Saturday 12 July 2008

Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen (1983)

M*A*S*H occupies a special place in the American part of our PPCC heart. It shares that space with the Woodstock documentary, big ugly cars, tree-lined streets, and dogs barking in the suburban gloom. It's a reminder of a golden time when America wasn't hated by quite so much of the world, when good ol' American values were something which, if not perfect, were at least going in the right direction.

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.
    Alan laying it on thick: "Oh, God! Oh, God!"
    Winchester's breakdown, however - flawless! OK, we're biased, since we've always considered Winchester a much more fleshed-out character than Hawkeye: he is both hilarious and sympathetic as a man who hides his vulnerabilities behind snobbery and can eviscerate people with a droll, unforgiving wit. Yeah, Winchester! Anyway, in Winchester's subplot - a subplot which could reflect his character arc for the entire show - Winchester is first dismissive towards his Chinese musician POWs, but then grows slowly affectionate and protective of them, and ultimately loses them to the war. The scene where Winchester is reunited with one of the POWs is heartbreaking. And David Ogden Stiers' acting in this scene is spot-on: we see Winchester in all his Winchesterness, refusing to let the grief out. It is very quiet and controlled, and yet much more powerful than Hawkeye's scene.
    Winchester's mirror breakdown scene.
    2. "This is my mother's shawl!" Argh! This scene hammers our heart into lumpy jam. It's a quick vignette from Soon-Lee and Klinger's relentless quest to find Soon-Lee's family. Soon-Lee is arguing with a woman over her shawl. Klinger comes over, asking what's the problem, and Soon-Lee excitedly explains that this was her mother's shawl - which means her mother is alive, and this woman had seen her in a nearby town. Soon-Lee and Klinger are about to hop in a jeep and drive off to the town, but Klinger stops, turns around, and buys the shawl back from the woman. "Here, you can give this back to your mother!"
    3. "Goodby-y-y-e." This is a great scene, seemingly irrelevant and yet a set-up for the final emotional punch of the episode - and the show altogether. An exhausted BJ and Hawkeye are having a sandwich break in between surgery. They start discussing what they'll do after the war, and Hawkeye realizes aloud that they'll probably never see each other again - as Hawkeye is from Maine, and BJ from California. Even more sadly, even if they do see each other, what they have together now will effectively be over. BJ, however, remains stubbornly optimistic:
    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.
    Hawk and BJ. BFFs!

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.


Anonymous said...

ah...nostalgia :-) I used to watch this every week along with everybody else, although by the end it really was time for them to go. Thanks for the trip back in time!

Sanket Vyas said...

Since they don't replay this one as much as the actual episodes I have only seen it a couple of times. As a psychiatrist myself I could extrapolate that I don't seek it out too much because it would hit too close to home that this wonderful show is actually over!

I have seen every episode multiple times and never get tired of them. Like you I like the later ones MUCH better (Col Flagg really annoyed me in the early ones). But the true 'switch' from cartoony to mature for me, other than the new bunkies, was the fleshing out of Margaret's character (the 'Rubber Soul' moment of MASH). And yes, I agree about Winchester as well - the episodes based around him were some of the most memorable.

Did you ever get to see my all time favorite episode 'In love & war'? I think you said it was damaged on your DVD - I recently saw it again and it just did my heart :) especially after I found out it was written & directed by Alan Alda himself.

a ppcc representative said...

Memsaab - No prob! Ahh, nostalgia.

Sanket - Completely agreed that when they dumped all the one-dimensional characterizations (poor Frank, Trapper, and the "old" Margaret), the show got so much better. I can't stand early Margaret, mostly because they only seem to use her as a stand-in for everything that's Wrong and Stupid with the army and the war. Once the writers started treating her like a real human being, the show was so much more enjoyable. It's only a pity that the later seasons then went a bit to the other extreme, turning a bit preachy and holier than thou. Ahh, but what am I complaining about? Even bad M*A*S*H is great.

Pleiades said...

Oh, how I'm loving this blog. I don't think I will ever love a show as much as I love M.A.S.H. It's so wonderful to see a "cinema"-centric site talk about M.A.S.H.

One of my favourite episodes, besides the ones already spoken about, is Run for the money (Also from the last season), in which Winchester (So so so much better than the caricature that was Frank), helps out a marine who stutters.

Anonymous said...

Didn't you like the Adventures of the Travelling Long Johns? Or Hawkeye being Payroll and goat eating relevant papers? I loved those as much as the episodes you've reviewed.
The only series I cared for so much as to purchase a picture book (Suzy Kalter?). Also went on to read Alan Alda's biography and only want to love him more.