Written by Vince Gilligan and directed by Rob Bowman, “Pusher” is one of those so-called “signature episodes” of The X-Files that I discussed a little bit last week, in my review of “Syzygy.”
No matter how many times you’ve seen this third season installment a re-watch immediately draws you in, and you find yourself glued to the television through the nail-biting final act.
Part of the reason this episode succeeds so splendidly is because it establishes a nasty psychic assassin, Robert Patrick Modell (Robert Wisden) as a dark reflection of the Mulder character. Indeed, the character of Modell desires, more than anything, a “worthy adversary.” He finds that in Mulder, in his opposite.
In particular, Modell and Mulder are both widely known by nicknames (“Pusher” and “Spooky,” respectively), and even their last names suggest a subconscious connection. “Modell” and “Mulder” possess the same number of letters (six each) and both start with “M,” but “Modell” switches the positioning of the “l” and “d” in “Mulder.” The episode thus goes to some length -- right down to surnames -- to suggest that these arch-nemeses bear some kind of relationship or symbiosis.
Even more dramatically, “Pusher” works splendidly and artistically in terms of its imagery and color scheme. The bravura trailer visually primes the audiences for its brutal punctuation (a car accident involving a very large truck…) by repeatedly turning aspects of the world blue, as if the episode itself is working on our psyches, as Modell works on the psyches of his victim with the repetition of the phrase “Cerulean Blue.”
A man named Robert Patrick Modell (Robert Wisden) fancies himself a “ronin” (a Samurai without a master…), and possess the telepathic ability to place thoughts and suggestions into the minds of others. He has used this talent to “push” his will on others, and has committed murder-for-hire some fourteen times. But he has always escaped capture, or even notice…
After “Pusher” telepathically forces a police officer to drive into an oncoming truck, Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson) begin to hunt down this unusual assassin. They learn that his powers originate from a brain tumor that Modell has willfully allowed to go untreated.
An F.B.I. sting goes awry when Pusher suggests that a capturing agent immolate himself, but Modell is captured nonetheless. He escapes from justice by using his ability to influence the presiding judge at court, leaving Mulder no choice but to face this Svengali in a Russian roulette showdown…
Throughout The X-Files, Mulder and Scully often tangle with monsters-of-the-week and secretive conspirators, but “Pusher” suggests an unusual, symbiotic relationship between Fox and the villain of the week, the aforementioned psychic assassin, Modell.
To describe the relationship, specifically, it is necessary to consider the characters and their individual natures. Mulder is a rational, Oxford-educated behavioral psychologist. He is a man of reason and science, and of education.
Yet despite these incredible achievements, he longs only to believe…to be shown something that is not of what we might term the rational world. Although Mulder is clearly a genius, he is derided and mocked by his peers because of his choice to pursue tales of aliens, ghosts, and monsters. He has become not what he knows or has learned, but what he hunts – “Spooky” Mulder.
By contrast Modell is a man who has failed at every attempt to achieve anything special in his life. He had a middling military career after being rejected by the Marines, and he was later rejected from the F.B.I.
A physical condition – a brain tumor -- however, grants Modell the very “psychic” power that Mulder has always wished to quantify. Without trying, without education or science, Modell has achieved, in some sense, what Mulder has never been able to achieve for himself: explicit and personal knowledge of an “extreme possibility.”
Like Mulder, Modell is known for his behavior…for pushing his will on others. He is not a great assassin or Samurai, but, rather, merely “Pusher.”
So on one hand you have a man of reason and achievement longing to validate the mysteries of the world, and on the other you have man who is, in fact, one of those mysteries, who has failed to achieve, under his own auspices, any kind of positive legacy.
No other person besides Mulder -- who combines rationality and desire (the will to believe) -- could sense what Pusher actually is, and that is why he proves himself Pusher’s nemesis, or “worthy adversary.”
Accordingly, the two men meet on the field of battle -- or Russian roulette -- and determine which of them is superior. Ironically, Mulder succeeds and proves victorious in this contest not only because of his own particular skill-set or mind-set, but because he has one advantage Modell lacks: Agent Dana Scully.
At a critical moment, Scully is there to help Mulder, and her quick-thinking frees Fox from Modell’s grip.
This is the decisive move in a game of chess: the shattering of a dead-lock between the Mulder/Modell connection.
The idea that Scully intervenes to save Mulder also harks back to a key through-line of the entire series: the notion that we all require more than one philosophical viewpoint if we are to see the world in anything approaching objectivity or accuracy. Mulder needs Scully to help him overcome his deficiencies in perception, and she needs him for the same reason. Here, the stalemate between Mulder and his twisted reflection, Modell, can’t be broken until Scully – Mulder’s other set of eyes – acts decisively.
The final moments of “Pusher” involve a tense game of Russian roulette and work so brilliantly -- even though we know, rationally speaking that Mulder must survive to continue the series -- because this X-Files episode crafts some powerful imagery And that imagery suggests that Modell is in control.
This control or power is most plain, visually, in the episode’s teaser. After one viewing, we know the punctuation: Modell engineers his break from custody by making it so that the police driver of his car cannot see an oncoming truck from “Cerulean Hauling.”
In other words, Cerulean Blue is effectively blotted out from that unlucky man’s visual landscape. Leading up to that moment, however, shades of blue are actually ubiquitous-- and suspiciously so -- in Modell’s world. In the Loudon, Va. grocery store we see blue shopping baskets. Modell also wears blue. The policemen don blue jackets. Even the world -- as seen outside the grocery store -- boasts a blue tint.
The subconscious impression, then, is that this is Modell’s world, and that he is entirely in control of it. Blue suggests that he, not the police, are in command.
After seeing Modell “give” a detective, Frank Burst, a heart-attack during a telephone conversation, Modell’s power is established to an even more powerful degree. So by the time we get to the final one-on-one battle between Modell and Mulder, it hardly seems like a fair fight. Mulder is outmatched, and to prove it, the episode even features footage of Paul Wegener as Svengali from the 1927 film of the same name. Although the name Svengali originates from the 1894 novel Trilby by George du Maurier, today we all recognize the character as an archetype or boogeyman: one who can control the will of others. Svengali is thus another visual symbol representing Pusher’s impossible-to-deny abilities.
Modell returned in another X-Files episode, “Kitsunegari” in 1998, and involve the character’s revenge upon Mulder, his worthy adversary.
Next week: “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space”