A distinct feature of the current TV era is the need – requirement, really – for overarching storylines even on shows designed to be episodic, and Quantum Leap is no exception. The question of “Why did Ben leap?” and “How are we going to get him back?” continues to loom in the fifth episode, “Salvation or Bust,” which brings Ben to the Old West.
With some of his personal memories recovered, Ben is more desperate than ever to return to 2022. But something odd is going on with Quantum Leap… it has taken him back to the American West in 1879, far outside Ben’s lifetime. The small frontier town of Salvation, founded as a refuge for people of color and other outsiders in 19th-century America, is in danger. A railroad company wants the land and has enlisted a dangerous outlaw to chase the people out. And Ben has leaped into the body of a legendary Mexican American gunslinger, who was summed by his granddaughter to save the town. However, not only is the gunslinger far past his prime, but Ben is a pacifist who detests the idea of a gunfight.
Both a nod to and critique of Westerns, “Salvation or Bust” is a rare depiction of the Old West that actually acknowledges how diverse the American frontier actually was, unlike the whitewashed versions first concocted by Hollywood in the early 20th century that has managed to cling to cultural memory and cause audiences to get it mixed up with the real thing. Black, Latinx, and East Asian characters form the majority of the Salvation townspeople seen on screen. Perhaps the Federation-esque racial unity depicted is as much a fantasy of the Old West as the lily-white versions, but it was a nice change. It seems fitting for a show where none of the regular cast members are white men, yet diversity isn’t treated as an “issue.”
In 2022, the Quantum Leap team, who have been trying to hide Ben’s transgression for fear of being shut down, receive an unexpected visit from a congresswoman. Considering how quickly the overarching plot – the “Why did Ben leap and how will we get him back?” plot – seemed to be moving in the previous episodes, it felt like the show was treading water this week.
While I understand the desire to keep audiences hooked with some big season arc, the juxtaposition of “time period of the week” and long-plotted sci-fi mystery is growing more jarring from week to week. The leaps themselves are starting to feel more and more like backdrops to the season mystery, which makes it harder to invest in the fate of those whose lives Ben is changing. That’s a shame because the period storylines have showcased a lot of great acting from their guest stars.
It sometimes feels as if Quantum Leap is trying to do too much with too little – to stuff too much plot into a 40-minute episode – and tell two stories at once in a way that causes one to feel like a distraction from the other. And a tease at the end of this “Salvation or Bust” hints that even more plot is coming.
That’s not to say it isn’t an enjoyable show. I’d still recommend it to anyone who asks, and as a fan of Westerns (imperfect as they are, they’re just fun to watch), I loved getting to watch Ben deal with his own version of one. I just wish that had felt like the true point of the episode, rather than one more step on the way to solving the Great Season Mystery.
Perhaps this was inevitable since we’re basically seeing two eras of TV clashing. The original Quantum Leap came out when the point of episodes was so that most people could tune in casually and know right away what was going on (I watched the original completely out of order when was rerunning on SyFy and never had trouble keeping up). 2022’s Quantum Leap is dealing with the current era where each episode is more like a chapter in a book, meant to be viewed sequentially with each leading into the next.
What once felt novel now feels a bit tiresome, more like an obligation than a creative choice. Again, I don’t hate the fact that the new Quantum Leap has such a strong emphasis on its 2022 story arc. I just wish they’d done it in a way that felt more balanced.