Quantum Leap (Season 3, Ep 38): Black on White on Fire

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.

[NOTE: This episode features numerous uses of the n-word and very intense rioting and police violence.]


Sam leaps into 1965 as a black man, in medical school, with a white girlfriend, who happens to be the daughter of a police captain. When the Watts riot starts, Sam must keep his girlfriend from being killed by his brother, Lonnie, who hopes that her death will force change in the city’s race relations.


Episode summary via quantumleap.fandom.com:

August 11, 1965: The year is 1965 in Los Angeles, the time of Malcolm X and black awareness—as Sam leaps into the body of Ray Harper (Garon Grigsby), a promising African-American medical student who has the opportunity at an internship at a Boston hospital. Ray currently lives in Watts and it’s the eve of the 1965 race riots.

He’s engaged to Susan Brewster (Corie Henninger), a white girl, and faces not only the wrath of her father Police Captain Paul Brewster (Marc Alaimo), who questions her reason for dating Ray, but that of his older brother Lonnie (Gregory Millar) and his friends, who more vehemently, disapprove of he dating Susan. Al tells him that his purpose is to keep Ray and Susan together but there is an outside chance that Susan might die in the riots. As the violence and race hatred grows in the community, both Ray and Susan must face the arduous challenge of each communities prejudice as Sam as Ray, must keep Ray’s love for a Susan alive, despite the prejudice, anger and hostility surrounding them on the eve of the Watts riots.

As the episode begins, Sam, as Ray, is getting pummled upon by his brother Lonnie’s friends, who show not only disdain of Ray dating Susan, but also distrusts her dating Ray, as Lonnie says it’s only because she wants to showcase Ray as “a trophy among her white liberal friends”. In the original order of events before Sam’s leap into Ray, the leapee, it had Ray and Susan breaking up and he giving up on his ambitions of becoming a doctor.


This episode was pretty light on story and pretty heavy on action. The story that it does have though is heavy and intense.

QL leans in on its depiction of the violence, chaos, and destruction of the Watts riots of 1965. It looked like they must have spent a lot of their special effects budget producing fires for this episode. Visually it was great (in the sense that it looked like a riot.)

This is a standard issue “Sam leaps into a black man” episode, in the sense that he only seems to do so during the Civil Rights movement, so that the writers can sermonize a little bit about race relations. The acting performances from the guest stars in this episode were strong across the board. Al did not provide a lot for Dean Stockwell to do. Scott Bakula’s Sam was his usually wholesome self.

I felt like this episode had its heart in the right place with respect to the story and the messaging. The QL team tried to depict the situation accurately, in all its ugly brutal reality. The problem with the television format, though, is that it sometimes delivers answers that are just a little too easy. For example, Sam/Ray telling Ray’s mother that if he and Susan have mixed race babies, that they will just raise them as “human” is a nice thing to say but it almost feels insulting as to the social, cultural, and emotional complexity of that situation – particularly in 1965’s America.

The n-word is used a LOT in this episode. It’s probably historically accurate (I have not leaped into 1965 Watts, personally) but it’s jarring to hear it coming from my TV.

I cannot decide how I feel about Lonnie’s death at the end of the episode. It’s absurdly sad – especially in light of the fact that Sam/Ray had just talked him down – but was it too much? They’d just had the conversation about Lonnie being a martyr and decided against it. This felt like a moment that Sam needed to stop portraying the Leapee, Ray, and start acting like Sam the Time Traveler, instead. Al could not have clued Sam in as to what the danger to Lonnie was? Trying to save both Susan and Lonnie would have amped up the drama of that scene.

In addition, Lonnie dying kind of ruined the moment for me, seconds later, when Ray and Susan decide to stay in Watts to practice medicine. I mean, I *get* that this was the final push needed to get Ray and Susan on board with the choice, but having it happen that way made me feel like it robbed the characters of their agency. I would have rather seen Sam/Al save Lonnie, and then everyone decides to stay in Watts, anyway. The choice for Ray would have felt more voluntary. For me at least, that would have felt more cathartic than “I have to stay here to make this death mean something.” Lonnie would have had an open door for a redemption arc. Quantum Leap often delivers a sense of healing (setting right what once went wrong) but this episode did not give me as much of that as I wanted.

The other really bad part of having that brutal death to end the episode is that the transition into the next leap was really awkward. Sam appears to be working for a magician in the next episode, and in a context that looks comedic. Horrible tragedy to comedy, in the span of seconds, just did not sit well. It gave the audience a feel for the randomness of Sam’s leaps, but at the expense of almost cheapening the gravity of what we just sat through.

Critiques aside, this was a pretty heavy episode, but it was good. It provides a window into both the 1965 America shown in the episode and the 1990 America when the episode aired.

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