Over the course of M*A*S*H, the “protagonist” could be any one of a total of six men. The hopes, dreams, desires, and fears of these men are centered in the narrative, offering viewers a full portrait of “men at war.” Some of the men are witty, and some of them are terrified. Some are capable, while others are comedic relief. The job of displaying this range of humanity is spread across multiple characters, allowing each to highlight a few traits or a few emotions. Added up, it’s a spectrum of what it is to be a man at war.
By contrast, we the viewers have only one top-billed character to show us what it meant to be a woman in the Korean War. This monumental task belonged to Major Margaret J. Houlihan, the head nurse of the 4077th, as portrayed by Loretta Swit. Yes, there were other women on M*A*S*H. But, as far as long-term, seasons-long storytelling, Houlihan is the singular, unwavering representation of women at war.
Here are 10 episodes that show how the character changes over the course of the show, from a steely soldier to a fully fleshed-out person. A woman is no one thing, and these episodes show the multitudes that Margaret Houlihan contains.
1. Hot Lips and Empty Arms
The fourteenth episode of season two takes a look at Major Houlihan’s personal life, and specifically, what could have been. In addition, this is the first peek into Margaret’s discontentment with her relationship with Frank Burns. The idea for the eventual breakup came from Loretta Swit herself!
2. Aid Station
Houlihan is tasked with some of her most stressful work in “Aid Station” going above and beyond even her role as chief nurse. She cuts into a patient while exploding shells ravage the off-site aid station. What’s most revealing is Margaret’s fear. She’s scared, and she shares Hawkeye’s blanket, one of her only displays of true vulnerability.
“Deluge” overwhelms the characters with a barrage of casualties and shelling from China, which has now joined the war. Things get so bad that nurses are ordered to be temporarily shipped out. But Major Margaret Houlihan was born to serve. She stands her ground, resolutely refusing the safety offered to her. Houlihan is the face of bravery.
4. Margaret’s Engagement
Houlihan comes back from Tokyo with news of her own engagement. Nothing is going to stand in the way of her joy. Not the war, and certainly not Frank Burns. This is a great example of Margaret focusing on her happiness, even if it comes at the expense of someone like Burns, who has a complete meltdown and even stabs her. She is, of course, a person who deserves happiness, and this episode does a great job of highlighting just that.
5. The Nurses
This is one of the first peeks behind Houlihan’s steely facade. Here, she reveals the loneliness inherent to her position as chief nurse. Take it from Swit herself, in the 1980 book M*A*S*H – The Exclusive Inside Story of TV’s Most Popular Show: “Margaret’s fallibility and her vulnerability were graphically revealed in the episode called ‘The Nurses,’ which marked the first major change in her character.”
6. Fade Out, Fade In
“In some ways, Donald is no Frank Burns.” With this scathing statement, Margaret lets us see the first threads of her relationship with Penobscott beginning to unfurl. Following a party celebrating their recent wedding, Donald begins to completely shut down, and Margaret picks up on his cold demeanor. She’s aware of it, and it rings alarms for her as a huge red flag. No man is worth being treated poorly.
“Images” is an episode that best illustrates the control it takes to keep it together. A new nurse is overwhelmed, and Margaret absolutely lets her have it, not holding back at all. Later, a stray dog that Houlihan has been caring for gets hit by a jeep. This is the straw that breaks Margaret’s back, as she tearfully reveals just how much she’s fighting to remain composed. Despite her best efforts, though, Houlihan is human and needs to let it out.
8. Comrades in Arms
This two-part episode deals with Margaret’s relationship with her then-husband Donald Penobscott. He’d once seemed so perfect, but things turn for the worse when Margaret receives a letter Donald wrote for another woman. Stuck in a bombed-out hut with Hawkeye, Houlihan is forced to take refuge in their strange friendship, letting her guard down. Margaret protects Hawkeye, and Hawkeye protects Margaret. It’s beautiful.
9. Hot Lips is Back in Town
Margaret’s divorce from Donald Penobscott is now official. Instead of displaying just happiness or just remorse, Swit’s portrayal shows that multiple things can be true at once, especially when it comes to emotions. Houlihan is dazed, especially when General Weiskopf uses the opportunity to make an advance. Instead, Houlihan doubles down on her dedication to improving things around camp and develops a new triage procedure. Houlihan stands her ground and refuses the General, even amidst a vulnerable post-divorce hangover.
10. Father’s Day
Viewers rarely get a chance to see a nervous Margaret Houlihan. She is typically cool in the face of insurmountable pressure. However, with the news that her father is set to arrive in the 4077th, Margaret is filled with anxious anticipation. This is a glimpse into the “why” of Margaret Houlihan, and viewers piece together the backstory that has made Houlihan the soldier that she is. Plus, by the episode’s end, Margaret gets a much-deserved “I’m proud of you.”