X-Files Flashback: ‘Leonard Betts’

Season 4, Episode 12
Director: Kim Manners
Writer: Vince Gilligan, John Shiban, Frank Spotnitz

The X-Files “Leonard Betts” elicits several interesting opinions on its titular character, a monster-of-the-week contribution to the overall X-Files lore, yes, but a very human and humane monster still. As embodied by Paul McCrane, Betts first appears as a benevolent soul, someone mysteriously gifted at identifying sickness and healing others. Yet, through the course of the episode, his gifts take a deadly, sinister turn, making the character one of the more fascinating the series has seen.

The episode begins in the back of an ambulance as Betts (Paul McCrane) operates on a patient that he later advises is dying of cancer. The driver is fascinated by Betts’s prowess at illness definition and turns to ask him a question. As she does so, the driver runs a red light, and the ambulance is jack-knifed in the intersection. Stunned, she walks to the back of the ambulance to check on Betts, but he is decapitated. Later, in the morgue, the headless Betts awakens and walks out… still sans head and captured on a blurry videotape. Mulder and Scully investigate – Mulder staking out Betts’s apartment and Scully performing an autopsy on Betts’s recovered head. Mulder finds some bloody clothes and a bathtub full of iodine in Betts’s apartment, and, after he leaves, Betts rises out of the tub, head in-tact.

Scully, meanwhile, begins to form an autopsy when the head blinks and sighs at her. Further investigation leads to two major facts: Betts is riddled with cancerous cells and can potentially regenerate missing limbs. Needing cancerous material to regenerate, Betts goes on a killing spree of those infected with the disease. He also kills the ambulance driver who recognizes him in passing in order to protect his secret. Tracking Betts back to his mother, she refuses to disclose his location, professing that God desires him to be on the Earth and is keeping him here despite his multiple deaths. We do witness Betts effectively shedding one form of himself to regenerate another, a disturbing and disgusting image. After Betts’s mother nearly sacrifices her life to feed her son with a cancerous tumor she has, Betts mysteriously attacks Scully, claiming she has something he needs. Scully is able to overpower him and kills him with defibrillator paddles to the head. Later that night, Scully awakens coughing, her nose dripping with blood.

The main theme of “Leonard Betts” is the exploration of the main monster. Betts initially appears kind and benevolent, extremely proficient and successful as an EMT. Yet, as the episode proceeds, he becomes a brutal killer. Granted, he (mostly) kills people who are apparently dying anyway, but does that give him the right to take their lives? Does his need to feed on cancerous tumors that only they can provide him make it OK that he’s taking their life? Do you curse the monster because it adheres to its very nature? These are all intriguing questions that The X-Files brings up but leaves to the audience to weigh in on where they fall. The key for me is Betts’s murder of his ambulance driver friend. That felt like the tipping point to Betts’s callousness and inhumane center.

The most popular result of “Leonard Betts” was Dana Scully’s revelation that she’s suffering from cancer, apparently something that was a known side-effect of whatever happened to her when she was abducted by aliens. Remember the group of women who were slowly dying out? They all contracted cancer and slowly died. Is it ironic that the monster Betts is the one who tells her she suffers from the disease, which she confirms later than night. This turn will last nearly a year in the series and will basically win Gillian Anderson an Emmy award.

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