“Scully, there’s a great possibility that Leonard Betts not only is cancer…” — Fox Mulder
“But that he needs it for survival?” — Dana Scully
Our agents investigate the case of an EMT, with the power to detect cancer, who dies in an automobile accident and seemingly comes back to life with the power to regenerate.
Radhika: While season four is often remembered as being part of a classic X-Files era (read: the Vancouver years), rewatching it has made me realize that the season had a shaky start with a few exceptions. However, “Leonard Betts” propels everything into high gear, playing the role of a compelling Monster of the Week episode, while also containing an important footnote that kicks off a new era in the series’ mythology.
The episode begins like your standard MOTW: EMT Leonard Betts is decapitated when his ambulance collides with a truck. When he wakes up in the morgue, his headless body knocks out an attendant, steals some clothes and leaves. Naturally, Mulder and Scully are called in to investigate, with Scully insisting on all kinds of more plausible scenarios than the possibility that Betts is back from the dead or capable of regenerating body parts.
Some further investigation indicates that Betts had a talent for detecting cancer, and when his discarded head is examined, it is riddled with disease. The agents also learn that Betts once went by the name Albert Tanner, and when they visit his mother Elaine, they find out Tanner had already died once before, six years earlier, in an automobile accident. Mulder ultimately concludes that Betts survives on cancerous tumors, which also explains why he can sense the disease so easily.
A lot happens as the hunt for Betts continues: His former partner finds him and Betts (with a new head) remorsefully injects her with potassium chloride in an attempt to remain hidden. And he even regenerates decoy bodies while attempting to get away. As the episode draws to a close, Betts has removed a cancerous tumor from his mother — with her consent — and Scully accompanies her to the hospital. After reaching the hospital, she realizes Betts was on top of the ambulance, and in a final confrontation, before Scully manages to kill Betts by pressing defibrillator paddles to his head, he tells her she has something he needs. The episode concludes with Scully waking up in the
middle of the night with a nosebleed, confirming that Scully has cancer.
What started as a simple case by Mulder and Scully’s standards ends up being quite a doozy with a serious ripple effect on the series as a whole. It’s still not quite a mythology episode, but it bridges the gap between Scully’s abduction and the longterm consequences quite well. The seeds for a possible cancer arc were planted way back in “Nisei” and “731” from season three, but it was a thread dropped for so long, that the reveal here still manages to be a punch to the gut. And perhaps the fact that this reveal comes in an episode that just seems like another case of the week is part of the reason why this news has such an impact. Just as Scully seems to be bouncing back from the events of past seasons, we realize she’s not out of the danger zone just yet.
The cancer reveal isn’t the only reason why this episode works though: Compared to many of the MOTW episodes in season four, it’s genuinely well done. The pacing is fantastic, and the imagery — especially that of Betts emerging from a bloody bathtub — is striking. And best of all, the characters are complicated. Yes, Leonard is a bit of a monster, but he’s also someone who seemed to want to help people (even if some of that was due to needing some cancer to snack on), and he does seem very sorry when he kills his former partner. His warning to those he attacks for their cancer, “I’m sorry, but you’ve got something I need,” is both chilling and a bit sad, because that apology does seem to be coming from a sincere place. He’s a bit of a complicated monster, that Leonard, and so is his mother, who clearly remains in Mama Bear mode, no matter how old her son happens to be.
It’s an episode that epitomizes The X-Files when it’s at its best, which is probably partially why season four still remains amongst the “good old days” of the show in most Philes’ minds.
Max: You know, for an episode as dark and gory as “Leonard Betts” is, there are a lot of moments that are quite funny at times, like when Scully was trying to suss out of Mulder exactly why they were on this case, and shortly after when Scully posits a conspiracy of her own (albeit of the more mundane variety) that Leonard Betts’ missing corpse is the result of a rogue group selling bodies to medical schools.
Still, the bomb the episode detonates at the end of the episode, to quote my esteemed colleague above, is indeed “quite a doozy.” The production history of this episode is notable as well, and perhaps explains why this episode was chosen to air at this point in the series. For January 1997, Fox was chosen to air Super Bowl XXXI and the producers of the show had the episode “Never Again” pencilled in as the episode to air next. However, Fox awarded the coveted Super Bowl lead-out program slot to The X-Files, being one of the most buzzworthy programs on their roster.
The show began to emerge by this point from being a program with a cult following on Friday nights to one that took the zeitgeist by storm. One element of this was the move by the network to Sunday nights (starting with “Unruhe“), conferring on it a certain amount of prestige, especially given the fact that it would air on the same night as The Simpsons, which by this point was at the height of its powers and a cultural juggernaut. Co-writer of the episode Vince Gilligan once relayed that Chris Carter really wanted to take the opportunity to grab the massive built-in Super Bowl audience with “a really creepy stand-alone monster story.” Thus, “Never Again” was pushed back a week to make room for Leonard and his hunger for tumors. And for hardcore X-Philes, the revelation of Scully’s cancer was the icing on the cake.
This episode is the second of the season to include the notion of motherhood as part of its thematic tapestry, and in an episode that reveals that Scully has cancer, I think it is quite deliberate. Given what we will find out about Scully based on her cancer diagnosis, the weaving of these two threads is a wonderful example of just how life-altering this next stage in Scully’s character arc will be. Radhika intimated she’s not out of the danger zone just yet (paging Sterling Archer), and this revelation will just open a whole new can of worms in terms of the mythology, moving the puzzle pieces together in new and startling ways.
Another beautiful part of “Leonard Betts” is the excellent back-and-forth between Mulder and Scully in this episode. Sometimes, the banter between our heroes could border on the groan-inducing (especially when Scully is in her staunch skeptic mode or Mulder gets overly maudlin), but here the goings on are just so odd, but yet still firmly within Scully’s medical wheelhouse, that the two agents can only just roll with each other’s punches. Shippers eat your cancer-ridden hearts out here.
Everything just works like gangbusters in this episode, reenergizing a somewhat flailing fourth season, and giving people not usually inclined to watch the show many many reasons why they should.
YES, IT’S THAT GUY
Paul McCrane: Before losing his arm to a helicopter on ER, Paul McCrane was busy losing his head in “Leonard Betts.” McCrane has been in a variety of TV shows and movies for decades, including a bit part in Rocky II, his years as Dr. Robert Romano on ER, and episodes of 24, Ugly Betty and CSI.