“M.I.A.,” April 1, 1969
(Original air date: May 9, 1990)
Sam’s tendency to throw out the time travel rulebook—the one he wrote himself—is nowhere in evidence in “M.I.A.,” a visit to San Diego in 1969 that opens with our hero in a dress but—Happy April Fool's Day!—not a woman’s life. Instead he is Jake Rawlins, an undercover cop in San Diego. Jake’s the new guy on the squad, paired up with a seasoned pro who’s been targeted by a vengeful drug dealer... but Sam doesn’t find that out for a good long time, because he’s also at the exact place and time when Al’s first marriage fell apart.
In “M.I.A.,” audiences learn of Al’s long imprisonment in North Vietnam. He was missing in action for nearly seven years, and his wife, Beth, lost hope and married another man. With Sam suddenly so close to the fateful first meeting between Beth and her second husband, Al instantly assumes the point of the leap is to keep the two apart, and for Sam to restore Beth’s faith in his eventual return in 1975. So, under his direction, Sam ignores both his policing duties and his endangered partner until the truth comes out. It is only then that he’s able to wrench the leap back on task, convincing Al that “something more important” might be at stake, and arriving in time to save the day.
“M.I.A.” is the second season finale and it, along with the two-part season three opener, “The Leap Home,” is truly the heart of Quantum Leap. Dean Stockwell’s performance is masterful: Al’s face as he realizes where and when Sam has ended up is unforgettable. As his attempts to rewrite his own history are systematically thwarted and the old memories resurface, his desperation grows. He plays Sam, but gently, because he knows that the truth won’t get him anywhere. When he fails to change anything for Beth, when all he gets is a chance to say goodbye, he accepts defeat with exceptional grace.
The other thing that makes this episode especially compelling is that Beth Calavicci, played by Susan Diol, is portrayed with immense compassion. This is no callous abandonment of a marriage she wasn't invested in: she is deeply conflicted as she tries to convince herself that Al is dead and she can allow herself to move on. She’s sweet, dutiful, and charming, but she’s also tough: in a few short scenes, she convinces us that this is a woman with real mettle, someone who only gives in because her situation is intolerable.
In recent years, “M.I.A.” has also been the banner episode for a controversy about the DVD release of the show. Like many series, Quantum Leap's DVD incarnation included substitutions to several songs played in various episodes. This practice, which is pretty much standard for TV on DVD, triggered a storm of complaints from fans. They pointed out, rightly, that not all of the substitutions were matched correctly with the dates of Sam’s leaps, and some were laughably inappropriate (the “Disco Inferno” selections come to mind). But the musical change to the ending of “M.I.A.,” in which and Beth slow dance to Ray Charles’ “Georgia,” raised the most ire. There was no other song that would have fit, of course, and the song title is mentioned within the episode. For some, this alteration to one of the show's most profoundly emotional scenes bordered on sacrilege. (You can see the scene with the original music here.)
That said, viewers who focus on Dean Stockwell’s bravura performance in this scene can still find plenty to love. And “M.I.A.” might be called a mirror image for “The Leap Home,” where the idea of “something more important” arises to bite Sam where it hurts, and where he learns an even harder lesson.
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.