Quantum Leap, Season 5, Episode 21, “Mirror Image”
Written by Donald Bellisario
Directed by James Whitmore, Jr.
Aired May 5th, 1993 on NBC
For a few years in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, Quantum Leap was the rarest of genre series- a sci-fi procedural with good ratings that was well received by critics, and actually got nominated for (and won) Golden Globe and Emmy awards. Crazy. It’s overlooked by many younger genre fans today, but Quantum Leap was a fun, interesting, and influential show – and it also has one of the most controversial final moments of genre television. What often gets lost when discussing those memorable words, “Dr. Sam Becket never returned home.” is just how great of a finale “Mirror Image” really is.
“Mirror Image” opens where so many Quantum Leap episodes do, with Sam leaping into a new body. The opening scene sets the mood quickly and effectively, with Sam buying a beer for 15 cents, his first sense of when he’s leaped to. The scene takes its time, with Sam exuding the confidence that comes with five seasons-worth of leaping, until he sidles up to the bar, looks in the mirror, and sees himself. Bakula’s performance here is fantastic. It’s easy to forget just how long it’s been since Sam saw his own face, how disorienting and painful it must be to always see a stranger looking back at you. There’s joy, there’s confusion, there’s weariness- it’s a lovely moment that sets up everything that’s to follow.
Bruce McGill, who guest stars as the enigmatic barkeep Al, makes an impression quickly. He’s a beacon of calm reassurance. With his eyes firmly locked on Sam’s face for most of their first conversation, at the bulletin board, it’d be easy for Al to read as menacing, but McGill and Whitmore keep him a curious, yet benign presence throughout. As the familiar names and faces mount, Al has an answer for everything, always watching Sam while he gives reasonable, but unsatisfying explanations. The set for the bar is initially very atmospheric, but after a while, particularly when Sam and Al are alone, it has a staginess that fits with the Godot-like metaphysical conversations they start to have. This bar, and its inhabitants, become more and more obviously a reality constructed by Al to help Sam eventually make the choice he does at the end of the episode.
One of the strengths of the episode is how quickly Sam pieces this together. He has no evidence for his theory that the bartender is God (or Fate or Time) besides his gut, but he sticks to his guns and is eventually proven correct. He also immediately calls Al on his assertion that Sam controls where he leaps. As we’ll learn at the end of the episode, Sam will get to choose his next leap, but only as a sort of balm to help him mentally prepare for the hard road ahead; he hasn’t controlled his leaps before and he won’t control them after. Giving Sam certainty about Al and his experiences leaping empowers him. He knows himself, he knows this bartender is trustworthy if mysterious, and when given his choice to go home, he knows what he has to do.
Special mention should be made, by the way, of just how out there of a finale this episode really is, particularly for its time. Quantum Leap broke their format many times throughout their run, but Bellisario easily could have gone with a more conventional ending. Instead, he makes the final installment one that explores not only our main character, but the relationship between Sam and Dean Stockwell’s Al, the meaning of life, the nature of leaping, and the toll it takes on our usually quippy lead.
There are several aspects to this finale that one could critique. Dean Stockwell is almost entirely marginalized. Yes, this is Bakula’s show and Al is a supporting player, but Quantum Leap has been a buddy comedy for most of its run- sidelining one half of the main characters for almost the entirety of the finale is a bold and potentially foolish move. There are also some rather striking stylistic choices that date the episode. The voice over used partway through is painfully on the nose and jarring and the flashbacks are lengthy and give a clip show feel to their preceding and following scenes (the episode would have benefitted tremendously from a, “Previously on Quantum Leap…” montage containing these moments, but this was before these became commonplace). These products of their time can be forgiven, though, thanks to the power of the episode as a whole, much of which comes from the final minutes.
Once Al (our Al, that is) finds Sam, he becomes concerned, as Sam appears troubled and confused. Both Bakula and Stockwell play this well, reminding the audience of their bond. The other Al has steered Sam into remembering his decision not to intervene to save his friend’s marriage (in the season 2 finale, “M.I.A.”), and these two scenes lead to the final memorable one in Al’s bar. As we’ve seen Sam assert, and as Al eventually seems to concede, Sam has had no control over his leaps. He’s the victim of a temporal experiment that went wrong. The whole finale has been leading to this moment, and in his conversation with God, or Fate, or Time, Sam chooses to continue his journey. He chooses to help people and not rest, to keep leaping, though he is weary and desperate to go home. He could return to his wife, but instead sacrifices his life with her to give his best friend a life with his love, Beth.
Bakula is tremendous in this scene. He nails the conviction, the exhaustion- he makes Sam a Christ figure by channeling doubt and despair rather than the nobility of the moment. McGill remains a steady, anchoring force in his final scene as well, giving Bakula the space he needs to bring Sam around to his choice. We don’t end there, though. Bellisario could have; the story still works. However the episode would have had a completely different feel if Sam’s tearful decision were the last scene, followed by the closing text. Instead we end on a happy note, one of celebration as Sam puts right what he once let go wrong. This doesn’t change with the information that, “Dr. Sam Becket never returned home.” Sam chose this life. He chose to continue to help others. All this tells us is that he never stopped. Many fans felt gut punched by this, perhaps because of how moving Bakula’s performance is when Sam talks about wanting to return home, but for this sci-fi fan, the series could have ended no other way. It’s a beautiful ending to a fun and at times hugely moving series, and it’s one more genre fans of today should revisit.