Sam leaps into Eddie Ellroy, a 19 year old college student staying with his brother’s family during the Cuban missile crisis. Eddie’s brother Mac sells fallout shelters, but is destined to kill his neighbor the next night during a panic the next night at the height of people’s fears about nuclear war. Sam is shocked at how terrified people are about the future, and must find a way to save his brother from this fate.
Written by Paul Brown. Directed by James Whitmore, jr.
Nuclear Family is a strong episode of Quantum Leap–one of the strongest that we’ve had that doesn’t have any deeply personal stakes for Sam. There’s no direct connection to Sam and Al’s life, and Sam isn’t in any immediate danger most of the time. But thanks to a small but solid cast of characters and a handful of sequences of extremely effective tension, the episode is a winner all the way through.
Considering how little physical conflict there is in this story (as opposed to a lot of other episodes which pit Sam against actual “villains”) there is a lot of nail-biting suspense in this story. Like, we’re pretty sure that bullet is not going to go off in that dog’s mouth, but still we can’t help but be as scared about it as the Mac and Sam and the family. And the whole conclusion, with the panic during the blackout, is very well directed and paced. Even the sequence where Sam is stealing the ammunition and hiding it had me on the edge of my seat, stressed that Mac was going to discover him.
But while those moments are what make the episode exciting, it’s the relationships and the performances which make it good. Timothy Carhart is very good as Mac, and gets a surprisingly tender moment when he describes his experience with the Dust Bowl of the 1930’s. The family dynamics are well played, with Scott Bakula doing a great bouncing off of all the other characters, and responding to all the dynamics associated with the Cuban missile crisis. And to cap it off, the story brings in Mrs. Klingman, giving Sam a whole other area to respond to, with her sharing her experiences in World War II.
The episode does a great job as well making use of its historical context. Sam and Al’s contrasting memories of the Cuban missile crisis are interesting–for Sam it was just a brief blip in his childhood, while for Al it was a time when people were genuinely terrified and believed the world’s end was approaching. Both dynamics are well explored by the episode, making it as fascinating as well as entertaining viewing–which is all the more impressive how small scale the story it is, featuring as it does a small cast in nearly a single location.
• Timothy Carhart (Mac Ellroy) played a starfleet officer who was serving as Data’s first officer in an episode of Star Trek The Next Generation, but who nearly transferred to another assignment as he felt it was inappropriate for an android to be given a command.
Who and Where is Dr. Sam Beckett?
Sam is Eddie Ellroy, in Homestead, Florida, from October 26 – 28th, 1962.
What does Sam have to do?
Sam believes he is there to prevent his brother Mac from murdering their neighbor Burt during a panic related to the Cuban missile crisis. But at the end, he discovers that the real killer was Mac’s young son, Stevie, who shot the neighbor believing he was a Russian soldier. In the end, Sam doesn’t leap until he suggests to Mac to take his failed business selling fallout shelters and converting it to selling swimming pools.
What do we learn about Sam Beckett?
Sam doesn’t remember the Cuban missile crisis very strongly. He just remembers vaguely being in Elk Ridge, Indiana with his family and his mother canning a whole bunch of food.
What do we know about Al?
Sam does remember the Cuban missile crisis very well–he was flying recon flights over Cuba at the time.
What about the experiment?
There is no particular information this time around.
“Driven by an unknown force…” (God or Time or Something)
Sam refers to God once, but in a general way, not related to his time traveling in particular.
Sam only says, “Oh boy,” once this episode, shortly after he leaps during the bomb drill. He doesn’t say it at the end as by then he’s gagged having electro-shock treatment.
Sam’s Complicated Love Life
Sam isn’t connected to anyone this episode.
The Many Loves of Al Calavicci
Al’s third or fourth wife, Ruthie, used to say, “Mensch”, meaning a good guy. (A previous episode made it clear that Ruthie was Al’s fourth wife).
• Oddly, this is the second episode in a row to start with someone yelling about “Russkies.”
• There’s a funny bit near the start where the little girl talks to Sam the dog, who turns out to be wearing a gas mask.
• Sam is very awkward at his sales pitch. As Mrs. Klingman points out later, “You’re not much of a salesman.”
• The anti-radioactive ponchos are pretty funny.
• Once you see the dog in the background of the shot where Sam is burying the bullets, you know there is going to be trouble.
• When all the trouble starts, Sam should just stay out of the shelter and do what he can to keep Burt away from it.
• Sam urges his brother to “Sell fun instead of fear,” by converting the business from fallout shelters to pools.
• Wow, powerful and intense ending with arriving in the asylum!
Sam Leaps To
I think my favorite line is one in the middle while Sam is encouraging the kids to not be scared by imagining they are time travelers. Stevie asks if being scared is stupid, to which Sam replies…
No, no. There’s nothing wrong with being afraid. Sometimes it just doesn’t do you any good.
Simple, but quite profound, really, and a good truth to remember.
Special thanks, by the way, to this site for the episode transcriptions.
The Best Moment
There are a lot of good sequences, but I’m going with Mac’s excellent speech about the Dust Bowl. It’s the sort of moment that could have been very cringeworthy, but it’s sold by the performance. “We survived that, and we’re gonna survive this.”