“What is it, Modell, really, what you want?” – Fox Mulder
“A worthy adversary.” – Robert Patrick Modell
Mulder and Scully are asked by a fellow agent to look into the case of a man that claims he can “cloud men’s minds” and has taken responsibility for the deaths of 14 people. No, this isn’t The Shadow, but rather one of the tensest hours the show ever made.
Max: During the six-year run of the show Breaking Bad, one of the critical plaudits given to the program was its ability to create some of the most incredibly palpable tension on television. Show creator Vince Gilligan of course got his big break as a writer on The X-Files, so it is of no surprise that this skill he wielded on his own program is in evidence in “Pusher,” one of his standout scripts here.
Robert Patrick Modell, one of those typical three name psychopaths, has flunked out of nearly every branch of the military and failed his psych evaluation when his aspirations turned to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Cold calling Bureau agent Frank Burst, Modell calls himself “Pusher” and takes credit for the deaths of 14 individuals ruled as suicides by medical examiners (including a woman who jumped in front of a train), stating facts in evidence that only the police had on file. Burst leads a task force and tracks Modell down to a Virginia supermarket. Upon his arrest, Modell manages to persuade the deputy driving the cruiser to steer it into an oncoming tractor trailer, then has the deputy release him. Burst, in the same car, is stunned by these events, and asks for our heroes’ help in the matter.
The episode quickly becomes a game of cat and mouse, with Modell seemingly one step ahead of our intrepid G-Men. He attempts to evade capture at a golf course by convincing a SWAT agent to douse himself with gasoline and set himself on fire, and gets into the head of a federal judge to drop charges related to those 14 deaths. During the course of the investigation, Scully discovers that Modell has been taking medication to suppress seizures as the result of a tumor in his brain. Mulder, as usual, takes the deductive leap to suggest that this tumor is the source of Modell’s persuasive abilities, a form of psychokinesis.
A search of Modell’s residence turns up not only the medication, but several stores worth of protein drinks (which Mulder theorizes Modell needs to restore his energy after his abilities drain him of nutrients) and several books about brain physiology and cognition as well as tomes about Japanese and Oriental philosophy. While Modell spins yarns about his so-called training straight out of Lamont Cranston’s backstory, he successfully causes the cardiac arrest of Agent Burst with a simple phone call as the agents attempt to trace the location where Modell is calling from.
The episode’s tense climax occurs in the hospital where Modell receives treatments for his tumor. Mulder goes in, alone and unarmed, in a final gambit to take Modell into custody. Modell, on the other hand, has a revolver taken from a hospital guard, and captures Mulder outside of the MRI suite. Rushing to his aid, Scully comes upon a scene right out of The Deer Hunter, Modell using Mulder to play a sadistic version of Russian Roulette with the revolver. Scully pleads with Mulder to be strong and fight Modell’s influence, but is unable to do anything as he pulls the trigger on Modell and himself, luckily avoiding the sole bullet. Modell then pushes Mulder to aim the gun at Scully, and with the sweat dripping from his face, fighting with all his might, Mulder orders Scully to run. She backs away slowly, and takes the chance to pull a fire alarm that distracts Modell, breaks the psychic hold, and allows Mulder to shoot Modell into submission. With Modell now in a coma, Scully tells Mulder to leave this man behind, with Mulder saying, “I think it was like you said. He was always such a… little man. This was finally something that made him feel big.”
It really speaks to the close-knit relationship between our agents that we as an audience feel such tension, dread, and terror during the final moments of the episode. Here we have two individuals who have gone through hell and back for and with each other, and that connection is being put on the line in an act orchestrated by a madman. You very rarely think that our agents are in any sort of mortal danger in a MOTW episode, and that they will escape the episode with their lives and the antagonist in custody or killed. Vince Gilligan’s expert script manages to disabuse you of this notion, and the games he plays not only on screen but with audience expectations are what make Robert Patrick Modell one of the more memorable characters for fans. In testing the bonds of Mulder and Scully, “Pusher” indeed pushes us.
Radhika: “Pusher” joins the ranks of episodes like “Squeeze” and “Irresistible,” a MOTW installment that is one of the most standout moments of The X-Files. While this episode doesn’t focus on anything particularly gross and creepy, it manages to stay completely suspenseful, even upon repeat viewings.
The Russian Roulette game mentioned by Max is probably one of the most memorable scenes in the show’s entire history, especially considering how no one else has managed to break free of Pusher’s hold throughout the episode. On one hand, part of the way out of the whole mess is pure luck — but on the other hand, you could argue that the bond between the two agents is the reason why Mulder was able to fight through it and pull the trigger on Modell (with a little assistance from Scully and the fire alarm). It’s a nice little bit of character building in the midst of a non-mythology episode.
What I like about this episode is that the usual “You’re crazy, Mulder” refrain doesn’t last too long. There are too many witnesses to Modell’s abilities — such as poor Skinner, who winds up getting beat up by another agent, Holly, when Modell infiltrates the FBI and asks her to pull up Mulder’s file for him. When Skinner tries putting a stop to this, Modell convinces Holly that Skinner is a man who mugged her and tells her to fight back. The man knows how to play into people’s vulnerabilities, which is unfortunate for Skinner, as well as a mortified Holly once she comes to her senses. But this tendency to brag and show off his abilities, even when he’s at the serious risk of getting caught, does work in Mulder’s favor. While most witnesses refuse to explain how Modell does it, they do concede that he has a dangerous ability and needs to be stopped. It’s a nice change from the usual tendency to treat Mulder — and even the long-suffering Scully — like a bunch of kooky goons.
[On a completely unrelated sidenote, I would like to add that I got a kick out of the fact that Robert Patrick Modell pretty much shares a name with actor Robert Patrick, who would go on to join the series as a regular in season eight (a completely different era for the show). Talk about crazy coincidences.]
For me, “Pusher” goes down as one of the best episodes in the show’s history, encapsulating so much of the paranormal themes the show was about, while also highlighting the Mulder and Scully dynamic. It is a quintessential X-File that manages to endure the test of time, as a solid example of how good TV is done.
ROGER CROSS WATCH
A recurring section in where we note the appearance of the journeyman actor and constant television presence in several unrelated guest spots on different episodes of the show.
SWAT Team Member – Playing an unidentified member of the SWAT team that raided Modell’s apartment, Roger’s character is one of the unfortunate victims of Modell’s suggestive abilities, keeping the line they were tracing open so that Modell could complete his murder of Agent Burst. Let’s try not to be too hard on him.