Breaking Bad, which recently finished the first half of its final season, is the perfect combo plate of highly nuanced, captivating performances and stunning writing. It’s also as addictive as the stuff that it’s protagonist/antagonist Walter White cooks up (I imagine). But before creator Vince Gilligan was plotting Walter’s moral decline, he was cranking up the sexual tension between FBI agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully as a writer on The X-Files.
Breaking Bad, The X-Files—on the surface they couldn’t be more different but they’re bound by Gilligan’s inventive approach to storytelling and talent for injecting humor (that always feels totally organic) into otherwise dramatic narratives. Gilligan started writing for The X-Files in season two and the episodes that he penned during his tenure were some of the show’s sharpest and most satisfying.
These are five of his best, which you might consider re-watching if the wait until next summer’s Breaking Bad conclusion proves too difficult to bear.
5. Unusual Suspects
Season 5: Episode 3
Set in 1989, before special agent Fox Mulder began working on The X-Files, “Unusual Suspects” serves as the Lone Gunman origin story, revealing how Frohike, Byers, and Langley—Mulder’s three oddball, conspiracy chasing associates—met. The episode is notable for veering away from the show’s standard format—Scully isn’t present at all and Mulder is only in a handful of scenes—for a guest appearance by Richard Belzer playing Detective John Munch, and for presenting us with David Duchovny’s naked bod.
“Unusual Suspect” has several terrific visual gags (since it’s 1989, Mulder has a gigantic brick cell phone) and ends with one of the show’s great lines. When Byers tells Mulder that “secret elements from within the United States government seek to surveil us and control our lives,” Mulder, dumbfounded, says, “whaaat?” Any episode that gives an outsider’s perspective on Mulder or Scully is always amusing (another one that does this well is “José Chung’s From Outer Space”) and, here, the Lone Gunman are initially intimidated by Mulder. You don’t realize that deadpan Mulder might be something of an ominous or enigmatic figure until you see episodes like this.
Season 7: Episode: 12
Quite a few Gilligan episodes are sprinkled with pop culture references but this one is actually modeled after COPS—the infamous fly-on-the-wall docu-series about “bad boys” and the law enforcement officers pursuing them. In “X-Cops,” Mulder and Scully’s investigation of a possible werewolf sighting in a dangerous L.A. neighborhood becomes entangled with the filming of an episode of COPS.
The format is imaginative and fun but it also creates an immediacy to the story that isn’t really present in your typical X-Files episode, ultimately making the viewing experience sort of terrifying. With “X-Cops,” Gilligan crafted something that was both a parody and a thoughtful meditation on fear.
Season 3: Episode 17
The episode’s titular “pusher” is Robert Patrick Modell, a man who has the ability to “push” his will onto other people—in the opening scene he persuades a cop to drive into a big rig truck and later convinces another officer to set himself on fire. His murders all look like suicides, making him a particularly sinister villain. The episode features wonderfully droll exchanges between Mulder and Scully and as the agents engage Modell in a game of cat and mouse, “Pusher” becomes a gripping psychological thriller.
The denouement is intense (a round of Russian Roulette!) and somehow manages to be suspenseful even though we obviously know that neither of the two leads will be mortally wounded. What I like most about this one, though, is that it closes with a very quick and understated moment of tenderness between the partners.
2. Small Potatoes
Season 4: Episode 20
Mulder and Scully come within inches of kissing each other here! Well, sort of. “Small Potatoes” opens with the birth of a baby who is normal in every way expect for the fact that she has a tale. The baby’s mother claims that the father is Luke Skywalker. As it turns out, several other babies in the area have been born with this mutation. A DNA test leads Mulder and Scully to Eddie Van Blundht (played by X-Files writer Darin Morgan), a sad sack janitor who had his tale removed and who can take on the appearance of anyone he sees.
Van Blundht eventually morphs into Mulder and briefly assumes the FBI agent’s life, moving into his apartment and seducing Scully. “Small Potatoes” is a cute episode punctuated by moments that reveal little, hitherto unknown character details and build on some of the series’ in jokes (Van Blundht checks Mulder’s answering machine and there’s a message from a phone sex company). The casual encounter between Scully and Faux Mulder is a self-referential nod to the sexual tension that came to define the characters’ relationship.
There’s also a scene that adds an interesting layer to the Mulder character. Van Blundht, back to his original form and face-to-face with the real Mulder, says, “I was born a loser but you’re one by choice.”
1. Bad Blood
Season 5: Episode 12
Not only is this the most memorable episode penned by Gilligan, it’s also one of the series’ greatest. Gilligan was always clever when it came to the way he structured his stories, something that’s apparent in both “X-Cops” and “Unusual Suspects,” but is best illustrated in this quirky, Rashomon style tale of a blood-sucker with OCD. When relating the details of their investigation, Mulder and Scully have hilariously disparate recollections of events.
The funniest, I think, being their descriptions of guest star Luke Wilson’s Sheriff Hartwell—Scully sees him as handsome and sweet while Mulder sees him as a buck-toothed yokel who calls the two FBI agents “the gov’ment people.” Aside from the laughs (and there are a ton), “Bad Blood” depicts the basic “Mulder believes while Scully is skeptical” dynamic that drives the show in a novel way. Perception was a key X-Files theme and Gilligan explores the concept here with incredible wit.
This episode is the encapsulation of one of the things that made this show so enjoyable for so long: it was surprising. There was a formula—there’s some weird event, the duo investigate it when they should be making out—but Gilligan and the other writers weren’t afraid to play around with that formula and were able to stay true to the show’s spooky essence while doing so.