It’s interesting how our memories deceive us. I was sure I knew when these episodes aired and what season they were in, but I was so completely wrong. I thought my favourite episodes were closer to the end, when the show was wrapping up, but it turns out they were at the end of season 2 and the beginning of season 3, and were ultimately wrapped up in season 5, while I thought the separation between episodes was only a matter of weeks, not years. On the show, however, the separation would have been one of weeks or months, after all, given the time travel situation going on.
For those of you who’ve just joined us, Quantum Leap was about a scientist, Sam Beckett, who postulates that we can time travel within our own lifetimes. In his excitement to prove his invention, Sam jumps into the machine before it’s been fully tested and starts the whole show. He does travel in time, but he does it by jumping into the lives of other people, living in their bodies, looking like them, with their minds in his body back home. He also can’t remember much about his own life before the machine. Somehow, the scientists back home figure out that when he lands in someone, he needs to fix history somehow, before he can move on (which looks like a big, flashy light that takes him away and into another body). The goal is to make it home, to stop jumping into other people’s bodies, and get back where he started. There’s a lot of other stuff in there: he’s got a friend named Al, a holographic projection of an actual guy from the future, Sam’s present, who’s invisible to almost everyone else, and who gives him historical information to help complete his task. The basics are that Sam is lost in his own timeline and wants to get home.
The episodes I’m discussing here have Sam more directly affecting his own life, even living in the younger version of himself. He also affects Al’s life. Al’s history is that he was a POW in Vietnam, and that he’s been married so many times he doesn’t remember the actual number. In the final episode of Season 2, called M.I.A. and whose date is April 1, 1969, Sam jumps into the body of someone known to a woman named Beth Calavicci, and Al can’t quite tell him what the mission is. There was always a certain amount of uncertainty with these things, there was usually a certain percentage chance in most instances (eg: 85% chance you’re supposed to stop this guy from robbing a bank, etc.), but something about this was off. Al told Sam that his mission was to convince Beth to wait for her husband, who was MIA, and he was pretty adamant about it, but Sam got a distinct feeling it was about something else. It turns out that Beth was Al’s first wife, to whom he was married when he went missing in Vietnam, and the true love of his life; if only Beth had been there for him when he got home, he never would have married anyone else.
Sam puts his foot down and says he really needs to do what he’s there for, and I honestly can’t remember what it was, and he gets it done, but he doesn’t disappear the way he usually does. For some reason there’s a big, flashy light delay, and Sam thinks it’s for Al to say good bye. Beth hasn’t moved on yet, in her timeline, hasn’t had him declared dead, hasn’t remarried, so she’s as sad as Al that they’re not together. She puts Ray Charles’ Georgia on the hifi and dances alone. It’s definitely their song. Al, who’s essentially a ghost, dances with her, tells her how he feels, and as he says goodbye, Beth says his name, as if she knew he was there. That moment was the reason I wanted to name my daughter Georgia, should I have ever had one. Somewhere down the line, some lucky cat will get the name instead.
At the beginning of the next season, Sam gets a little of his own tough love when he actually jumps into the body of his younger self. The first two episodes of season 3 are called The Leap Home, parts I and II. Just as Vietnam was an overarching theme of Al’s life, Sam, too, is affected by the war; his older brother, Tom, died in Vietnam. So when Sam finds himself as himself, on November 25, 1969, he thinks this is his opportunity to save his brother. Al tells him he’s supposed to help his team with the basketball tournament because it improves the lives of almost everyone on the team, but Sam wants to stay with his family and save them from their own consequences; Sam’s father dies from illness related to smoking, Sam’s sister married an abusive jerk, and Tom dies in Vietnam. Sam resolves to be honest with them, but basically freaks them all out. His sister begins to believe him when he plays her a John Lennon song she’s never heard before and the whole family is upset with his forecasts of doom. Like Al in the previous season, he realizes he can’t have what he wants, and he helps his team win their game, only to find himself in the body of someone nicknamed Magic, in his brother’s army platoon in Vietnam.
Dated a few months later, April 7, 1970 he thinks he’s got another chance to save his brother, as his brother was supposed to die April 9. Al tells him that he thinks the plan is to save some POWs, and maybe it was—again, I can’t remember. There’s also a photo-journalist, Maggie Dawson, played by Andrea Thompson (she’s been in a ton of stuff, but to me she’s always Talia Winters from Babylon 5), who’s effectively embedded with the platoon and is hot in pursuit of recognition back home, telling “Magic” that she’d sell her soul for a Pulitzer, as they move through the jungle. Sam needs some historical help to figure out what his mission is, so he convinces Tom to bring her along on the mission so that in the future they can read her story, but Al tells Sam that Maggie’s going to die on the mission.
An ambush is laid for the platoon by a Vietcong agent who posed as a defector, and they’re not able to save the POWs, in part because Al helps save Tom rather than the POWs. Maggie is killed but it turns out she won a posthumous Pulitzer for one of her photos of the POWs. When Sam looks at the photo, he sees that it was Al, who stayed in captivity for years after, and who knew the mission was to save him. Al proves himself selfless; he asked Sam to ask Beth to wait for him, but Sam wouldn’t, but when confronted with saving himself and going home to Beth, he gave it up so Sam could save his brother. I kinda hope Sam felt really bad about that. Anyhow, in a freaky part at the end, April 9 comes, and Tom puts his arm around Sam and says, “It’s April 9th and I’m still alive. Thanks to you, little brother.” At that moment, the big, flashy light sends Sam to his next destination. It’s unclear if Tom is referring to Magic as his brother in arms, or if he actually thinks it’s Sam. When Sam went into his machine, his brother was dead; now his brother is alive, and would know before Sam left that he had saved his life. It’s a little timey-wimey for me.
As for the last episode, a bunch of stuff happens in that season that leans the show rather heavily toward the metaphysical. Sam discovers some saloon with an unusual bar keep, and while there, sees someone else in the bar disappear in a big, flashy light. He realizes this is what happens to him when he leaps, and that there are others like him. The bartender seems to be some kind of higher power, but whether for good or ill, it’s hard to say. He tells Sam that he can go home anytime he wants, but that he must believe that what he’s doing is more important, or he’d have gone home already. Sam is devastated to learn that part of what’s keeping him leaping is his own subconscious, and as he had recently learned something of his actual personal life, he consciously really wants to stop the leaping already. Eventually, he accepts the ‘reality’ of his situation and the bartender moves him to the next level of his existence; Sam will continue to leap, but now it will be as himself, advising people directly and no longer pretending to be other people. In restitution of previous acts, the first place he goes is back to Beth, moments after she has finished dancing with Al, and tells her to wait for Al, that he is alive and will be coming home to her. Sam foregoes his own happiness to help Al and one of the last images of the show is a photo of Al and Beth and their family.
I’ve always been fascinated with shows about history – not necessarily historical shows, but shows about history itself and how it’s different on the other side of the line. Most people see history from their own perspective, obviously. Sometimes how we remember something is at least as important as what really happened. I thought these episodes were at the end of the run, in part because they really affected me, when in actuality, most of these shows were smack in the middle of the series. I’ve looked at old diaries and emails and been, frankly, horrified at exchanges I’ve had with other people; either I’ve remembered an event completely incorrectly, or I’ve not remembered it at all. How does that happen? How can I have no memory of something that clearly occurred? I also feel terrible when an event that’s had resonance in someone else’s life eludes me entirely. Man, I feel really bad when that happens because I’ve been on the other side of a remembered life changing event that had so little significance for the other person that they have no idea what I’m talking about.
This fascination with the ‘how’ of history is also related to my predilection for fiction dealing with consequences. Quantum Leap, while not the deepest well to go to, does discuss how our actions have repercussions, and that maybe the way things went is not how they should have gone. If we could fix it, would we? Sam has the opportunity to fix Al’s life, but doesn’t, and Al, faced with the same option, doesn’t hesitate to help Sam, even at great personal cost. Sam’s not wrong to want to do what he’s supposed to do, because he wants to get home, but Al knows he won’t get home if he helps Sam, and helps him anyhow. Only later does Sam fix his mistake, but it seems like it’s been following him the entire time.
Our lives are learning, and sometimes teaching, experiences. My reaction to some early life decisions, and my later feelings about them, changed the way I behaved with every single person I encountered after. I felt I hadn’t treated someone well, and even though I was a child at the time, I’ve never truly been able to forgive myself for it and I’m unable to fix it because that person died when I was still young. I’ve tried to have compassion for most people because most people need it. That was one of my learning experiences.
One of my teaching experiences was after my father’s funeral, when someone I’d never met before told me she felt bad because in her last conversation with my father, harsh words were exchanged. She wanted me to tell her it was okay, that he certainly hadn’t carried bitterness about it, but knowing my father, I was fairly certain that wasn’t the truth. He wasn’t a bad person, but he could carry a grudge. Anyhow, maybe this is a learning experience too, but rather than comfort her, this woman who wanted me to make her feel better at my father’s funeral, when she told me she thought she’d treated him poorly, instead of metaphorically patting her on the head, I said to her, “All you can do is be nice to people all the time and then you don’t have to worry about feeling that way.” Her face went first to shock, then anger, annoyance, reflection, realization, and acknowledgment. At least, that’s what it looked like to me. Maybe she never actually got past annoyance, who knows? I probably could have had more compassion for her right then, but it didn’t really feel like my job right at that moment. If I had both of these memories/events to repair, I’d only repair the first one.
Of course there are others I’d change, and while I haven’t been able to change the past, I have apologized for it. I had four apologies to make in my life and I made three of them. The fourth one, the guy turned into such a dick over time, I thought he’d be able to deal with whatever I did to him at the age of seventeen. The rest of them, though, I’m glad to got to say what needed to be said, mostly because people carry hurt with them, and sometimes it’s important to know that the person who hurt you feels bad about it. I’ve heard it said that apologies only serve to help the person who’s apologizing, to let them lessen their burden, and maybe they should hurt a little for what they’ve done, and that’s probably true, but doesn’t it help to know that the person who caused the damage also lost something in the explosion? Our memories of our hurt changes when we know that the one who caused it actually feels bad about it, and lets us move on, hopefully leaving our grudges behind us. Lucky for me, the hurt I caused wasn’t awful or devastating and the reactions ranged from laughter and acceptance to a genuine discussion of the past. Of course, if there are others who’ve been hurt by my actions and I have no idea, that would totally suck. I’d feel really bad about that.
Quantum Leap was wish fulfillment. Sam repaired mistakes made and loves lost. We could see other paths and how a different choice leads to a completely different result. There is no destiny. I also liked how the stories were about ordinary people and rarely anyone famous – everyone makes decisions and those decisions lead to repercussions that change history. If only we could all go back and fix our own.