On a crisp February morning five years ago, I was enjoying an unexpectedly familiar classical piece on the radio. As the piece ended, the soothing voice of Carl Grapentine, the morning host, wafted across the airwaves, announcing that it was on that same day 35 years before that the final episode of M*A*S*H had aired. Grapentine had been the host of another morning Classical Music segment in Detroit at the time, and the morning after the last episode of the show aired in 1983, he had chosen to play this same piece. He was later informed that he had people weeping in their cars on the way to work that morning.
The reason, of course, is that Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet in A Major is the piece that Charles Emerson Winchester (III) (David Ogden Stiers) attempts to teach to a quintet of Chinese musicians in the last days of the war. It becomes the beautiful and heart-rending recurring musical motif of the final episode, and — in my own mind, at least — has since become tinged and enmeshed with the themes of the episode and the series as a whole. It is one of the many things about that episode that makes it just about the perfect episode of M*A*S*H.
What Made ‘M*A*S*H’ Great
It is no surprise that the final episode also ranks as one of the greatest series finales of all time; it did so for good reason. There have been plenty of great sitcoms, and plenty of great dramatic series. What made M*A*S*H different and distinct was that it became a series that was better than any other at mixing both comedy and drama. There are dramatic episodes of comedies and comedic episodes of serious shows, but M*A*S*H played on both sides of the road. While it started off as a much more straightforward comedy, by the end of the series it had evolved into something far more complex.
Perhaps the most indicative aspect that made M*A*S*H unique was actually not even that it did both comedy and drama so well, but that it was able to do both at the same time in the same episode without the comedy ever undercutting the drama or vice versa. The best exemplary episodes of M*A*S*H all have this same sort of format: the simultaneous comedic and tragic storylines. Episode 19 of Season 8 (“Morale Victory”) is a classic example, as Hawkeye (Alan Alda) and B.J. Hunnicutt (Mike Farrell) hold the comedic storyline, trying desperate hijinks to boost morale in the camp while Charles works through shock and regret as he tries to find the right way to encourage a concert pianist who has lost the use of one of his hands.
But the same principle is true of so many episodes throughout the series. Pretty much every season has a sequence of episodes that you could make the case belong in the top 5 episodes of the whole series, and they are almost always structured around that classic distinctive mix of simultaneous comedic and tragic storylines. Nonetheless, few of them can hold a candle to the series finale, “Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen.”
Part of the excellence of the final episode comes from the long-standing expectation: as a series that lasted 11 years focusing on a war that lasted three, M*A*S*H always had a definite terminus: sooner or later, the war would have to end. As such, M*A*S*H had a predetermined bittersweet ending that audiences could definitely see coming: the war would end and everyone would finally get to go home, but of course that would also mean leaving all the friends and companions they made during the war and going all their separate ways.
The Cast Put it Over the Top
Of course, while the overarching plot of the final episode may have been fairly clear, the storylines of each of the characters involved are what ultimately make the finale the superlative episode that it is. One of the greatest strengths of the series as a whole was its excellent ensemble cast that worked as a well-oiled machine, particularly in the later seasons: the perpetually wisecracking (but occasionally unstable) Hawkeye; the dedicated family man with a devious sense of humor in B.J. Hunnicutt; the supercilious and snobbish Charles with a shockingly tender and gentle side; the hard-bitten and seasoned, but paternal career military man in Harry Morgan’s Sherman T. Potter; the no-nonsense head nurse in Margaret Houlihan (Loretta Swit) who hid a romantic side under a tough exterior; Jamie Farr’s champion scrounge always in search of a Section 8, Max Klinger; and, of course, the gentle and consoling but ever-resilient Father Francis Mulcahy (William Christopher).
One of the things that made the final episode so special was that it played into all the strengths of this excellent ensemble cast. With a runtime five times as long as the standard 25-minute episode, the finale took the time to make sure that each character had a complete plot line that would both allow them to develop as characters and give closure to their overarching stories within the series.
Focusing on Individual Character Storylines Played to the Series’ Strengths
Hawkeye’s story is a prime example of this. Though the series dealt with Hawkeye’s mental breakdowns at various points in the show, the plot line in the finale landed a bit harder, focusing as it did on the terrible things that people are willing to do, or are forced to do, in the context of a war. The series was notable for steering hard into the horrors of war, and having Hawkeye suffer a mental breakdown as a result of his attempt to forget what he had seen allowed for the story to focus on what was a central plot point of the series as a whole.
It also allowed the story to bring in a fan-favorite guest star and give him his swan song in the series: Alan Arbus’ Sydney Freedman. The scene with the final celebratory dinner in which everyone explains what they will be doing after the war was also an excellent way of giving curtain calls to some of the secondary actors playing recurring or bit parts over the run of the series: G.W. Bailey’s Luther Rizzo, Jeff Maxwell’s Igor, and Kellye Nakahara’s Nurse Kellye among them.
But of course nobody escapes without collateral damage, either. The most poignant example of this might be in Fr. Mulcahy’s storyline, as the man who had been the gentlest and kindest character on the show had to face the diagnosis that he would soon become completely deaf as a result of a good deed he did in helping some prisoners of war. Of course, this particular setback becomes yet another moment in which Mulcahy shows his true quality, as after the initial shock and worry about whether he would ever be able to even hear confessions again, he takes his misfortune to be a blessing in disguise, deciding that he will now minister as a priest to the deaf.
One of the loveliest storylines in the bunch, though, and perhaps the most hopeful, is what happens to Klinger in the end. Particularly when it came to his position in the history of the series, the ultimate end of his character arc was a remarkable reflection on how much Klinger had developed as a character throughout the show. Initially introduced as a bit character in one episode of Season 1, Klinger eventually transformed from someone who was willing to do anything for a Section 8 discharge from the army to a valuable and pivotal piece of the operations of the camp as company clerk. But his storyline in the finale put an exclamation point on his development, as he found love, got married, and made a great sacrifice of his own: after doing anything and everything he could to get out of Korea in the early seasons, in the finale he willingly makes the decision to stay so that he can help his wife find her family.
It Gave Audiences Satisfying “Fan” Moments
There are so many more wonderful and powerful moments that the series gives its audience in the finale: a fun nod to the Hawkeye/Margaret “will they, won’t they” dynamic in the long and awkwardly passionate kiss they share at the end; the somber moment when Colonel Potter takes a final ride on his horse Sophie before giving her up; Hawkeye shunning his disrespect of the Army to give Colonel Potter a crisp salute; the final tearjerker shot as Hawkeye leaves on the chopper and the camera’s final shot lingers on the message to both Hawkeye and the audience as a whole: “goodbye.”
But Charles and His Music Were the Master Stroke
But when all is said and done, the most powerful part of the whole episode, and perhaps the whole series, was Charles’ storyline and that haunting Clarinet Quintet. As a character introduced in Season 6 to take the place of the criminally two-dimensional Frank Burns as the “antagonist” of the show, Charles could not have struck a greater contrast with his predecessor. While he could still fill the role of villain in any given episode, he was a character who, unlike Frank, could give just as good as he got in the bantering jibes from Pierce and Hunnicutt, and who had emotional depths that were explored more and more frequently in later seasons.
His role in the finale is the perfect culmination of that development and his depth as a character. As a man who always appreciated the finer things in life, his story arc in the final episode mirrors his overall character arc within the series: initially dismissive of a group of Chinese POW musicians, he is blindsided when he finds out that they can play Mozart. It comes in the most beautiful scene in the whole series. As chaos reigns across the campground with everyone rushing to meet the choppers, the musicians play the opening bars of the Clarinet Quintet. Utterly unaware of everything else around him, Charles stares, frozen, as the beauty of the music washes over him and the PA announcer calls out “bring your shoes, this may be our last dance before we go home!”
Moved by the unexpected discovery, Charles then tries to conduct them and teach them how to shape the music, desperately trying to get across to them the concept of “dolce.” But despite Charles’ best efforts to keep them, the POWs are relocated and taken away from camp in a truck. As they ride off into the distance, the disappointed Charles smiles wistfully as the musicians play the piece once more, finally finding a little bit of that dolce.
The real heartrending moment, though, comes when one of them unexpectedly returns. Amid a mess of casualties, Charles finds one of his musicians, having suffered wounds that put him past hope of survival. As Charles frantically inquires after the others in the truck, he finds that none of the other musicians survived. The terrible impact of that moment suffuses the entire episode, and clearly remains with Charles until the very end, as he says in his final speech at the dinner: “For me, music was always a refuge from this miserable experience. Now, it will always be… a reminder.” What is true for Charles in that episode is true now of the clarinet piece as well. It is a testament both to the power of the music and the finale itself. As shown by Carl Grapentine’s experience, it is difficult, after watching, to hear Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet without tearing up a little. For those who have seen the finale, it will indeed always serve as “a reminder.”