Written by Vince Gilligan
Directed by Rob Bowman
Having made his debut last season with the hugely enjoyable Soft Light, Vince Gilligan returns to The X Files fold with his second script and what a classic this is. It might be a little controversial to say this, given that season three is the year of Darin Morgan and his trio of classics, but Pusher may very well be the best episode of season three and thus one of the very best ever X Files.
On the surface there doesn't appear to be anything spectacular here. Describe the plot of Pusher and you could be met with a "so what" response, yet the treatment of it is anything but dull, this is pounding, gripping thriller that features some of the most enjoyably sadistic set pieces in the show, fantastic Mulder/Scully scenes and without doubt one of the best villains on the series. Robert Patrick Modell (it's The X Files guys, the serial killer must have three parts to his name), as played by Robert Wisden, is a wonderful creation, vividly scripted by Gilligan and brought to life with terrifying charm by Wisden who takes the character and runs with it. This role needed a powerful actor who could be both frightening, yet strangely charming and Wisden brings both qualities to Modell. The episode is brought to vivid life anytime he is on screen, the antagonism between himself and Mulder marks the character out as one of the best villains on the show and the chemistry between Wisden and Duchovny is electric. Modell's hunt or a 'nemesis', a worthy adversary is almost like reading Sherlock Holmes and bearing witness to Professor Moriarty actually begging Holmes to be his adversary.
The interesting thing about Gilligan's work on the show is just how human his villains can be. When writing villains on the show, most writers on The X Files really make explicit the supernatural reasoning behind them, but Gilligan is more interested in what happens when these supernatural abilities come into contact with someone who is essentially normal, or at the very least a plausible personality. Later seasons will portray characters like Gerry Schnauz in Unruhe, John Lee Roche in Paper Hearts or Eddie Van Blundht in Small Potatoes who, even though are more or less truly evil or villainous in some way, are surprisingly realistic characters, who aren't freaks, but plausible human beings who have come into contact with the supernatural in some form. This trait can also be seen in episodes as diverse as season six's Tithonus and season seven's Hungry.
The best thing about Pusher is just how unrelentless it feels. From the FBI takedown opening to subsequent car crash in the teaser, through to the fiery death of Agent Simmons, Skinner being beaten up by Holly the secretary, which always has me laughing, Agent Burst's heart attack to the Russian Roulette climax, this is The X Files in suspense mode and it never lets up for a second, escalating to the point when it almost becomes difficult to watch the final moments. You never for one minute think that Mulder is going to kill himself or shoot Scully, but the performances from all three are so raw and real and Rob Bowman's direction so cinematic that it's hard not to get sweaty palms while watching it.
I don't want to sound like a broken record, but this is truly brilliant stuff, Gilligan has a clear grasp of this show, and I suppose it's been there since Soft Light, but Pusher is the one that cements that this guy is going to be the star writer on this show for the remainder of its run. His plotting is second to none, his characterisation is wonderful and he has such a beautiful way of writing Mulder and Scully. This is probably one of the most shippiest stand alones of the show to date with no less than two hand touching scenes, the first when Mulder hands Scully his gun before confronting Modell in the hospital and the second when they go all the way and interlock their fingers in the final scene. Chris Carter may have been pushing the idea that the show would never have the leads get together at this point, but truthfully the final scene is lovely and actually feels earned, and coming off the back of several weeks when the characters appear to have been at each other's throats (Oubliette, Revelations, Syzygy), it's a joy to see something so bitter sweet and moving.