Welcome back to my episode-by-episode recap of and reaction to Quantum Leap. The spoilers ahead are only through this episode. I provide a short summary at the top, a long and much more thorough recap below that, and a reaction section at the bottom.
My previous episode recaps can be found HERE.
THE QUICK AND CLEAN SUMMARY:
Sam leaps into George Washaskie, a young Native American man, who must help his dying grandfather, Joseph, escape from jail. Al tells us that Sam’s mission is to get Joseph to the reservation so that he can die there.
Sam wrestles with whether he should allow Joseph to choose death, but ultimately decides to let him make that choice. First, Sam and his grandfather escape jail. They steal a truck outside the jail. They eventually steal horses when the road to the reservation ends, and they ride the horses across a rugged mountain pass to get to the reservation. For most of the episode, Sam and Joseph are being chased by the Sheriff from whose jail they escaped. At the river border between the reservation and Nevada, Joseph and the Sheriff exchange gun fire with Joseph taking a serious injury. Sam talks the Sheriff into letting him cross the river with his grandfather and Sam leaps when Joseph dies moments after making it across the river.
THE EXTRA DUSTY RECAP AND REACTION:
I am such a big fan of the intro sequence with the female narrator. It’s just so epic. It makes such a difference in getting my brain ready to watch this show. I cannot explain why… it just does.
The episode starts with Sam taking a punch to the face from a middle aged white guy wearing a bolo tie and sporting a belt buckle. After a few punches, Sam finally decides to hit him back. A second guy then hits Sam from behind and they both grab Sam and toss him inside a jail cell with an older Native American man.
Jailer: He slipped.
Inmate: It looks like you slipped, too.
Sam is bleeding. He gets up off the bed, washes his face off in the jail sink, and then looks into a mirror.
Sam: Oooh, boy. I’m an Indian!
Inmate: It coul be worse. You could be a white man, eh? [laughs]
The inmate in with Sam tells him that Sam stole a truck. He might not be getting out of jail anytime soon. The old man, who was in on the robbery with him, tells Sam that they were not planning to keep the truck. They were just borrowing it. The old man begins suggesting that they break out of jail.
Sam: We can’t break out of here, it’s against the law.
Inmate: Do you want to spent the next ten years in here eating food off of trays like in the nursing home?
The following morning, the older inmate is singing. When a guard comes to the cell, he asks “where’s George?” and the older man tells him that he is gone because he turned George into a raven. When the guard asks why he did not go with him, the older man says that he can only turn into a wolf and that he is too big to fit in between the bars. The guard comes into the cell to look around. Sam/George comes out from his hiding spot and knocks out the jailer. Sam and the other inmate then leave through the open cell door.
As they leave, they knock out a second guard. Then they leave through the front door of the jail. As the guard they knocked out in their cell yells at them through the cell’s window, Sam and the older man hot wire a truck and drive away.
As the jailers prepare to go search for George (Sam) and Joseph Washakie (the older man), a woman enters the jail and asks for them. She tells the Sheriff that her grandfather needs to get back to his nursing home because he is ill. She then asks to go with the Sheriff to find her brother and grandfather and he says no.
Sam is driving Joseph down a deserted highway in Nevada. When he sees a state highway sign for Nevada, finally letting him know where he is located, he says “Nevada!” out loud. Joseph, his grandfather, starts singing.
J: Where the wind comes sweeping down the plain.
S: That’s Oklahoma.
J: Pretty good, though, eh?
Joseph has a coughing fit and Sam pulls the truck over. Sam listens to his breathing and concludes that he has emphysema. Sam wants to take him to the hospital to get him oxygen. The older man says no to the hospital. Al appears outside of Sam’s truck window.
Al tells Sam that Joseph is a full-blooded Shoshone Indian. George/Sam had not seen his grandfather since he was fourteen years old, until the previous day when Joseph escaped from his nursing home in a stolen truck. George’s sister Suzanne had placed Joseph in the nursing home and she is a school teacher. As Al prepared to tell Sam where and when they are, he is surprised that Sam knows they are in Nevada in 1970. When he prepares to tell Sam what his mission is, Sam interrupts and says that he is here to save Joseph’s life.
Al: No. You’re here to help him die.
Sam and Al argue over whether taking Joseph to where he was born, to let him die, is a moral decision. Joseph – who had walked away from the truck to relieve himself – returns and interrupts them by saying “a good life deserves a good death.”
Sam tells him that he should take him back to the nursing home to be with his family and friends.
J: What family? There’s only you and Suzanne?
S: Well, what about your friends?
J: My friends are here. The sun. The sky. The wind. The earth.
He compares himself to a bird and asks Sam if a bird would like to be put in a cage when it is near death. Joseph walks away. Sam and Al begin to argue again because Sam is not yet convinced that taking Joseph to the Reservation is the right choice. Al points out to Sam that a man with a badge is pursuing them and that if he catches them, the last thing Joseph will get is adequate medical care. Al speculates that they will both likely be shot.
Sam sees how far down the road Joseph has walked and chases him down on foot. He agrees to take him to a reservation but insists that Joseph see a doctor when they get there.
On the road, Joseph sees a truck stop and insists that Sam pull over. Inside, Joseph asks the cashier if they have any buffalo hides. He says no but that they have really nice blankets. Sam and Al reminisce about enjoying stores like this when they were young. We learn that Sam/George’s father died when George was 21 – the same as was the case for Sam with his real father. Joseph puts a blanket on the counter. When it becomes clear that neither Joseph nor Sam/George have money, Sam pulls a pistol from his jacket pocket. The cashier tells them they can have the blanket. Sam says that they are not going to rob him, they want to trade with him.
Back in the truck, Sam has made an oxygen tank with tube for Joseph to breath through. Joseph is listening to his favorite NFL team – the Redskins – through a handheld radio. They beat the Dallas Cowboys which pleased him in particular.
Suzanne talks to Sam and Joseph through a CB radio. Sam answers her and says that they cannot go back or they will go to jail. She then talks to Joseph and tells him that she wants him to attend her wedding. He is surprised that she is getting married. Suzanne then says she is not getting married but she will someday and that she wants him to be there.
Joseph replies to her, asking when the last time was that a white man kept his word with them. He then says he will not come back and die like a worm in some white man’s hut. He has a coughing fit when this conversation ends.
Sam asks Joseph if the road goes over the mountains into the reservation and Joseph tells him no. He then tells Sam that they will go home together on horseback. They stop their truck in front of a house with two horses nearby behind a fence.
The Sheriff finds their truck with a note left beneath the windshield. The note says that they have not stolen the horses, only borrowed them. The note further says to the horses’ owner that he or she is free to use their (stolen) truck. The Sheriff relays this information back to the station and Suzanne overhears.
As Sam and Joseph ride through a mountain pass, Joseph stops to paint tribal society marks on his face. Al appears and tells Sam that he is part of a Shoshone war party. After Joseph puts paint on himself and on their horses, he hands paint – which he stole from the store earlier – to Sam because he stole the horses, too.
After the painting is done, Al tells Sam the best way to go through the mountain pass. Abruptly though, we hear a crash and Sam appears to be shot from off his horse.
In the next scene, we see Joseph firing a gun at the Sheriff from a distance. He misses and then retreats back to where Sam is on the ground. Al tells Sam that his wound is not bad – just a skin injury along his ribs. Sam tells Joseph that they need to attempt to get out of there before nightfall and the Sheriff traps them where they are.
Joseph fires a couple of times on the Sheriff to force him to take cover. When the Sheriff emerges, Sam and Joseph are gone. We see a montage of the slow chase, with both sides leading their horse slowly through steep mountain passes.
At nightfall, Sam collapses from exhaustion. He and Joseph take refuge in a cave for the night. Sam is not sure that Joseph will make it through the night. Al says that he better make it or Sam will not leap out of here.
Joseph calls Sam over to him and tells him that they need a fire. He says the fire will not be seen if they make it small and toward the back of the cave.
We see the Sheriff outside with binoculars. He appears to see them from a distance.
In the cave, Joseph begins singing a Shoshone tribal song to produce a fire. Al is excited. He has been excited about every aspect of Joseph’s tribal heritage throughout the episode. Joseph then dramatically pulls out a cigarette lighter.
Your dad used to fall for it every time. You miss him don’t you.
Joseph asks Sam if he believes he will see his father again. When Sam says no, Joseph explains the afterlife. Joseph compares human beings to grasshoppers. He tells Sam that all of life is a series of leaps for us grasshoppers.
Sometimes we see where we are going. Sometimes we don’t. Have you ever leaped?
Joseph then says he wishes that they had some hot dogs.
Some time later, we see the Sheriff charge into their cave hideout. There is a fire and the handheld radio in the cave but Sam and Joseph are already gone. The following morning, Sam – now with some face paint – and Joseph are talking about the history of the tribe. Sam suggests that Joseph should fight to stay alive so that he can preserve the memories of their people. Joseph replies that nobody wants those memories and that nobody has the heart for it.
They go to the cities and take jobs in factories. Or become school teachers.
Sam and Joseph are now within sight of the reservation’s border. However, as they start to ride, Joseph collapses and falls off his horse and into the snow. Sam checks on his shoulder and says that “there’s a break there.” We cut to the Sheriff trailing on them and seeming to gain on them.
In the next scene, Sam is leading Joseph’s horse by hand. Joseph is recounting stories that his father told him about being chased by soldiers in the Plains Wars of the 1870s. He says he used to envy his father but now he is not so sure.
Sam tells Joseph that he need to continue fighting to live once they reach the reservation because he has so much to learn from him.
J: There is only one thing you have to learn. That freedom is the greatest gift we are born with and the hardest thing to hold onto.
Suddenly Suzanne somehow appears and catches up with them on horseback. She tells Sam/George that he should not have taken their grandfather from the nursing home. Before Sam can really explain to her that he is taking his grandfather so that he can die on his own terms, the Sheriff becomes visible from a distance, too. Sam tells his sister to get their grandfather across the river. He leaves alone to deal with the Sheriff.
J: George! Are you gonna scalp him?
J: Oh. Too bad. If ever a man deserves scalping he does.
We see the Sheriff raise his rifle to shoot at Joseph and Suzanne and Sam jumps and tackles him to the ground. After wrestling around for a while, Sam gets the upper hand and pulls a knife. Al yells for him not to do it. Sam then cuts off a piece of the Sheriff’s hair.
Al: I thought you were really gonna scalp him.
Sam: I was.
Suddenly Joseph fires a gun in Sam’s direction and we see that the Sheriff is sitting up with his gun in hand. The Sheriff shoots Joseph off of his horse. Sam runs over to check on him and Suzanne gives him water.
J: There’s nothing worse than warm water. Do you like football?
Suzanne: I don’t watch that much grandfather.
J: You should. ‘Cause the Redskins are the best damn team in America.
He asks if they made it and Sam tells him not yet. He picks up his grandfather. The Sheriff yells that if George crosses the river he will shoot.
Sam gives a monologue to the Sheriff about his grandfather wanting to die with dignity. After thinking about it, the Sheriff puts down his gun.
Sam is carrying Joseph across the river. Joseph asks Sam, who is now crying, if he likes the Redskins. Joseph dies shortly after they get him across the river. Sam leaps.
In this episode, Sam learns that there are some things more important than life. For Joseph, dying with dignity in the place where he wanted to die was that thing.
To a large degree, the point of Quantum Leap is to demonstrate life inside someone else’s skin and someone else’s circumstances to an audience that for the most part identifies with Sam’s life and experiences. Through that exercise, we (the audience) are provided insight as to how our humanity expresses itself in various ways when life’s circumstances are not our own. Typically, we are left with a positive appreciation for how people handle their own unique challenges.
In this episode, Sam is Native American. Back in 1990, it was still acceptable nomenclature in the U.S. to refer to Native Americans as Indians. If you’re offended by that, just be forewarned. The episode – like a lot of shows that have had a Native American themed episode – leaned into the idea of sacred wisdom and loss of cultural memory.
What was good?
Frank Salsedo’s portrayal of Joseph was great. Joseph is, for lack of a better word, ornery. Juxtaposed with his serious beliefs, and the imminence of his death, the orneriness made him quite likeable. The way that Frank delivers his lines throughout the episode, it is never completely clear whether or not he is joking about something. For some reason, that made those lines funnier to me. He is constantly making jokes at the “white man’s” expense with a wink and a smile so that they do not come across as mean-spirited or from a place of anger. It’s ribbing the way you might deliver ribbing to an old friend.
Probably the most memorable line from Salsedo in the episode was when he asks Sam/George if he is going to scalp (!) the Sheriff. It was so shocking that it was funny. The way that Salsedo delivered the follow-up line – “Oh. Too bad.” – made me further believe he was just telling a “shock humor” type of joke. However, after a pause, he says in a more serious tone that the Sheriff deserves scalping. You do not quite believe him about the last, but you do believe that the Sheriff is a bad guy. Somehow you come through that whole exchange feeling somewhat bewildered, clear, and also finding Joseph endearing.
Again in the cave, Joseph is having a serious moment with Sam, singing a tribal chant about starting a fire, and then he abruptly pulls out a cigarette lighter to start the fire. He cackled that Sam/George’s father always fell for that trick, too. Frank Salsedo did a really masterful job of creating a completely believable character that had genuine depth of belief and simultaneously did not take himself or the world around him very seriously in any given moment. I just really enjoyed the performance.
What else was good? Al. I enjoy when Al gets excited about what’s happening at work. He *loved* this leap. This episode was also one of the rare cases on the show where Al’s moral clarity in a situation was, err, more clear, than Sam’s. He understood Joseph right away.
What was bad about this episode?
Sam slowly embracing the world view of George’s grandfather was fine… right up until he almost decided to actually scalp the Sheriff. I mean… what?! If he’d cut the Sheriff’s hair and built on Joseph’s joke, that would have been one thing. They could have bonded over that. But… he actually almost scalped him! If Al had not been there to talk him down, who knows. 1) That’s way out of character for Sam, and 2) this was the one moment in this episode that felt genuinely racially offensive. What’s the message with that scene… learn a little bit about a tribal worldview and you become dangerous and unstable?
What else was bad?
The Sheriff went fully Inspector Javert chasing his two fugitives down and we have no idea why. I mean, at least Javert gave us some music to let us know why he was feeling what he was feeling. With the Sheriff’s motivations being so foggy, when he opted not to shoot Sam/George in the back as he carried his grandfather across the river, we did not know what he overcame internally to put his gun down. He was perfectly willing to shoot them in cold blood from a distance for most of the episode.
We know that Suzanne heard on the radio which way her brother and grandfather were going. We can assume that she set out off camera sometime after learning that information. What we do not know is how she managed to catch up with then despite starting MUCH later. We also do not know how she got past the Sheriff unseen. It made no sense.
One area where the show’s age demonstrates a mindset change since 1990 (or its setting of 1970) is its use of the running gag that Joseph is a HUGE Washington Redskins fan. His fandom is somewhat surprising from a modern perspective wherein we know that the franchise ultimately changed its name due to its perceived insensitivity. It’s somewhat jarring to see someone who you might expect to reject the name embracing it so fervently.
That said, jarring or not, the show’s portrayal of a fictional fan’s sentiment was not misplaced or misleading for the time. A Shoshone in 1970 or 1990 could realistically be a fan of the American football team of that name and take no offense to that name. Thirty to fifty years ago, the name “Redskins” was not widely perceived as a pejorative to the same extent it is now. In fact, polling suggests that more Native Americans take pride in the name than are (were) hostile toward it even now. However, there has been increased pressure throughout the years to change the team’s name and logo. In 2020, the franchise finally did change its name.
Overall, I thought this episode was pretty entertaining even if on closer scrutiny there were a couple of big writing misfires (Sam the Scalper and Magical Suzanne’s arrival.) A lot of the success of this episode for me was just how complicated and likeable Joseph was.