Author of the QL novel "Foreknowledge"
Through the Looking Glass
Ever since beginning DeFlip Side, Ive intended to do a column on the Quantum Leap episode Mirror Image. But Ive held off for two reasons: first, it would be very specialized, and therefore appeal only to readers who also happen to be serious QL fans, a limitation I didnt want to impose on myself or my audience; second, it would necessarily have to be very long and detailed, as there is very little extraneous material in the episode that doesnt bear directly on the plot and ideas that Don Bellisario carefully constructed.
But here we are, with only four columns left to go. So Ive decided to say screw the general reader. Ive been wanting to get these thoughts down for a long time and if youre not sufficiently versed in the QL universe to appreciate them, then thats your too bad. Go see what Roo has to rant about this month, or the exact things E has to say, and leave me alone.
If however, you love Quantum Leap, and are still scratching your head over just what the hell happened in the series finale, I think I have it figured out for the most part. And I harbor none of the hatred the majority of Quantum Leap fans have for the episode. In fact, I think it was one of the most wonderful endings to a series Ive ever seen, and an especially fitting and touching close for my favorite show of all time.
As I feared, this column is long--in fact, the longest one Ive ever done. And its excessively detailed. But the devil is in the details, as they say, and never more so than in this episode. I found the most expedient approach to deconstructing it would be an act by act summary/analysis. I hope you stick with it until the end; it might just change your perspective...
TEASER--The Ultimate Oh, boy!
The episode starts out innocently enough, though from that alone we should realize this is no ordinary Leap. Instead of some ludicrous or embarrassingly compromising situation, Sam finds himself in the doorway of an ordinary looking bar. After minimal conversation with the bartender, Sam looks into the mirror to see none other than his own reflection. Oh, boy!
ACT ONE--Time is funny here...
Reacting to Sams shock, the bartender asks Sam how long its been since he took a good look at himself. Sams journey of self-discovery is already beginning. When he replies that its been a while, the bartender tells him Let too much time go by and youll lose touch with reality. The statement is cryptic, and loaded with implications of whats to come, but innocent enough for Sam to let slip without notice.
Sam steers the conversation, trying to figure out the date--reverting back to the behavior that has become second nature upon Leaping in. The bartender remains closemouthed. Here Bellisario is setting up behavior that will become one of Sams primary stumbling blocks as the episode progresses.
Sam turns to the newspaper and finally sees the date: August 8, 1953. Thats the day I was born., he muses. Looking up at the clock he says, I was born at twelve-thirty in Indiana--forty-three minutes from now. To which the bartender replies, No seventeen minutes ago. Times a little funny here. To say the least. Of course this is followed with a seemingly rational explanation about the town not going on Daylight Savings Time, but Sam is shown that he cant rely on what seems perfectly obvious. Its the second concrete clue that hes been removed from reality as hes come to know it. His reply: Then I was born about the same time I walked through that door... From an outsiders perspective, Id say he was born the EXACT time he walked through the door; a symbolic rebirth, if you will. Conquering death (i.e.--rebirth) is a common archetype in both the Hero and Shaman myth cycles--either of which the character of Sam Beckett can easily fit into. It also symbolizes that all bets are off; were dealing with a new level of Quantum Leaping, evident by the fact that Sam is himself.
Enter Gooshie. The name is familiar to Sam, yet the bearded old man doesnt fit his preconceived notions of who Gooshie should be--except for the bad breath. I always saw this as God, Fate, Time or Whatever (GFTW) as having some fun with Sam, or perhaps trying to jog his memory of a man he may or may not be swiss-cheeseing about.
Either way, upon learning his name, Sam shoots out the door after the little man and sees the first of the dopplegangers hes to encounter throughout the Leap. Two boys are working on their bikes outside the bar. Sams gaze lingers on them, but he cant place them. Viewers can recognize them as Sams sons when he leaped into bigamist Martin Ellroy in A Tale of Two Sweeties.
Turning to go back into the bar, he sees its name, written in huge letters on the front window: Als Place. Walking into the bar, he begins to put things together. He starts pumping Al for information, confronting him with the identical names, and familiar faces of the boys. But unlike the Observer, this Al gives up nothing, forcing Sam to try and figure it out for himself.
In walks Stawpah, the first character with no apparent relationship to Sam. But that doesnt stop him from weighing Sam with his suspicious gaze and pronouncing judgment: You no miner! Sam confirms that he isnt, and Stawpah proceeds to tell his life story. At this point it sounds like the ramblings of an old man, though Stawpah only claims to be forty--younger than Sam! Only later will his back story become relevant.
Stawpah is interrupted by Sams next reality-shattering experience, in the form of Tonchi walking through the door. Only Sam knows the man as Frank LaMatta. Of all the people whose lives hes Leapt into, Sam is likely to have whole memories of Frank and Jimmy LaMatta, since he Leaped into Jimmy twice. Jimmy was also a favorite of Als, so its a good choice for GFTW to make.
Overcome with joy, Sam rushes over and hugs him like he would a brother, and calls him Frank. To which Tonchi responds like any of us would if a stranger tried to hug us, pushing Sam away and asking him who the hell he is. Sam says Jimm... before remembering himself and going silent. Stawpah is all over this, recalling Sams true name.
Now both men eye him with suspicion. Sam responds by giving his true name, but persists in asking about Tonchis brother. He does indeed have a brother with Down Syndrome, but his name is Pete, not Jimmy. Leaving for the mine, Tonchi tells Al to put his drink on his tab. Ever suspicious, Stawpah again speaks up, saying Sam may be with the states liquor control board, insistently demanding to see Sams ID.
As Sam pulls out his wallet, he receives more concrete proof that hed stepped out of time: Velcro. If his wallet wasnt enough, his holographic mug shot stares up at him from his futuristic New Mexico Drivers License (expiring in 1999). Sam quickly puts it away, saying that he doesnt need to show them any ID. Stawpah almost incites Tonchi to take it by force, but Al intervenes. Tonchi leaves, and Sam is left to marvel at the drivers license as we finally get a look at whats going on at Stallions Gate, NM, in 2000.
Al and Gooshie (the ones Sam is looking for) finally make their first appearance, and both are as baffled as Sam is, and can only come to one conclusion: hes leaped into himself. And that being the case, theres no way for them to find him...
As confusing as it is upon first viewing the episode, Act One lays down some ground rules and sets the stage for the drama that will unfold. We see Sam thrown into an environment that is deceptively simple, but where every memory or instinct leads him astray. Its as if GFTW is telling him to forget what he knows, forget his preconceived notions of how things should work. Its time to learn a new set of rules...
ACT TWO--Youre not where you come from.
At the outset of this act, Sam echoes this burgeoning realization, as he says hes surrounded by faces both strange and familiar. As if to taunt him, the TV in the corner is airing Captain Z-RO! a show about a research scientist who travels in Time and Space.
But he has little time to dwell upon the irony, since hes introduced to yet another familiar-yet-unfamiliar face. Moe Stein, a.k.a. Captain Galaxy, whom Sam knew in his Leap into Future Boy, plops down next to him. Only Moe, who introduced the idea of the String Theory to a young Sam Beckett, is called Ziggy in this strange place. Not only that, hes completely illiterate.
Its yet another reversal of everything Sam has come to accept as established truth. Instead of a brilliant parallel-hybrid computer that can grasp the intricacies of time and space, we have a Ziggy who cant utter a single sentence without mispronouncing a word. There is an initial shock, after which Sam dwells in serious thought.
We encounter our first shift on POV here, and its significant that its Stawpahs. He speculates with Al that Sam is not who he pretends to be. When Al asks who he is, Stawpah says that when he figures it out, then hell know why Sam is there. Its the first inkling we get that Stawpah is seeing some larger picture that has yet to reveal itself, our first clue as to why the man is so relentlessly inquisitive about Sams identity and purpose. Most telling is this exchange with Al:
Not only does this exchange begin reveling the true nature of Als Place, but it also jogs Sams memory of his first leap when the Observer give his explanation of why Sam found himself inhabiting the body of Tom Stratton years in the past (Youre part of a time-travel experiment that went a little... ka-ka.).
Thought turns to action, and Sam pounces on Al for more info, saying he knows an Al who says ka-ka, and its not a common expression where he comes from. Al remains obstinate as ever, curtly reminding Sam that youre not where you come from. Not giving up, Sam asks the familiar question Why am I here, Al?
In response, the bartender produces a punchboard loaded with chances to win fifty bucks...and the answer to Sams question. Sam eagerly punches a roll of paper out of one of the slots and unfolds it to reveal two cherries and a lemon. He again asks, Why am I here Al? Upon learning that Sam has not hit the jackpot, the bartender shakes his head and replies, I guess youll have to figure that out for yourself Sam.
Its another lesson preparing Sam for whats to come, meant to wean him off his customary reliance on the ready answers Al and Ziggy usually provide. Its as if the bartender is saying that maybe, one time in a million, someone will tell you exactly what you need to do in life, or in any given situation, but youll mostly have to stumble along and figure things out for yourself.
A sudden series of sharp blasts from the mine whistle sends everyone running out the door. Sam follows, with Ziggy explaining that it means theres trouble in the mine. Upon arriving, they learn that Tonchi and Pete (ie, Frank and Jimmy) have been trapped in a mine cave-in.
Throughout this act, Sam is striving to move from reaction to action as the rules of this strange, new reality settle on him bit by bit. But he remains largely and uncharacteristically at the mercy of those around him. This theme persists into....
ACT THREE--Who knows what Don Quixote can accomplish?
Upon learning that Tonchi and Pete are trapped, the miners want to descend the shaft immediately to get them out. The mine superintendent, Collins, prevents them from doing so, worried about the mine catching fire, saying theyre likely dead already.
Stawpah takes the lead here, authoritatively insisting that the brothers are still alive. When Collins spots Sams unfamiliar face, Stawpah steps in and says hes the State Safety Inspector. Its vital to note here that Stawpah is driving the action forward, not Sam.
When Sam asks Stawpah why he named him as safety inspector, Stawpah replies, I need to find way to get them out this time. NOTE: Stawpah said this time, as if hes tried unsuccessfully to get them out before. Most people Ive spoken with gloss over this exchange, taking it to mean that Stawpah has been in similar situations in his mining past. But I think he means it very much in a literal sense, as if hes tried and failed to rescue Tonchi and Pete from this exact same situation many times before.
He goes on to describe the what Tonchi and Pete are experiencing underground--the darkness, the rising water, the fear. When Sam asks how he knows all this, Stawpah replies, I been there, too many time before. Even Sam misses the import of this statement, taking Stawpah to mean that hes experienced similar disasters in the past. But I maintain that Stawpah means he repeatedly been in this exact situation.
Back at the bar, Al opens up a bit, realizing that Sam is starting to see the bigger picture, and tells him that hes not there to save Tonchi and Pete, not directly. Sam asks How about indirectly? Als reply: Who knows what Don Quixote can accomplish?
At this point Sam begins to intimate that the bartender may be God. Al denies it with a laugh.
Stawpah, who has been listening to the conversation, tells Sam that if he wants to help Tonchi and Pete, he should continue playing the safety inspector. And thanks to that act, Sam fools Collins into letting the men down the shaft to mount the rescue effort.
While waiting to learn of Tonchi and Petes fate, Sam has yet another conversation with Al the bartender, this one focusing on Al Calavicci and the deep relationship he and Sam have formed.
We learn of Sams regret in not being able to reunite Al and Beth during a previous leap ("MIA"). Thinking back on it, Sam realizes that the failure was largely due to that fact that he always plays by the rules. Accompanying this statement we see something in Sam that we dont often: regret.
This is a significant revelation for Sams character, because he always strives to do the correct thing, and mostly succeeds. But does correct necessarily mean right? Its a question hes been confronted with at various times throughout his years of Leaping, but never in such black and white terms, and never with so much time to mull over an answer. Who, indeed, knows what Don Quixote can accomplish, if he would just think outside of the rules for once?
As hes pondering this question jubilant miners burst into the bar, ushering Tonchi and Pete with them. Ziggy congratulates Sam on his ploy as mine inspector, to which Sam replies that it wasnt his idea, but Stawpahs.
He looks at the gnarled miner in time to see the man raise his Pepsi in salute, give a smile that transforms his face to pure joy, and Leap, leaving no one in his place.
ACT FOUR--Sometimes, Thats the way it is is the best possible explanation.
Sam (along with the viewer) is left with his jaw hanging open. His confusion is compounded by the fact that no one else seems to remember the old miner. Then it dawns on him: Stawpah was a Leaper!
The alternate Gooshie reappears as this point to say that he knew a Stawpah (apparently the same one) who was killed in a mine explosion twenty years earlier.
Sams narration mirrors his confusion (and ours), My Leap had taken a quantum twist. I no longer knew what was real and what was imagined. And, if imagined, whose mind was imagining it...mine or someone elses?
Heres where the script puts forth ideas Im still trying to figure out:
The old Gooshie sidles up besides him and sips at a shot. Sam looks at his reflection in the mirror and it is a completely different man, younger, with no beard.
As I said, Im still trying to figure out the implications of this scene. From what I can gather, Stawpah was indeed dead, and so, most likely, is Gooshie. I dont take it to mean Sam is dead, however.
From the outset of the series, the premise has been that something reached in an took control of the project, since termed God, Fate, Time or Whatever. Given this fantastic supposition, is it any more fantastic to take the logic one step further and suppose that when he breached the barriers of time, Sam became an instrument of GFTW who, up until that point, had been using only the dead to do the work? I dont really know if that holds water, but its the best Ive been able to come up with based on the dialog between the characters.
Before the viewer can digest this bizarre turn of events, however, we receive the ultimate doozie: that Sam has been Leaping himself, and that technically he could go home any time he wants to, as long as he can accept that he controls his own destiny. Of course, Sam balks at that notion. But Al persists, saying Sam will do this (Leap through time) only as long as he really wants to.
Again, the implications are huge here. This would mean that despite Sams longing for home that weve been privy to over the last five seasons, there is some secret part of him--one that not even he knows about--that wants to Leap on and on. So perhaps GFTW has been shepherding Sam up until now, sending him where he was needed so long as that desire to keep Leaping remained (whether Sam knew about it or not). Of course this is pure speculation on my part, but it seems to best fit the facts weve been presented with.
Seeming to be sinking under the weight of these revelations, Sam is finally permitted a familiar life preserver on which to cling. Al (the Observer) finally establishes a neural lock. The relief and joy that floods Sams face upon seeing him shows just how fortuitous the timing is. The friends rush outside.
Al is proceeding under the assumption that this is like a normal Leap, but before he can say much, Sam bursts forth with the news that he thinks the bartender is GFTW, or something theyve never even thought of. Further conversation reveals that Stawpah was Als uncle, adding further fuel to this confusing fire.
Despite my high regard for this episode, I wish there was a more meaningful interchange for this, the last conversation we see between Al and Sam. Sam is mainly rambling in shock and Al is mainly confused by the weird things Sam is saying. Its totally realistic and keeping within character, given the circumstances under which theyre finally able to meet. But it provided a poor send off to the relationship was the shows mainstay for five seasons. It wasnt fair to us, nor was it fair to Sam or Al. But thats the way it is.
In fact, you could see Bellisario setting the stage for Als actions for a season six that never came to be. His last words to Sam are: I want you to take it easy until I can figure this out with Ziggy. Im going to get you out of this Sam. No matter what it takes. Im going to get you out of it. We know through five years of experience that Al will keep his word or die trying. But for now, hes out of the equation.
As the Observer disappears behind the Imaging Chamber door, Al the bartender comes out into the night and sits with Sam. Now that he sees Sam beginning to understand the truth of his situation and accepting its implications, hes more open than ever:
There you have it; total acceptance by Sam of his situation. His choices are laid out before him: You can go home, or you can continue to do more good, working solo in tougher and tougher Leaps, without guidance from Al or Ziggy, most likely breaking the rules that have guided you up until now. You may never fully understand how things work (as you did with Project Quantum Leap) and people wont remember you after youre gone (like Stawpah)--but thats the way it is. Sams choice is the crux of the entire Leap.
I want to say now that I dont think Al the bartender is supposed to be God. I tend to think Sam was right when he said it was something they hadnt even thought of. And Als Place is obviously some sort of testing ground for Leapers (living or dead) who must pass a test before theyre allowed to go to the next level. Presumably, Stawpah had repeatedly failed that test until Sam came along. Thats why he was the one driving the actions that led to the rescue of Tonchi and Pete. And Gooshie (and GFTW knows who else in the bar) is currently undergoing his own trial.
Instead of Leaping home right away, Sam (being Sam) chooses to help his best friend. Al the bartender even seems a bit surprised by this; surprised and proud, as if Sam didnt disappoint his expectations, even though hed earned the right to do so.
When the blue light fades, Sam finds himself standing in Beths living room as shes dancing to Georgia. Sam informs her that Als alive, and coming home.
Zoom in on the picture of young Al, which Leaps, leaving a black screen. In one version of the ending, the photo becomes an older shot of Al, surrounded by Beth and four girls. But in the aired version, a set of captions serves to inform us that Beth never remarried, she and Al have four daughters, and they are celebrating their 39th wedding anniversary in June.
Then up pop the six little words that have made this episode the object of passionate and everlasting hatred for Quantum Leap fans the world over:
Dr. Sam Beckett never returned home.
To me, those words symbolize the best and happiest ending possible for Sam. Everybody seems to think that by helping Al, Sam sacrificed his chances for going home, or that something or someone (an evil bartender?) has forced him to keep Leaping forever.
Obviously Sam never returned home because he chose not to. It was stated time and time again in the episode that Sam is the ultimate master of his own destiny. That being the case, he can Leap home any time he wishes. Instead, he keeps on Leaping because he wants to continue to do good, to help people and put right what once went wrong. Given the man we have grown to know over five years of Leaps, the decision is in perfect keeping with his character. Its what Sam would do, no matter what the fans may want. And Don Bellisario was right to allow the character to stay true to himself, despite the negative reaction he knew it would bring.
And for those of you out there who are still wearing your sack-cloth and ashes, wailing and gnashing at Sams lamentable fate, think of the alternative: a schmaltz-fest in which Sam returns home, an over-the-top happy ending that would have worn thin after about three viewings.
What we have now is so much better. Even after all these years, fans are still passionately discussing and debating this episode. And since Sam isnt home, that leaves the door open to further QL stories, where we might see if Al can be as good as his word. It still baffles me that there hasnt been a post-"Mirror Image" Quantum Leap television movie, especially since Don Bellisario, Dean Stockwell and Scott Backula have all said that theyd be interested in doing it. Given the increased original production slate over at the SciFi Channel (which is the only media outlet still airing QL reruns), Im surprised theres nothing in the works. Perhaps when JAG gets canceled, well hear some good news.
Despite how you may feel about it, "Mirror Image" represents nothing less than an evolution of the Quantum Leap universe, and took the series premise great strides forward even as it was coming to a close. Yet it remains largely underappreciated and misunderstood by fans who feel somehow cheated that their hero never returned home.
To this I say, Quantum Leap was never what anyone expected from the outset, so why should the ending be any different? Get over yourselves and try watching again with an open mind. Put yourself in Sams shoes and start thinking like the character, instead of a bunch of whiny fanboys (or girls, as the case may be). You might just find yourself pleasantly surprised.
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