s one of the few episodes I caught in syndication and was pleasantly surprised by (and especially surprised when I learned what season it was from). 

[[The Truth (9.19) and The Truth II (9.20)]]

At last we’ve come to the end. Were you hoping that everything in the series’ mythology would be tediously explained by a series of characters through lengthy monologues and “previously on” montages? That loose ends would be unrealistically tied up, that previously established information would be ret-conned in a lame attempt to pull the rug out from under the audience, all while new mysteries are hinted at? No? Well, too bad, because that’s what you’re going to get. It’s not the X-Files ending anyone wanted, but it’s the one we’ve got, and so for the morbidly curious or masochistic, it is included on this list.  

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Oh, and then there’s the near-universally despised 2008 movie. Also skip that. Any hopes that a new movie series could salvage this once-brilliant property are pretty effectively dashed by this wreck of a film.

However, despite the fact that Chris Carter seems to have long-since lost all sense of what once made the show great, I’ll admit that I am incredibly excited for the new six-episode miniseries. Could it be just what is needed to provide the series with a high-quality closure? Will it be good?

I want to believe…