The X-Files is filled with great episodes, and after nine seasons (and two reboot seasons), it’s hard to pick-and-choose.
However, one episode stands out above the rest as the best X-Files episode, and that’s “Pusher”, episode 17 of season 3.
Because of its intense cloak-and-dagger plot and the uniqueness of the villain, “Pusher” has to be my favorite episode of X-Files, ranking even higher than this episode.
But there’s a lot more to it than that. Let’s get into it:
The Plot of “Pusher”
The episode kicks off with Robert Patrick Modell shuffling through a grocery store, while being tailed by FBI agents. He eventually blows their cover and is arrested for a series of murders dating back to 1994.
While in the back of the squad car, Modell, known as Pusher, uses his psychic ability to make the officer driving the car pull out in front of a speeding 18-wheeler.
As the episode progresses, Modell uses his abilities to influence a federal judge into ruling in his favor, sneak into the FBI headquarters, and prompt a secretary to assault Assistant Director Skinner. Plus, he urges a SWAT officer to set himself on fire and induces a heart attack in the lead detective on the case.
The whole episode is about Modell trying to find a worthy adversary for his games, which ends up being Fox Mulder. As Mulder and Scully start to unravel Modell’s history, they find that he has a brain tumor that has likely triggered his psychic ability.
At the end of the episode, Modell forces Mulder into a game of Russian Roulette, but when Scully pulls a fire alarm to break Modell’s concentration, Mulder shoots Modell and he’s apprehended.
“Pusher” is one of the highest rated episodes of X-Files, having made multiple lists of the best episodes. IGN ranked it the third best standalone episode, and Den of Geek puts it at number seven.
When it aired, the episode received rave reviews, and raked in over 16.2 million viewers.
It’s understandable why so many people like “Pusher”, as it certainly stands as one of the best Monster-of-the-Week episodes, even after the famous Eugene Toomes episode in season 1.
But there’s more going on in “Pusher” than a lot of people realize.
What Makes “Pusher” The Best X-Files Episode?
Up to this point in X-Files, we’ve seen monsters like Eugene Toomes, who is driven purely by his physical need to feast on the human body. Other monsters are driven by similar urges, few of which exhibit the inherently sinister nature of Patrick Modell.
By the end of the show, Mulder and Scully discover that Modell’s brain tumor developed in 1994, and remained operable for two years. However, Modell refused surgery, instead using his newfound psychic powers to wreak havoc on his community.
This dynamic solidifies a theme that Chris Carter and other writers of the show played with throughout the first few seasons, and that’s the mundane nature of evil.
Modell wasn’t a bad guy before the tumor. He was ordinary in every sense, and never managed to excel past a minimum wage job. He failed to pass the psych evaluation to become an FBI agent, and was deemed to be a narcissist in the same evaluation.
The only thing that set him apart from every other lower-class worker was his haunting ability to influence other people into hurting themselves, and he decided that instead of live out the rest of his life deep in medical debt, he’d rather, as Mulder puts it, “go out in a blaze of glory”.
In many ways, Pusher felt that he rose above the societal and class restrictions that kept him as a supermarket employee with his new powers. He described himself as a ronin, a masterless samurai. A lone ranger, or more aptly, a wolf without a pack. He carves out a new life, one of shadows and blood, as a contract killer.
This is why “Pusher” is the pinnacle of X-Files‘ societal commentary.
For many people, the corporate, governmental, and medical powers that be are the prime culprits of their misfortune. Low wages, bad housing, expensive medical treatments, and lack of mental health assistance make it difficult to rise out of the lower class of American society. Even today, we still see the same problems.
And for these people struggling to get by, sometimes their only option is to turn to darker channels: drugs, theft, fraud, and for Modell, mercenary work.
In the end, Mulder and Scully claim that Modell is just a little man who wants to feel big. I feel like their conclusion is true, but far from the whole truth. I think there were multiple factors that lead Modell to his ultimate breaking point, and the eventual murder of authority figures—police officers, doctors, security guards, and detectives.
Perhaps the conclusion should not have been “he wants to feel big”, but rather, “he’s the evil we made.” Sure, Modell made his own choices, but the tumor that brought him his abilities was perhaps one of the best things to happen to him in his life, which is sad. Could Pusher have been avoided if Modell had access to mental health treatment? Affordable healthcare? Opportunities to climb the social ladder?