Destination: Loudoun County, VA
Robert Patrick Modell (aka Pusher) is a mostly ordinary guy until he’s diagnosed with an inoperable tumor allowing him to access something in his brain that can control others with his voice and suggestions. (Mulder refers to it at one point as “the whammy” because there simply is no precedent for it.) His newfound talent paves the way to a life of an assassin. Amazingly that premise is only half the fun. The real excitement comes from watching Modell bait Mulder (and to a lesser degree Scully) in a restive ‘catch me if you can’.
‘Pusher’ comes from the master of game: Vince Gilligan (who famously told Chris Carter when he handed him the script that this is best thing he’ll ever write for him). Gilligan has his own version of the rule of cool. It’s not the traditional straightforward trope based on a suspension of the viewer’s disbelief in favor of all that’s awesome. Gilligan’s looks more like a house of mirrors; his characters suspend self-doubt and create a world around them that will see them as formidable. Yes, the wake of destruction in this degree of narcissism is staggering as any good dramatization would deliver. But somehow, some way, the payoff of this trope tweaked just so provides us a wish fulfillment heretofore unknown. Everyone gets to be more awesome in Vince Gilligan's world, even us. Especially us.
Modell is played by Robert Wisden who brings a 1970s Vega$ swagger that makes him, at times, more alluring than dangerous. He writes ‘Ronin’ on a cop car following a rather elaborate escape (I swear I will never not think of The X-Files when I hear ‘cerulean blue’ for as long as I live). And it takes Mulder all of two minutes to figure out that Modell wants someone to play with. Game on.
While so many of The X-Files episodes are made from truly paranormal goings-on (often Mulder and Scully just play catch-up most of the episode), ‘Pusher’ is way more rooted in the mundane. Even Modell’s mad skills aren’t really treated as outrageously impossible. The story, then, takes on a different tone, there's space here for a human engagement between our agents and the former contract killer that effortlessly distills itself into a cat and mouse game, well-matched, especially in wit.
This comes to a head in perhaps the finest fourth act of any episode of The X-Files of all time. Mulder and Scully get the drop on Modell while he's at a local hospital for treatment. Mulder volunteers to go in, decked out in Kevlar and a camera but without his gun. He is the more desired mark of the two. (On a scale of 1 to 10 on how nervous Scully is on this ‘tactical maneuver’, she’s a 22, easy.) Things go sideways and soon Scully, in Kevlar without her gun, goes in after Mulder. Scully following Mulder in blind is so irrational that it could only have been compelled by the mind of a madman. Or by a woman who is entirely secure in the durability of her partnership. What she walks in on is a game of Russian roulette. In a highly oxygenated room. On a floor populated with patients. And Mulder is under Modell’s control. Yet even this super-human gift of Modell's is out rivaled by Mulder and Scully's bond. Scully's able to break through Mulder's trance just enough that he pauses to tell her to run when he's forced to turn the gun on her. It gives her enough time to turn around and pull the fire alarm, springing Mulder back. The sequence is so exquisitely executed on every level (at one point Gillian Anderson has manifested those tears that spring to your eyes from pure fear) that dozens of viewings later, it still has the same effect of leaving me on the floor in ruin.
This brings me to my final point: Gilligan’s take on the Mulder and Scully relationship was matchless. He always lifted the nature of their connection to the highest station. (See also: 'Folie A Deux' and 'Paper Hearts') Their regard, respect and devotion to one another always portrayed as clear, evolving and true. In ‘Pusher’, it’s both the foundation and the glue that holds this already-outstanding piece of work in place. It’s also the fuel that propels the last act into greatness. We feel every emotion, no matter how fleeting, that Mulder and Scully experience in connection to their search and capture of Modell. Emotions they experience with, for and because of each other.
*One of the most memorable teasers in all of The X-Files history.
*Misty is playing on the PA system in the grocery store where Modell is apprehended.
*At the checkout line, Modell fingers a World Weekly Informer with the Flukeman on the front. The headline reads “He’s Back!”
*In what might be the most terrifying moment of the episode Mulder and Scully are forced to do research at the FBI library.
*In general with The X-Files, I love the sound effect of the antennae on the cellphone going up and down.
*There’s a "Holly" in everything Gilligan writes because that’s his girlfriend’s name. Aw.
*Mulder’s courtroom appearance is another hilarious example of Mulder taking the stand and the defense team breathing a sigh of relief because of the insanity that comes out of his mouth.
*Almost as awesome as the fourth act (and largely adding to its effectiveness) is the scene with Mulder and Scully at target practice. Their back-and-forth—so calibrated.
*Skinner is immune to the whammy. Of course he is.
*To name a few of the details that are so special:
-in the teaser when all the police cars are in a clean perfect row
-Svengali is playing on Modell’s TV when the SWAT team bursts through his door then Scully slaps the search warrant on the screen
-the camera 'inside' the camera work when Mulder is wearing the surveillance equipment
-Scully spotting the vivid red fire alarm in a mirror's reflection
I'm as certain as I can be that all of these things are on the page, which is just, such good writing, it's astounding.
Modell: “Let’s get this show on the road.”
Detective Burst: “Pusher, I presume.”
Modell: “You must be Frank Burst. You know, I gotta tell you, you’ve got the greatest name.”
Modell: “Cerulean blue. Cerulean makes me think of a breeze. A gentle breeze.”
Detective Burst: “Hey, Mr. Blackwell, put a sock in it.”
Scully: “So he’s a killer and a golfer.”
Mulder: “Rings a bell, huh? Let’s go G-woman.” (Oh, 90s.)
Modell: “Bet you five bucks I get off.”
Mulder: “Hey, your shoe’s untied. (Modell looks down at the floor.) Made you look. How do you do it?”
Scully: “…He is just a little man who wishes that he were something big…”
Mulder: “Oh, we had enough to get past the simple preliminary hearing. Modell psyched the guy out. He put the whammy on him.”
Scully: “Please explain to me the scientific nature of the whammy.”
Modell: “I’d love a print out of this. And a cup of coffee when you get the chance.”
Scully: “And he wants to go out in a blaze of glory.”
Mulder: “Not with a whimper but with a bang.”
Mulder: “Smile, Scully.”
Mulder: “Let’s get this show on the road.”
Final Analysis: 'Pusher' is in the top 20 of the best episodes. Maybe top 10. Maybe even top five.