Season 3, Episode 17: “Pusher”
Original Airdate: February 23, 1996
Before Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan was Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan, he was Vince Gilligan, the X-Files writer who seemed to understand exactly how in love Mulder and Scully really were. Not super in true actual love — it’s season three, calm down — but a little in love, a partner-in-love, a “there’s something about how whenever you put yourself in danger it upsets me but I would never try to stop you, because ultimately that is untenable” love.
“Pusher” is Gilligan’s second episode, a ripping yarn about a man whose sudden proximity to death sets him off on a wildly destructive path. That’s right: before there was Walter White there was Robert Patrick Modell.
A man named Pusher gets caught by the FBI. Episode over. Oh just kidding, actually, a man gets caught by the FBI and acts smug about it. He’s loaded in the back of a cop car and he’s talking to the deputy who’s driving, using a soothing voice and talking about cerulean blue. The deputy all of a sudden turns the car into traffic, hitting a truck marked “Cerulean Hauling.” Pusher escapes and Detective Frank Burst visits Mulder and Scully. Explains that Pusher called him a month back and confessed to a series of contract killings performed over two years. Funny thing is though that each of the murders were ruled suicides, funny thing is though that Pusher knows specific details about each case. What if, says Mulder, the thing about Pusher is that he can make people do what he wants? Power of suggestion but like, superpower of suggestion?
Clues: he calls himself Pusher, so that’s something. He left graffiti on the side of the wrecked car, “Ronin.” Mulder and Scully read up on back issues of American Ronin and find an ad, three phone numbers and copy that reads, “I solve problems. Osu.” Osu as in “to push,” in Japanese. Our agents trace the phone numbers, phone booths, and we all go on stakeout. Scully falls asleep on Mulder, which is comfortable and charming. Pusher calls the phone and smug smug smugs at ‘em while they try to get a trace. He calls Mulder “G-man,” says they’ll have to prove their worth, offers another clue that leads them to Tee Totalers, a golf driving range and pro shop. Tee Totalers! A thousand Emmys, if I had my way.
So they find Pusher at Tee Totalers, or actually, he’s there and he’s approached by an Agent Collins. Pusher pushes Agent Collins, wills him, somehow, to cover himself in gasoline and light a lighter. Mulder finds Pusher slumped over in his car, head on the steering wheel and sweating but somehow still smug, “Bet you five bucks I get off,” and he’s not wrong. In court, Mulder pulls that business where he tells the ridiculous truth and no one believes him, only this time it’s worse because Robert Patrick “Pusher” Modell is fixed on the judge, willing him into not-guilty. Outside the courtroom Pusher can’t help but taunt Mulder (“I believe you owe me five dollars”), and Mulder can’t help but taunt back (“Hey, your shoe’s untied...made you look”). Detective Frank Burst tries to get in on the action (“I know where you live!”) but, no.
What it is is that Pusher has tapped into something. Mulder is often the only one who believes the things that Mulder is saying. Pusher has the ability to not only make people believe him but to make people do things on his behalf. If Mulder had Pusher’s persuasiveness, he’d never be shamed in a courtroom again, never scoffed at by Skinner or shadowed by Scully’s raised eyebrow. And how frustrating to have an enemy who possesses a thing you didn’t even know you wanted, until just then! Scully raises her eyebrow and our agents have a productive scuffle, a mild disagreement. Scully is needling Mulder’s theory about Pusher, pointing out how weak their case is while Mulder struggles to fill the gaps. It’s a scene we’ve seen and will see again, but I particularly like it here, like the way it shows Mulder’s growing frustration and demonstrates the necessity of Scully’s skepticism. They’ve been thrown out of court, so they need to work harder, no matter how correct Mulder is.
Pusher steps it up. Mind-whammies his way into the FBI records room in order to read Mulder’s file. Skinner catches him there but Pusher is quick, convinces Holly of the records room to pepper-spray Skinner while Pusher makes his escape. A villain inside the FBI is another good trick — now that Skinner has witnessed Pusher’s abilities, there’s no need for Mulder to argue with his boss. Mulder has been made unnecessary, enough so that not even even Detective Frank Burst will listen to our agent, not even when he’s on the phone with Pusher, being talked into a heart attack and Mulder is screaming hang up the phone already. Detective Frank Burst dies and now Mulder is both angry because Pusher is winning and vulnerable because same.
He’s dying, by the way, Pusher is. Like Walter White except Pusher’s got a tumor in his brain, one that has changed his life. Our agents surround the hospital where Pusher receives regular treatments. Mulder wants to go in, of course he does, because Mulder knows he’s the one that Pusher wants. Scully is against it because she’s neither stupid nor playing that game. Mulder goes to her and tries to get her to smile, but she won’t, and it’s another excellent moment between the two of them. Scully won’t stop him from going into the hospital, but she won’t condone it, either. He knows this. And a part of Mulder would like her approval, but a larger part of Mulder would like to beat the bad guy who’s under his skin. There is partnership and there is ego, and Mulder has been pushed towards the latter. But he does leave his gun with her.
Of course it doesn’t go well. Within minutes Mulder has been taken hostage by Pusher, is sitting across from him and engaged in a game of Russian roulette. Scully goes after him and tries to talk the men out of what they have been talked into. Pusher, it seems, can only focus on one person at a time. Scully, it seems, can almost get through to Mulder. Almost. Mulder points the gun at himself and hits an empty chamber, then Mulder points the gun at Scully but he tells her to run. She takes her moment, hits the fire alarm. And Mulder turns the gun back on Pusher and shoots him. It looks like a victory and I guess it is, but it doesn’t feel particularly triumphant.
There’s a gap between Mulder and Scully. It’s smaller than ever, but it still exists. It’s necessary. It’s what makes them good partners, what allows her to question him so brutally even when they both know he is right. And in showing us the quality of the relationship between the agents, Vince Gilligan also shows us that the gap can be exploited. That Mulder’s devotion to case-solving — often known as Finding the Truth — can lead to Russian roulette in a hospital. He trusts her above all but he doesn’t trust her entirely, completely, above himself. Does he need to? Does anyone need to, is that what love is, or is that what partnership is? At the end of the episode the two stand over Pusher in a coma and Scully reaches for Mulder’s hand, takes it briefly and tenderly. Not to tell him I love you, but to tell him that it’s time to walk away from this. Release your conviction so that you may live.
Next week: “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space”