“The Leap Home” (Parts 1 and 2): November 25, 1969 & April 7, 1970
(Original Air Dates: September 28, 1990 & October 5, 1990)
Think of going back to your teens. Of revisiting your school-aged self with the wisdom and hindsight of adulthood at your command. Of repairing some long-remembered adolescent damage, be it excruciating humiliation or a harrowing tragedy. It’s a compelling idea, one that pops up in fiction time and again. Think of the film Peggy Sue Got Married. Or even a Twitter hashtag that was going around just this past week: #tweetyour16yearoldself.
Sam returns to the Thanksgiving of his sixteenth year in the first part of “The Leap Home,” to a time when the two most important men in his life—his father and his brother Tom—have yet to meet premature deaths. He’s in Elk Ridge, Indiana and he knows, instantly, what he needs to do: get Dad to adopt a healthier lifestyle, and convince his sister not to marry an abusive drinker. Oh—and there’s also a small matter of convincing Tom to somehow ditch his obligation to fight in the Vietnam War.
As Al insists that the true mission is to win a basketball game the younger Sam lost against Bentleyville, he hides his father’s cigarettes, and tries to convince his family that doom is nigh. All he gets is chaos: an angry father, concerned mom, little Katie in hysterics. As failure looms, Sam reaches again for the possibility of deliberately failing at a leap. If he stays, he reasons, he’ll have years to work on saving his dad and sister.
Instead, Al convinces him to enjoy the moment—to accept the Thanksgiving leap for the gift it is, a chance to be with the people he loves most, to celebrate the big family holiday and, perhaps, let go.
But letting go proves harder than it seems, and in the end he extracts a promise from Tom to hide on the fateful day of his death…which is where Sam leaps next, right after the ball game is won.
In “The Leap Home: Part 2 (Vietnam),” Sam is “Black Magic,” Williams, the African American lucky charm of his brother Tom’s Navy SEAL squad. And once again, the point of Sam’s leap is once again not to save his brother, but to see that the mission that killed him succeeds.
The cruelty of timing of these two leaps is obvious. To be put within reach of his family, not once but twice, to be with Tom at his most vulnerable moment and then to be told to ignore his impending death...it is impossible to believe that anyone could possess that much strength of character. This utterly theatrical dilemma makes for great television, whether it’s facing James T. Kirk of Star Trek as he’s learning that Edith Keeler has to die, or a certain vampire slayer in her Season Two finale. Kirk and Buffy know the consequences of choosing love, and they each make the terrible sacrifice demanded of them.
Sam, on the other hand, saves Tom...and it’s only then that he finds out that not only is there a heavy price for Tom’s life, but he’s not the one who’s paying it. The ax falls on a reporter, Maggie Dawson (based on war correspondent Dickey Chapelle, and played with earthy verve by Andrea Thompson) and on Al, who was one of the prisoners Tom’s unit was supposed to be saving.
Viewed objectively, Sam comes off rather badly in these episodes: he puts Al’s marriage second to the needs of the leap in “M.I.A.” Then he rails about the unfairness of it all, threatens to quit, and only just comes through at the Thanksgiving basketball game after Al gives him a much-deserved whack with the reality stick. Finally, having been given a fresh chance to redeem not only Al’s marriage but his imprisonment, he throws it and an innocent life away.
But, genius or no, Sam is only human. He’s scarred by loss, and who can fault him for not being Buffy. It isn’t the world at stake, of course, he doesn’t get to enjoy a new life with a longer-lived family, and he doesn’t know Al’s freedom was on the line.
What’s really amazing about this string of episodes is that Al forgives him.
I have raved about Scott Bakula a fair amount already in these Quantum Leap rewatch posts, while saying less about Dean Stockwell. He’s stuck in a doubly unforgiving role: not only a sidekick, but an insubstantial one. He gives good comedy value on his recurring character bits: the cigars, the woman-chasing, shouting at Ziggy, and his well-intentioned but ultimately useless tendency to yell at bad guys when Sam’s unconscious and in trouble. It’s easy to underestimate him, especially when Bakula gets to make subtle character adaptations every week, as he leaps from man to woman to chimpanzee.
Dean Stockwell received an Emmy nomination for this episode, and he earned it.
It cannot be denied that this pair of actors has terrific chemistry. Sam’s emotional openness calls for the good-tempered toughness of an Al. After all, Sam opens almost every leap with a tantrum. “Hey! Where am I? Where’ve you been?” In episodes like “The Leap Home,” Stockwell gets to do more than leer at women and argue leap probabilities. When he’s looking his lost love in the face, or letting Sam off the hook for years of imprisonment and torture, the knife goes right into the viewer’s heart.
By the time the two leap out of their own pasts, moving on to Philadelphia in the Sixties, both men have relived their old heartbreaks. Al embraces acceptance. Sam doesn’t, but thanks to his Swiss Cheese memory, he slips into merciful forgetfulness. As for the fans, we are left with renewed appreciation for how much is at stake with each of Sam’s leaps, a heightened sense of the difference he makes every time he mends some stranger’s broken past.
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.