M*A*S*H is one of those rare TV shows that I can watch whenever; I’m almost always in the mood for an episode or three. (Other shows with this distinction include The Twilight Zone, Star Trek: The Next Generation, and Parks and Recreation.) With 256 episodes spanning 11 seasons — the series aired on CBS from 1972 to 1983 — M*A*S*H is a wealth of delightful dialog, hilarious comedy, and thought-provoking (and even moving) moments.
Below are some of my favorite moments featuring the men and women of the 4077th, and they range from merry to manic to melancholy. This list is far from exhaustive, and I’ve intentionally chosen some (maybe) lesser-known moments. But they all highlight just a bit of what makes M*A*S*H so special, even 40 years after its finale.
One of M*A*S*H’s more memorable side characters is the Cowboy, a daring helicopter pilot packing six shooters and a ten-gallon hat. Played by character actor Billy Green Bush, the Cowboy only appeared in this episode, where he takes a strong dislike to Colonel Blake, who won’t let him return stateside to salvage his marriage. The episode has several hilarious moments at Henry’s expense (e.g., a booby-trapped latrine) and culminates in the Cowboy trying to push Henry out of his chopper — only to be saved when a letter from Cowboy’s wife arrives. The letter is filled with twists and turns, and Hawkeye and Trapper’s reluctant reading, as well as Radar’s “double dear John John” response to a particularly memorable twist, are classic.
M*A*S*H never missed an opportunity to poke fun at military bureaucracy, the “The Army-Navy Game” is a perfect example. The camp is all geared up for the titular game, but their plans are ruined when a bomb lands in the middle of the compound and fails to explode. Unfortunately, attempts to get help from HQ are less than successful because — you guessed it — everyone’s focused on the game. Eventually, it’s up to Hawkeye and Trapper to try and defuse the bomb as Henry reads the instructions, which, being military, are more obtuse than they should be. And in one more dig at military incompetence, the bomb turns out to be a CIA propaganda bomb, but all of the propaganda is apparently in English, not Korean. (Another great scene in this episode is Henry’s anecdote about Tanker Washington.)
Whenever the ultra-paranoid CIA (or is it CID?) agent Colonel Flagg makes an appearance, you know you’re in for a treat. Appearing in seven episodes, Flagg — played to swaggering, squinting perfection by Edward Winter — gave M*A*S*H yet another way to poke fun at military intelligence and bureaucracy. “White Gold” is Flagg’s fourth M*A*S*H appearance, and he arrives at the 4077th to investigate a break-in that’s linked to a rash of penicillin thefts. Flagg, however, is really there to steal some penicillin himself so he can trade it for information. In order to steal the camp’s penicillin, though, Flagg fakes a prisoner escape by ransacking a tent and ultimately ramming his head through a closet door. No sacrifice was ever too great — or absurd — for Flagg, not when it came to serving his country.
We all love Henry Blake, and “Abyssinia, Henry” is one of the series’ great gut punches. At first blush, his replacement, Colonel Sherman T. Potter, is the complete opposite: a career military man who hasn’t performed any surgery in years. He even goes so far as to order Klinger back into a regular uniform. But after a long stint in the OR proves he’s still got the skills, Potter retires to the Swamp with Hawkeye and B.J. for a post-surgery drink, during which he loosens up and reveals the truth behind his Purple Heart. (Henry Morgan’s drunken delivery is so good here.) The scene ends with the three of them singing “There’s a Long Long Trail” — a popular World War I-era song — into the night as the camera slowly pulls back from the Swamp. It’s one of the series’ most indelible images, a moment of a light and song made all the more stark and affecting by the (literal and figurative) darkness surrounding the trio.
Despite being set in South Korea, M*A*S*H only featured a handful of memorable Korean characters. One of them is Cho, a Korean artist and merchant played by Richard Lee-Sung (who starred in eleven episodes, usually in some unnamed background role). Frank and Margaret hire Cho to carve a wooden bust of Colonel Potter for his anniversary, and while discussing the job, Cho shows off his finest work: a plank of wood that, amazingly, used to be round. It’s a seemingly throwaway scene, but Lee-Sung’s delivery and the pride in his voice — especially when he thanks Frank for calling it a two-by-four — never fails to elicit a hearty chuckle. “Dear Mildred” is probably best known as the episode where Potter receives his beloved horse from Radar (and expresses joy after slipping on some manure in his office) but Lee-Sung’s Cho gives it an extra layer of delight.
M*A*S*H’s fifth season begins with the news that the 4077th is bugging out due to a massive incursion by Chinese forces. While Hawkeye, Margaret, and Radar stay behind to care for a critically wounded patient, the rest of the camp sets out in search of a new home. The only problem is that their ideal location is currently occupied by a group of prostitutes. The ladies absolutely refuse to leave… until they catch sight of Klinger’s wardrobe, that is. Hilarity ensues as Klinger defends his hard-earned collection from the ladies (e.g., “It’s simulated raccoon!”), and at first, he refuses to make the trade. But when Potter implores him to do it for his hometown of Toledo, Klinger reluctantly agrees — a sacrifice that Potter praises as the finest act of bravery he’s ever seen.
Thanks to his jingoism, racism, hypocrisy, and holier-than-thou attitude, Frank Burns is the Platonic ideal of a character you love to hate. He’s never truly odious, though, just pathetic — and “Margaret’s Engagement” almost makes him likable. After Margaret returns to camp newly engaged, Frank snaps and goes rogue. Radar saves the day with a long-distance call to Frank’s mom, which gives us some insight into why Frank’s the way that he is. (Turns out, his dad wasn’t much of one.) But the kicker comes at the episode’s end. Margaret is bragging about her fiancé, Lt. Colonel Donald Penobscott, to anyone who’ll listen when Frank suggests to Hawkeye that they take a couple of nurses over to Rosie’s Bar that night. Margaret mocks him, only for Frank to shut her down with one of the series’ most brutal lines — “I thought a little youth might be nice for a change.” — as Hawkeye and B.J. look on in astonishment. Frank’s back to “normal” by the next episode, but for just a moment, we see what might’ve been between the three doctors as they share a laugh.
M*A*S*H’s various epistolary episodes, during which a character composes a letter back home, gave the show’s writers a chance to tell a bunch of smaller stories highlighting the 4077th’s shenanigans. My favorite is “Dear Sigmund,” with Major Sidney Freedman — my favorite recurring character after Colonel Flagg — penning a letter to Sigmund Freud in which he psychoanalyzes Hawkeye, B.J., et al., and their methods for coping with the constant violence and bloodshed. It’s filled with wonderful vignettes, including Klinger’s latest loony attempt to get out of the army, Hawkeye’s efforts to expose a bomber pilot to the realities of war, and a string of practical jokes. (My kids positively howled when I showed them the “Air Raid” scene for the first time.) But perhaps my favorite vignette involves Radar O’Reilly, the naïve — and psychic — young company clerk who occasionally shows maturity beyond his years, and no more so than when he writes a condolence letter to some parents after their son’s death.
Potter and Hawkeye have a fascinating relationship. As a career military man, Potter represents everything that Hawkeye hates, while Hawkeye’s slovenliness ought to offend a man of Potter’s age and rank. But it’s clear that both men deeply respect each other, as seen during their trip to a ramshackle Korean hospital near the frontlines. This episode really is a showcase for both Henry Morgan and Alan Alda, and the episode features several delightful interactions between the two. It culminates with the two surgeons, both heavily inebriated, seeking shelter in a foxhole, with Potter doing his darndest to get Hawkeye to use his sidearm — something the gun-hating Hawkeye refuses to do. Afterwards, as the two surgeons drunkenly make their way back to the 4077th, Potter bumps into a shrub and immediately apologizes. It’s a “blink and you’ll miss it” moment, but Morgan’s timing and physical comedy are sublime.
I don’t know if “Ping Pong” is my favorite M*A*S*H episode, but it’s up there because it has a little bit of everything. Sure, Hawkeye and B.J.‘s nobility in helping a Korean couple get married gets a little too “white savior”-y, but it’s worth it if only to see Hawkeye convince Potter to allow the wedding in the camp by making him the father of the bride. Watching the recently engaged Margaret rebuff Frank’s pathetic wooing is a lot of fun, and of course, there’s some pretty awesome table tennis action, too. As for the “B” plot, during which Potter confronts an old friend who’s willing to sacrifice his own men for his career, it just makes me love Potter all the more. But my favorite part occurs at the end, during the wedding itself. Father Mulcahy narrates the decidedly non-Catholic wedding for the rest of the officers, all of whom — with the notable exception of Frank — are in their dress uniforms, a sign of their respect for their Korean neighbors.
Given the series’ focus on the antics of Hawkeye, B.J., Radar, etc., it’s sometimes easy to forget about everyone else at the 4077th. There were some prominent side characters, like Rizzo and Nurse Kellye, but by and large, everyone else in the camp was essentially window dressing. “Movie Tonight,” however, is one of those rare episodes that makes the 4077th feel like an actual community. Potter orders a copy of his favorite movie, My Darling Clementine, to help lift everyone’s spirits, but constant projector malfunctions threaten to ruin the camp’s movie night. So instead, they throw an impromptu talent show. Eventually, however, everyone’s frustrations reach a boiling point and, during the movie’s climactic shootout, they have an epic shootout of their own.
M*A*S*H had no shortage of bad or inept officers who were more concerned with their own glory and status than the soldiers under their command. (See Lt. Col. Harold Beckett in the aforementioned “Ping Pong.”) At first blush, Major Ross seems to be cut from that cloth as he reprimands his men for laying about the hospital ward. He’s so awful, in fact, that Hawkeye quickly dresses him down. But when Ross returns later in the episode, he’s warm and encouraging as he listens to his men read letters from home. Turns out, Ross’ earlier behavior was all a ruse; though seemingly callous, it communicated to his men that they’ll be OK and lifted their spirits. It’s an unusual strategy, and in the end, Hawkeye must begrudgingly admit that Ross’ concern for the men outweighs even his own.
Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan experienced some of the greatest character growth of anyone in M*A*S*H. Initially, she was often the target of Hawkeye’s practical jokes (and leering), and with her strict demeanor and obsession with military regulations, often came across as — for lack of a better term — a bitch. But the series slowly peeled back her layers, revealing a complexity of emotions and desires. After her divorce becomes official, Margaret immediately gets back to work and develops a new plan to improve nurse efficiency. But things get complicated when the general she invited to review the plan insists on taking things further, and in a decidedly less professional direction. The Margaret from M*A*S*H’s earlier seasons, who was often enamored with generals, might’ve given in, but not this Margaret. Older, wiser, and more sure of herself and what she wants, she rebukes the general, sends him packing, and raises a well-deserved toast to herself.
Over the years, Father Francis John Patrick Mulcahy has become my favorite M*A*S*H character; his meek personality and appearance mask a moral strength that comforts and inspires those around him. But sometimes, that can lead to misunderstandings, as when the good priest helps a young, ambitious nurse seeking to become a doctor. He becomes her chief advocate, leading to an uncomfortable situation when she hugs him, first in gratitude and then something more. (Or as he exclaims to Hawkeye, “She hugged the stuffing out of me!”) Mulchahy does his best to treat her honorably, but of course, this being M*A*S*H, there’s some hilarity first. All’s well by the episode’s end, except for poor Hawkeye, who would also like his stuffing to be hugged. To which Mulcahy calmly replies, “What can I say, Hawkeye? Some guys got it and some guys don’t.” It’s a wonderful bit of snark from the usually mild-mannered priest.
Charles Emerson Winchester III was often stuffy and arrogant, but unlike Frank Burns — whom he replaced in season six — he had a strong moral center and sense of decency. When he delivers a Christmas gift of chocolates to the local orphanage, he insists that the gift remain anonymous, as per his family’s tradition. And when he discovers that those same chocolates have been sold on the black market, he’s rightfully outraged until he learns that the money was used to buy a month’s worth of food. (As Charles notes, “it is sadly inappropriate to give dessert to a child who has had no meal.”) Unbeknownst to Charles, however, Klinger has overheard the entire exchange, and later delivers Christmas dinner to the newly chagrined Winchester while insisting, with a twinkle in his eye, that the source of the dinner must remain anonymous. “Death Takes a Holiday” is probably better known for B.J.‘s valiant-but-futile effort to keep a soldier alive through Christmas, but Charles and Klinger’s quiet exchange is just as moving in its own way.