The X-Files: “Pusher”

Mind Games

by Sarah Stegall
Copyright ©1996 by Sarah Stegall

Writer: Vince Gilligan

Director: Rob Bowman

“I think, therefore I am.” Intended as a declaration of first principles by philosopher Rene Descartes, this dictum could also serve as a definition of self: I am what I think. If we lose control of what we think, lose control of our minds (through drug abuse, injury or Alzheimer’s, for example), we become different persons. We are not who we are. “The X-Files” returns to the theme of identity (previously explored in such classics of paranoia as “Ice” and “Colony/End Game“) with an episode that deals directly with the enslavement of the mind. Like “Fresh Bones” and “Miracle Man”, it elaborates on the idea of the power of suggestion with a subtle, non-obvious and dangerous Svengali power-tripping on murder. To induce suicide in another just because you can must surely be the highest degree of manipulative behavior.

Mulder and Scully are called into a case whose suspect can apparently control the minds of others through his voice and his mind alone. Escaping from custody, he induces the driver of a squad car to drive in front of a speeding truck. Later, he brings about a heart attack in an FBI agent merely by talking to him on the telephone. Robert Modell (Robert Wisden), or Pusher, as he calls himself, is a man of no remorse and no conscience, a true sociopath whose only motive is, as Scully says, “to go out in a blaze of glory” after a meaningless, failed life. Deeply sunk in his fantasy of being a ronin, or masterless Japanese samurai, he searches for a “worthy opponent”, and settles on Mulder.

Mulder is a good choice: he is essentially Pusher’s mirror. Modell is so banal and predictable, such a generic type, that Mulder can reel off his profile from memory. Mulder is a good-looking G-man with a brilliant mind, good education, and a glamorous job (too bad Pusher never saw Mulder’s office). Modell recognizes, at least subconsciously, that Mulder is the man he would like to become, and in a self-destructive frenzy sets out to take Mulder with him into oblivion. In a tense standoff reminiscent of Michael Cimino’s “The Deer Hunter”, he forces Mulder into a deadly game of Russian Roulette.

I was on the edge of my seat during this confrontation, even though I knew Mulder would somehow come out of it. What was he thinking as he sat across from Pusher? We could see the struggle for control on his face, with Duchovny’s usual subtlety–a twitch, a blink of the eye, sweat. When he put the gun to his own head and pulled the trigger, it looked too familiar a move to me. How often has Mulder practiced doing just that, in some dark and lonely hour? His desperation as he realized he couldn’t hold out against Pusher, his hopeless, “Scully, run!”, and his shame as afterwards he handed the gun to his partner without looking at her and hid his face in his hands, were deeply affecting. I felt very sorry for Mulder, whose paralysis during his sister’s abduction must have been very much in the fore of his mind as he fought Pusher’s domination.

Scully saved both her life and Mulder’s by her quick thinking and her use of the fire alarm to break the spell of Pusher’s voice. Once again Gillian Anderson blew me away– her teary appeal to Mulder, “You’re stronger than he is!” shows once again that she knows him better than he knows himself. She is close enough to Mulder to know that losing his mental balance, his intellectual control, would be as devastating to him as the loss of a limb. Gillian Anderson’s Screen Actor’s Guild award for Best Female Actor in a Television Dramatic Series was earned long before Friday’s performance; her work in “Pusher” merely confirms that she deserves it many times over. (So are we going to see Dana Scully finally get her name on the office door now?)

One of the nicest things about “Pusher” is the re- establishment of the faith between Mulder and Scully. In the scene in Pusher’s apartment, Scully almost reads Mulder’s mind as she leaps for the phone jack to disconnect Frank Burst from Pusher. Writer Vince Gilligan got one sunflower seed just for the argument at the firing range, the old camaraderie sparking between them again even as they disagree. I’ve been very concerned about what I saw as a chill seeping into the relationship, one that can be literally fatal in a working law enforcement team. This episode and the last two show commitment and warmth again between Mulder and Scully, particularly when Mulder gives his partner his gun and presses her hand. That scene could have been played between Mulder and his boss, but it wasn’t, and I am very glad.

Robert Wisden, who played the smooth talking Pusher, brought a laid-back air to the role, delivering just the right touch of detachment for this sociopath. Vic Polizos as Agent Frank Burst, the fireplug with “stubby little legs to kick your ass”, was a brisk and down-to-earth cop, one who was less concerned with how Pusher did what he did than how to bring Pusher in and keep him in jail. The soft-faced and innocent Agent Holly (Julia Arkos) kicking the hell out of burly Walter Skinner came as a shock. When she kicked him in the gut I winced in sympathy. Anyone besides me think this man needs a vacation?

I did have a couple of niggling little questions in my mind. If you are going to send a man in after a mind controller, it would make sense to send in the one man who has already demonstrated his resistance to Pusher’s mind control: Assistant Director Skinner. The fight in the FBI computer room proved that Modell could not influence Skinner, and I am sure FBI regs would permit a little field work on Skinner’s part if it came to bringing in a confessed killer. But then, of course, we would not have had that nail- biter of a finish between Mulder and Pusher.

There were some small but tasty pleasures as well: Pusher’s “PASS”, the stakeout scene (“I think you drooled on me”), Mulder’s mocking “Made you look!” which jerks Pusher’s own chain, the supermarket tabloid with Flukeman on the cover. All in all, I consider “Pusher” to be a model X- File, with a dangerous opponent, a very real menace, and good interaction between our heroes. First class performances from not only the principals but the guest actors, added to the fast pacing of director Rob Bowman and editor Heather MacDougal, put it near the top rank for this season. While not of the tragic or terrifying dimensions of “Grotesque” or “Oubliette“, it was a good, solid episode. I give “Pusher ” five sunflower seeds out of five.