The X-Files: “Leonard Betts”

Capital Idea

by Sarah Stegall

copyright © 1997 by Sarah Stegall

Writer: Frank Spotnitz, Vince Gilligan, John Shiban

Director: Rob Bowman

Back in my wasted youth, I trained as an Emergency Medical Assistant. Almost the first thing they taught people who arrive at an accident scene was that no one, no matter how mangled or bloody, was to be considered dead unless pronounced dead by a doctor. The only exception to the rule of “treat ’em as if they’re alive even when they’re dead” was the case of a decapitation. In such cases, we were told, the ambulance was allowed a more leisurely return to the emergency room. After “Leonard Betts”, however, the EMTs of the Philadelphia area may need to revise their ground rules.

“Leonard Betts” begins with the eponymous EMT saving a patient’s life with his extraordinary ability to diagnose cancer. So amazed is the driver of the ambulance where this takes place, that she loses control of the vehicle and a massive wreck ensues, in which Betts is decapitated. Later that evening, after his body and head are left in the morgue, Betts–or part of him–kicks his way out of the drawer and walks off into the night, leaving his head behind. And that’s just the teaser!

The sheer audacity of this X-File carries me right past the logical objection to the premise. I note that it took three writers–Vince Gilligan, John Shiban, and Frank Spotnitz–to write this episode, which can be good and bad. “Leonard Betts” has just enough of the macabre (slices of head) and the absurd (Kirlian photography) to rate as an X- File in the best traditions of the first year. Betts’ distorted reflection in the morgue drawer, his head rising from an iodine bath (later mirrored by his head rising from a polymer preservation bath), were all classic touches of the kind we came to expect in Season One. But the repeated shots of severed heads, sectioned heads, moving heads and scabrous heads reminded me that this is a fourth season episode, with its mindless intrusion of gore for simple shock value.

Paul McCrane, as Betts, brought a certain innocence to the character, which made his mother’s claim that he was “just different” plausible. His sincere apologies to his victims struck just the right note of honest regret, and made him therefore more human and more horrifying. It might have been even more interesting to see Betts’ feelings, however. Did he feel isolated from humanity? Was he afraid? Was he bewildered and terrified by his unique state? How did he explain himself to himself? A touch of tragedy always enhances horror, leavening it with that bit of empathy that draws us even further in. For my money, the human monster who is horrified and helpless is as terrifying as any nonhuman. In the end, Betts was as non-human as a dog, and therefore less psychologically threatening.

Unfortunately, Duchovny and Anderson (save in the last few minutes) had little to do but stand around and react to events. Mulder and Scully are becoming all too predictable of late–Mulder’s “trademark” black humor is becoming a twitch, and Scully’s persistent skepticism, even when standing between identical corpses, smacks more of obstinacy than reason. And the increased emphasis on blood and body parts this season is having its predictable effect: apathy. A headless corpse? Yawn. So we “progress” to slices of a human head. Somehow the writers of Ten Thirteen have not yet figured out that splatter does not substitute for suspense: the best moments of “Leonard Betts” were not the dissections, the winking head on the autopsy slab, or the head emerging from Betts’ mouth, it was the moment when Scully realizes that Betts is hiding on top of the ambulance and that she is in danger. That moment made me shudder.

The scene in the teaser where Betts is shown in a distorted reflection (is he or is he not headless?— shiver!) was more spine-tingling than the scene in the storage locker in which he grows a whole new body. If that regeneration sequence had been seen in silhouette, or as a cast shadow, or otherwise distorted just enough to make us wonder if we were seeing what we thought we were seeing– then it would have been a classic X-File. But the recent and regrettable tendency to show us everything not only undercuts the series’ ambiguity, but is downright boring. Chris Carter is fond of saying that the series is told from Scully’s point of view–yet we only see the Mulder point of view. This makes her look stupid. More believable would be a scene in which we see something which can be explained more than one way–and there were very few such scenes in “Leonard Betts”. Any striptease artist could tell Carter that it’s what you don’t see that rivets the audience’s attention.

All in all, “Leonard Betts” was a hearkening back to that outrageous cartoon, “Kolchak: The Night Stalker”, the series that inspired Carter to write The X-Files in the first place. The final minutes, which leave us fearing for Scully’s health as the credits roll, are a wicked tease. We can only hope that soon we will see Agent Scully finally coming to grips with her ordeal of two years ago. But when the highlight of the episode has nothing to do with the story, it’s not a good sign. “Leonard Betts” had potential, and lived up to much of it, but was weakened by a reliance on shock value that the first season was sophisticated enough to avoid.

This episode gets three sunflower seeds out of five.