Jan 18 2011 5:07pm

Quantum Leap: “Mirror Image”

Quantum Leap episode Mirror Image

“Mirror Image”: August 8, 1953
Original airdate: May 5, 1993

Visit the Quantum Leap Rewatch index

The final episode of Quantum Leap opens with Sam walking into a bar in Cokesburg, Pennsylvania, at the exact moment of his birth. He has time to order a beer and be visibly relieved that he’s not in a fight, standing over a dead body, in a dress, under arrest, naked, or kissing a stranger. Then, having caught his breath, he gets to work. You can almost see him thinking, “Who am I this time?”

He takes a good look at the bar mirror...and sees himself.

“Oh, boy!”

Everything in Cokesburg in 1953 is a little ka-ka, as it happens. There is a Gooshie in the bar with bad breath, but he's not the Gooshie of Sam’s home era. The town is a coal town, and some of the miners drinking in the bar appear to be people Sam saved on earlier leaps. They don’t remember him, though, and their names are different. Most significant, perhaps, the bar itself is Al’s Place. The resident Al isn’t Al Calavicci, though. It’s character actor Bruce McGill, who also guest-starred in the QL opener, “Genesis.”

The wrap-up of Quantum Leap is a chaotic unfolding of almost random events. Sam does right a wrong in Cokesburg—preventing a number of mine-related fatalities—but he does it in a peripheral, almost drive-by fashion. The true point of the episode is a sort of cosmic performance review that assesses his commitment to leaping. As he begins to believe that Bartender Al represents the agency jumping him around his lifetime—God, Fate or Time, as they sometimes call it—Sam is asked to accept responsibility for what has befallen him. Maybe he didn’t know what leaping would be like, but changing the past was his agenda from the start. The life he leads, with all its hardships, is the one he chose.

Seem harsh? Perhaps. But given Sam’s many talents and the choices they afforded him, and given too that he spearheaded a profoundly expensive U.S. government project just to give himself the opportunity to travel in time, it is a powerful, and perhaps valid, argument.

As the surreal scenes in the bar play out, the real Al and Gooshie are trying to locate Sam. There is nobody in the waiting room to give the Project Quantum Leap team a clue to his whereabouts. In time, Al does reach him, but it is a brief encounter: Sam is upset, and Al rushes off to try to find a way to help. Neither of them knows it, but it will be the last time they see each other.

The first episode of a new TV series is usually the one that come under the closest scrutiny from reviewers; at that early stage in a show’s life, everyone is wide-eyed and ready to be blown away. We are always eager for the next big hit, the show that will touch us and millions of others, that will seep into our collective awareness and build common ground even with strangers: shared jokes, favorite moments, and opportunities to connect. In the usual course of things, critics will have had a sneak peek at a show’s first episode, and may be generating buzz even before it airs. Viewers can see stills, snippets and clips on talk shows...and, now we can check out the possibilities online.

But though a premiere is crucial to a show’s survival, it’s not the only shot it gets...each week, at least while the ratings gods are kind, there’s a new chance to build on that hopefully-favorable first impression.

This is not to say that series finales aren’t events in their own right—remember how many people watched M.A.S.H. come to an end? But such moments are exceptional. By the time five years have passed and a show is winding down, there’s a real sense that its closer belongs, first and foremost, to its loyal fans—the people who’ve hung in while others have dropped away. The finale must say goodbye, forever, to its core audience, and it’s easier to blow it than to get it right. “Chosen,” the final episode of Buffy, mixed big revelations, a final battle, and a sense of closure very well indeed. And I’m probably not the only one who remembers a Tweetstorm of outrage and disappointment over the last episode of LOST.

How does “Mirror Image” stack up?

The episode is peculiar, opaque, and at times almost operatic. It was hoped that it would end a season, not the whole run of the show, and it shows—there was no groundwork laid for a more permanent ending in the weeks before it aired. The episode would have done very well as a season closer, I think. It set up the prospect of interesting new leaps: Al the Bartender hinted that everything was going to get much more challenging for Sam.

In the way of all finales, though, “Mirror Image” does wrap up a critical storyline or two. Sam gets to put a face on the force leaping him around, and to express his grief over the life that was interrupted by his experiment. And, ultimately, the story wheels around to one of the show’s central storylines: Al’s failed marriage to Beth. Sam puts things right for the couple before he vanishes forever into time. It feels only right, somehow, that he should do this.

Sam Beckett’s failure to return home also strikes, for me, an appropriate—if heartrending—note. He is a casualty of the war between good and evil, no less than Lord of the Rings’ Frodo. The inability of a hero to return to a normal life is a common theme in Western stories.

In fact, stories where someone has an earth-shattering experience and then does recede into the ordinary are rare exceptions to the narrative rule. (If you are looking for a beautiful example, Suzy McKee Charnas’s Beauty of the Opera or the Phantom Beast comes immediately to mind).

If there was one thing I would change about this episode, it would be that there is so little interaction between Sam and Al. They barely connect, they don’t discuss Beth and they don’t get a proper farewell. However, it makes a certain amount of sense. Through five years of leaping, Sam comes close to death on countless occasions, and more than once his fragile mental link with Al threatens to break. In theory, they’ve beaten the odds in staying connected for so long.

(As a writer I am also left speculating: would Al even be involved with the project if Beth hadn’t lost faith in her marriage? Perhaps in the new history, Sam has another Observer altogether, as he did in “A Leap for Lisa.”)

Oddball episode it may be, but “Mirror Image” does showcase many of the best elements of Quantum Leap: the optimistic concept, the utter decency of Sam Beckett, Al’s enduring loyalty, the painful difficulties of leaping, and—of course—a final, sincere and moving performance by Scott Bakula.

Am I perfectly satisfied with it? No, of course not. But can one ever be happy when saying goodbye to something they love?

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.

Brandon Daggerhart
1. TankSpill
This episode was extremely sad for me when it originally aired, and on the 2 occasions (that I remember) having seen it since its original airdate, it was equally sad. I miss this series so much, and though I understand what you're saying about the "casualties of war," it still was a bit too dark and depressing an ending (to me) for such an, over-all, light-hearted series.

Thanks so much for your blog on this overtime - I've never commented before today, but now I wish I had.
2. Franchesca
Thank you so much for this. Although I am not a writer this was a show that I loved and gave my imagination great flight. :)
3. RobinM
This finale makes me sad every time I see it. I wanted Sam to be happy dang it. Al finally gets to be happy, even if he does end up with as many daughters as he had wives. I call that cosmic justice. I always wanted Sam to Leap home at least someday; it's haunting when he doesn't.
4. Kvon
I still remember crying after watching this episode, and then having to go to work. In my mind, due to his charity to Al, Sam lost his Observer and had to do his continued leaping all alone, adrift in time. But he was heroic to the end, and that was a good thing.
5. JCHicks
"Quantum Leap" was the first show I ever loved that was not a cartoon. I rooted for years for Sam to finally go home. When he didn't, it was heartbreaking. Of all the television shows I've watched since then that ended in less-than-satisfying ways (Lost immediately comes to mind ...), none of the have come close to matching my disappointment at what happened to Sam.
Leilani Cantu
6. spanishviolet
I was sad Sam didn't get to go home, of course, but I loved this episode. He finally went back & fixed the moment I was angriest at him for, and Al got to be with his true love. Sam was a crusader - he seemed to live for helping people, and he got to keep doing so.

It seems like there are some aspects I didn't really think through fully, like him not seeing Al again or leaping on forever alone, but I haven't seen it more than once since it first aired, I don't think. Maybe I did think about those things way back when & have just forgotten ...
Chris Long
7. radynski
I said it at the beginning of your rewatch and I'll say it again... this was the best ending to any television show ever. Ever. Heartwrenching and terribly sad, but true and great because of it.

Also, I firmly believe that the bartender was telling the truth. He is not the "face" of the leaping. He was merely a guide to tell Sam that it is really Sam who is doing it. Sam is the one that controls his own destiny. Which is even more poignant when you realize that he could leap home anytime he wants to, but he refuses to accept that he is in control.

I watch this show over and over again, at least once a year since it originally aired, and I never fail to cry at the end. His whole conversation with Beth is possibly the best thing ever.
8. Ellynne
I always imagined Al returning but now mixed up on which daughter did/said something instead of which wife.

This episode feels incomplete to me. Not wrong, exactly. More like they only got to give half of the story they were planning, as if they had planned something that would give me the feeling of closure that they just weren't able to fit into this one.
Ian Tregillis
9. ITregillis
Great analysis!

I've only seen this episode once, when it originally aired, so my take on it might change when I watch it again. But I remember being generally satisfied overall with this finale. It seemed like the kind of ending the show had to have-- Sam doesn't get to go home, but he does get a chance to fix things for Al, and he does. What I found extremely touching was the way they recreated the Beth (?) scene from a much earlier episode. (Or so I seem to recall.)
Alyx Dellamonica
10. AMDellamonica
I love the idea of Al mixing up his daughters from now on! And yes, the recreation of the Beth scene is heartwrenching. Most of "Mirror Image" is heartwrenching, really.

I agree that the ending is darker than much of the series, which is more lighthearted. I tend to go for such things, and I like the final note. But if someone offered me more Sam and Al, I'd take them up on it in a heartbeat.

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