The Ten Best Ever Episodes of M*A*S*H by Brian Slade
There are many comedies that don’t age well and so when anniversaries come around, there is an element of obligation and nostalgia when we click a like on Twitter to acknowledge a successful show from years gone by that perhaps doesn’t hit the mark on re-runs. One show however, remains as sharp, relevant and moving as the day it first appeared, and 2022 marks the 50th anniversary of its first small screen appearance.
Richard Hooker’s 1968 book M*A*S*H had been turned into a hugely successful movie in 1970, but television comedy wouldn’t know what hit it when in 1972, the pilot episode about the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital hit our screens. It stayed with us for eleven seasons until its record-breaking farewell in 1983 and set a bar for writing, acting and directing rarely seen since.
With 256 episodes to choose from, and almost no duds along the way, a top ten will doubtless be contentious for some. Here are my own personal choices, in chronological order, and if you think you prefer other episodes, hunt them down and watch again in admiration of arguably the greatest television comedy – indeed, television show – of all time.
THE RINGBANGER (Season 1)
Hawkeye and Trapper are operating on Colonel Buzz Brighton. Brighton has a minor bullet wound in his thigh and hopes to be back with his unit almost immediately. However, he reveals that he considers battle fatigue to be an excuse to get off the frontline – ‘just another way of yelling chicken in my book.’ It becomes clear that Buzz is somewhat cavalier in his approach to battle, all too willing to sacrifice his men to take the next hill. Buzz is in fact in a hurry to dispose of as many opposition men as possible, whatever the price, seemingly concerned that an outbreak of peace would hamper his career.
Hawkeye and Trapper decide it would be much better for their excessive customer numbers if Buzz remained at the camp longer than his initial wound would merit; but how to do it. Although reckless in battle, Brighton’s own health has been near perfect for the duration of his military duty…not to mention that Major Burns has grown suspicious of Brighton’s already extended stay.
To take Brighton down they will need to focus on his mind, but they must first fend off any alternative diagnosis. To avoid a second opinion that might jeopardise their plans, the boys convince Buzz that Colonel Blake is a boozer and Major Burns likes to dress in the nurses’ outfits, immediately playing on Buzz’s prejudices. They then begin so sow seeds of doubt in Buzz’s head – switching his tent, planting milk that he never ordered – anything to make him think that he is losing his mind. And finally, they need to get Major Houlihan off the scent. They convince her that Brighton is a crumbling, hurt, shadow of a man, while they convince him that Margaret is a man-eater in a relationship with Colonel Blake.
The finale sees Margaret throwing herself at Buzz, interrupted by a jealous Frank, a drunk Henry (courtesy of earlier encouragement from Hawkeye) and Hawkeye and Trapper arriving just in time to convince Buzz that he needs to be transferred to a hospital, something that intoxicated Henry signs approval for, sending Brighton back to the States.
The Ringbanger is everything good about the early years of M*A*S*H. The moral aspect is there, trying to save lives simply by keeping Brighton away from his unit. However, the rest of the show borders on glorious farce - Frank’s jealousy, Margaret’s passion, Radar’s innocence as he assists the boys with their subterfuge. Add to that the straight-as-an-arrow performance of Leslie Nielsen as Buzz and McLean Stevenson as good as ever as the drunkenly bemused Colonel Blake and it makes this a particular highlight of the first season.
ABYSSINIA HENRY (Season 3)
Any comedy about war walks an awkward tightrope between keeping things light and the harsh realities of war. This was never truer or more successfully navigated than the closing episode of season three of M*A*S*H.
McLean Stevenson had decided to bring his time on the show to an end. The writers and producers decided to keep the storyline of his farewell essentially a light one. Henry had accumulated enough points to earn an honourable discharge and so with 24 hours’ notice, he was notified that he was flying home to Bloomington, Illinois. The gang hastily arranged a going away party. It was partly to celebrate Henry’s good fortune, partly to say goodbye to a friend they had come to love. For Majors Burns and Houlihan, the prospect of Frank taking over was perfection. Frank would be able to escape the barbs of his tent mates and finally control Hawkeye and Trapper, while Margaret could now engineer the camp alongside him. For Hawkeye and Trapper, that prospect brought nothing but fear. Away from the four of them, Radar faced the prospect of his father figure leaving him painfully alone.
Inevitably, plans had the potential to go awry and as Henry awaited his chopper home, dressed in his finest pinstripe suit, spats and hat and looking every inch the well-turned-out gangster, wounded came flooding in. The surgeon in him kicked in, discussing which patient he could most help on. Hawkeye would have none of it as the chopper home waited patiently, telling his superior, ‘go home to your wife and kids.’
The first scene after Henry’s departure, and the last scene of the season, would be one of the most iconic and moving of the show’s full run. During a busy session in the operating room, Radar stumbles through the swinging doors and is reprimanded for being maskless, but he doesn’t care. He delivers devastating news; ‘Lieutenant Colonel Henry Blake’s plane was shot down over the Sea of Japan. It spun in. There were no survivors.’
That final moment had been kept from the cast until the very last moment of shooting, and even once revealed, crew and extras were not told in order to keep things as natural and impactful. M*A*S*H was largely a comedy, but never shirked from the reality that not everybody gets to go home from war. This was comedy drama at its most impactful.
THE INTERVIEW (Season 4)
‘Ninety-seven out of every one hundred wounded men brought here live,’ says Clete Roberts, a television reporter at the 4077th interviewing for a feature. ‘Who are the people behind that statistic? That’s what we came to the 4077th to find out.’
After the introduction, the remainder of this episode features Roberts, a genuine television broadcast journalist, firing questions at the staff of the MASH unit. The responses give a glorious insight into the experiences of the various personnel, all the way from Colonel Potter to company clerk Walter O’Reilly. There is no further story to the episode and it makes for a fascinating show, presented almost entirely in black and white and some of it adlibbed by the stars. Perhaps the best way to summarise is to simply offer some of the best lines of this classic;
Klinger - You call it a police action…over here it’s a war. War is just killin’, that’s all.
Radar – Can I say latrine on television? Hi Mum and Uncle Ed – is this too personal?
Hawkeye – I’ve seen so many people to whom killing is a casual thing. I don’t know how we manufacture people like that and I think we’ll never run out of them.
Father Mulcahy – When a doctor cuts into a patient and it’s cold, as it is today, steam rises from the body and the doctor will warm himself over the open wound. Could anyone look on that and not feel changed?
Potter (when asked if he has a message for anybody back home) – I just don’t think that’s dignified, so I won’t do it.
BJ – When I first came here I couldn’t walk down a corridor full of wounded people without being sickened by it. Now I can walk by them without even noticing.
It is possibly the finest hour of M*A*S*H, even allowing for the fact that Loretta Swit was unable to be involved due to a theatre performance. Roberts’s summary covers M*A*S*H in a nutshell; ‘Three hours ago the enemy attacked at dawn…the wounded have been arriving ever since. Now the people at this MASH are doing the work that they do best, but that they’d rather not be doing at all, in a place they’d rather not be.’
MARGARET’S ENGAGEMENT (Season 5)
Major Frank Burns was a source of much humour in the five years Larry Linvile portrayed him. One difficult part however was that for such an incompetent surgeon and unlikeable man, the opportunities to empathise with him were rare. By season five however, the writing team of M*A*S*H were able to introduce a different side to his story. The worst kept secret at the camp, the affair between Burns and Major Houlihan, finally came to a permanent end at a medical conference in Tokyo. A jovial Margaret returned to announce her shock engagement to Lt Colonel Donald Penopscott. It’s a considerable shock to Frank, who was expecting her to pick up where they left off and surprise him with a promotion.
Burns’s immediate reaction throws people. Rather than throw the book at Radar for securing penicillin on the black market, he congratulates him on smart thinking and offers him a job after the war. Amazingly, he was behaving like a normal human being. In Potter’s opinion, Burns’s cork was about ready to pop. For once, Frank was no longer the target of BJ and Hawkeye’s jokes, for Margaret insisted on bragging about her fiancé to anybody with a functioning ear. ‘Since when have you ever given two hoots about Frank Burns?’ bemoans Margaret as she is chastised by Hawkeye for her public rubbing of his metaphorical nose. Hawkeye protests that he has never kicked Frank when he was down, only when he wasn’t looking.
When Frank apologises for stabbing Margaret’s finger during surgery, he finally snaps and Margaret lands a punch to his jaw when he tries to be amorous. After she accuses him of being a coward, Frank disappears overnight, only to reappear next day marching a small Korean family and their ox back to camp as prisoners of war. When Frank pulls his rifle on Potter and the boys, Radar puts a call in to Frank’s mum. ‘Sometimes a guy’s just gotta talk to his mum.’
It’s a significant episode for two reasons. Burns finally finds some companionship with Hawkeye and BJ, even agreeing to go to Rosie’s bar for a night on the town together. Meanwhile Margaret moves on with her military aspirations, believing that Penopscott holds the key to her future.
FALLEN IDOL (Season 6)
With a number of the original characters departing over the first five years of the show, the relationship between those who remained for longer was key to its continued success. This was never more the case than the friendship between Hawkeye and company clerk Radar O’Reilly.
In Fallen Idol, Radar is sent for some r’ and r’ at Hawkeye’s recommendation. The suggestion is that Radar’s inexperience with women might get a boost from a visit to Seoul. When Radar gets injured on his way there, the guilt envelopes Hawkeye. Hawkeye’s solution is a literal one, drowning his guilt-ridden sorrows so much that he subsequently has to walk out on an operation to be sick.
Radar is recovering fine, but when he hears about Hawkeye’s swift exit during theatre, he chastises him that he expected better behaviour from someone he looked up to. That triggers an anger in Hawkeye, who yells at Radar for holding him to such unrealistic hero-like standards.
As Hawkeye and Radar trade speeches and silences in equal measure, Hawkeye is besieged by a long line of people fuming at his tirade, most notably Colonel Potter, who reprimands that, ‘this boy has been told he’s nothing more than a pimple on a flee by the man whose opinion he values more than anyone else in the world – and I think you damn well better do something about it.’
The pair of course reconcile, but the quality of the episode was such that decades later, Scrubs paid tribute to it during a storyline with the same exact title, Dr Cox being drunk when on duty through guilt at losing a patient. JD, who idolises Cox and hangs on his every word, is horrified by what he sees and struggles to take part in any of the attempts to nurse Cox back to sobriety and into the hospital once more. It’s a wonderful nod to a classic original.
MAJOR EGO (Season 7)
Major Charles Emerson Winchester III has never been one for meatball surgery, nor indeed for humility, so when his performance in saving a life encourages a reporter from Stars and Stripes to do a feature on his heroics, Charles hopes the headline will be enough to attract the attention of a Tokyo hospital and allow him to escape the horrors of frontline surgery. As he accompanies the reporter around camp, his head swells as he encourages the journalist to write a piece in the most jaw-dropping manner. As Hawkeye and BJ look on they are horrified by the combination of pomposity and false modesty Charles is showing – ‘He can grovel and blow his own horn in the same breath.’
Charles starts cherry picking patients for maximum impact on the reporter, ignoring minor injuries in deference to those that would make better reading. Unfortunately, his arrogance sees him overplay his hand. He becomes so obsessed with portraying his own success that he ignores a patient’s post-op symptoms and becomes outraged when Pierce opens up the patient again due to haemorrhaging. Charles had made a mistake in the operation and it’s only Hawkeye’s intervention that prevented the patient’s death. Despite his yearning to be reassigned, Charles rips up the reporter’s story.
Winchester’s journey through the six seasons that he is present for is one of the most interesting as his utter contempt for the conditions he is surrounded by and the people he is forced to share his life with conceal any real humanity. Some of his finest episodes are when that façade slips. Hawkeye’s admiration at the end of the episode sums up much of the character’s development as he proclaims, ‘Charles - you’re pompous, arrogant, conceited and a total bore. But you’re alright.’
AN EYE FOR A TOOTH (Season 7)
The promotion list has come into the hands of Colonel Potter and Father Mulcahy has been passed over again. It’s a frustration that Mulcahy feels guilty about, knowing that his role at the 4077th is not to be self-serving but to act as a crumb of comfort for the many injured that pass through the camp, not to mention offer spiritual guidance to the doctors and nurses when needed. As Potter sympathises, ‘This is a war, and you’re in the peace business,’ Mulcahy is less than appeased, yelling that, ‘If I were in your place I’d be on that horn raising a royal rhubarb all over I Corps.’
Meanwhile, Margaret and Hawkeye go on a practical joke war. What starts as a simple salt instead of sugar routine keeps getting escalated in ever more comical manner, but there is a connecting tissue between the warring parties - Charles is feigning loyalty to both. As the joking-war escalates further, Charles’s enjoyment grows ever larger and he masterminds ever more grandiose schemes largely for his own entertainment, always stirring the pot by offering counsel to the joke’s victim once the latest prank has been delivered.
In one such prank, helicopter pilot Captain Toby Hill loses his dummy, a life-size flying doll that acts as a counterbalance when he has to carry only one wounded in the stretcher capsules either side of his chopper. When Hill is needed to collect a soldier, with his dummy out of action, Father Mulcahy steps into the fray to lie glued to one capsule in place of the dummy. It’s an act of bravery that earns admiration from Potter, who immediately gets onto the relevant authorities to try and get him that promotion…after he gives him a chewing out for his reckless behaviour.
LIFE TIME (Season 8)
The surgeons of the 4077th are used to making snap decisions and often cutting corners due to time constraints, but that is put to the ultimate test when a lacerated aorta patient arrives on a chopper. Hawkeye has to force his hand inside the patient to try and stop the bleeding to even get him to the OR. His patient’s chances are limited, with the knowledge that 20 minutes is the most they can cut off the blood to his spinal chord without paralysing him. He’s in desperate need of a graft, but the only means of doing so is to wait for a terminally wounded boy in the latest bus load of casualties to pass away. BJ is left in the moral dilemma of waiting for one patient to die in a timely manner in order to stand a chance of saving another, made all the more painful as the doomed victim’s best pal can’t reconcile with doctors wishing his friend to die at pace.
In an episode co-written and directed by Alan Alda himself, M*A*S*H is again in dramatic overdrive. Comedy is limited to the random throwaway jibe between Hawkeye and the observing Major Winchester, and Winchester’s hazy condition after giving his AB negative blood to help save the patient. To reinforce the drama, a clock counting down the 20 minutes is superimposed onto the screen as the time ticks away on both patients. Some criticised episodes in later years for being more about the drama than the comedy, but when the drama is this good it seems a churlish criticism.
HEAL THYSELF (Season 8)
The 4077th are short-handed in the surgical department when Colonel Potter gets quarantined with a case of the mumps. Potter sends out for a replacement while he is off limits, and the unit welcomes Steve Newsome. Newsome is a fine addition, with talent, charm, heart and wit enough to make the BJ and Hawkeye double act into a trio – which is just as well, because Charles catches mumps as well and joins Potter in the one tent available for quarantine.
Along with his other attributes, Newsome comes with experience. He’s seen some of the worst fighting in his time as a MASH surgeon and lived to tell the tale, but the relentless pace of wounded coming through the 4077th is far worse than he imagined. It begins to weigh on him and take a toll, but the wounded just don’t stop coming. Eventually he breaks and goes missing during the height of a busy OR session. He’s tracked down to Potter and Winchester’s quarantine tent where he is cowering on the floor, crying that he cannot get the blood from his hands and bemoaning as to where the wounded keep coming from. What his destiny is beyond the unit under the guise of on call psychiatrist, Dr Sidney Freedman, remains a mystery.
It's another episode that treads the drama/comedy line to perfection. We fall very quickly for Newsome’s warmth and charm, then despair as his experiences quickly unravel him. To balance it, we get some of the finest efforts of Harry Morgan and the hysterical David Ogden Stiers as Potter and Winchester trade barbs as two dreadful tentmates. Potter wants to paint and listen to cowboy music, Charles wants his reading and opera. There are some glorious comic moments to cheer the otherwise heart-breaking storyline.
GOODBYE, FAREWELL AND AMEN (Season 11)
It might seem obvious, but the final episode of M*A*S*H was just too big a television event to not include in the list of top ten episodes, even though to the geniuses at 20th Century Fox, it wasn’t actually an episode at all. They feared that allowing MAS*H to have a going home farewell episode would destroy syndication because everybody would know how things had ended. ‘It might surprise you to hear this,’ Mike Farrell pointed out to one of Fox’s executives, ‘but most people already know the Korean War ended.’ Fox eventually granted them their farewell, but on the agreement that it was classed as a movie and thereby wouldn’t go into syndication.
In the farewell, we begin away from the 4077th, with Hawkeye at an institution under the guidance of Dr Freedman. He gets a visit from BJ, but his head is all over the place. He can’t understand why what he sees as sanity is seen as the complete opposite by the army, who have put him away to recover. Sidney carefully nurses him back to better mental health in time, but there are some intense scenes between the pair, Alda at the peak of his powers.
While Hawkeye is away, the camp are paying close attention to the progress of peace talks and are eventually delighted to discover that the war is finally coming to an end. But it isn’t without its casualties within the camp. Father Mulcahy has his hearing damaged when freeing the POWs from their pen when the camp comes under fire. Charles is heartbroken when the Chinese prisoners he has been teaching classical music to are returned to the 4077th in very different circumstances, changing his view on music forever.
In the closing stages, we are treated to Klinger’s wedding and a gut-wrenching number of farewells, as well as nods back to some previous episodes – BJ reminds us of the earlier years when Klinger used to dress in elaborate women’s outfits to try and get thrown out, Charles and Margaret revisit an old argument when she insisted he leave surgery to wash up having touched his nose, something he vehemently denied.
Ultimately, the farewell episode/movie is a goodbye from cast and characters to each other and the show’s loyal public. A staggering 121 million were estimated to have watched, and it remains the most viewed farewell in television history. It was a fitting goodbye to arguably the greatest television show America ever produced.
So goodbye, farewell and thank you for indulging in this walk down memory lane. And if you don’t agree with some of my choices, there’s another 246 episodes of equal quality to catch up with. Enjoy.
Published on May 31st, 2022. Written by Brian Slade for Television Heaven.