Saturday, February 28, 2015

The Use Of Letters In M*A*S*H

One of the cool things about M*A*S*H was any episode that is premised on a letter being written. Nearly every season had some kind of “deeper look” into the nut house that was the 4077. The fascinating part about many of these is that it gives a look into the individual writing the letter just as much as the subjects of said letters.

By my count, there are 14 episodes that the plot is entirely revolved letters being written to the outside. There are others in which letters make for a minor plot point – The Pilot itself, when Hawkeye wrote to his father at the beginning; “Kim”, when Trapper is looking to adopt an ostensibly orphaned Korean boy; and “Bulletin Board”, when Trapper writes to his young daughters explaining what it is he did at the 4077.

There are a few odd ones involved. Some aren't, strictly speaking, letters, and there is a handful that goes outside the bounds of established practice of these letters. Let’s take a look; I rate the episodes on a scale of 5-10 out of 10. I don’t go lower than five because of my longstanding view that from a technical sense, there are no bad episodes of the series. My complaints would be mostly plot, dialogue, and directionally-based.

Dear Dad (Season 1: 8/10) – the first to use the letter trope from start to finish. Hawkeye is writing to his father at Christmas time and shares the humorous side of the 4077, such as Radar mailing a jeep home piece by piece and Frank and Margaret’s attempts to hide their relationship. The ending, with Hawkeye jumping to the front in a chopper in a Santa suit, really drove home the ugly side of the war, without being preachy.

Dear Dad…Again (Season 1: 9/10) – I always find this one to be exceptionally humorous, especially with the scenes in which Hawkeye bets Trapper he could walk across camp naked. He succeeds until Goldman drops his tray. My brother and I maintain Hawkeye actually won this bet, but the episode treats it as if he lost. The “Charity No-Talent Night” is also a good scene and is the first time we see Hawkeye in his famous tuxedo.

Dear Dad…Three (Season 2: 8/10) – this one takes on a slightly more serious tone, due to the bigoted attitudes of a wounded sergeant named Condon. The doctors also had to deal with a live grenade in the wounded body of a soldier. Even Henry’s home movie was on the serious side, although the addition of him messing around with his next door neighbor adds a light touch to it.

A Full Rich Day (Season 3: 9/10) – this was the first to do a letter format without the written word; Hawkeye uses a tape recorder to give a look at a day in the life of the 4077. The missing Luxembourg soldier plot line was pretty funny, but the best one was clearly the crazy Turkish guy. Good Joe. Damn good Joe!

Dear Mildred (Season 4: 9/10) – Sherman Potter had only been at the 4077 shortly, and this is the first real insight into his character. It is his 27th anniversary and his is writing to his wife about adjusting to life at M*A*S*H. The ending when Radar presents the horse (eventually known as Sophie) to Potter is one of the most touching scenes in the entire series. Sophie was as much a part of that unit as any person.

Dear Peggy (Season 4: 8/10) – out of the three letter episodes of Season Four, this one was the weakest. What “Dear Mildred” did for Potter, this one does for BJ. I’m not going to lie: the Ned Beatty character, who was a superior officer in the chaplain corps to Fr. Mulcahy, was one of the most annoying guest shots this side of Robert Alda (Dr. Borelli). The line, though, about how Frank became a doctor after washing out of embalmers’ school is a classic.

Dear Ma (Season 4: 9/10) – the sweet, innocent Radar is in full force here, writing to his mom in Iowa about the monthly foot inspection, Frank’s paranoia regarding Koreans, and Potter having to hide being shot from his wife. What sets this apart from the rest so far is that we have the point of view from an enlisted man rather than an officer, especially someone who has such an important role to play in the unit.

Dear Sigmund (Season 5: 10/10) – this is one of my top ten M*A*S*H episodes (#4) of all time. Sidney Freedman comes to the 4077 after dealing with a rough patch in which one of his psychiatric patients commits suicide, and ends up “taking vacation” in the dead of winter at the unit. For therapy, he writes a letter to Sigmund Freud about the characters of the unit. I always enjoy this one because it is the outsider’s view of the unit and its people. In some ways, Freedman stands in for the audience.

The Winchester Tapes (Season 6: 9/10) – this is for Charles what we saw in Season Four with Potter and BJ. It is mostly a complaint filled audio recording of Charles to his parents begging them to get him out of front-line duty. Such was mostly what Charles did in the early days of Season Six.

Dear Comrade (Season 7: 9/10) – the second of the “outsider” letters, this time from a North Korean spy who infiltrated the 4077 as a houseboy to observe the medical success of the unit to emulate it. The conclusion was that the unit was too insane to even try to mimic. Which, I suppose, would be true. The 4077 is a lot like a sports team. You can teach technique and have good coaching, but talent wins the games. The 4077 had the talent. No talent, no success.

Dear Sis (Season 7: 9/10) – it’s Christmas at the 4077 and Fr. Mulcahy feels completely useless and writes to his sister about those feelings. Throughout the episode, though, his actions, small and large do make a difference. Another very touching scene in the series is when Charles finds his hat from his mother. I have long been about the little things making life enjoyable, and the glee Winchester has with his hat is a great demonstration.

Dear Uncle Abdul (Season 8: 10/10) – this was the final letter written by a main character to a family member. Klinger has finally adjusted to being the company clerk after Radar’s departure and he takes the time to write to his uncle about what he’s done. Some of the bits are still among the funniest in the series, such as the competition between Hawkeye and BJ over who can tell a joke better, and Margaret shooting her footlocker with Charles’ shotgun. Klinger’s final bit to Hawkeye and BJ in the Officers’ Club is one of the best comeuppances of the show.

Letters (Season 9: 8/10) – this episode breaks from the previous style by using a fourth-grade class from Crabapple Cove. They wrote letters to the personnel of the 4077 in a plethora of different tones and manners. Some are frivolous, some are touching, and some are full of angst, such as the boy who wrote about his brother being killed after being treated at a field hospital. The only negative to the episode is that falls prey to the late-season Alan Alda-fueled anvilicious moralizing.

Give ‘Em Hell, Hawkeye (Season 10: 8/10) – Hawkeye writes a letter to Harry Truman after getting frustrated with the lack of peace talks. It is a very well-done episode, even to the point that I’m willing to overlook a lot of the late-season malaise (mentioned with the previous episode). The Klinger-Margaret dynamic is always an underrated and forgotten one; here it is on full and glorious display.

For the record, I have rated every single episode. Eventually, that will be compiled into a database that I’ll keep here. Hope you enjoyed reading this. Please let me know if you think I have neglected anything.

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