Warning: This episode of Quantum Leap deals with racism in the 1950s American Deep South. The “n-word” is used a few times to describe one of the episode’s black characters. The word “Negro” (an archaic term to describe black people) is also used throughout. Viewer/reader discretion advised.
THE QUICK AND CLEAN SUMMARY:
Sam leaps into the body of Leonard Dancey at the moment he must plea on behalf of his client, Delilah Berry, a black woman in the Jim Crow South, who stands accused of murder. Based on looking in her eyes, he chooses to plead not guilty.
Sam discovers that she is accused of murdering the son of the most powerful man in town. Believing that a cover-up is afoot, but with a client unwilling to talk, Sam is able to ascertain that his client and the other witnesses have all sworn an oath to tell a lie designed to protect the true killer – the murdered boy’s own mother. Sam calls the troubled mother to the stand whereupon she confesses to pulling the trigger. Sam secures an acquittal for his client.
Sam leaps after getting a promise from her that in lieu of paying him a fee, she will learn to read.
THE EXTRA DUSTY RECAP AND REACTION
Sam narrates that life is about making the right choice at the right time. He leaps into what appears to be a lawyer in the 1950s. His client is a black woman named Delilah Berry and she is accused of murder. Without knowing innocence or guilt, but with one long look in her eyes, Sam makes a choice and tells the judge that they are pleading not guilty.
In the judge’s chamber, the prosoecutor complains that he and Leonard/Sam had a deal wherein Leonard was going to have his client plead guilty and the prosecution was going to charge her with second degree murder and twenty years in prison. Leonard/Sam violated that deal when pleading not guilty, so the prosecutor is now seeking a first degree murder conviction and the electric chair for Sam/Leonard’s client, instead.
Sam is being asked why he changed his pleading by the judge. Al has now arrived yet to fill him in. Sam says “Miranda” and the judge and prosecutor do not know what he is talking about because Miranda Warnings did not exist in the United Stated prior to 1966. The judge tells us that Delilah signed a confession to the murder. He suggests that Sam/Leonard should plead her guilty and take twenty years instead of the death penalty. The judge insinuates that Leonard is having a relationship with Delilah and that this is effecting his decision-making. Sam leaves the judge’s chamber and declares that the prosecution will have to prove their case.
Sam is driven home by a man everyone calls “Captain” and Sam has decided that he is the man who runs the town. The murder victim, Houston, was his son. The Captain is trying to determine why Sam pled not guilty. After Sam snaps at him about using the n-word, Captain comes to the conclusion that the judge came to earlier. He thinks Sam/Leonard is having a relationship with Delilah. As he drops Leonard off at his house, he warns him to think carefully about what is best for everyone – and especially himself. It is clear that this warning also serves as a threat.
At his home, Sam meets Leonard’s wife. She lets us (the audience) know that she is racist by the way she describes Sam’s client. However, she is also excited about the prospect of being famous. She was elated to The Captain himself dropping Sam off. She says she is baking Sam a pecan pie and she further says that she will let him “play Rhett Butler tonight.”
Sam narrates that he avoided “Scarlett O’Hara” all night by reading case briefs. Al finally arrives the next day. He lets us know that the real Leonard has been too terrified and uncooperative to help with the project’s information collection. Al and Ziggy believe that Sam’s mission is to play Rhett Butler. Sam rejects that and tells Al that his mission is to help Delilah Berry avoid the electric chair. Al tells Sam that this is not a problem because she pleads guilty to a lesser charge and serves 20 years. Sam then informs Al that he already pleaded not guilty. Sam says that there is no chance that if Delilah had actually murdered the son of the most powerful man in town that she would have been allowed to make a plea deal.
Sam talks to Delilah and asks her why she signed a confession. She says that she has not been innocent since she moved into the Captain’s house.
I am Delilah, the harlot temptress of the Philistines, who bewitched the golden boy of Twelve Oaks and murdered him when he scorned her love.
She then insists that she killed Houston and asks the guard to return her to her cell. Sam then goes to Sheriff Dixon’s office to obtain a copy of Delilah’s signed confession. After getting the run-around, Sam finally threatens to get a U.S. District Attorney to subpoena their files, and then the locals begin to cooperate and provide him with the case files.
Delilah’s confession states that she made wild sexual advances at Houston, for years, and when he finally rejected her for good, she “blew his head off with a shotgun.” He then goes to the Captain’s home to speak with Myrtle. On his way to Myrtle, though, he first talks to Sadie Cotter, the Captain’s wife. She tells Leonard that she has not seen him since the right he had with Houston in High School and that she tells Sam that she told Houston he was not right in that. After telling Sam where to find Myrtle, she makes a strange statement about her flowers. She says the Calla Lilies are dying. Sam says that he is sure they will come back when the weather changes. Obliquely she says that sometimes she feels that they will never come back.
Sam speaks with Myrtle – a black woman who also works at the Cotter home. He learns that on the day of the murder, Houston and Lila had been fighting “like two possums in heat.” He learns that Lila loved Houston but wanted to leave him. Houston did not want her to go. Sam learns that Lila has been beaten and raped since she was fourteen and that this was “love” as far as her experience was concerned. On the night of the murder, from the other room, Myrtle heard yelling, things breaking, the gunshot, and Lila’s scream. Myrtle saw Houston’s body on Sadie’s imported rug… with no face. HE HAD NO FACE.
Myrtle refuses to testify, though. “I can’t be no witness.”
In the courtroom, Sam is still trying to get Lila to talk to him as the trial is beginning. She does not. Sam stands to speak and we hear him narrate, “Oh God, help me.”
Sam is asked by the judge if the defense is ready. Sam says it is not. He then says “I cannot go on” – at which point Al arrives. Al is wearing… something. Red Fedora. Red (baggy) suit paints. A white button down shirt with a red, black, and white striped tie. A black vest. In any case, he tells Sam to ask the judge if he can approach the bench. At the bench, Sam asks the judge if he can go to his chambers, alone, to fix the zipper on his pants. The judge gives him three minutes.
You can’t expect a man to plead a case with his fly open.
Once they are private, Al assures Sam that he and Ziggy will help him mount a defense. He points out that they must start with jury selection. When Sam comes back out, he objects to the fact that there are no black (the judge corrects him to say “negro”) jurors. The prosecution objects and cites the fact that there has never been a negro impaneled on a jury in Louisiana. The judge overrules the objection. However, before Sam can celebrate, the judge points out that in order to be a juror, you must be registered to vote. He then lets Sam (and through him the audience) know that there are no “Negros” registered to vote in the Louisiana Parish where they reside.
Sam turns the tables once more.
Well, that being the case Your Honor, since the law requires a trial by jury of one’s peers, we have no choice but to reluctantly accept these white jurors as Lila’s equals.
The jury poor murmurs in shock. The Captain and the judge glare at Sam. And for the first time, Lila looks at him… with consideration. We see the case proceed though. Sam narrates that the prosecution’s case unfolds like a play – with everyone saying the same words. He notes though that none of their stories match the story he heard from Myrtle.
Sam argues to the judge that Lila’s confession was made under duress. The judge asks her if that is true and Sam objects and says that she cannot answer unless she is under oath. Privately, Lila tells him she will not swear on a Bible and she will not take an oath. Sam then asks the judge, then, if she can see her confession now and attest to its veracity. Sam hands her the confession and asks her to read it. She tells him that she cannot read.
During a break, Sam talks with Al about the need to convince Lila to testify. Just then, Sam/Leonard’s wife approaches (umbrella, big hat, wearing gloves – the picture of a Southern belle.) She offers him potato salad for other people to hear. Once private, though, she tells him that she has never been more mortified in her life.
How can you say that colored whore is equal to a white person?
[Sam is looking understandably… rage-y.]
Sam tells Leonard’s wife that her name is Lila, or Ms. Berry, and “you will refer to her as that in my presence. And even if you’re not in my presence.” Of course, that stuns her. Sam then picks up the lunch from the picnic blanket and tells “his wife” that he is taking the food to Lila “if she’ll have it.” Leonard’s wife is again stunned.
[Note: Was this a thing? I do not mean racism. Obviously the disgusting racism was a thing. Was picnic outside of Southern Courthouses during recess for lunch a thing?]
Just then, the Captain approaches Sam/Leonard and his wife (her name is Sugee.) He tells Leonard that if persists in his current course of action, he will see to it that Leonard has no more legal clients.
Sam returns to talk to Lila. He gets her to admit that Houston raped her. She says that she and her mother buried seven of her brothers and sisters before Miss Sadie took her in to the Cotter home. As a result, she was not going to do or say anything that would lead to her returning to the place from which she had come. She further says that if it was rape, “it was only [rape] the first time.”
Sam starts reading the confession to her. Lila becomes upset when she is told that Houston allegedly begged for his life “in the name of Jesus.” She finally admits that the confession is a lie. She cries on Sam/Leonard’s shoulder. The Bailiff walks in to see this and says “oh, Leonard.”
Back in the courtroom, Lila once more insists that she will not testify. The judge then says the written confession is admissible. The prosecutor reads it aloud to the jury.
Sometime later, alone in the courtroom, Sam talks with Al. Sam notes that Lila will not swear on a Bible because she absolutely will not be able to lie once she does so. He concludes then that she is protecting someone else that she values more than her own life.
Just then, Myrtle finds Sam “praying.” We learn that the Captain made Myrtle swear on a bible not to share what she saw that night on penalty of going to hell. Sam then reads Myrtle Galations 5:7-10: “Who hindered you from telling the truth? Whatever persuasion he used it did not come from God[…]I am confident you will not take the wrong view but the man who is unsettling your mind, whoever he may be, must bear God’s judgement.”
Back in court, after arriving late, Sam says that the defense would like to call Mrs. Sadie Cotter. This causes a commotion including a specific outburst from The Captain. Sam has obtained a subpoena and a Federal Marshall in order to get Mrs. Cotter to testify. His trip to Baton Rouge, to obtain those things, is why he arrived at court a few minutes late. Moments later Mrs. Cotter comes into the courtroom and asks her husband why he is shouting. She says “Miss Lila needs my help.”
Lila asks Sam/Leonard not to do this because Mrs. Cotter is not well. With tears in her eyes, she says that she shot Houston by accident in self-defense. On the stand, Sam asks Mrs. Cotter if Houston used to beat Lila. The prosecution objects. Mrs. Cotter replies,
Now hush up boy, the milk is spilled, let’s just get it over with.
She tells the courtroom that what happened that night was her fault. She says she gave Lila money to leave and start a new life. They were together when Houston came home from hunting. Houston saw that she was leaving and then he and Lila began to fight. He was beating her so severely that Mrs. Cotter became worried he was going to kill her.
That’s when I picked up the shot gun… it was so loud it made my ears ring.
Mrs. Cotter concludes her story by saying that Lila didn’t steal the money and that she will see that Houston tells the truth of that as soon as he comes home from hunting.
The entire courtroom sits in a stunned silence. Uh, so do I.
Sometime later, Sam is talking with Lila at a bus station. She is going “wherever $100 can take me.” She says that Miss Sadie saved her life, twice, and that she hopes she never remembers what happened. Lila begins to tell Sam her plans to pay for his legal service and Sam tells her that if she learns to read, he will consider the debt paid.
Once she makes the promise to learn to read, Sam leaps away. He leaps into a man who is in make-up, and set to take the stage in mere seconds for his part in a musical. “Oh boy!’
I would be pretty happy if Quantum Leap does not revisit the 1950s Deep South again. I understand that this history is real and that it needs to be remembered. But seeing it? It’s vile. The Captain is vile. Leonard’s wife is vile. The real Leonard is also apparently vile since we learn that he regularly said the same things his wife is saying in the episode. But I think it’s worth remembering, though, that “opting out” of that environment (which is what I wanted to do as merely a viewer of this episode) was not possible for the people who lived through it. An episode of TV, like this one, is to try to help most of its viewers (predominately white Americans in the late 1980s) imagine something for which they have no personal frame of reference. One other goal of an episode like this is to remind that audience – with no personal frame of reference – that this did not happen all that long ago.
Given how I felt about almost all of the white people in this fictional Louisiana town, it was satisfying to see Sam call them out throughout the episode. The quip he made about “reluctantly accepting” white people as his client’s equal was a particularly satisfying moment. Sam did a good job throughout the episode of remembering exactly how far out his boundaries are to issue his verbal slap-downs without also wrecking his mission. He toes the line really well.
One bit of the story-telling that I found notable was the reverence that Myrtle and Lila had for the Bible. “The Captain” even weaponized their faith against them to keep them quiet. I am wrestling within myself about how to feel about it. Women who revere the Bible so much that they would completely surrender their ability to lie once an oath is taken on it… *those* women do not know what is in the Bible to such a degree that Sam changes Myrtle’s mind in 15 seconds by reading 3 verses from Galatians? That just felt too easy to me.
Overall I enjoyed the episode – however hard it was to get through at some points. I actually audibly gasped twice. The first was for the revelation of what happened to Houston’s face. I mean… yikes. Did we need that detail to be such a dialogue focus? The second gasp was for Mrs. Cotter’s mention of picking up the shotgun herself. I was right there with everyone in the courtroom on that one. I had (apparently wrongly) believed Lila’s “confession” to Sam that she killed Houston in self-defense when she was trying to talk him out of making Mrs. Cotter testify.
It looks like the next episode is going to lean into levity a bit more. See you then.