Season 3, Episode 17
Director: Rob Bowman
Writer: Vince Gilligan
After providing an actor’s showcase for Tony Shalhoub in “Soft Light,” Vince Gilligan returns with his second X-Files-penned episode in “Pusher,” a clever cat-and-mouse game that smartly focuses on human interactions over supernatural thrills. The main character of mind-control expert Bob Modell (Robert Wisden) – nicknamed “Pusher” – provides an interesting foil for Mulder and Scully, particularly considering his lasting motivation, making for an above-average episode that culminates in a fantastically dramatic conclusion that is completely unlike anything The X-Files has done before.
The prologue starts with Modell shopping in a grocery store as the FBI quickly surround him. Locked in the back of a police car, Modell begins to have an odd conversation with the driver, convincing him through mental suggestion to pull out in front of a speeding semi. The commanding officer, Burst (Vic Polizos), takes the case to Mulder and Scully, claiming that “Pusher” has killed dozens of people over a two year span with all murders tagged as suicides. Over the course of the episode, “Pusher” leads the FBI along, planting clues to his identity along the way, ultimately killing two agents – one by dousing himself with gasoline and lighting himself on fire and another by inducing a heart attack through the power of suggestion. In the end, it is revealed that Modell / “Pusher” is suffering from a once-operable brain tumor that apparently gave him these abilities yet caused Modell to refuse treatment, wanting to remain a powerful person. Mulder and Scully attempt to apprehend him, but Mulder is forced into a game of Russian roulette. With Scully’s help, he overcomes the mind control and shoots Modell who closes the episode in a coma.
This episode is one of my personal favorites in a very long time. Vince Gilligan knows how to write anti-heroes (clearly from his legendary writing on Breaking Bad), and you can see the perhaps unintentional early seeds of Walter White in Bob Modell: the deplorably ordinary cancer victim who wants to be greater than the sum of his parts. It’s all there – just on a much smaller scale. Aside from that, Gilligan is able to do wonders with the Modell and Mulder/Scully dynamic. What really sells the material is the focus on the human components of the thrills rather than the outwardly supernatural elements. I’ve said this before, but The X-Files really sings when they don’t let the otherworldly elements of the series take control. The heart of every story lies in the impacts of such activity on the human spirit, allowing the series to explore the implications and outcomes.
A few more things I love about the episode include a few sly nods to X-Files lore (namely, the Fluke Man tabloid cover) and the fact that Skinner’s mind is too strong to be controlled by Modell. These are the slight nuances that make geeks like me obsess over the great storytelling. Not just great storytelling, but storytelling pushed forth by someone who not only has the chops to tell a great story but is also at heart a huge fan of the show.
You can’t fake enthusiasm, and Gilligan’s passion for the series shines through in his expert writing.