The X-Files and the Monsters of That Week: Pusher
Season three, and The X-Files is cruising.
The mythology was still outdoing itself, and the sheer number of quality Monster of the Week episodes is embarrassingly large. It’s tempting to pick one of the three Darin Morgan episodes – Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose, War of the Corpages, and Jose Chung is from Outer Space, all brilliant, witty takes on the X-Files set-up – but there is one episode that always hits home for me.
The staple of hypnotism is that you can’t force someone to do something that is against their nature. You can’t force them to kill themselves or others, though the CIA spent millions trying. What if there was someone who could bypass that psychic shield? How would he use that power?
Robert Modell, the titular Pusher, is probably the best human villain the show has ever had that doesn’t have a severe nicotine craving. He is smart, slick, and very convincing, to the point where he can impose his will on others. His powers are classic – recent examples of this include Jesse Custer in Preacher, and Killian Killgrave in Jessica Jones, a well that TV and storytelling in general just won’t stop tapping. That kind of power over people is so interesting because it reveals more about the person who wields it than their victims, and we love a villain with layers.
The X-Files is one of the most beautifully photographed shows of all time, with its lighting style, noirish blocking, and cinematic quality. Sometimes, this quality can lift a bad episode into the realm of watchable. Pusher isn’t particularly visually interesting, but, for a show like this, that becomes part of the point. This is an episode that is very much character over style: the rivalry between Modell and Mulder and Scully. Modell has chosen a career as a professional hitman, inducing suicides in his victims with his powers. It is discovered that he applied to be a cop and an FBI agent but was too unstable a personality. His power gives him power over everyone, and he has chosen to kill. He’s basically a comic book supervillain looking for a hero worth his time. That hero just happens to be Mulder.
Pusher is written by Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan: his first great script for the show after the middling introduction that was season two’s Soft Light. Gilligan has been proclaimed by many critics as Stephen King of The X-Files writing staff. His episodes are always grounded in the real world, showing the extraordinary in mundane settings.
How do you stop someone like Modell? The only option for the agents is to play his game. We can see the strength of his power: forcing a cop to set himself on fire in one of the most viscerally memorable sequences of the show’s run, and killing the detective, who brought the case to Mulder and Scully, over the phone. The finale is about as dramatic as The X-Files gets: Mulder and Modell, later joined by Scully, playing a game of Russian roulette – but the catch is that Mulder has the gun. This is a fantastic scene: Duchvony and Anderson are on top form, with Duchovny trying to fight his own body, Anderson desperately trying to find a way to stop him. It’s just wonderful, compelling television, and a brilliant twist on the normal showdown.
If you want to introduce someone to The X-Files then I would recommend you show them Pusher. I know that Squeeze or The Host are more tempting, but Pusher is just a great hour of television: brilliantly acted, and the start of a frankly ridiculous run of quality episodes from Gilligan. If there is only one reason that Pusher is one of the best Monster of the Week episodes of The X-Files, it’s for Scully’s immortal line: “Please explain to me the scientific nature of The Whammy”. And, dammit, no-one has managed to explain it to me yet.
By Kevin Boyle
(header image via sex, art and politics)