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Quantum Leap's Original Series Cliffhanger Finale Explained
Sam’s still out there…but did it have to be this way?
For a show as beloved in its own time as Quantum Leap, the episode that brought the whole thing to an end remains a bitter pill for fans. The body-swapping time travels of Dr. Sam Beckett (Scott Bakula) closed on a fizzling cliffhanger in “Mirror Image,” the 1993 series finale that dashed out a hasty explanation for all those lingering, leapin’ loose ends.
With the original series airing on SYFY as part of SYFY Rewind and currently available to stream on Peacock, the time is right for a memory refresher on how Sam and holographic sidekick Al (Dean Stockwell) parted ways with the sci-fi series that made for absolute appointment viewing back in the day at NBC. After all, it’s been 29 years since “Mirror Image” first aired…not to mention however long that same time has felt for Sam, who’s been leaping nonstop ever since.
Not necessarily known for being among Quantum Leap’s best episodes, “Mirror Image” still managed to break new ground when it comes to series lore. In the process, it also did put a too-tidy bow on things, flashing a closing title card (one that famously spelled Sam’s name wrong) that tersely explained that he never found his way home, choosing instead a fate of unceasing leaps across endless eras and places.
The plot of “Mirror Image” gives Sam the chance to right a wrong that hits close to home: Saving the union of Al and his first love Beth; a marriage that ended in the series’ original timeline, thanks to a wartime mix-up in which Beth remarried after believing her first love to be dead while he was a prisoner of war. Earlier in the series Sam had a chance to tell Beth, but chose not to, for fear of altering the original timeline. Sam regretted it ever since. Though Sam’s 1969 leap into Beth’s living room proved to be the finale’s main event, it came at the end of some of the most surreal events ever to unfold in Quantum Leap, all occurring earlier in the episode in a different time and place.
Sam’s initial leap to start “Mirror Image” places him at a coal miners’ bar in 1953 Pennsylvania, falling not only on Sam’s birthday, but possibly even at the precise moment of his birth. The episode takes its name from a Quantum Leap first: Sam gazes into the mirror behind the mysterious, more-than-he-seems bartender (played to perfection by Bruce McGill), sees his own reflection, and realizes he’s made his first-ever leap as himself — rather than jumping, as he always had, into another person’s body.
Tons of uncanny conversations and coincidences follow, all with strangers who appear oddly well-informed about Sam’s former leaps, all with familiar names and faces from prior adventures. All the bar banter seems to be building steam toward some hidden revelation, before Sam finds himself summoned to intervene when a workplace emergency breaks out at the nearby coal mine. McGill’s all-but-omniscient bartender (whose name just so happens to be ‘Al’) suggests Sam can return home anytime, and that he’s really been traveling under his own force of will all these years. It’s a sobering thought; one that Sam can’t fathom on its surface — though it helps him muster the resolve to correct the one missed connection that matters to him most: leaping back to Beth’s living room in 1969 to let her know the real Al isn’t dead.
Rather than show viewers the happily ever-after result of Sam’s last series leap, the episode ends in wordy exposition: The infamous title card appears, informing viewers that Beth and Al indeed stayed together (and even had four daughters)! As for Sam, fans were treated to the underwhelming info dump that he never returned home, remaining in the flow of time to leap wherever history needed him.
To serve as a series finale, “Mirror Image” felt a little rushed at the time, thanks to the late decision not to renew Quantum Leap for a sixth season (and perhaps give Sam more breathing room to properly find his way back home). An alternate version of the finale was planned; one that changed things up enough to function as a Season 5 segue into Season 6 rather than put a final a bow on the entire series. You can check out more on that alternate ending here; in the meantime, tune in to SYFY Rewind’s Friday marathon of Quantum Leap episodes (including “Mirror Image”) or watch the original series in full on Peacock.