The sitcom ‘M*A*S*H’ was set in South Korea during the Korean War and focused on the 4077th mobile army surgical hospital — thus the initials — in Uijeongbu.
When its final episode aired in 1983, M*A*S*H set a record for the most-watched episode of all time. The show, which had completed 11 seasons on the air, was set during the Korean War, a conflict that only lasted three years.
M*A*S*H is difficult to place into one category: it definitely garnered enough laughs to qualify as a comedy. But there were enough poignant and shocking moments, and even moments that could bring about genuine anger, that it’s more properly classified as either a “dark comedy” or a “dramedy,” a made-up word to mean a comedy-drama. Over the course of its run, some complained the show became almost “preachy” in its anti-war messages.
But those complaints didn’t stop the final episode to attract 125 million viewers, a total that at the time made it easily the most-watched program of all time.
The series followed Dr. Benjamin “Hawkeye” Pearce (Alan Alda), the lead surgeon of a group of authority-mocking though extraordinarily efficient surgeons at a mobile hospital. Hawkeye’s commanding officer was first Col. Henry Blake (McLean Stevenson) and later Col. Sherman Potter (Harry Morgan). Hawkeye’s closest friend at the unit was ‘Trapper’ John McIntyre (Wayne Rogers), who was replaced by B.J. Hunnicut (Mike Farrell). The head nurse, Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan (Loretta Swit), was the tough military daughter who was determined to have her own celebrated military career. Maj. Frank Burns (Larry Linville) was the dimwitted butt of many a joke until he was replaced by Maj. Charles Winchester (David Ogden Stiers) who proved his talent at equalling and at times even bettering Hawkeye’s pranks. Corporal Maxwell Klinger (Jamie Farr) was always looking for an angle to be discharged from the war, while Father Francis Mulcahy (William Christopher) tried to keep everyone’s spiritual health in top shape. Corporal Walter “Radar” O’Reilly (Gary Burghoff) had the uncanny ability to know what was happening moments before it did, and despite his youth, helped keep the chaos mostly under control.
1. ‘Goodbye, Farewell And Amen’
This final episode runs a whopping two-and-a-half hours and begins as peace talks appear to be taking a serious turn toward actually bringing the war to an end. It also finds lead character Hawkeye being treated for an apparent nervous breakdown. Charles inadvertenly “captures” a group of musicians who he attempts to train to play a classical number until tragedy strikes. B.J. learns he’s going home and almost gets there before being called back. The camp is forced to temporarily relocate because enemy fire moves closer. And just as everyone is reunited, word comes down that the war is over and now everyone must say goodbye.
The episode neatly ties up the loose ends and, though very emotional, is a very satisfying final visit to the 4077th.
2. ‘Abyssinia, Henry’
The episode begins with the good news that Col. Blake has earned enough points to be discharged. The episode ends with a brutal gut punch, when it is revealed that Blake’s chopper was shot down and that there were no survivors. The story behind the episode is the the actors were not aware of the intention to kill off the character until minutes before they shot that final scene, so some of the reaction is genuinely raw at the thought of the demise of the beloved character.
Producer Gene Reynolds said people were turning on the television set each night during the Vietnam War and seeing 15 deaths per night, but feeling no connection to them.
“I think that if there is such a thing as the loss of life there should be some connection. And we did make a connection,” he said. “It was a surprise, it was somebody they loved. They didn’t expect it but it made the point. People like Henry Blake are lost in war.”
3. ‘Heal Thyself’
When Col. Potter and Maj. Winchester come down with the mumps, an emergency, temporary surgeon is sent in. But the volume of casualties quickly becomes too much for him. It’s an emotional look at the toll the war is taking on the people whose job it was to sew up the soldiers and, oftentimes, send them right back to the battlefield.
4. ‘Old Soldiers’
Col. Potter receives a mysterious phone call and suddenly his mood changes. With the rest of the camp fearing the worst, he surprises them with an invitation to his tent, where he reveals that he is the last survivor of a group of five friends who served together during WWI. He reveals a pledge the quintet made to each other that involves a bottle of brandy, and toasts both his old friends and his current friends at the 4077th.
It’s hard to watch Harry Morgan’s emotional side and not get emotional right along with him. For example, watch a rare clip of Morgan at a press conference at the time the series ended:
5. ‘Dear Sigmund’
Alan Arbus played the late Sidney Freedman, a psychologist who occasionally visited the camp. This particular episode focuses on Freedman’s own healing when a soldier he was treating for depression commits suicide. He accomplishes this healing by writing a letter to Dr. Sigmund Freud, which, since Freud was already dead at that time, is really a letter to himself.
Early in the episode, he explains his appearance at the unit by telling Hawkeye, “You give life here,” and the practical jokes and efforts to make the best of such a horrible situation serve as much needed comic relief as Freedman processes his own loss.
6. ‘The Nurses’
This episode focuses on the non-nonsense Maj. Houlihan by exploring her relationship with the nurses under her command. She first comes off as a stern, almost machine-like boss, but as the nurse’s lash out at her seeming lack of feelings, her human side comes out, giving the first real look at the humanity behind the tough façade she projects so effectively.
7. ‘Sometimes You Hear The Bullet’
An old friend of Hawkeye’s is a reporter-turned-soldier who says he plans to write a book called, You Never Hear the Bullet to dispel the myth in movies that you always hear a bullet coming at you. Later in the episode, the friend returns, this time as a casualty. Just before being put under anesthsia, he tells Hawkeye he did hear the bullet just before he was hit.
What happens moments later was a notable first in M*A*S*H, when the friend dies on the operating table:
8. ‘The General Flipped at Dawn’
This is a funny episode and notable as Harry Morgan’s first appearance on the show, though as a completely different character than the one he was so well known for playing. This general, who’s completely crazy, temporarily wreaks havoc at the 4077th until the depths of his mental disturbance become crystal clear.
Here’s an example of the zaniness of the character, but curiously missing the familiar laugh track:
Still, the episode lampoons the lunacy sometimes associated with any bureaucracy, whether military or not.
9. ‘The Interview’
This is a powerful, though unusual, episode of the series, filmed in black and white. The premise is that real-life war correspondent Clete Roberts interviews the surgeons at the 4077th, which has achieved a 97% survival rate for its patients.
Alda said the actors had improvised answers to interview questions in the writing process of the episode. Those improvisations were then improved by the writers and then scripted, but then during the filming, Roberts asked the actors questions they had not previously been asked, so the final product is a mixed of improvised answers and scripted responses that were themselves improvements on previously improvised material.
Producer Burt Metcalfe discusses the answer William Christopher, as Father Mulcahy, gave to a question about whether the war has changed the people at M*A*S*H, in that episode and how it served as a metaphor for the whole series and its look at war:
10. ‘Dear Mildred’
Col. Potter, shortly after his arrival, writes a letter to his beloved wife as they prepare to celebrate another anniversary on opposite ends of the globe. But the episode is full of heart and comedy, as Maj. Burns and Maj. Houlihan conspire to find a perfect gift while Radar actually succeeds in that endeavor.
Those are my picks.