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