8-1/2 Months: November 15, 1955
(Original air date: March 6, 1991)
Season three of Quantum Leap had so many terrific leaps that I was spoiled for choice...Sam became a wrestler, a glam rocker, a beauty queen and even the proprietor of a southern U.S. bordello. But I love “8-1/2 Months.” Not only is it another of the drag episodes, but it also, without a doubt, presents one of the most bizarre and challenging of Sam’s attempts to change history for the better.
Sam arrives in a Claremore Oklahoma hospital in 1955, and discovers he is there to help Billie Jean Crockett, a sixteen year old who had the bad fortune to fall pregnant the previous spring. Uneducated, all but homeless—her father tossed out when she refused to reveal her child’s father—and universally chastised for her predicament, Billie is already in labor when Sam turns up. Doctors from Project Quantum Leap are able to get her stabilized, if only just, allowing Sam to fend off her creepy paternalistic obstetrician, at least temporarily, in a comical stand-off.
But then what? Al quickly arrives and reveals that nobody at the Project is sure what will happen to Billie, or the baby or Sam if she goes into labor. The obvious solution is to leap out before Billie gives birth. All Sam has to do is find someone who’ll support mother and child; if he can’t, she’ll spend a lifetime regretting that she gave the baby up for adoption. And he’s got 36 hours in which to do it.
In all of Sam’s bouncing around through time, few of his leaps have presented him with a problem he has so little power to solve. All he can do is beg: beg Billie’s dad, her friends, and the baby’s father for support they’ve already refused to give. There’s no scientific puzzle to decode, no villain to unmask, no secret “insider information” from the future that Al can provide: just the relentless countdown to the birth. And as the episode unfolds it becomes obvious that Sam is in some sense pregnant, so labor renders him physically helpless, too.
“8-1/2 Months” is an intriguing time capsule, a slide show showing the gains Western women have made on this issue since 1955. In fifty years there have been improvements in contraception, increased acceptance of single parents, support programs for young families, and social developments like open adoption. But consider a more recent TV mom: Quinn Fabray of Glee. Better educated, more ambitious, and possessed of a backbone of steel, Quinn ends up facing virtually the same devastating situation, up to and including exile from her parents’ home. This does still happen to plenty of not-at-all fictional girls.
(And what of the attitude toward adoption in 1991, when the episode was made? Glee digs into the question of whether Quinn’s unborn child is better off with a stable adult. Though Sam says he supports the idea of adoption in “8-1/2 Months,” all he can do is what’s best for Billie, and she wants to keep her baby despite the difficulties.)
Teen pregnancy was one of dozens of social issues tackled by Quantum Leap, of course, and as Sam experiences morning sickness and chases after a way to keep the baby, “8-1/2 Months” ticks through various talking points: girls who have sex shouldn’t be stigmatized, fathers should be responsible, too, pregnancy can be physically dangerous, the more so if you’re denied adequate health care, and so on. What stands out in this episode is that every answer to Billie’s dilemma is a painful compromise, one bound to involve some sacrifice. Sam prevails through a combination of sticking to his guns and becoming pitiful enough to eventually wrest a last minute reprieve from Billie’s father.
He’s able to do this because even helpless, scared and suffering from contractions he’s still Sam, still up to the task of insisting, arguing, and advocating for himself and his Leapee. Next week I’m going to look at “Shock Theater,” where he doesn’t even retain enough of himself to do that.
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.