The dramatic finale to season one of The X-Files saw Mulder's informant Deep Throat assassinated and The X-Files investigations themselves closed by the FBI. It's understandable then that given these events and the show's then still-growing success that the second season made a point of delving much deeper into the shows core mythology and building upon it's central character's backgrounds.
As such, season two has fewer 'Monster of the week' episodes in lieu of following ongoing stories such as Mulder's quest to find out the truth about his sister's disappearance and Scully's apparent abduction. Though originally written in as a means to allow Gillian Anderson time off for her real life pregnancy, this plot line added a new level of tension and planted the seeds for many other stories that would pay off later in the show's run.
As well as introducing a new informant for Mulder, appropriately nick-named 'X', the season also saw corrupt Agent Alex Krycek (played by Nicholas Lea) joining Mulder as Scully's temporary replacement. His role as a sinister antagonist to Mulder and some time associate to Cigarette Smoking Man would continue throughout the subsequent six seasons of the show. A further long-running threat would also emerge in the episode 'Colony' in the shape of Brian Thompson as the Alien Bounty Hunter.
For my Top 5 list of season two, like last time I've tried to avoid 'Mythology' episodes and steer towards entries that can be enjoyed in isolation from the rest of the series. There is an exception this time around, though I'll explain that when we get to it.
Written by: Glen Morgan & James Wong
Originally aired: January 27, 1995
'Die Hand Die Verletzt' (German for 'The Hand That Wounds' or more closely, 'The Hand, The Pain') begins with a lot of the underplayed, tongue-in-cheek humor that is the show's secret weapon. In a quiet New Hampshire town, a seemingly conservative high school faculty (led by Dan Butler, perhaps best known as 'Frasier''s Bulldog) has gathered to discuss which musicals to deem appropriate for the forthcoming school play. All appears to be normal, until the meeting concludes with a Satanic prayer.
It appears that the school's students may be following in their footsteps as we follow a group of teenagers into the woods where they decide to experiment with a little black magic of their own. They get more than they bargained for however, when fire emerges from the ground and later, frogs rain from the sky and the corpse of one of their school friends is found nearby. While locals pile on the guilt, claiming that the kids have unleashed dark forces upon the town, we are shown that the murder was in fact the handiwork of the seemingly bookish substitute teacher Mrs. Paddock, who is keeping the victim's eyes and heart in her desk, presumably for later rituals.
Naturally Mulder and Scully are called in to investigate and interview Shannon, the teenage step-daughter of one of the faculty members who has suffered a breakdown while dissecting a pig fetus in biology class, and it is here that the episode swiftly and fully enters dark territory. Shannon reveals that she has been repeatedly and forcibly impregnated by her stepfather, and her babies have been sacrificed as part of the faculty's Satanic rituals. It seems further torment is to come when the faculty plans to use Shannon as a scapegoat for its crimes and their consequences.
While jarring and unsettling, it's likely that this was the intent of the sharp tonal shifts in the writing. That the episode is creepy and affecting is beyond doubt and it represents how well The X-Files can work when its dark themes enter the realm of out-and-out horror. Only the disappointing lack of closure prevents this episode - Wong and Morgan's last before departing to work on 'Space: Above and Beyond' - from being higher up my list. (Very similar problems plague the otherwise intriguing 'Excelsis Dei'.)
Written by: Howard Gordon
Originally aired: October 7, 1994
Featuring the introduction of both Alex Krycek and new informant 'X', 'Sleepless' revolves around the concept of a Vietnam-era experiment to eradicate soldiers' need to sleep through lobotomy. When people related to the experiment begin to die under mysterious circumstances, including a Doctor who appears to have been burned alive despite a complete lack of fire damage at the crime scene, Mulder tries to investigate independently of his newly-assigned partner who we later learn is reporting back to the Cigarette Smoking Man.
The prime suspect for the murders seems to be Augustus Cole, a soldier who was mistakenly listed as 'killed in action'. Mulder believes that Cole has been committing his crimes through telekinesis, an ability that he has developed as a result of his decades of sleep deprivation. The rest of the episode is a race against time and a battle against Cole's strange powers as Mulder and Krycek are forced to work together to beat the soldier to his final victim.
Packing in a number of fascinating concepts - particularly the notion of where ones demons might reside if they're denied the outlet of dreams - 'Sleepless' also manages to be a moving and thought-provoking tale of the guilt and aftermath of war, largely thanks to an excellent performance by Tony Todd as Augustus.
Written by: Chris Carter
Originally aired: September 23, 1994
With The X-Files still closed, Mulder and Scully find themselves assigned to different departments of the FBI. Upon finding himself with the unenviable task of investigating the half-eaten body of a man that has been discovered in a Newark sewer, Mulder angrily tells Assistant Director Skinner that he believes he has been given the job as punishment for his work on the X-Files and later confides to Scully that he is considering leaving the Bureau.
The plot thickens, however as elsewhere in Newark a city worker is pulled down into the sewer and bitten by what he believes to be a snake. Mulder joins the man as he visits his doctor and an unusual four-pronged wound is discovered on the man's back.
Meanwhile, tasked with performing the autopsy of the first sewer victim, Scully discovers a flukeworm inside the corpse. When she shows the specimen to Mulder, the similarities between the small mouth of the flukeworm and the large wound on the second man's back are too obvious to ignore. It is not long before Mulder finds himself confronted with the grotesque humanoid Flukeman in the flesh.
'The Host' is a superb 45 minutes of television and one of the most satisfying episodes of The X-Files overall. It's a rare instance of a fully rounded, self-contained story sitting comfortably alongside ongoing plot threads and some excellent character development for Mulder and Scully as they find themselves working separately for the first time. Of course the most memorable aspect of the episode is Flukeman himself - a fan favorite monster, and almost certainly the most disgusting in the show's history. Looking like the repulsive offspring of the 'Creature From The Black Lagoon' and an overgrown maggot, he is one of many excellent homages that The X-Files would pay to the classic horror movies of the 1930s.
Written by: Darin Morgan
Originally aired: March 31, 1995
One of the most comedic and wildly entertaining episodes of the series, 'Humbug' sees Mulder and Scully investigating the deaths of a number of sideshow performers. Perhaps taking a cue from Tod Browning, the episode stars a number of real life 'freaks' such as The Enigma (here cunningly renamed The Conundrum) and blockhead Jim Rose alongside a welcome turn from 'Twin Peaks' favorite Michael J. Anderson as sideshow manager Mr. Nutt.
Tracks found in the dirt near the crimes lead Mulder to believe that the murders may be the work of the legendary Fiji Mermaid - a 19th century oddity that was in actuality a monkey with a fish tail attached. Scully is, perhaps more understandably than usual, highly skeptical - though the true culprit turns out to be even stranger than Mulder's oddball theory.
Much like 'Freaks', 'Humbug' takes time to consider the dignity and preconceptions of the different and the weird, though the episode is most notable for its tone. Markedly different from anything else in the series, it is unique, refreshing and often hilarious.
Written by: Chris Carter/Paul Brown
Originally aired: October 14/October 20, 1994
It would be fair to accuse me of cheating on a couple of counts here. Firstly, as with 'Squeeze' and 'Tooms' from season one, I'm bending the rules slightly and including both installments of a two-part episode as one entry on the list. Secondly, both 'Duane Barry' and 'Ascension' undeniably contain a number of elements that are key to the show's overarching story, so I'm overlooking my caveat of only including 'Monster of the week' stories. I'm sure though, that anyone who has enjoyed this pair of sublime episodes will forgive me this once, as taken together they perhaps represent The X-Files absolute peak.
'Duane Barry' opens with a flashback to Virginia, 1985 as we see the titular character seemingly abducted by extra-terrestrials. Cutting back to present time we see that Duane is now in a mental institute, belligerent and paranoid that the aliens are going to return for him. After attacking a security guard and taking a Head Psychiatrist hostage, Duane aims to return to the site of his abduction and offer up the Doctor to the aliens in his place. Unable to find the exact spot due to the passing years, he holes up in a nearby Travel Agency, taking three workers hostage alongside the Psychiatrist.
At this point, Mulder - still assigned to work alongside Krycek - is called in to negotiate as the local agents believe Mulder's association with The X-Files will provide him a means of relating to Duane and earning his trust. He contacts Scully to ask her to look in to Duane's background. She learns that he is in fact a former FBI agent who took a shot to the head three years prior to his purported abduction and that this may be the actual cause of his paranoia and psychosis.
As the tension ramps up, Mulder convinces Barry to allow him to take the place of one of the hostages and begins deviating from his given instructions in order to better get inside Duane's head. While the hostage situation is eventually diffused thanks to Mulder's quick thinking and guile, a larger threat still looms when Duane escapes from hospital once more to fulfil his original plan, kidnapping Scully to be the new sacrifice as he ascends Skyland Mountain - the location of his own abduction.
Its hard to discuss these episodes without potentially spoiling them for newcomers, since the events have far reaching consequences that permeate all of the rest of the show's run. They can however be enjoyed as a 90 minute feature (or perhaps longer, including the story's temporary resolution in 'One Breath') and in my opinion would make a better X-Files movie than either of the two cinematic outings to date. Steve Railsback steals the show with his all-too-believable portrayal of Duane, who despite his selfishness and illegal activities never stops us believing that he is much more a terrified victim than an evil perpetrator.
The drama in both episodes is as relentless as it is nail-biting. Often considered to be among the best the show has to offer, the first installment is even more impressive when you take into account that it was the first time writer and show creator Chris Carter had ever directed an episode.
Necessity is the mother of invention, as they say, and the fact that such fantastic, gripping and emotional drama was simply born out of the necessity of covering Gillian Anderson's maternity leave is testament to the sheer inventiveness of the X-Files creative team and the show itself. Absolutely essential viewing.
I hope to be back with you to take a look at the best of season three very soon. In the meantime, let me know if your favorites from two made the list in the comments below.