This episode had a lot of unique shots: a wide shot of all four surgery tables, very long tracking shots, cross cuts. Yeah, Alan!
The aesthetic is almost transcendental. Never in our minds do we doubt that those sound stages somewhere in northern California are really a mobile army surgical hospital in Korea. The plotlines were genius; layers upon layers of comedy, tragedy, topical critique of the Vietnam war, and big heart. Where the book and the movie were cynical satires of idiotic army bureaucrats, M*A*S*H the television series quickly morphed into something much larger than that: it became a social commentary machine. First, and most obviously, it was anti-war. But it also explored war's effects on people: all the mania, boredom, distress and compassion that it bred. Other more contemporary 1970s topics followed: racism, feminism, culture shock, how we mature, how we form relationships, the rewards of a profession, and the big irony of it all.
Some have called it a show for bleeding heart liberals (most notably, Richard Hooker, the author of the original and real life "Hawkeye Pierce", who was much more conservative than his Alan Aldified version), and it's true that by the tenth season, preachiness was beginning to overshadow the rest, and it was becoming your weekly 30-minute sermon from the liberal Democrats. But when M*A*S*H got it right, it got it really right.
This ability to balance social awareness with human pathos with sitcom comedy is largely due to the intelligence of the writers. In the early seasons, M*A*S*H was a fairly typical TV comedy. Some funny guys pull pranks on each other; a villain caricature makes pratfalls. The unique aspect was that, dammit, a war was on. As the seasons progressed, the show started to take this aspect more seriously. Cheap shots and toilet humor started to give way to more emotional depth. The writers felt comfortable enough to just show us these characters be bored, be hot, be cold, be angry, be etcetera - not just be funny. Also, one by one, the more one-dimensional characters left the show, often to be replaced by better-realized improvements. Larry Linville, who played the cartoon Major Frank Burns, realized that his character was beginning to look more and more out of place as the show gained realism, and hence he left the show in season five. Wayne Rogers, who played Hawkeye's sidekick, Trapper John, realized that the television Trapper was becoming a twin to Hawkeye, and he left in season four. Their replacements - David Ogden Stiers as the snobbish Major Winchester, and Mike Farrell as family man BJ Hunnicutt - were vast improvements for the show's dynamic.
Mulcahy and BJ at the Golden Ratio with a diagonal shoreline. Yeah yeah, Alan!
Over the eleven seasons, the characters changed, grew, and developed like real human beings. We at the PPCC have always been particularly fond of Winchester, the blue-blooded Boston Brahmin. But everyone got their share of breakdowns and catharsis, and every character held the spotlight for at least a few episodes during the show's run. Also, as M*A*S*H solidified its position of unparalleled popularity in the 5th and 6th seasons, it began to experiment a bit. Episodes like The Interview (season 4) and Dreams (season 8) broke away from the norms of television; the former modelling itself as a faux documentary, and Dreams being a rambling surrealist piece. There were episodes that were filmed in real-time with a clock in the corner, or that took place only in one setting (naturally, the bar).
The final episode of M*A*S*H, entitled Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen, was movie-length and the final hurrah of the show. It remains to this day the most-watched episode of a television series anywhere. The episode follows varying, interweaving storylines of each character. Hawkeye (Alan Alda) is stuck in a mental hospital, slowly picking apart his repressed memories of some mysterious traumatic event with the help of psychiatrist Sydney (Allan Arbus, real-life husband of Diane Arbus). Meanwhile, snobbish surgeon Winchester (David Ogden Stiers) inadvertently captures a group of Chinese musicians and proceeds to teach them Mozart, while stand-up guy BJ Hunnicutt (Mike Farrell) has received premature orders to ship home. Comedy subplot-guy and former transvestite Klinger (Jamie Farr) is falling in love with Soon-Lee (Rosalind Chao), who is searching for her family amidst a chaotic countryside. And, in the meantime, it seems the peace talks are finally reaching a conclusion and the war's end is in sight.
"The war is over!"
Sigh! This episode! It has a pervasive end-of-high-school vibe, when you're cleaning out your locker and wishing farewells and generally feeling transcendentally nostalgic, happy and sad. There are innumerable pitch-perfect grace notes - moments of humanist tragicomedy that characterize the best of M*A*S*H - too many to note down here. And we won't spoil it for you! Suffice to say that we firmly believe the best introduction to M*A*S*H might be the final episode of the series, and indeed we've succesfully indoctrinated a couple fresh fans through the cunning use of the final episode.
We'll just pick out a few moments which stand out for the PPCC as M*A*S*Hly perfection:
- 1. Winchester's breakdown.
There are actually two breakdowns during this episode. They juxtapose each other well in showing us how two very different characters - the over-the-top Hawkeye and the more subdued Winchester - respond to witnessing an intensely tragic event.
In Hawkeye's case, he is slowly unravelling the mystery of why he is in the mental health ward. This whole plotline is very Freud-influenced: with Sydney the psychiatrist methodically pestering Hawkeye until the latter stops repressing his traumatic memory. Since psychoanalysis was a favorite motif of Alan Alda (see episode Dreams), we strongly suspect he had a big hand in writing these scenes. When Hawkeye finally remembers what was so horrible about that fateful busride home, Alda lets loose some huge, screaming grief. It is, depending on our mood, either cringe-worthy OTT or quite effective.
HAWKEYE: "We'll never see each other again." BJ: "Look, one year, Erin and Peg and I'll come east." HAWKEYE: "One year?" BJ: "Yeah, um... and get together." HAWKEYE: "Have dinner?" BJ: "Yeah." HAWKEYE: "In other words, goodbye?"Hawkeye starts teasing BJ about the latter's inability to say goodbye and accept the hard reality. It is both poignant and funny when BJ excuses himself to go back to the OR, and Hawkeye drawls out, "Goodbyeee." "See you later," BJ replies.
But there's a lot more to the episode. You might be thinking that, with all these plotlines, it would become confusing - especially for the novice viewer. Thankfully, Alan Alda, who also directed this episode, handles it all wonderfully - weaving a rich, fast-paced tapestry with a number of fun scenes where subplots collide and characters are literally talking over each other. It's a bit of an emotional rollercoaster, as intense moments follow each other so rapidly that, if the scene where Winchester bids goodbye to his Chinese POWs doesn't kill ya, the scene where he hears that the war is over certainly will (and yes, these two moments happen within seconds of each other).
Indeed, the strength of M*A*S*H has always been its ensemble of characters, and the final episode capitalizes on that - giving us a colorful dramatis personae who explore a wide scope of human emotion. In the end, you'll have laughed, cried and sighed like the big squishy softie you know you are.