Advertisements
    Advertisements
  • Following Us

  • Categories

  • Check out the Archives



  • Awards & Nominations

  • Advertisements

The X-Files – Leonard Betts (Review)

This February and March, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the fourth season of The X-Files and the first season of Millennium.

Leonard Betts is a big one. In fact, it may just be the biggest one.

Leonard Betts attracted the largest audience in the history of The X-Files, with almost thirty million people tuning in to watch the episode. This audience was largely carried over from Superbowl XXXI, but it arrived at a fortuitous moment for the series. The X-Files was exploding into the mainstream. Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz had spent Christmas 1996 in Hawaii plotting The X-Files: Fight the Future, a blockbuster movie based on the series. The week before, Mulder and Scully had paid a visit to Springfield in The Springfield Files.

What a waste...

What a waste…

The show’s moment had arrived. Leonard Betts makes for quite the moment. It might not be the best episode in the history of the show; it might not even be the best episode of the season. However, it ranks with Pusher as one of the great archetypal episodes of The X-Files. The show captures so much of what makes The X-Files great, almost perfectly distilling the appeal of the show into a tight forty-odd minute package. It is a beautifully-crafted piece of television that checks all of the right boxes. This is a pretty fantastic introduction to the show and its world.

Leonard Betts is an episode that has been put together with incredible skill, one that demonstrates why The X-Files had such an impact on the popular consciousness.

Comfortable in his skin...

Comfortable in his skin…

In hindsight, it seems weird that Leonard Betts evolved almost entirely by accident amid the confusion and chaos of the show’s fourth season. Leonard Betts seems perfectly tailored to air after the Superbowl, which makes it all the more surreal that the episode seemed to come together by chance rather than a clear design. Most obviously, it aired out of production order – like a lot of the fourth season. Paper Hearts had been produced before Tunguska and Terma, but aired later. Leonard Betts was produced after Never Again, but aired before.

It seemed like The X-Files had been hoping that Never Again would serve as a pretty great Superbowl episode. On paper, there was a lot going for Never Again. Most obviously, it was written by the creative team of Glen Morgan and James Wong, who were among the show’s most distinctive creative voices and who had a very consistent track record with the series. More than that, Never Again had originally been written for Quentin Tarantino to direct, which would have been a major coup. Although Tarantino dropped out, the show recruited Jodie Foster as a guest star.

Slice o' life...

Slice o’ life…

However, things did not develop entirely as planned. Never Again went through a variety of iterations and changed form repeatedly. It ultimately became an episode that would have been ill-suited to the slot directly following the Superbowl, an episode decidedly more esoteric and quirky than iconic and defining. As a result, Leonard Betts was brought forward in the broadcast order and Never Again was shuffled back. It seemed like the Superbowl slot might end up being something of a wash – an episode that was not anything particularly special.

In contrast to the ambition of Never Again, Leonard Betts feels like a positively safe choice. The episode had three of the show’s more solid and reliable writers working together for the first time; although the writing team of John Shiban, Vince Gilligan and Frank Spotnitz would become a fixture of the show, this was their first collaboration together. The episode was directed by Kim Manners, a veteran X-Files director who does the same great job he normally does. The episode had a solid (if not flashy) guest star in Paul McCrane, who does great work.

One way to get ahead in medicine...

One way to get ahead in medicine…

On paper, there is not too much to recommend Leonard Betts ahead of many of the surrounding episodes. The X-Files was a show that has hit a consistent level of quality at this point in its run, and it could do “solid” in its sleep. There was nothing about Leonard Betts that could compete with “directed by Quentin Tarantino!” or “guest-starring Jodie Foster!” or “Scully gets sexy!” in terms of public appeal. Looking at Leonard Betts, it seemed like the show was doing “business as usual” for this prestigious high-profile broadcast slot.

Of course, that is the point. Leonard Betts is very much “business as usual” for The X-Files, only delivered to the highest possible standards. Leonard Betts is a quintessential monster-of-the-week story from a show that has spent three-and-a-half years figuring out how to tell a quintessential monster-of-the-week story. Leonard Betts is an episode that is indicative of what The X-Files could do on a weekly basis. There is nothing particularly exceptional about it, apart from the quality of the execution.

Waste not...

Waste not…

This is a rather ingenious approach to the Superbowl slot. The X-Files wasn’t going to try to do anything different or unique or special to lure those viewers in. Instead, The X-Files would do the same thing that it did every other week. It would allow the show’s work to stand on its own two feet. There is a beautiful confidence to Leonard Betts, an episode that very much seems to say “this is what we do; take it or leave it.” Watched outside the context of the Superbowl, there is little to indicate just how important Leonard Betts was to this quirky genre television show.

After all, Leonard Betts is very clearly following what Squeeze established as the typical “monster-of-the-week” template. The show’s third episode – its very first “monster” story unrelated aliens – set a tone and template that would remain with the show. So many of the show’s monsters can trace their origins to Victor Eugene Tooms, the creepy liver-eating predator stalking the urban jungle. In many respects, Tooms was essentially a vampire for the twenty-first century, a grotesque creature that fed on something other than blood.

Opening a window...

Opening a window…

In Squeeze and Tooms, Eugene Victor Tooms had a craving for liver. In 2shy, Virgil Incanto hungered for body fat. In Teliko, Samuel Aboah feasted upon pituitary glands. Here, Leonard Betts has an appetite for cancer – a desire he sates be feeding on human victims. Of course, each of these episodes – including Leonard Betts – adds their own nuances and twists to that basic template. However, there is a very clear sense that Leonard Betts is written to be a very archetypal and quintessential “monster-of-the-week” story.

Sure enough, Leonard Betts runs through a check list of elements that one expects from a standard “monster-of-the-week” story, all executed with considerable skill. There is a very effective teaser that reels the viewer in. There is a lingering mystery that slowly reveals itself. Mulder makes something of a mess of evolutionary theory. There is a big disgusting gore sequence as Leonard grows a second body. There is a nice explosion as Leonard fakes his own death in front of Mulder and Scully. Mystery! Pseudo-science! Gory sequence! Explosion!

That's his name!

That’s his name!

However, this is not simply an exercise in ticking the requisite boxes. Leonard Betts is told with all the skill and care that fans expect from The X-Files at this point in its life-cycle. Far from raising the stakes to help lure in new viewers, Leonard Betts is a very relaxed piece of television for most of its runtime. It might be a bit much to describe it as “comedic”, but the episode is relatively light-hearted at first – at least by the standards of The X-Files. After all, the first murder is not committed until after the half-way point.

As such, Leonard Betts allows itself to have a bit of fun, practically revelling in the sort of goofy wry dark comedy that The X-Files does so well. This isn’t a very heavy or serious instalment. Mulder and Scully are initially investigating what appears to be a grave robbery; sure, that’s pretty serious, but the audience knows that the guy himself isn’t even dead. So the script can be playful, allowing Mulder and Scully to bounce off one another as they deal with the sort of crazy stuff that has become part of their day-to-day routine.

Top drawer...

Top drawer…

“I mean, you’re not suggesting that a headless body kicked his way out of a latched morgue freezer, are you?” Scully asks Mulder, sounding just a little exasperated. “Are you?” All Mulder can do is shrug his shoulders; while smirking. Demonstrating how delightfully odd The X-Files can be, the first act offers a very weird interlude where Mulder and Scully sift through a sea of human body parts… played as something of a joke. “Oh,” Mulder quips as he gropes around in the disposal unit. “I think I got the toy surprise.” The “toy surprise” is a human head.

This is pretty “light” as The X-Files goes, but must have looked completely insane to anybody who had left Fox on after watching the Superbowl. However, there is also an endearing confidence and comfort to it, a sense that The X-Files knows what it is doing. Watching Leonard Betts, one gets the sense of a show comfortable in its own skin; one not trying to hide or distort its own identity in an attempt to win over a larger audience. This is The X-Files, take it or leave it. However, it is charming enough that you can see why so many viewers ending up taking it.

Storage wars...

Storage wars…

It helps that every aspect of Leonard Betts is absolutely top notch, even the aspects that the show might be excused for taking for granted at this point in its life-cycle. Mulder and Scully positively sparkle as they play off each other, with Mulder teasing Scully about the severed head on the autopsy table. “It blinked at me,” Scully reflects. “I mean, I know exactly what it is. It’s residual electrical activity stored chemically in the dead cells.” Mulder teases, “Blinked or winked? You’re afraid to cut into it. Scully, you’re not saying that… that it’s alive, are you?”

The Mulder and Scully banter throughout the episode captures the appeal of the dynamic beautifully. Mulder is completely off the reservation at points, and occasionally a little obnoxious or condescending. In contrast, Scully actually seems interested in explaining what is going on, while treating Mulder’s eccentricities as a price of doing business with him. Their chemistry is wonderful here, with Mulder eagerly wanting Scully to agree with him, and Scully occasionally (and resignedly) realising that rising to his teasing is counter-productive.

Burnt out...

Burnt out…

Even the episode’s pseudo-science is developed enough – and delivered with enough conviction – that the idea works better than it really should. Sure, earth worms can’t actually regrow their heads. The evolutionary theory Mulder describes is “punctuated equilibrium”, not “punctual equilibrium.” But it is a real thing, an idea proposed by Steven J. Gould in the seventies:

We argued that two outstanding facts of the fossil record—geologically “sudden” origin of new species and failure to change thereafter (stasis)—reflect the predictions of evolutionary theory, not the imperfections of the fossil record. In most theories, small isolated populations are the source of new species, and the process of speciation takes thousands or tens of thousands of years. This amount of time, so long when measured against our lives, is a geological microsecond. It represents much less than 1 per cent of the average life-span for a fossil invertebrate species—more than ten million years. Large, widespread, and well established species, on the other hand, are not expected to change very much. We believe that the inertia of large populations explains the stasis of most fossil species over millions of years.

Of course, it seems highly unlikely that this theory really accounts for a man made from cancer who can regrow his own head, but Leonard Betts invests just the right amount of scientific plausibility into what really should be an off-the-wall plot. As a result, the episode remains grounded despite all the absurd elements at play.

A cutting retort...

A cutting retort…

Paul McCrane deserves special mention for his work in the role of Leonard Betts. McCrane would land what would probably become his signature role – that of Robert Romano on E.R. – a few months after Leonard Betts aired. Romano was very much within McCrane’s comfort zone as an actor – playing a character that the audience “loved to hate” and “hated to love.” After all, McCrane is also recognisable as the thug Emil Antonowsky in the original Robocop. He also played one of the guards in The Shawshank Redemption.

As a result, Leonard Betts finds McCrane playing somewhat against type. Despite the fact that Betts is the monster of the piece, he is not a remorseless psychopath. He does not murder anybody – at least that we are aware of – until half-way through the episode. When he is forced to kill, he seems genuinely remorseful. “It’s okay,” he remarks when his former partner uncovers his new identity. “I just wish you hadn’t found me.” Later on, he apologises to his victims before feeding. “I’m sorry, but you’ve got something I need.”

Preserve us...

Preserve us…

Interestingly, Leonard Betts demonstrates that the eponymous character has actually found something like an equilibrium at the start of the episode. Unlike Eugene Victor Tooms, Samuel Aboah or Virgil Incanto, Betts is not murdering people for sustenance. Mulder and Scully are not brought into a bizarre homicide investigation. Instead, Betts has figured out a way to sate his unique appetites while still providing a vital social service. Betts feeds off the medical waste at the hospital, and provides early cancer diagnosis.

It is worth remarking on just how clever this set-up is. Watching Leonard Betts, it is quite clear how Leonard could have concealed his abnormalities for so long and why they only came to light after a freak accident. More than that, it allows Betts to remain somewhat sympathetic throughout the episode. He was not harming anybody while working as an EMT; in fact, he was helping quite a bit. Sure, eating medical waste is probably unhygienic and a violation of all sorts of ethics, but it is a smart (and almost victimless) way of dealing with an unnatural hunger.

Hugging it out...

Hugging it out…

(That said, the episode does introduce just some ambiguity around Leonard. He kills to ensure his own survival, but also to protect his secret. While he seems genuinely remorseful, he does murder Michelle Wilkes. More than that, though, he murders her in a way that is difficult to detect. “She was given a lethal dose of potassium chloride,” Scully explains. “It’s an electrolyte found naturally in the body and a coroner doesn’t usually check for it.” Is this the first time that Leonard has done something like this? Is he improvising, or going through a familiar process?)

In a way, Leonard Betts hits on that old familiar X-Files theme about the shadows getting smaller; in the modern world, it is harder for the monsters and the mysteries to remain unknown. One of the most frequent narratives on The X-Files has Mulder and Scully investigating and exposing the unknown, revealing (and vanquishing) something odd and quirky that had managed to exist unsuspected for quite some time. Here, Leonard Betts has lived a long life, but it becomes quite clear that his secret cannot remain private forever.

No body to help...

No body to help…

As such, Leonard becomes a pathetic and almost tragic monster. It is hard not to feel some sympathy for the guy. By some twist of fate, he is decapitated in a freak car accident. Betts recovers, and tries to re-establish himself, creating a new identity at another hospital. However, that doesn’t work out. Leonard must become a fugitive, and is forced to haphazardly fake his own death, which only makes him more hungry and more desperate. Watching Leonard Betts, there is a sense that the ground is shrinking out from under him.

Indeed, the climax of the story sees Betts reduced to something more like a primal beast than a human being. He is clearly drained, both physically and mentally; his appearance is rendered monstrous, and he is reduced to stalking prey like a wild animal. As such, Leonard Betts gets to have its cake and eat it too. It gets the expected “wild monster climax”, but in such a way that it also creates an intriguing and sympathetic guest character. Until the last third of the episode, it is very difficult to see Betts as a monster; in the last fifteen minutes, it’s hard not to.

Monstrous...

Monstrous…

Leonard Betts is notable for a number of different reasons, even beyond its status as the most-watched episode of The X-Files ever. It is the first collaboration of John Shiban, Vince Gilligan and Frank Spotntz. The trio would become one of the go-to teams on The X-Files, running The Lone Gunmen together. According to Shiban and Gilligan, they loved working on the episode together:

Actually the most fun writing I think was probably Leonard Betts. We, the three of us, basically hooked up a computer to a separate monitor, a laptop to monitor, and sat in a room together. Which is how we have been working since then but that was the first one that we did that on. It was fun to write because it was a fun story for one, and number two, we were all very excited so it was a great moment to be in. We enjoyed that very much.

That would have to be my favorite one too. There was a lot of fun. We ate a lot of McDonald’s food and we worked over at Frank’s house on Leonard Betts.” It was such a crazy story but it came out. It was one of my favorites and I really enjoyed it.

The episode would prove to be a success, and the three worked well together. It made sense for the trio to collaborate in future. In fact, the union of these three writers had been foreshadowed by the reference to “John Gilnitz” in Wetwired. The compound name (John Shiban, Vince Gilligan and Frank Spotnitz) also appears here, and would become a recurring fixture across the show’s extended run.

Twice the fun...

Twice the fun…

That said, Leonard Betts is notable for the closing revelation that Scully has cancer. The mechanics of the reveal are rather ingenious, a deft piece of writing from the trio. Although the episode’s closing image all but confirms the diagnosis, the audience is clued in through the use of a phrase that Betts used on an earlier victim (“you have something I need”) during an attack on Scully. It is a very clever piece of set-up and pay-off, one ably foreshadowed by the way that another verbal tic (“up to his/your ass in alligators”) gives away Leonard’s identity earlier.

It is a nice example of the way that The X-Files assumes that viewers are televisually literate – that they can pick up on ideas and concepts without the need for clumsy exposition or awkward voice-over. Leonard Betts never has any of its characters explicitly state that Dana Scully has contracted cancer, but it is hard to imagine any viewer walking away from the show without understanding the implication of that closing sequence. It is a wonderful piece of non-literal storytelling, demonstrating the show’s strengths.

A safe Betts?

A safe Betts?

According to Vince Gilligan, the idea to give Scully’s cancer came from one or both of his collaborators:

It was either John or John and Frank Spotnitz together who came up with the idea to give Scully cancer. As time goes by, I forget who came up with what. And it doesn’t really matter, because it’s such a group effort. But Chris has to approve that, of course. That’s why Chris is a good guy to work for. When he heard the idea, his reaction was, ‘That’s pretty ballsy, but let’s do it.’

It is a great example of the sort of trust that Carter had in his writing staff, to allow them to do something like that.

This case has been a bit of a wash...

This case has been a bit of a wash…

That said, giving Scully cancer was a pretty controversial decision, even among the writing staff themselves. As John Shiban has conceded, the writers met some resistance in pitching the character arc:

It was actually a very controversial move on the writing staff. Some people thought it was cheapening the show to have her get cancer, that it was sort of the typical TV melodramatic thing to do. But we felt that it was earned, and that it had been set up by other episodes where other women who had been abducted and had these chips put in their neck subsequently got cancer. So we thought it was sort of mandatory, in fact, that Scully contract cancer and deal with it.

This is easy to understand. After all, the plot point would seem to push The X-Files into the realm of more conventional and generic television drama.

Thumbs up?

Thumbs up?

However, the plot also afforded the show a bit more weight and gravitas than viewers expected from The X-Files. Scully had been abducted during the second season, but forcing a lead character to confront their own mortality through cancer is a very different story to tell. It is a lot more mundane and normal, a lot closer to home for the vast majority of people. In the United States, 1,600 people die deaths related to cancer on a daily basis. It seems likely that most viewers would have lost somebody they know to the disease.

It is also quite likely that the cancer subplot was responsible for winning Gillian Anderson the Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress. Duchovny never took home the Outstanding Lead Actor award for his work in the role of Mulder. Awards pundits have observed that Anderson may have enjoyed the edge because of the cancer subplot – identifying cancer as “something always attractive to Emmy judges.” After all, Anderson won her statuette based on work in Memento Mori, the big Scully cancer episode of the season.

The ratings stood head and shoulders above the rest...

The ratings stood head and shoulders above the rest…

The cancer revelation tends to overshadow the rest of the episode – and understandably so. It is a rather brutal subversion of the invisible line that has existed between the mythology and the monster-of-the-week stories since D.P.O. at the start of the third season. It is a beautiful twist, because it cleverly relies on the viewer’s experience with television in general (and The X-Files in particular) to deliver a shocking surprise. Audiences are conditioned to treat the monster-of-the-week episodes as stand-alone tales, so ending with such a radical reveal is a brutal gut punch.

For all that The X-Files is credited for helping sell serialisation to mainstream audiences, a lot of the show was quite episodic. You could jumble up a lot of the episodes and show them in just about any order – with only production details (rather than story elements) hinting at the proper running order. In fact, The X-Files would occasionally move episodes around in the broadcast schedule and the audience at home was none the wiser. While the show’s “mythology” episodes involving conspiracies and aliens fed into one another, the monsters were normally separate.

Things come to a head...

Things come to a head…

Leonard Betts is one of the very rare monster-of-the-week stories that had a lasting impact on the show. Of course, the actual handling of the cancer subplot is a little haphazard and clumsy, but it certainly shaped the season. Certainly, Memento Mori is more likely to be remembered as the big mythology episode of the fourth season, ahead of Tunguska and Terma or Tempus Fugit and Max. All of that comes from a single line from the episode’s monster and a fairly unsettling closing shot.

It is a rather beautiful twist, and one perfectly timed for Superbowl Sunday. It catches the audience off-guard, because it seems to come out of nowhere despite making perfect sense. Leonard Betts begins as a relatively light episode, and very much seems like a fun throwaway story. The episode opens with Mulder and Scully rummaging through medical waste while chasing a headless corpse, and closes by revealing that one the show’s two leads has a disease that may quite possibly kill her.

Leonard's all-you-=can-eat buffet...

Leonard’s all-you-=can-eat buffet…

It is interesting that – despite the fact that Scully’s cancer was a spontaneous development in the writers’ room as a deadline loomed – it seems like this revelation has been sometime coming. Back in Nisei and 731, it was suggested that the female abductees had a tendency to develop cancer after removing their implants. As such, it started a ticking clock for Scully. More than that, cancer has been on the show’s mind for quite some time. The Cigarette-Smoking Man had his lung cancer cured in Talitha Cumi, and the Russians fought the “black cancer” in Tunguska.

Similarly, Leonard Betts continues the trend of perverse motherhood that stretches across the fourth and fifth seasons. Roughly coinciding with the revelation that Scully has been left barren by the experiments conducted upon her, episodes like Home and Leonard Betts offer grotesque and unsettling depictions of maternal relationships. In Home, Scully confronts her own feelings about motherhood when confronted with the malformed Peacock family. Here, Scully discovers her cancer in an episode that features another unnatural maternal relationship.

Ear to the ground...

Ear to the ground…

Leonard Betts is very firmly established as what might be termed “a momma’s boy.” It is made quite clear that his mother is the only person who knows his secret. When Betts goes on the run, Mulder and Scully stake out his mother’s home. “The only person connected with Betts who knows his secret is his mom,” Mulder tells Scully. “If we’re going to get him, it’ll be through her.” Indeed, it is revealed that Betts is willing to kill to protect his secret, even murdering Michelle Wilkes – perhaps the closest thing he has to a friend outside his mother.

More than that, the episode climaxes with Betts feeding on his mother. It is no coincidence that he consumes her breast cancer, in a grotesque parody of the act of breast feeding. His mother welcomes and encourages her son to feed on her. “I’m your mother,” she states, bluntly, “and it’s a mother’s duty to provide.” This is the same sort of rhetoric that Mrs. Peacock used in her conversations with Scully, albeit inverted. “Maybe one day you’ll learn… the pride… the love… when you know your boy will do anything for his mother.”

Mother knows best...

Mother knows best…

In Memento Mori, it will be confirmed that the procedures performed on Scully will have left her unable to have children. These same procedures are ultimately responsible for her cancer, creating a nice thematic link between the twisted relationship in the Betts family and Scully’s own issues with motherhood. It seems like the fourth and fifth seasons of the show have Scully directly and indirectly confronted warped iterations of motherhood, perhaps as allegory or metaphor.

Of course, as with so many of the recurring themes and motifs that build up across the run of The X-Files, this might just be coincidence. It often seemed like The X-Files was not sure what it would be doing from one week to the next, let alone across entire seasons. It is fun to draw these sorts of thematic and metaphorical connections, even if they were not necessarily plotted and planned by the staff. Perhaps they suggest subconscious undercurrents running through the season, or conversations taking place in the writers’ room.

Mulder smells a mystery...

Mulder smells a mystery…

Any episode in this broadcast slot would have drawn phenomenal viewing figures. However, that undersells Leonard Betts. The episode captures a lot of what makes The X-Files great, demonstrating why the show was utterly unlike anything else airing on television at this point in time. It is an episode that is designed to both satisfy existing fans and also to help court new viewers. Of the episodes airing in this stretch of the season, Leonard Betts is perhaps the only feasible choice. However, it is pretty much a perfect fit.

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

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: