Given the size of the The X-Files cannon—218 episodes over 11 seasons, plus two films—it’s easy to forget the Burt Reynolds cameo as a benevolent, hands-off God who favors games of chance and Hawaiian shirts.
But believe it or not, it happened. And with Reynolds’ death Sept. 6 at the age of 82 and the 25th anniversary of The X-Files today, it’s worth revisiting the episode, which is a genuine delight.
Improbable (season nine, episode 13), written and directed by Chris Carter, the show’s creator, is vintage monster-of-the-week X-Files. Arriving in the middle of the show’s sputtering last season (pre-reboot), after the departure of David Duchovny from the show, there’s not a ton to the plot: A stereotypically sneering bad guy kills women, driven, it seems, by numerological patterns. The FBI needs to stop him before he kills again. Some agents believe the numbers hold the key to catching the killer, others think this is bunk. Burt Reynolds keeps showing up with playing cards or dominoes and his own cha-cha-heavy soundtrack, trying to talk the killer out of killing. Then he plays checkers with Scully and her colleague, agent Monica Reyes, gently guiding them toward solving the case. The end.
Of course, the deeper you are into The X-Files and its internal lore and character journeys, the more the broad kitsch appeal of Burt Reynolds as God pays off. This one is for the Dana Scully superfans out there (🙋♀️).
Though Scully became known for being the scientist skeptic to Fox Mulder’s believer, that mythology ignores the conflict between science and religious faith that helps define her character in the early seasons. She starts off the episode explaining the Grand Unified Theory to Reyes, comes face-to-face with God, then ends the episode listening to an explanation of her own numerological chart. Her universe depends on a complex interplay of science, faith, and bemused curiosity.
This episode comes at a strange moment for the show. It’s the final season that aired during its original run. Seasons 10 and 11 wouldn’t come out for more than a decade, in 2016 and 2018, respectively. David Duchovny had been gone for the entirety of season eight, and after all those years of searching for truth in a haystack of monsters and Morleys, the promise of a unified theory of Mulderland is no closer to being realized.
One of the most important stylistic elements at work in The X-Files is its awareness of the viewer. From cameos like Reynolds’, to Mulder’s dry asides, the constant Easter eggs and self-referential plot points and dialogue, it was always a show made for its biggest fans. Improbable is a bit of an apology, or at least a recognition, that truly the series might never satisfactorily answer questions about Mulder’s sister, world-wide conspiracies, and the simmering love affair between Scully and Mulder. What it could do, however, was to offer up a moral order for the universe, in which a jovial God might be all-knowing, but ultimately our fates are still our own to choose.
You can watch The X-Files on Hulu with a subscription, on the Fox site or app, or on Amazon starting at $2 an episode.