Trick or Treatment is the second episode of the final season of M*A*S*H. It is also the only Halloween episode of the series. Something I have noticed in my digging into TV classics is that while Halloween episodes are considered pretty standard for sitcoms in the modern age, it was less so the case for a lot of older shows. A few will have an episode or two in their runs; many don’t even have that, though. Still, I am glad M*A*S*H offered up at least one, even if it is not my favorite episode of the series overall.
Trick or Treatment is like a lot of M*A*S*H episodes without a well-defined A and B plot, but rather an overarching theme and a lot of stories intertwined into it. Similar to Baby It’s Cold Outside and many others. The theme, of course, as it’s a Halloween episode, is Halloween. Most of the camp is excited about the holiday, dressing up, and planning to go out. Then as usually happens, wounded come in.
From there, we get our branching stories – One with a soldier who is severely underweight. A soldier is dead and left in the camp. Marines that are getting drunk and causing issues. And then, during surgery, several of the characters share creepy stories they have heard or experienced throughout the years.
Unsurprising Charles is the stick in the mud, refusing to dress up and scoffing at the characters for believing silly ghost stories.
Charles’ first marine is the wonderful George Wendt, who has a pool ball stuck in his mouth. They have quite the hilarious back and forth, even with Wendt being unable to speak. It also sets the tone for the attitude Charles will have with the various marines as they come through the M*A*S*H and his anger at having to deal with their drunken antics while real patients are coming through.
As things unfold, we find out the soldier who is malnourished has been doing it to himself. His group got an early Thanksgiving – I find it odd to suddenly jump to Thanksgiving in a Halloween episode, but I get it. – He was eating with his buddies and went before for seconds. While he was gone, they were all killed, and survivor’s guilt took over. He refuses to eat because he believes he should have died with his friends and would have if he hadn’t been so greedy. It is a terribly sad story and one of the sadder ones in a show that hits the sad button often. It’s also one of the more intense looks at the notion of survivor’s guilt.
The rest of the episode keeps flowing on, following the various players around as they share their creepy stories, dealing with more wounded than expected, with the audience occasionally being reminded of the dead soldier. Father Mulcahy eventually returns to the M*A*S*H and insists on the chance to give the last rites, only to see that the soldier is not, in fact, dead, something the audience has been tipped off to but nobody else. He is upset at first with the oversight by those that declared him to be so. Potter and Hawkeye explain that in the chaos of war, someone without much of a pulse being declared dead made sense. I have to admit just makes me think how many real-life soldiers might have gone through this, only without someone to correct the mistake, allowing them to fade away while everyone thought they were already gone. I’m not sure if the episode intentionally invokes that response, but it’s certainly the one I had.
We also have Charles, who comes to deliver one final blow to the marines for their behavior. Shortly after lecturing them and them showing some degree of shame, BJ walks in, in his clown suit. George Wendt’s character points out the hypocrisy of Charles’s lecture. I think it is a good cap to this part of the story. While the marines’ behavior is a little much, it does still remind the audience that the show’s baseline premise was “people are over the top and ridiculous at the M*A*S*H because of the horrors they are forced to deal with.” A good have your cake and eat it too moment for the audience. We get to see the marines shamed, but they also get to hand it back.
As I stated before, this is not one of my favorite episodes, and I think a large part of that is I felt the tone was a bit off. There are episodes in the past that can give a little bit of emotional whiplash because they will have such funny parts and then hit you hard with the drama and harshness of war. Trick or Treatment seems like it partially wants to do that but doesn’t succeed. Other than George Wendt, most of the interactions with the marines, the parts that are meant to be the humor element, sort of fall flat.
The creepiness factor that the episode is going for doesn’t fully succeed either. Yes, the stories the people share are interesting, and you do have the “dead soldier coming back to life” idea, with the suspense of the audience being unsure if anyone will find out. But neither of these fully manages to be “Halloween” enough, though the episode clearly wanted to build on the idea of the slightly unnerving Halloween episode.
It could simply be that creepy pales in comparison to when the show does more depressing and dark looks at the horrors of war. I think this episode might have been more successful in the earlier seasons, but at this point, we had seen some pretty bleak episodes already, so “ghost stories” just don’t have the same impact.
I just also don’t think it was fully fleshed out as an idea. It is a Halloween-themed episode with some creepy attempts, but in truth, it’s overall just a normal episode of M*A*S*H with ghost stories and costumes.
All that complaining aside, it’s not a bad episode; in fact, I would call it good. Just not one of my favorites nor do I think a successful Halloween episode. I cannot stress enough how powerful I think the malnourished soldier storyline is. For all my complaining about the episode itself, that bit sticks with me. It also has decent moments both in drama and comedy. Again George Wendt is fantastic. We also get some classic “Potter is too aged by the horrors of war to give af” moments.
So bottom line? I am torn, but I mostly recommend it. However, I have to say I recommend it more as a M*A*S*H episode than a Halloween one. If you are looking to fill out your October viewing, this isn’t going to be a horrible choice to put on the list. It’s a good episode, just outshined by some of the rest of the series. I don’t think it really scratches that Halloween/October itch as much as other classic tv shows Halloween-themed episodes can.
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