“Killin’ Time,” June 18, 1958
(Original air date: October 20, 1992)
The average Quantum Leap episode tosses Sam into a bad situation and sends him plunging downhill from there, closing on disaster until he’s gathered enough insight into the people around him to steer them all toward a happier outcome. Generally the problems that confront him from week to week are contained neatly in the past. Al, meanwhile, and the rest of the Project Quantum Leap team operate at a remove, providing support and information from their safe perch in the future.
In “Killin’ Time,” though, things go badly awry on the futuristic end of the show’s setting, the far-off and exotic year 1999. To be sure, Sam has his problems: he’s back in 1958, having switched places with a serial killer by the name of Leon Stiles. Leon is on the run, and has taken medical student Carol Pruitt and her young daughter hostage in Pine County, Oklahoma. He’s also, by chance, just recently killed the daughter of the sheriff in charge of the standoff outside. This virtually guarantees that if Sam releases his hostages, he will be shot to death by vengeful cops.
The cherry on this deluxe sundae of trouble is that Sam’s 1999 body has gone AWOL with Leon Stiles, who somehow ends up in the future with a gun. He escapes from the Waiting Room and flees the project facility at Stallion’s Gate, New Mexico. What this means is that even if Sam completes his mission, he cannot leap elsewhere. And if he gets shot before he leaps, it is he and not Leon who will die.
It is always strangely delightful to see Sam discover he’s stuck in a fundamentally bad guy, and Leon is arguably the worst Leapee of the entire series. He immediately goes looking for his next murder victim, and he’s absolutely willing to pump bullets into the first person who gets in his way. That person, of course, is Al. Because of the top secret nature of Project Quantum Leap and the inconvenient fact that they have to retrieve Leon/Sam unharmed, the team cannot enlist the police to help track him down. Al is forced to go after Leon on his own.
The point of this house-of-cards chain of events, of course, is to force Sam to ignore his natural instinct to surrender Leon’s hostages. But Sam is utterly incapable of terrorizing small kids and single moms, so he throws himself on Carol Pruitt’s mercy. He tells her the crazy-sounding truth and hopes for the best. Gooshie, played by Dennis Wolfberg with his usual adorable dottiness, is conscripted into the role of Observer in Al’s absence, and eventually they all muddle through.
It is not atypical for a show to air its best episodes in its second and third seasons, and then to experience a gradual descent into repetition on the one hand and flailing experimentation on the other. This is only natural: if you take a program with a static cast, tightly focused concept and a reasonably talented creative team, the writers will get their feet under them in the first year, and spend the next two exploring the fictional terrain of their universe. Over time, they cover all the obvious ground, plumbing the characters, their histories and the situation quite thoroughly. By the time fifty or so episodes have aired, the choices begin to narrow. Some scripts retread old ground; others go barrel-scraping for under-exploited material within the initial set-up. Better—but riskier—alternatives include changing the rules of the situation or freshening things up with new cast members…and I’m sure you can all think of times when that didn’t turn out so well.
Many episodes within season five of Quantum Leap display this sense of strain, a groping after freshness. Sam discovers the existence of an evil leaper, for example, and embarks on an epic, cross-time romance in “Trilogy.” He begins to find himself placed in the way of ever-bigger historical events and well-known figures. In “Killin’ Time,” though, what we see is an attempt to make fuller use of the existing furniture of the series. We get to see more of the project, more of the cheesy little slice of 1999 that goes with Al’s outrageous outfits, and more of Gooshie.
Ultimately, what is coolest about this leap is that it is Sam who is stuck in a mostly passive role. He is the one in the most danger, and all he can do is hole up in Carol’s house and wait. Meanwhile Al—whose hands are usually tied—is thrown into action. At the episode’s conclusion, though, it is Carol who puts right what once went wrong, not only for Sam but for the grieving Sheriff who would otherwise have murdered him. The role reversal works nicely, perhaps even canceling out the silly coincidence of Leon’s having a gun in the first place.
This sort of flailing does also hint that an ending is on its way, and that’s just as true of this rewatch project as it was of the series itself. As mentioned, back when I wrote about “Genesis,” I chose to review three episodes from each season of Quantum Leap. With this post, I’m left with two more shows from the final season…and I’m sure nobody will be surprised to hear that the last of these will be “Mirror Image.”
The time is approaching for you all to throw me around Sam’s past: what did I miss? (List of episodes covered is here.) Which episodes are your favorites, and why? In 2011, I’ll look at your top ten picks.
A.M. Dellamonica writes novels and short fiction and teaches writing online. She is passionate about environmentalism, food and drink, and art in every form, and dabbles in several: photography, choral music, theater, dance, cooking and crafts. Catch up with her on her blog here.