Season 4, Episode 12: “Leonard Betts”
Original Airdate: January 26, 1997
“Leonard Betts” is a stunning episode. It’s at first a classic monster of the week,; well-structured and with interesting themes. But then comes the conclusion, with a genuinely shocking twist that both elevates the story and demonstrates the show’s core strength. At its best, The X-Files is not a show about monsters and aliens, but a show about fear: the fear of the unknown, the fear of the impossible, and the fear that once the truth is revealed, it will be impossible to believe.
Leonard Betts is a man, and an EMT. He is decapitated, and then his body walks out of the morgue. Without its head. Although Mulder does not even make any Washington Irving jokes, Scully makes him dig through a whole lot of medical waste with her (his arms are longer) until he comes up with Leonard’s head.
Scully then starts to perform an autopsy on the head, except then the head fricking moves—the eyes flutter, the mouth opens, and Scully decides maybe instead of doing the autopsy she will have the head dipped in an epoxy while she mutters over and over “it’s just an unusual degree of postmortem galvanic response.”
Mulder visits Leonard’s apartment and finds clothing on the floor and a bathtub full of iodine. He talks to Leonard’s EMT pal, a lady named Michelle, who tells him that Leonard was a loner but also a great EMT, a guy who could diagnose people just by looking at them. The agents examine an epoxy’d slice of Leonard’s brain and learn that this cell in his head was cancerous. They take a second slice of his brain to a Kirilian photographer whose imaging reveals shoulder-shaped energy below the head. And I say “they” but this is clearly Mulder’s situation, he is starting to believe that Betts can re-grow body parts, no big deal. Then Scully is like, well anyway I had his fingerprints run and that is how I have learned that Leonard Betts is aka Albert Tanner, so there. Except then they visit Albert’s mother and she tells them her son died in a car crash six years ago and everyone is confused.
Also confused is EMT pal Michelle, who has tracked down a living Leonard at another hospital. She is excited that he is not dead! But also perplexed, and then he hugs her and apologizes to her and injects her with potassium chloride. And she dies. A security guard catches Leonard and handcuffs him to a car. Leonard does what any man does in that situation: he rips off his own thumb. Mulder at this point is pretty hot on his re-growable body part theory, adding now that evolution is a heck of a thing. Supporting his heck-of-a-thing theory is a cooler filled with cancerous tumors that they find in the back of Leonard’s car, and now the thought is, maybe this guy eats cancer to survive.
They head back to Mrs. Tanner’s house with a search warrant, and this time it’s clear she has something to hide plus also some cryptic things to say about how God Put Him Here For a Purpose. Leonard meanwhile is out in the world, hungry and struggling to re-grow that torn-off thumb. He eyes a man in a bar, a man who is smoking and coughing, then apologetically attacks him in the parking lot: “Excuse me. I’m sorry, but you’ve got something I need.” Leonard then does something terrifying: he re-grows his entire body, expelling the new one from the mouth of the old.
The agents track Leonard to a storage locker and shoot at a Leonard-bearing car as it drives away. The car explodes, but a little too fast. The Leonard in the car was a decoy, and the real deal is at home, in a bath of iodine. His mother tells him he needs to restore his strength, and in “Home”-like fashion, insists that it is her duty to provide...
…cancer, that is. Scully and Mulder are staking out the Tanner house and draw guns the second an ambulance pulls up. They find Mrs. Tanner in bed, a bandage on her chest. Scully rides with her to the ER while Mulder canvasses the neighborhood, looking for Leonard. At the hospital, Scully notices iodine dripping from the top of the ambulance, and as she climbs on top of the vehicle to get a better look, Leonard grabs her ankle, pulls her to the ground, and shoves her into the ambulance. “I’m sorry,” he says. “But you’ve got something I need.”
“Leonard Betts” aired after Super Bowl XXXI (Packers over the Patriots, 35-21), and the episode was chosen for its crowd-pleasing action-packededness. It’s a good choice (the scene where Leonard regenerates is delightfully gruesome, and the fight scene with Scully is nicely choreographed) but this revelation is a gut-punch for fans only. The look of terror on Scully’s face is heartbreaking. She knows exactly what Leonard means, and she knows that he’s right. She has cancer. She must have cancer. She has spent the whole episode on the debunkery train, but faced with the monster’s need, with evolution, she knows that he is right and that Mulder is right and, oh, right, she also has to fight for her life. Leonard gets her gun but she gets in some good kicks and a defibrillator. He falls dead, and she stands breathing.
And then, she doesn’t tell Mulder. She sits in the car and says she wants to go home, and at home she wakes up in the middle of the night, coughing, with blood on her pillow. We have seen awful things happen to our agents. We have seen them tortured, and abducted; we have seen their families murdered. But here is something new, a new vulnerability where there seems so little room left. Leonard Betts was an apologetic monster, a man who attacked for survival. Scully defended him against his own nature, strained for better judgment only to find herself forced to accept. It turns out that the impossible is not so very hard to believe—not when it happens to you.