"Leonard Betts" (season 4, episode 12)
In which there's a man who can regenerate his whole head and he has bad news for Scully (which is somehow not, "Hey, I can regenerate my whole head. Wanna watch?").
"Leonard Betts" has become so much about its incredible final five minutes that I'd more or less forgotten just how awesome the rest of the episode is. It takes a lot for a monster of the week episode to shock and impress at this point in the show's run, but "Leonard Betts" is positively filled with moments that chill, goofy (but cool) science, and gross-out bits. It's easy to see why this episode was yanked out of production order and swapped with "Never Again" to air after the Super Bowl (even if it completely changed the intended meaning of "Never Again"). This is just a stellar example of the show doing what it does best, hitting the ground running with a cool, creepy story about a man who's literally made of cancer.
By virtue of airing after the Super Bowl, this was the most-watched episode of The X-Files ever, exposing the show to its widest possible audience. (Hell, we discussed it in my high school biology class the day after it aired.) It's easy to wonder just what so many of those viewers thought of the episode as they watched it, but most of them must have liked something they saw. The show's ratings, while never this high again, would reach another level in the months to come, creating one of the few cases where a network used the Super Bowl to turn a big hit into a mega-hit. (Honestly, if The X-Files had been on a network with better penetration than Fox, it would have been a top-five show. That it was a top 20 show on a network that wasn't in the entirety of the country when it was airing is sort of phenomenal.) For all of the unsettling images, the viewers of "Leonard Betts" seemed to take what the episode was selling in stride.
A lot of that may be because the episode just looks like a million bucks and like nothing else that was on TV at the time. The show's usual aesthetic is in full force, but if this is your first exposure to that aesthetic, it's been cranked up, ever so subtly. All of the scenes where we see the more monstrous aspects of Leonard, like his resurrection sans head or the way his eyes and mouth open on Scully's autopsy table or the horrifying regeneration sequence, are shot through with the series' sense of dark foreboding, and the cool blacks of the show's color palette, as well as its uniquely Vancouver-y location work, are highlighted to the utmost. "Leonard Betts" is an eminently accessible episode of The X-Files, but it's also completely recognizable as an episode of The X-Files. This is the show saying, in its best shot at a huge audience, "This is what we do, folks. You either get on board, or you don't."
What's remarkable about this is that this is simultaneously the episode that launches the show's longest sustained story arc. Unlike the alien conspiracy, the show couldn't simply look away from Scully's cancer. It became something that informed every episode until the story's end. (This is technically a spoiler, but, uh, Scully doesn't die of cancer. I'm sure you're surprised.) Even monster of the week episodes would find an emotional grounding in the idea that Scully was ailing but just had to keep working. And, yeah, we won't know that Scully has cancer for another couple of weeks (in yet another absolutely terrific episode), but when Leonard tells her she has something he needs, one of the most chilling lines of the entire series, we KNOW. This is an episode that is designed to draw in as many new fans as possible and also one that pays off in a big way for longtime fans. If you're just watching for the first time, then Leonard's line is just a chilling suggestion of Scully's health. If you've been watching from day one, then this is the culmination of a plotline that began in "Duane Barry." That's remarkable storytelling, any way you slice it.
Here's another reason "Leonard Betts" works so well: It moves like a rocket. It's often dangerous on a show like this to introduce too many new ideas. The old maxim is that if you're going to do a genre story of some type, you can't mix up two different basic genre concepts. For example, you can't have a bunch of characters step into a time machine, then end up in an alternate Elizabethan London where everybody's a zombie. Well, I mean, you can, but it piles so many different concepts on that it becomes difficult to figure out where to grab hold. It's fun, sure, but it's also a slippery slope of plot elements taking over where character elements should be more prominent. Tell a time travel story? Sure. Tell a zombie story? Absolutely. But mix the two? You threaten to lose everyone.
"Leonard Betts" isn't technically like this. It's still a pretty straightforward monster of the week story. But the revelations are so crazy that any single one of them could be the basis of an entire episode, and the show just keeps piling them on. First, we find out that Leonard can somehow walk around sans head. Then, we find out that his decapitated head can open its eyes and mouth. Then, we find out that for whatever reason, Leonard keeps his tub full of iodine. Then, we find out that he can regrow his entire head and break off his thumbs to escape from handcuffs. Then, we find out he's willing to kill to keep what he is (possibly a new variation the species) under wraps. Then, we find out that he's not just made entirely of cancer, but that he needs to feed on cancer to survive. Cancer is what lets him live, but that means he has to kill others to get those tasty, cancerous cells, including his mother.
This is a giant, rolling ball of plot revelations, and it almost completely WORKS. In most X-Files episodes, Mulder and Scully will happen upon some sort of crazy situation, then Mulder will say, "I think it was a ghost!" and Scully will say, "I think it was electromagnetic interference from the moon!" and it will turn out to be a ghost. But the show is always at its best when Mulder is trying to figure it out along with everybody else. When the episode starts, he's sort of bullheadedly certain that a headless Leonard Betts walked out of the morgue and headed home, and while he's right about that, he doesn't even begin to grasp the entirety of what's going on. The series works best when it's a conversation between Mulder and Scully, when her skepticism drives him to greater heights of pseudoscientific lunacy and his lunacy drives her to try and come up with more scientific rationales for what's going on. Here, it becomes clear very quickly that Leonard is something special, and it becomes more or less clear to both characters. (Scully keeps up her skepticism, but more halfheartedly than usual.) This is a monster of the week episode where Mulder and Scully are scrambling to keep up with just what the hell is going on and just what they're dealing with.
Usually on The X-Files, the audience knows slightly more than Mulder and Scully. Mulder will usually have a theory or two that puts him on the same level as us, but we've generally seen the monster up to whatever the monster's up to in the cold open, which gives us an advantage over our heroes. To a degree, we already know if this is a vampire story or a werewolf story, and it's just up to us to wait for Mulder to get on the same page as us. Here, the structure is very slightly inverted. Mulder often makes wild guesses about just what's up with Leonard that are borne out in the very next handful of scenes featuring Leonard. We're probably right there with him, as the story isn't all that hard to figure out, but we're lagging behind, along with the agents, and that makes everything feel even more off-kilter than usual. The X-Files was endlessly inventive with its basic formula, but it rarely tweaked it as subtly as it did here. We don't quite know what to expect next here, and that makes the episode have a greater sense of fun than it might have had Mulder wandered in at the start and said, "Cancer monster!" When Leonard first says, "You have something I need," we have some guesses about just what he might mean, but we don't know, until the meaning becomes crystal clear. There's an interesting game played with the flow of information here between the show, its characters, and the audience, and it makes the episode work incredibly well.
It also helps that Leonard's such an understandably human monster. On some level, he just wants to survive, and he's not happy about what he has to do to be able to survive. His relationship with the ambulance driver and his relationship with his mother are both quickly defined but well-defined, and even if both are fairly typical, the actors sell them readily. The X-Files was at a point at this stage of its life where it could attract the top guest stars in LA to star in its episodes, and "Leonard Betts" is a pretty great example of this. The character of Leonard wouldn't be nearly so haunting without Paul McCrane playing him. McCrane makes him just a regular guy who hides a terrible, terrible secret that drives him to do horrible things, and that's the right choice. He's a monster, sure, but he's also recognizably a human being, and as the shit starts coming down around his ears, he reacts like most of us would, if we needed to periodically devour a tumor to keep our regenerative powers. McCrane, of course, is most famous for his work on ER (so famous for that work that I'd forgotten he played this part), but Leonard's a sad counterpart to his dickish "Rocket" Romano.
"Leonard Betts" is mostly well-remembered by fans for that final moment, when the show pulls together a whole bunch of strands it's been developing for a while and lets us know that Mulder and Scully are never going to be out of the woods, that the woods are constantly closing in around them. Sure, what Leonard says is chilling, but the way it pushes the show on an entirely new direction is kind of thrilling. This has always been a show where the monsters of the week and the mythology rarely, if ever, intertwine, and here's the show breaking its own rules, but somehow doing so in a way that first-time viewers won't really catch on to. As I said above, it's fairly ingenious, and I wonder how long it took the writers to come up with this particular storyline, if the end result was to have Scully discover she had cancer.
But "Leonard Betts" deserves to be remembered for a whole host of other things, as well. There's very little in this episode that doesn't work. (Well, some of the Mulder theorizing is clumsily expository, but when isn't it?) This is the kind of episode that only a show at its confident best could produce, an episode that takes everything the series has been up to to that point and takes it to some entirely new level. "Leonard Betts" isn't the best episode of The X-Files, but it signifies that we're moving into one of the show's very best periods, and it does so with a confidence and verve that the series didn't always display. "Leonard Betts" is the show putting a punctuation mark on one chapter and beginning a new one in style.
- Great effect: The old Leonard spitting the new Leonard out (and all because he lost a thumb!).
- Mulder's kind of a little jerk in this one, isn't he? I like the part where Scully's challenging him on how no creature can regenerate a head, and he's all "WORMS!" like he wants to get the right answer on a game show or something. (Incidentally, this was right around when David Duchovny was regularly smoking other celebrities on Celebrity Jeopardy. He's a smart guy.)
- I like how both agents get some creepy moments to themselves here. You have Mulder wandering into the bathroom of doom (where it's so, so obvious, even if you haven't seen the episode before, that SOMEthing is lurking in that tub of iodine), but you also have Scully confronting the head that moves of its own volition and, of course, having her final fight with Betts.
- And, yes, I know Leonard Betts' name isn't actually Leonard Betts, but I prefer to call him that anyway. It's all there in the title.
- This was one of the first really productive non-mythology team-ups the show would do, the script written by Vince Gilligan, Frank Spotnitz, and John Shiban. The presence of Spotnitz suggests the show knew this would be the episode introducing Scully's cancer from the word go, so it must have fallen to Gilligan and Shiban to create the monster. Leonard Betts' physical properties definitely feel like a Shiban invention, but the guy's more human qualities stem from Gilligan. An effective team-up all around.
- It's the little things: Regeneration or splitting off his own thumb seem to cause Leonard a great deal of strain and pain.
- I'm still amazed by how carefully The X-Files built its teasers. Here, we get a hint that Leonard has some sort of extra-sensory cancer detection system, then we have a big ambulance crash, then we have Leonard's headless body, then we have that headless body WALKING AROUND. The Super Bowl fans were probably completely horrified and/or hooked.
"Loin Like A Hunting Flame" (season 1, episode 12)
In which Frank Black discovers just what erectile dysfunction can do to a man.
"Loin Like A Hunting Flame" is quite possibly one of the worst episodes of television I've ever seen.
I don't say that lightly. I've seen a LOT of bad television over the years, and it's rare to find an episode that's so colossally bad that it inspires hoots of derision, as this one does. Worse, before sitting down to watch the episode, I had high hopes for it. I'd heard from a couple of people that it was a high-point of season one, and it was written by Ted Mann, a TV writer who's mostly found himself working on David Milch productions over the years. And while Milch heavily rewrites absolutely every script on one of his shows, Mann is at least credited with the script for one of my two or three favorite TV episodes ever made, "Boy-The-Earth-Talks-To," the second season finale of Deadwood. To be at least partially responsible for one of the best episodes and one of the worst episodes ever made? That's … that's something, and it at least marks Mann as a writer who takes big chances, since episodes this bad rarely stem from average ideas.
It's hard to express just what's so terrible about "Loin." At first, I thought I just wasn't digging it because it was so emphatically of its time. When watching shows from an earlier era, you'll often stumble across an episode or two that's stuck in the period when the show was made and can't seem to get out of that period. "Loin" is sort of like this at the start, with its fears about drug- and sex-driven raves (were they even called raves in 1997?) getting out of hand. That's such a late-'90s fear that it's hard to get invested in it in 2010. And that's not really the show's fault, ultimately. All shows make bad gambles about what sorts of story elements are going to play in the decades to come, just because no one can predict the future. But if the episode were just completely out of time, it wouldn't be bad, not really. It'd just be sort of a museum artifact.
No, what makes "Loin Like A Hunting Flame" so atrocious is something that's been implicit in the show from the very start but rarely commented on: the show's social conservatism. I don't really mean that the show is against abortion or gay marriage or anything like that. I mean that the show is wedded to a certain sort of way of living your life and it tends to view anything out of that narrow vision of what constitutes a good life harshly. You get married. You find productive work trying to turn back the dark. Maybe you have some kids. You carry yourself chastely around your wife, but you, ultimately, have something of a love life. Any deviations from this format, even a deviation as harmless as, say, college experimentation, are viewed with suspicion and fear. That works within the stained-glass-window world of Millennium, at least most of the time, but it also seems fairly closed-off from other points-of-view, and the clash of points-of-view is the center of good drama, something you'd think Chris Carter would have known, given how pronounced that clash was on his big hit series.
Anyway, here's what I most object to in "Loin Like A Hunting Flame": The episode wants to be both titillating and scolding; it wants us to both sympathize with women and view them as objects of evil sexual immorality. It's all but filled up with a sense of women as the original temptresses, a sense that went out of style with the medieval texts the show sometimes seems directly ripped from. For instance, Frank's local law-enforcement partner for the week, Detective Thomas (William Lucking, clearly having no idea what to do with this character much of the time) talks at length about how he doesn't like having women get involved in these sorts of cases where sex and death get all blended up together, then intimates that women just aren't as successful of crime solvers as men are. Frank shuts him down, of course, because Millennium isn't transparently anti-woman or anything, but the scene is clumsily written and just bad character development. We're supposed to side with Frank, of course, but Thomas raises the episode's general suspicion of women straight off.
The central idea of the episode is that a sexless pharmacist named Art is prowling the mean streets of Boulder, Colorado (here presented as some sort of suburban Utopia out of a David Lynch film), forcing people to enact sexual experiences he believes he should have had before his marriage to the jittery, nervous Karen, whom he hasn't had sex with in 18 years. Once they're done doing that, he uses the tools of his trade (chemicals, mostly) to kill his young charges, then poses them in a variety of potentially alluring positions. The young couple he meets at the rave at episode's start he lies down in a local botanical garden, leaves covering their genitals like Adam and Eve. The women he abducts while coming home from a key party later on are set on a park bench in a tableaux of innocence (in the episode's only truly arresting scene). Anyway, Art's horrifying Detective Thomas, who lost his wife and his sanity to a long string of disturbing sexual crimes that he investigated at his old job, so he calls in the Millennium Group, including Frank and the great character actress Harriet Sansom Harris as Maureen. As the three close the case and close in on Art, who eventually kills himself, Thomas comes to respect Maureen, but this growing respect, which should have been a centerpiece of the episode, doesn't really work because Maureen is just sort of there. She's not a character. She's an object lesson.
By far the worst aspect of this episode is the marriage between Art and Karen, which is just terribly conceived of on every level. At first, it almost seems as if the episode wants to blame Karen, who seems sort of turned off by Art's advances, for what Art does. If she just let him do it with her, then none of this would have happened! But as the episode shifts blame toward Art (clumsily) for not being able to consummate the relationship, Karen's character becomes more and more unbelievable. She's never turned to anyone about this? She's never tried to get Art into counseling? She's never realized just how deep his depravity is? The cliché of the serial killer is that he's a family man and a good neighbor, so that no one could have seen what he did coming, but Art is so clearly a loner type figure that giving him a wife who's either a sexless ice queen or, ultimately, an idiot irreparably harms the episode.
But it's not like the rest of what's going on is any better. The episode's general sense of unease about all sex that's not safe, nuclear-family-prescribed sex is just odd. The show can't make up its mind about whether Thomas is supposed to be helplessly behind the times or another vigilant man on the walls of purity, keeping the darkness out. The character occasionally brings up all manner of sexual practices and condemns them as immoral with the same sweep, but the show also wants us to think of, say, a bunch of attractive swingers having a key party (and I'm firmly convinced these never actually happened) as vaguely titillating. It's trying to play on our sexual desires, then whack us across the nose for any possible response we have to these scenarios that's not horror. It wants us to see Art as a deviant, but it also wants us to see the people he kills as deviants, and that's unsustainable. The episode frequently switches to Art's point-of-view, which appears to see the world entirely as a seedy, low-grade porno, and it can't make up its mind whether it wants us to see Art's response as a natural response to a world where sex is so prevalent (as Thomas' nervous breakdown over same is supposed to be seen) or as the true horror. But all manner of things are tarnished by this brush throughout the episode, from young people getting high and having sex to homosexuality, and it just makes the show seem simultaneously tawdry and prudish.
Millennium is so often boxed in by its own ideas about "evil" that it can't find its way out from its own top-heavy conception to just be about people. Mulder and Scully over on The X-Files started out as basic mouthpieces for two viewpoints, but they very quickly became actual characters, driven by something more than their ideologies, and the monsters they tracked down were often recognizably human, beneath all the terror. Millennium is problematic precisely because it doesn't know a way around its own big, philosophical ideas about the Way Things Work and the Nature Of Evil. The show probably doesn't actually think that, say, homosexuality is a gateway drug to pure evil and/or being murdered, but because of its basic concept, it gets boxed in to having to seem like it agrees with Detective Thomas, even as it doesn't. The problem with this, of course, is that people aren't just concepts, and the best characters are ones that don't just stand in for some other weird set of ideals. The characters on Millennium still aren't to that point, so an episode that wants to say something serious about moral degradation, like this one, just ends up seeming more laughable than not.
- I have not really conveyed just how ridiculous this episode is. I sort of want all of you to watch it, just for the even-more-heavy-handed-than-usual dialogue and the moments of gloomy portent that are there for pretty much no reason and the menacing shots of lawn sprinklers (from the usually capable David Nutter).
- I like the fact that Carter and his writers keep introducing new Millennium Group members for Frank to hang out with, but none of this obscures the fact that Carter has yet to really explain just what the hell the Group exists for. While I get a lot of fans feel differently, I've always preferred season two because it answers this fundamental question beyond just, "To fight crimes and, uh, defeat evil."
- The idea of tying violent crimes in with sex is another area where Millennium was sadly ahead of its time. Essentially every episode I've ever seen of Law & Order: SVU has been, basically, this, though that show has better characters.
Next week: Zack checks out one of The X-Files' most experimental hours with "Never Again," then drops in on another Millennium episode I've heard is good (though now we know how reliable THAT barometer is) with "Force Majeure."