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The X-Files – Pusher (Review)

This November (and a little of December), we’re taking a trip back in time to review the third season of The X-Files and the first (and only) season of Space: Above and Beyond.

Pusher is perhaps one of the most effective stand-alone “monster of the week” stories that the show ever did.

It is no wonder that the episode is frequently cited among the best episodes of The X-Files ever produced, but it is telling that it was identified by Slate as the perfect “gateway” episode of the show. If you want to give someone a taste of The X-Files without burdening them with continuity or back story, this is a good choice. It may not be the best episode that Vince Gilligan ever wrote, and it may not even be the best episode of the third season, but it is one the strongest demonstrations of what the show does on a weekly basis.

Mano a mano...

Mano a mano…

Pusher is the first episode that Vince Gilligan wrote after joining The X-Files writing staff. It is the only episode credited to Gilligan in the show’s third season. He had been offered a position on staff after turning in Soft Light at the end of the second season, but had hesitated before accepting the job. When he did accept the job, he came down with a dose of infectious mononucleosis. As a result, Gilligan only wrote one script for the third season, despite becoming one of the show’s most prolific writers.

Pusher is a pulpy delight, a spectacularly constructed standalone that perhaps points the way to Gilligan’s later work.

Gift of the gab...

Gift of the gab…

According to Gilligan’s interview with Emmy TV Legends, he was very nervous on accepting a place on the X-Files writing staff:

I had heard The X-Files was a tough gig. There was a lot of attrition. Most of the folks in the writers’ room did not last that long. There’s like a thirteen week probationary period and if you don’t pass muster at the end of that, you are asked – politely – to leave, or not picked up, rather. I was so lazy for so long back in Virginia that I was like “You’ve got to be in this room for ten to twelve hours straight and you gotta hit all these intense deadlines like having a script written in a week.” And I was like, “I can’t do this sh!t. I’m going to get fired.” I just wanted to pull this off.

This seems like a reasonable assessment of life on The X-Files. It had one of the best writing rooms on television, but it was tough.

Give it arrest, Mulder...

Give it arrest, Mulder…

Writers Marilyn Osborn, Sara Charno and Kim Newton had all served a season each before departing the show. Writer Darin Morgan would step away at the end of the show’s third year, citing exhaustion. He would take a year off before returning to work on Millennium in its second season. Other writers left to pursue opportunities. Glen Morgan and James Wong had left to create Space: Above and Beyond half-way through the second season. Howard Gordon would leave in the fourth.

Despite Gilligan’s entirely justifiable anxiety about joining the staff, he would go on to become one of the longest-serving members of the show’s creative team. As with frequent collaborators Frank Spotnitz and John Shiban, he would work on The X-Files until the bitter end. He would leave to run The Lone Gunmen during the show’s eighth season; he would return to the fold when that failed. Indeed, Gilligan would write and direct the show’s penultimate episode, Sunshine Days.

Making quite an entrance...

Making quite an entrance…

The writing of Pusher was quite a challenging experience for Gilligan. He had come down with a case infectious mononucleosis shortly after joining the staff, which limited his ability to contribute to the show. Luckily, Carter was sympathetic:

I was lucky – between being sick and Chris understandably not being that reliant on a beginning writer, he had his producers who did all the heavy-lifting. They knew they needed a slot filled towards the end of that season. So I managed to hit that deadline – that very, very lax and forgiving deadline – with this first episode, Pusher.

It is worth noting that Carter could be very generous with talent. Darin Morgan was allowed a bit more time than other writers, based on the quality of his work. Morgan was not the show’s most prolific writer, but Carter trusted him completely.

A lot on the line...

A lot on the line…

This is one one of the more interesting and oft-overlooked aspects of the writing room on The X-Files. The show very much belonged to Chris Carter. His influence bled through into almost every aspect of it. However, it was not exclusively his show. Modern television is largely driven by the idea of “the showrunner” – the sense that the creator or executive producer is an auteur whose vision and design is evident in every single frame of the finished series.

Carter was very generous with his staff, allowing his writers to cast their own episodes and develop their own styles. Carter’s management style is probably the reason that The X-Files spawned so many influential and respected television writers. Gilligan himself has compared the experience to being paid to attend film school. Carter deserves a great deal of credit for fostering and encouraging that aspect of the show, and allowing his writers the space and freedom they needed to define themselves.

A bloody message...

A bloody message…

Gilligan would become an inexorable part of The X-Files. It seems ironic that it took him so long to get started, and that he was initially so reluctant to commit to it. There is something endearingly modest about his confession that he might not make the grade on the first script written as a member of the show’s writing staff. It is an interesting glimpse at the early days of a writer who would go on to become one of the most lauded and influential writers in television.

It is very hard to talk about Vince Gilligan without talking about Breaking Bad. This is only natural. It is very difficult to talk about the show’s mythology episodes without some sense of where they are going. It is very tough to talk about Glen Morgan and James Wong’s work on Space: Above and Beyond without talking about the way that it would help them develop as creators and writers in ways that would inform their later work.

Pushing himself too hard...

Pushing himself too hard…

This makes sense. This the way that writers develop. Chris Carter’s work on Irresistible or Grotesque is leading up to Millennium. For Glen Morgan and James Wong, there are traces of The Curse of Frank Black to be found in Who Monitors the Birds? and shades of Never Again and Dead Letters lurking in The Angriest Angel, waiting to be developed. Howard Gordon’s skill at structuring something like F. Emasculata points towards his future work on 24.

And so it is impossible to talk about some of Gilligan’s work on The X-Files without discussing Breaking Bad. The collaboration between Gilligan and Bryan Cranston in Drive will point towards it. John Doe will feature Michelle MacLaren making her directorial début on a Vince Gilligan script that will establish a lot of the sun-drenched noir style associated with Breaking Bad. In many ways, Pusher hits on a lot of the themes that Gilligan would bake into Breaking Bad.

Whammy!

Whammy!

According to The Complete X-Files, Gilligan was very happy with his work on Pusher, citing as the best script he could hope to write:

“I remember turning in the draft and I was very proud of it. And I remember saying to Chris, ‘This is the best work I’m ever gonna do for you’,” Gilligan remembers. “And he was annoyed when he heard it. He said, ‘Don’t say that. Don’t think that way. You’ve always got to better yourself.'”

It is a nice story the speaks well to Carter’s efforts to develop a writing staff that counts among the best in the history of television, but it also suggests that Pusher was a story in which Gilligan was particularly invested.

Lighten up...

Lighten up…

Recording a video introduction for the episode, Carter recall that Pusher was developed from a movie script that Gilligan had written:

Vince Gilligan, the writer of this episode, had an idea for a movie, and either he had never written it or never found a way to do it as a movie idea, and found through The X-Files, using Mulder and Scully, a way to tell a story about a man who has the ability to bend people to his will.

It suggests that this idea had been percolating with Gilligan for a while.

Triggering an outrage...

Triggering an outrage…

To be entirely fair, Gilligan has suggested that the teaser was the only part of Pusher lifted directly from that movie script. In The X-Files Book of the Unexplained, he explains:

 “I cannibalised an old science fiction movie script I had written,” he reveals. “It was going to have a really cool ending… the main bad guy is getting away. The good bad guy seems kinda calm; he whispers some code word to the bad guy and it turns out to be this top secret military brain-washing thing. Six months later, the bad guy’s down in Costa Rica with a bimbo next to him in his convertible, and he’s fat and happy . . . And he sees this blue truck coming down the highway. This code-word goes off in his head and he pulls in front of it, and: blammo!”

So it is entirely possible that Carter is overselling how much of this was an idea that had been reworked from an old movie pitch.

Present tense...

Present tense…

Still, these sorts of ideas are frequently revealing. Gilligan has talked about how he came up with the idea for Soft Light while in a hotel room the night before his first meeting with Chris Carter. In contrast, it seems like some of Pusher had been with Gilligan for a considerable amount of time in some form or another. This was an idea that he had likely considered and toyed with, even if he had never quite developed it.

There are other examples of writers who had adapted movie pitches for The X-Files. When they were tasked with writing the second season premiere, James Wong and Glen Morgan dusted off an old idea and reworked it to produce Little Green Men. The script points to quite a few of the themes that Wong and Morgan would incorporate into Space: Above and Beyond about balancing hope and cynicism as humanity looks to the stars. In hindsight, it seems like a very key episode for them.

The brains of the operation...

The brains of the operation…

In hindsight, Pusher seems like a very important episode for Vince Gilligan. It is the story of a nobody with above-average intelligence who finds himself confronted with his own mortality. Using the remainder of his time on Earth, the character works hard to make himself feel important and powerful – to account for his own shortcomings and inadequacies. He becomes so addicted to this thrill that he risks his life repeatedly in pursuit of it.

At the end of the episode, Mulder paraphrases a statement that Scully made earlier on.“He was always such a… little man,” Mulder reflects. “This was finally something that made him feel big.” The character is unable to give that up, despite the danger involved, and the damage that it causes to other people around him. It is very hard not to see a little of Walter White in Robert Patrick Modell, a man finally cracking under the pressure and attempting to construct a grand mythology around himself.

Mind over matter...

Mind over matter…

Much as Walter White fashions a “Heisenberg” persona for himself, Modell takes to calling himself “Pusher.” Detective Frank Burst asks for a name, early in the episode, only for Modell to reply, “Pusher’s good enough.” Both characters struggle to be taken seriously and respected, even when common sense would suggest it is better to fly under the radar. Outlining the case to Mulder and Scully, Burst explained that Modell’s murders were initially considered suicides, until he called to take credit for them.

There are other touches as well. Recalling the careful colour design of Breaking Bad, Pusher is an episode very conscious of colour. This is most obvious with Modell himself, a character firmly associated with blue, much like Walter White is associated with green. Early in the episode he wears a frumpy blue jumper, while he later dons a fancy blue suit. (To say nothing of his fondness for “cerulean blue.” Frank Burst reflects, “Okay, okay, we get it. It’s a nice shade of blue.”)

Candid camera...

Candid camera…

This sense of colour bleeds into the rest of the show. Scully wears a red suit designed to accentuate her iconic red hair. In a way, this reflects the generally pulpy tone of the episode. Much like D.P.O. from earlier in the season and Rush in the seventh season, Pusher feels like something of a supervillain origin story. It is not too hard to imagine the episode filtered through the lens of something like M. Night Shymalan’s Unbreakable or Josh Trank’s Chronicle.

Modell is writing his own narrative here, presenting himself as something of a supervillain. He calls himself “Pusher.” He dresses in shades of the same colour. He doesn’t commit regular crimes, because that would be too pedestrian. Like any half-decent supervillain, as Burst observes, “Pusher likes to leave clues.” He even crafts a suitably supervillain origin for himself. Before he was diagnosed with a brain tumour, he claimed that “he was a master of martial arts, that he had been trained by gurkhas in Nepal and ninjas in Japan.” Batman would be jealous.

Sadly, the budget won't stretch to a second phone...

Sadly, the budget won’t stretch to a second phone…

Gilligan has a fondness for these sorts of pulp storytelling tropes. Between the end of The X-Files and the début of Breaking Bad, Gilligan’s most high-profile work was on the script to Hancock, a deconstructionist superhero story. Gilligan had to depart Hancock before the script was revised to Will Smith’s specifications. However, it is worth noting that Gilligan’s original draft of the final act was more couched in the iconography of the superhero – and the question of what makes a man special.

Gilligan has claimed (repeatedly) that Walter White’s superpower is lying; to others, and to himself. This is another way that Walter White mirrors Robert Modell; both seem to have the power to manipulate others with words, and to mythologise themselves. Gilligan drew from a wealth of sources in Walter White’s quest for power and respect. His “Heisenberg” persona seems a curious blend of supervillain and gangster. The series frequently trades in the iconography of the western.

It'll pass muster...

It’ll pass muster…

Pusher touches on a lot of these pulpy masculine narratives. Modell speaks a lot about the budō, the Japanese samurai code. He uses the code-name “Osu”, Japanese for “to push” to conceal his identity in his personal advertisements. Samurai are a vital part of American pulp history. The influence of the samurai genre on the evolution of the Western is well documented. Mulder mentions Yojimbo, the samurai film that inspired A Fistful of Dollars. The Seven Samurai becomes The Magnificent Seven.

Modell steeps himself in this pulp iconography. The cat-and-mouse game that he plays with both Frank Burst and Fox Mulder comes directly from seventies cop thrillers. The sequence with the payphone seems to evoke Dirty Harry, another American cinematic classic that has become a touchstone for a certain model of American masculinity. “Sorry, G-man, it’s not that easy,” he taunts. “You have to follow my little bread crumb trail, prove your worth. So far, you’re doing all right.”

Fit to burst...

Fit to burst…

Modell tries to cast himself in these iconic terms, presenting himself as something larger than a sad little man. When he notices the bruises on Holly’s face, he tells her, “I wish I could get my hands on the guy that did that you. I’d make him pay.” This isn’t about empathy or compassion for another person who has been victimised. After all, Scully tells us Modell is “acutely ego-centered. He has no regard for the feelings of others, instead perceiving people as objects.” This is using Holly as a prop for his own story.

However, perhaps what is most interesting about Pusher is not Modell himself. After all, Modell is a self-aggrandising psychopath. What is interesting is the way that Mulder seems to play into Modell’s fantasy, at least until the Russian Roulette sequence. When Mulder taunts Modell outside the courtroom, he is playing Modell’s game on Modell’s terms. In the background of the scene, Scully looks rather unimpressed; she is canny enough to be wary of how Mulder is almost buying into this grand narrative.

Sliding viewpoint...

Sliding viewpoint…

“He is just a little man who wishes that he were someone big,” Scully tells Mulder at the gun range, after that scene outside the courtroom. “And we’re feeding that wish.” Mulder comes to realise how pathetic and toxic Modell’s fantasies are by the end of the episode, but there are points where it seems like Mulder is being reeled into the larger-than-life good-guy-versus-bad-guy story that Modell has concocted for himself. There is a certain romance to defeating a supervillain, and Mulder is a romantic character.

Mulder can rationalise his decision to go into the hospital to face Modell alone. “What if Modell turns one of your men against the others… in a crowded hospital?” he asks the officer advocating a sweep of the hospital. “I think I should go in, alone.” However, there are other more tactically sound options. They could wait for Modell to come out of the hospital and engage him in a less risky setting; after all, no shots are fired until after Mulder has entered the building.

"Worst. Sting. Operation. Ever."

“Worst. Sting. Operation. Ever.”

“Why do we keep giving this guy exactly what he wants?” the officer leading the tactical team asks after Modell has captured Mulder and Scully prepares to wander in to face him one-on-one. Pusher suggests – just a little bit – that Modell’s fantasy is very alluring. It is very easy to buy into his romantic notion of hero-versus-villain. The show suggests that Mulder might even have bought into it just the smallest bit – up until the point where Scully is threatened.

It is telling that Scully defeats Modell by refusing to play by his rules and by “breaking” the game. She doesn’t participate in his twisted Russian Roulette. Unlike Modell or Mulder, she doesn’t touch the gun on the table. Instead, Scully sounds the alarm in a way that breaks Modell’s hold over Mulder. It is a technique that Modell would very clearly consider “unfair” or “cheating.” It is a decision that does not fit with Modell’s “romantic” narrative that justifies his sadism, but one that allows Mulder to incapacitate a psychopath.

"Convoy!"

“Convoy!”

There are some minor hiccups along the way. Pusher is a fantastic episode of television, but it does demonstrate Gilligan’s strengths and weaknesses at this point in his career. The script is great with character and theme, but it is not written and structured in a particularly tight way. Gilligan’s scripts for The X-Files could often seem a little loose or undefined, lacking the meticulous clockwork design employed by writers like Howard Gordon or Darin Morgan.

Oddly enough, a large part of Gilligan’s work on Breaking Bad was developing skills and techniques that he had not had a chance to hone on The X-Files. Working on The X-Files, Gilligan was not an active participant in shaping or defining the show’s mythology. He was only credited on one central mythology episode – the Emmy-nominated teleplay for Memento Mori. (Although he also worked on A Christmas Carol and Emily.) So Gilligan had to learn a lot about serialisation and arc-building on Breaking Bad.

The brain is the strongest muscle.

The brain is the strongest muscle.

Similarly, his work on Breaking Bad is a lot tighter and more densely woven than the majority of his work on The X-Files. Excluding the rather meticulously constructed and interwoven Bad Blood, Gilligan’s episodes tended to feel a little bit hazy around the edges. For example, Pusher is rather vague about the specifics of what Robert Patrick Modell can do, and how exactly he does it – to the point where the audience might be left scratching their heads.

For example, Mulder states that “his voice seems to be the key”, but he is able to infiltrate the FBI with a piece of paper with the word “Pass” written on it. How does he get from “cerulean is a gentle breeze” to “please crash the car”? How come he can’t control Skinner? Is it because he is exhausted, or just because Skinner is that much of a badass? There is something just a little bit hazy about how exactly Modell does what he does.

Cerulean blue.

Cerulean blue.

Of course, this isn’t a major problem. How exactly Modell “pushes” his victims is ultimately incidental to the episode itself. Pusher is more interested in who Modell is and what motivates him than some generic and vague pseudo-science. It is more interested in character and theme than specifics and mechanics. It’s an understandable decision, and one that speaks a lot to Gilligan’s writing style on The X-Files.

(That said, there is something quite clumsy about the character of Holly. Holly very clearly just exists so that she can be used to attack Skinner later in the episode. It is a rather awkward sequence; the law of conservation of detail makes it clear that Holly’s injury will come to play a role in the plot, and it is not too difficult to figure out that it will have something to do with Modell’s power. It is perhaps the weakest element in the entire script; something that seems like a contrived shortcut.)

Put a gun against his head, pulled the trigger...

Put a gun against his head, pulled the trigger…

However, despite these problems, Pusher works brilliantly. As much as Gilligan’s plot mechanics can seem a little loose, the show is packed with delightful little touches. The sequence where Modell’s face is pressed against the conveyor belt is delightful, as is the sequence where he holds a bunch of Japanese golfers in his thrall. These are little moments in the larger scheme of the episode, but the play very well.

Pusher benefits greatly from the direction of Rob Bowman. Bowman is perhaps the strongest “movie of the week” director working on The X-Files, and he lends Pusher a delightfully cinematic style that works very well with Modell’s vision of his own narrative arc. There are any number of delightful sequences in the episode, from the scene at the golf club where Modell’s mouth steps out of the shadows through to the great “he’s behind you!” twist.

A fluke cameo!

A fluke cameo!

The episode also benefits greatly from a superb guest performance from Robert Wisden. According to Vince Gilligan, Carter had originally considered casting Lance Henriksen in the role:

“For a little while, we were going to get Lance Henriksen to play Robert Patrick Modell,” VG reveals. “Chris was interested in him and wanted to know what he was like to work with. That was before Millennium [where Henriksen stars as Frank Black]. Then, we had a guy we had cast in LA, who did a very good reading for us, but crapped out at the 11th hour. He accepted the job and then took some role in a TV movie instead. His agent said, ‘I’m so sorry you have to use him again sometime.’ We were like, ‘Oh, yeah, THAT’s going to happen.’ So at the last minute we got Robert Wisden from Vancouver. It was so important that this actor do a great job. We were going out on a limb, and it could have been an epic nightmare. But Robert did a wonderful job. I hope he has a successful career ahead of him.”

It’s a nice example of how Millennium seems to be bleeding backwards into the second and third seasons of The X-Files. Nevertheless, Wisden is so effective as Modell that it is hard to imagine anybody else in the role.

Taking the matter in hand...

Taking the matter in hand…

Pusher is a fantastic hour of television, and a highlight of the third season. It is the perfect way to welcome Vince Gilligan on to the writing staff.

You might be interested in our other reviews of the third season of The X-Files:

4 Responses

  1. For whatever ‘messy’ aspects to Gilligan’s script, this episode has always worked for me and is easily my favourite MOTW of the 3rd season (after Darin’s stuff, which is uncatchable). It’s interesting your thoughts on how tight VG’s BrBa scripts would later become in comparison. I actually theorized somewhere midway through BrBa’s run that this was something VG perhaps learned on XF, but in a “how I would do things different” kind of way once he got his own TV show to run himself. To be fair, Breaking Bad was so heavily serialized, and X-Files, for all the talk or invention of the word “mythology” as it relates to a genre TV arc, it was very much not that. As you have pointed out in past reviews and recently re-iterated by Darin Morgan on the X-Files Files podcast, this was perhaps the advantage in some ways for writers with strong voices to be able to distinguish their tastes and thematic pre-occupations from each other, which is harder to do with one over-arching storyline. So many threads or major turns of character are abandoned or ignored throughout X-Files, whereas not a single beat was ever set up not to be paid off in Breaking Bad – some have even criticized the series finale as being too neat and perfect. In contrast, for example… it took me years of distancing myself from my damn obsession with this show to be able to watch Gilligan’s Brady Bunch x-file without prejudice – how events as tragic as what befalls Scully in “William” are followed by a stand alone episode as light as “Sunshine Days” and the consequences of giving her baby away for adoption never once clouding her face or demeanor. Or in fact, many continuity issues for Scully’s character that are ignored in another VG episode, “Roadrunners”.

    But back to Pusher – given the casting drama (wonder who that original LA actor was), the show really did luck out with Wisden. One of only three characters to inspire a sequel too, and as typical of all of those revisits (Kitsunegari, Orison, Tooms) they were never IMHO as good as the originals, in fact, I’d say Kitsunegari is the weakest of the three. I have a strange soft spot for Orison though, more so for style than content. To me it felt more like an episode of Millennium than the actual XF-Millennium crossover, but we’ll leave that to when you get to season 7 reviews…

    I always thought I’d see SVENGALI after enjoying Pusher so much, but never got around to it.

    Minor note: The computer records FBI agent who attacks Skinner is named Holly, not Jenny. Minor trivia, much like “Colquitt” for Morgan & Wong, or 11:21 for Carter, Gilligan consistently named minor characters after his longtime girlfriend/partner, Holly.

    • Good spot on Holly. Corrected!

      I loved that Darin Morgan interview, even if I do feel a little guilty about being one of those guys who might have flippantly or casually suggested that he was trying to “break” the show. I think that Carter really doesn’t get enough credit for the freedom that he gave his staff. The X-Files writing room was one of the most fertile writers’ rooms on television in the nineties, and the more that I read about Carter’s style of management, the more I think he deserves a great deal of credit for allowing people to put their own marks on his character.

      (I can’t help but feel like that would be much rarer today – not only for the reasons that Morgan cited in the podcast, but also because we live in the era of the television auteur. It is a lot harder to separate the quirks of Terrance Winters from David Chase on The Sopranos or André and Marie Jacquemetton from Matthew Weiner on Mad Men than it is to distinguish the stronger voices in The X-Files writers’ room.)

      To be fair, I don’t mind the messiness so much, but I think that it is something Gilligan worked on quite a lot. I can’t help but wonder if the writers’ strike and the truncated first season helped to cover up some of the learning curve on the first season of Breaking Bad. I do feel like I should be clear that I don’t consider the messiness of Pusher to be a problem, it’s just interesting to note in terms of Gilligan’s career trajectory.

      (Using Morgan as a point of comparison, he gave an interview about Clyde Bruckman, which is an impeccably structured episodes of the X-Files, where he talks about how hard he worked to hit the beats. On the podcast, he seems to allude to it in how carefully he used the script for Beyond the Sea as a structural guideline. That said, I think that Morgan’s own sense of structure – even if it doesn’t match the template of a show like this – is impressive; Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space” is practically a perfectly-timed and measured ballet about random chaos.)

  2. Skinner is that much of a badass. No question.

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