I thought I would take another dive into M*A*S*H with this week’s Impressions on Preventative Medicine, another season 7 episode, although this one much heavier than our last. For a longer introduction to the MASH show, you can check out the start of my Impressions of Baby, It’s Cold Outside here. For now, M*A*S*H is a dramedy based on a movie of the same title, set during the Korean War. It ran for 11 seasons and shifted back and forth between zany screwball comedy and more serious anti-war messages.
I want to warn people that this a spoiler-heavy Impressions piece because there is no way to only “sort of” discuss what is happening. The episode is worth watching regardless of whether or not you know what will happen going in because it’s more about the moral and ethical questions it presents than it is about the plot itself.
While M*A*S*H sometimes moved away from a and b plotlines that are fairly standard for sitcoms, this is an episode where they didn’t. There is a distinct A plotline about a Colonel who everybody feels is a bit too risky with his men, and a comedic B plotline, with Klinger trying to use voodoo to get Potter to let him out. The Klinger plotline is amusing enough, but honestly, just clearly there to help level out the much more serious Colonel Lacy one.
Colonel Lacy is introduced to us via the operating room. We jump in with all of the doctors exhausted after being at it for a long time with much more work to do. They discuss that all the men they are operating on being from a Colonel Lacy’s unit, a man “the army calls aggressive and Potter calls reckless.” He brings them more casualties than most of the troops, and they lament that several of the men are so thoroughly wounded because when they were meant to retreat, Lacy said no.
Flash forward to the characters dealing with post-op and one patient himself sharing similar thoughts about his commander as the doctors did. Lacy finally makes an actual appearance and sets to charming (sometimes successfully, sometimes not) the various members of the M*A*S*H. He is able to get to Radar by showing him appreciation and pointing out that people like him truly make things work. He also gets to Margret with some flirting (of course), while everybody else seems to be disgusted with him.
Lacy is a pretty effective antagonist because he wears a lot of the charm that so-called good guys normally would in similar roles. He is here to talk to the men, makes grand speeches that would almost seem rousing, and is good at flattering those around him. However, it’s very cold and unfeeling. He moves from one attempt to charm and win over to another. Completely separated from what we know is the message and his other behaviors, individually, nothing he says in the early parts of the episode seems that wrong. I like the way that they take what are traditionally good traits to be seen among the commanders but rework them just so, so that you can see what a manipulator he is. To the extent that it was intentional, I don’t know, but Lacy seems to be a great counterpoint to a lot of “positive” characters in war movies and shows. His words and actions only need to slightly be tweaked to be taken entirely differently. It holds up a bit of a mirror, including to some of the good commanders shown in the very same show.
About halfway through the episode, the veneer starts to crack. Margret is taken aback by how casually Lacy talks about sacrificing men. Radar and Potter talk, and Potter informs him that sometimes a nice outward appearance is to hide what is really going on. Hawkeye has the strongest reaction, though. He tries to get to Lacy via speeches that he’s given before, but his failure to make even the slightest dent frustrates him. Eventually, Lacy is denied an assignment he wants (to retake a hill) and comes up with a scheme to get it anyway by baiting the enemy into attacking his men first.
Hawkeye snaps and invites Lacy for a drink and begins to drug him. When Lacy expresses discomfort, Hawkeye diagnoses him with acute appendicitis, knowing that the recovery time for having his appendix removed will take him off the front lines. Something B.J. vehemently objects to. Hawkeye and B.J. fight over the implications of what Hawkeye is about to do, but Hawkeye goes through with it anyway. The episode ends (not counting the post-credits scene) with them getting more wounded in.
This is an intense episode of M*A*S*H. B.J. insists what Hawkeye is doing is wrong; they have no right as doctors to open somebody up and remove a healthy organ. Hawkeye, however, sees it as an obligation on his part to get someone they consider monstrous from being out on the frontlines. It is a real dilemma because they are both right. B.J. is right that it won’t actually stop the war machine, something shown by them getting wounded at the end, and that it will only change how Hawkeye feels about himself. Hawkeye is not wrong that just standing back and watching the war machine is not satisfying and that doctors do unnecessary surgeries back home for simply profit; he is trying to do it to save lives.
Overall the episode seems to fall pretty hard on B.J.’s side, but that is sort of the nature of the show. It can’t be seen approving of what Hawkeye has done, but as a viewer, I don’t exactly see it that way. The show is very clear in the beginning that Colonel Lacy is, in fact, worse and more dangerous. The soldier from earlier, in post-op, actually threatens to kill Lacy if he is sent back to him. The question is never fully answered as to whether or not taking out this one guy, who is again, according to the show itself worse, makes a difference or not. The lack of continuity means we get what the show tells us is the ending. Hawkeye is regretful, and the war keeps coming, but it doesn’t fully close itself.
I think it’s reasonable to walk away from this episode still questioning how you feel about what Hawkeye did, even with it trying to guide you to one conclusion.
So bottom line, I do recommend this episode. Don’t expect the jokes, zaniness, or fun that you get from a lot of M*A*S*H. There are still touches of humor, whereas some episodes later on completely lack in it (Dreams stands out), but it’s not the main purpose. Honestly, a lot of the humor falls flat in this one for me, it does break up the intensity, which is nice, but I was far from laughing out loud. It’s a sadder episode that’ll leave a lot of people wondering how they feel, but I think that is a good thing. Media should challenge us, or at least make us question sometimes. I also appreciate that it shows the more fallible side of Hawkeye. Hawkeye is easy to hero-worship, but he is a flawed character who struggles with the “reality” he’s in. And I like those reminders. The argument that B.J. and Hawkeye have is well done and honestly leaves me feeling for both characters. If you are looking to laugh, maybe save this one for later. If you are looking for the more serious side of M*A*S*H, this is a good one.
*Note* earlier in the show, they did do something similar, but it was played for laughs and lacks any of the dilemma that this episode presents. In fact if you want to get a good look at how the tone of the show changed the difference between this and that episode (The Ringbanger) is pretty stark.
Have you seen this episode? If so, how do you feel about the dilemma it presents? Or any other thoughts you have about this episode in general. Also, let me know if there are episodes you’d like me to take a look at!