Let’s talk about love, baby. Because, when it comes to matters of the heart, there are only so many shapes it can take in the world of TV.
First up, there’s the classic enemies-to-lovers motif – a concept which has reappeared countless times, from Pride and Prejudice (Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth, we see you and your hostile flirting) to Buffy: The Vampire Slayer and her unexpectedly tender tryst with Spike. As in, yes, the vampire who tried to kill her a thousand times over in the beginning.
Then, of course, there’s the classic TV trope of the on-and-off (and on-again) couple. We’ve seen so many iterations of this play out over the years: think Friends’ Ross and Rachel, The X-Files’ Mulder and Scully, Gilmore Girls’ Luke and Lorelai, and Sex and The City’s Carrie and Big, and… well, you get the picture. All the break ups, all the make-ups, all the will-they-won’t-they energy of your dreams.
Thirdly, we have your doomed lovers: so that’s your Romeos and Juliets, your T’Pols and Trips (I’m just a girl, standing in front of a computer screen, asking you to compare the works of Shakespeare to Star Trek: Enterprise), and your Jon Snows and Daenerys Stormborns. And let’s not forget our opposites-attract couples – the ones that should never work on paper, but who are absolutely brilliant regardless (see Firefly’s Zoe and Wash, Star Wars’ Princess Leia and Han Solo, and – ahem – Eve and Wall-E if you don’t believe me).
Perhaps our favorite of all the romantic TV tropes, though, is that of the forbidden love story. You know, the one with all the tiny – almost imperceptible, even – moments scattered throughout a TV series for fans to latch onto and obsess over. The one with all the slightly-too-long glances, unexpectedly tender moments, and simmering sexual tension. The one with Consequences (with a capital C) should our lovers ever break rank and make good on their crush.
Basically, yes, it’s the one that sits forever spinning at the center of Stargate SG-1. It’s the greatest love story that’s never quite been told. It’s…
Fine, yes, it’s Jack O’Neill (Richard Dean Anderson) and Samantha Carter (Amanda Tapping).
The Simmering Romance of Stargate’s Jack and Sam
Ignoring the alien virus-fuelled shenanigans of ‘The Broca Divide’ (S1, Ep5), the seeds of this fan-favorite romance are first sown in ‘Solitudes’ (S1, Ep17). Yes, the one where our two would-be-lovers find themselves stranded on an icy planet, with basically zero supplies and zero chance of getting home. Jack is manfully trying to keep Sam’s spirits up, despite his broken leg and fractured rib (“You wouldn’t think jagged bone digging into raw nerves would hurt, but it does”). They’re switching up traditional gender roles with nary a care in the world, as Sam works on the DHD and Jack makes a bowl of… hot water (“My melted ice is to die for”). They’re cuddling together for warmth and acknowledging the unexpected intimacy of it all (“That’s my sidearm, I swear – no giggling!”). He’s urging her to climb out of the sub-zero cave they’ve found themselves in – to leave him and get herself to safety. And she, when she realizes there’s no way out and that his voice on the walkie-talkie has gone silent, is scrambling and then tumbling in her haste to get back to him, taking him into her arms and giving into his pain-fuelled delusion that she is his former wife, Sarah.
Honestly, seeing it all written down like that, how could anyone not be invested in this will-they-won’t-they relationship from that point? All of the little inside jokes, the sideways smiles, the shared moments between the duo? Oh sure, we knew that their military rankings basically forbid them from being a couple out in the open – and, sure, we definitely didn’t want them to get kicked out of our beloved SGC for… dalliances of the heart (hey, I don’t know the military lingo). Still, though, we obsessed over all that natural chemistry and wondered to ourselves, what if? And then, in season three, the events of ‘Point Of View’ (S3, Ep6) basically confirm what we already knew: that an official, out-in-the-open Jack and Sam romance would be the GOAT.
A reminder, for anyone who needs it: this episode is the one that deals with alternate timelines. This means that a long-haired Samantha Carter comes bursting through the Stargate, much to everyone’s surprise at the base – largely because their own short-haired Captain Carter is standing right there with them.
As it turns out, the new Dr. Carter hails from an Earth that has recently been conquered by the Goa’uld. And, during the final battle, she lost the man that she loves: her husband, Jack O’Neill.
“I can’t even begin to know what you’ve been through,” our (thankfully alive) version of Jack tells her at one point. “I know you lost a lot.”
“I lost you,” she replies simply.
It is a setup that makes for tender moments and uncomfortable realizations aplenty – not to mention some fun moments between Jack and both Sams. He’s able to acknowledge the deep friendship he has with our version of Sam, as well as confront the fact that they would likely be a happily married couple if things were different, and strict military rules around dating weren’t in place. And he also gets to give Dr. Carter the kind of kiss that lives rent-free forever in the heads of Jack-and-Sam shippers such as myself. Forever.
A TV Romance… Made Entirely of Breadcrumbs
The rest is breadcrumbs, I suppose. Deliciously romantic breadcrumbs. There are the events of ‘Divide and Conquer’ (S4, Ep5), of course, when both characters are forced to admit that they care about each other – a lot more than they should – in order to prove that they haven’t been infiltrated by a za’tarc/unknowingly transformed into a Goa’uld-programmed assassin. (Although, admittedly, I very much enjoy the flashback which shows us just how upset Jack became when he realized he might have to leave Sam behind during a mission gone wrong – a mission that formed the basis of an earlier episode, no less – and decided to instead remain there with her, staring helplessly into her eyes). There’s ‘Beneath the Surface’ (S6, Ep10), when the pair have their memories wiped and are forced to work as ore miners within the underground confines of a far-off planet – and find themselves inexplicably drawn together. In fact, one of the memories that pull Jack back into his former self is the memory of his deep feelings for Sam (“for cryin’ out loud!”).
Then, of course, we have the events of ‘Window of Opportunity’ (S4, Ep6) – an episode which, due to Jack and Christopher Judge’s Teal’c becoming trapped in a Groundhog Day (1993) -inspired time loop, is played mainly for laughs. In between the episode’s sillier moments, however, is an example of Jack using his unexpected window of opportunity to do something he’s always dreamed about: hand in his resignation and swoop Sam into his arms, dip her, and give her the biggest kiss of all time ever. And, sure, the loop resets and she forgets it all – but he never does. And, considering the very next reset is the one in which they finally manage to break the loop, that looks Jack shoots Sam at the briefing table? You know, that look? The one that basically sums up all that happened with a single loaded glance? She sees it, she remembers it, and she likely thinks about it every bit as much as he likely thinks about that kiss. Trust us.
I promise that there are more breadcrumbs scattered throughout our favorite sci-fi series – so many more, of all different sizes, including Sam and Jack ending their romantic relationships with Pete and Kerry respectively, when they realize that their feelings for one another run too deeply; Sam’s year-long and self-imposed mission to free Jack from a planet that has no DHD or nearby Stargate; Sam’s head injury resulting in a hyper-realistic kiss hallucination; Jack rubbing her shoulder affectionately during some of those big scientific research montages; Jack’s “I know” when Sam starts to tell him something important about the nature of her feelings for him; the fantasy wedding in ‘200’ (S10, Ep6); all of the teasing, all of the worrying they do for one another, all of the words unspoken.
The Endless Allure of Forbidden Love
So, why do we obsess over these breadcrumbs? Well, part of it’s due to the very simple fact that when you’re starving, anything looks like a hearty meal – by which I mean that shippers are desperate to see these characters get together, so, yeah, those tiny moments feel a whole lot bigger to them.
A larger part of it, however, is due to the forbidden nature of the slowly simmering romance. Dr Suzanne Degges-White explains to Body+Soul:
“The more we try to ignore or not think about something, the more likely thoughts of those things are going to run through our brains.”
She adds that, in real life, “there’s a sense of safety, for some, in being attracted to people with whom you know you cannot begin an actual romantic or sexual relationship. It adds to the thrill of innocent interactions.”
An Easy Way to Connect with Our Characters
That last part definitely makes a lot of sense with Jack and Sam. After all, Stargate SG-1 is a show largely devoid of any romantic element, so it’s fun to add a little human interest to all the interplanetary explorations and alien invasions. And injecting a little charge into some of the more innocent interactions between Jack and Sam? Why, it’s a great way to emulate the emotional rollercoaster of a full-blown romance– albeit without jeopardizing their individual character arcs or journeys.
As Dr. Jared DeFife tells HuffPost:
“We're in love with the notion of love. Fans get really invested in seeing romance develop, especially over the course of a longer collection of novels or a longer television show. They want to see not only the plot develop but the relationships of the characters develop. There's an investment in seeing that kind of romantic relationship blossom. We're wired to really connect with each other in that way. So there's an investment in seeing characters that you care about develop their own relationships.”
The Zeigarnik Effect in Romantic Tension
I’d like to take you back in time to 1927, when Lithuanian psychologist Blume Zeugarnik became desperate to understand how waiters can seemingly remember incomplete orders – for entire tables, no less – more efficiently than those that had been paid for and were complete.
To figure things out, she conducted an experiment using puzzles and flat-pack assembly products – and, in the process, she revealed that participants were able to recall details of interrupted tasks around 90 percent better than those that they had been able to complete undisturbed. (Zeigarnik, 1927).
These results suggest that a desire to complete a task can cause it to be retained in a person’s memory until it has been completed and that the finality of its completion enables the process of forgetting it to take place. DeFife says that, as an unsolved problem remains cognitively alive, so does the unresolved romantic tension between two TV characters.
“[Romantic tension] over the course of a series or over the course of a novel or set of novels that’s unresolved keeps our interest,” he says.
“We kind of keep playing that out in our own heads. It keeps our engagement with it going cognitively.”
So, Do Jack and Sam Ever Get Together? Ever?
Well, not exactly. As producer Joseph Mallozzi puts it in his blog:
“The Sam/Jack relationship was fraught with complications, given that he was her commanding officer. Pursuing any sort of relationship would have been inappropriate for both and would only have really been possible late in the series after Jack’s retirement.”
“Jack and Sam could have gotten together after Jack's retirement, but it was never made canon because, quite frankly, it wasn't my call. Still, despite the lack of official confirmation, it was only natural that they should get together after the events of ‘Threads’ and, in my mind, they have been together ever since. An attempt to suggest as much in [Stargate Atlantis'] Season 4's ‘Trio’, unfortunately, ended up on the cutting room floor when the episode ran long.”
What we are left with, essentially, is yet more breadcrumbs: a framed photo of Jack on Sam’s locker in Atlantis. A highly-personal file on her laptop, locked with the password “fishing” (a clear reference to Jack, as any fan knows). The claim that she’s “not exactly” single. And that aforementioned cut scene, in which Sam refers to a “complicated” relationship with a mystery man in Washington (guess where Jack is currently based?) who’s due to retire soon.
Back in Summer 2021, Stargate SG-1 co-creator Brad Wright gave the fandom kittens when teased a line from his pilot script for the fourth Stargate series in which Jack says to Sam: “I still have your toothbrush. Only used it once.”
I suppose that the open-ended nature of their relationship means that fans can finish the story off in their heads however they want. For me personally, though, the only thing keeping these two would-be soulmates apart was a stupid book of rules and regulations (and Richard Dean Anderson’s reduced filming schedule, if you want to get technical about things) – so I’ve no doubt in my mind whatsoever that they have since found a way to be together. That, away from the perils of the SGC, they have forged a very different kind of life. One with just one rule, in fact: til death do us part.
Then again, I guess I’m just a hopeless romantic.
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