M*A*S*H at 50: The best episode for every main character on the show
To toast the series as it reaches the half-century milestone, let's zero in on the finest performances by its 11 key players
The great American sitcom to end all sitcoms, CBS’ 11-season-long wartime comedy M*A*S*H celebrates its 50th anniversary on September 17. Which is as good a time as any to look back on a show with more than 100 cumulative Emmy nominations, a Peabody Award, and the standing record for most-watched television series finale of all time (a whopping 105.9 million viewers).
And there’s still plenty to unpack. From its progressive attitudes towards gender identity and queerness to its discussions surrounding depression, PTSD, and trauma, the once-humble sitcom transcended the boundaries of genre and format to evolve into an unlikely outlet for cultural conversations. But even when it was thought-provoking or heartbreaking, M*A*S*H still managed to remain accessible enough to beckon millions to tune in for a half hour of laughs every Monday night. A lot of that came from the writing (which was increasingly influenced by Alan Alda and other cast members as the show progressed), but it’s undeniable that the series owes plenty of its success to the all-star ensemble cast that brought the 4077th to life each week.
So, in honor of the outstanding talent among M*A*S*H’s 11 series regulars, let’s mark the show’s 50th with a look at each character’s strongest episode.
Trapper John McIntyre (Wayne Rogers)
“Kim” (Season 2, Episode 6)
Hawkeye’s partner in crime for the first three seasons before Wayne Rogers’ departure from the series, “Trapper John” McIntyre was the boisterous, womanizing right-hand-man of the 4077th: a goofy, often cocky doctor with a grin that could melt polar ice caps. Though much of Trapper’s time on the series was devoted to his frequent pursuit of the fairer sex, he was also a family man with a loving wife at home and a deep affection for children—and nowhere is his tenderness better demonstrated than season two’s “Kim.”
The episode sees a Korean boy from a local village wounded and in the care of the 4077th, but when the camp is unable to contact his parents, Trapper forms a close bond with the child and steps up to adopt him when the commanding officers plan to send him to an orphanage. While Trapper’s lack of presence in the later seasons meant he didn’t quite get to see the depth of character development other cast members enjoyed (like BJ and Winchester), “Kim” gives Rogers a chance to flex his dramatic muscles and step out of Trapper’s conventional comedic role. And it works: It’s a sweet, affecting episode that honors the emotional core of Trapper’s character without losing his signature sense of humor.
Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan (Loretta Swit)
“The Nurses” (Season 5, Episode 6)
Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan started M*A*S*H as one of two camp villains, often found hanging with Major Frank Burns, overseeing the nurses with a stern hand, and being vexed by the mischievous antics of Hawkeye and Trapper. Over the course of the series, though, Margaret undergoes a transformation, growing from a stifled, high-strung woman who’s often the butt of the joke to a warmer (but no less dedicated) officer whose steadfast persistence helped the camp out of many a tight spot.
One of the best encapsulations of the complex dynamics of her character is season five’s “The Nurses,” which brings to a head the frequent and long-simmering tensions between Hot Lips and the many nurses under her command. Though the iron fist with which she ruled the staff was a steady presence in the series from start to finish, “The Nurses” is one of the key episodes in Margaret’s move to a more sympathetic presence in the series, offering a rare glimpse into the vulnerable side of Hot Lips.
Radar O’Reilly (Gary Burghoff)
“Goodbye, Radar Pts. 1 & 2” (Season 8, Episodes 4 and 5)
Perhaps one of the show’s most famous scene stealers (and the only main cast member to play the same role in the series and the film) is Gary Burghoff’s Radar O’Reilly, the boyish company clerk who serves as the camp’s collective younger brother. With his impish features and eerie ear for incoming helicopters, Radar wormed his way into the hearts of the M*A*S*H Unit with his aww-shucks attitude and the surprising mischievous sense of humor that lay beneath the bashful exterior.
So when the character departed the series in season eight’s “Goodbye Radar” two-parter, it was a suitably mournful (but no less funny) affair. Like Hot Lips, Radar is a character who experiences significant change over the course of the series. Starting out as a childlike figure, he ends the series a man changed and hardened by the horrors of war who’s somehow still hopeful and kind. It’s a heartwarming tribute to the impact he had on camp, the perfect farewell to the camp’s smallest but mightiest charge.
Henry Blake (McLean Stevenson)
“Abyssinia, Henry” (Season 3, Episode 24)
The first of two commanding offers to fill the “camp dad” spot at the 4077th, M*A*S*H’s first three seasons feature Colonel Henry Blake as command officer, an inept leader who is often more interested in fishing or chasing tail than doing his job. Though, like Frank, Henry was hardly the most fit for his position, there’s an endearing element to his constant bumbling that makes him an affectionate paternal figure rather than a despicable nuisance.
While M*A*S*H certainly had its fair share of tragic episodes, one of the most devastating was the shocking death of Henry at the end of season three, in the heartbreaking “Abyssinia, Henry.” For a character who spent so much of his tenure on the show playing comic relief, the decision to make Henry the first major casualty of the series is even more impactful because we didn’t see it coming. Though it may be cruel to list the episode in which he passes as his best, “Abyssinia, Henry” features strong writing and an affecting performance from McLean Stevenson that gives Henry Blake a lasting legacy on the series.
Colonel Sherman Potter (Harry Morgan)
“Old Soldiers” (Season 8, Episode 18)
With the tragic departure of Colonel Blake at the end of season three, M*A*S*H needed a new, more grounded commanding officer, not only to replace Henry but do so with a character better suited to the show’s evolving tone. Enter Harry Morgan’s Colonel Potter, the brash, by-the-book colonel with a booming voice and a severe visage whose warmth and dedication to his officers is never in question.
Where Henry Blake was an inept but endearing father figure, Potter was a stern leader with a surprising depth that helped usher in more complex story arcs. This is beautifully encapsulated in season eight’s “Old Soldiers.” The episode sees Potter acting strangely around camp (which prompts the concern of the other officers) and dives into his past and long military history prior to the 4077th, putting emphasis on the survivor’s guilt he endured after his many tours of service. Not only does “Old Soldiers” give Harry Morgan the chance to take the reins as a dramatic lead, but it also allows Potter the breathing room to explore his character beyond his role as commanding officer.
BJ Hunnicutt (Mike Farrell)
“Death Takes A Holiday” (Season 9, Episode 5)
Following the departure of Trapper John (also at the end of season three), season four saw Hawkeye in need of a new drinking buddy/partner in crime. He came in the form of the clean-cut, all-American army doctor BJ Hunnicutt (Mike Farrell), freshly drafted and as-yet untainted by the horrors of war. When BJ arrives at camp, Burns and Houlihan have hopes of keeping him a squeaky-clean young doctor, but when he and Hawkeye quickly get on like a house on fire, their hopes go down the drain and BJ quickly becomes one of M*A*S*H’s comedic powerhouses.
Not only that, but BJ (along with Colonel Potter) was one of the first characters introduced after the show’s developing tonal shift, which meant that the character enjoyed a healthy amount of hard-hitting, emotional episodes that cut to the core of who he was and what he stood for. One such episode, “Death Takes A Holiday” (written and directed by Farrell himself), found BJ desperate to save the life of a gravely wounded soldier on Christmas, giving the audience a look at who BJ is: a relentlessly hopeful doctor (perhaps dangerously so) who refuses to abandon his patients.
Father Mulcahy (William Christopher)
“Mulcahy’s War” (Season 5, Episode 9)
Though not a true series regular until well after viewers had already grown to love him, perhaps M*A*S*H’s most unlikely scene stealer was Father John Patrick Francis Mulcahy, the kindly Jesuit priest who oversaw the faith of the camp, performed last rites for patients, and ended up becoming the beating heart of the 4077th. He was a pillar of hope and optimism, even to the many cynics and agnostics in the operating room. Despite Hawkeye & Co.’s anti-establishment attitude, Father Mulcahy, with his gentle voice and easy smile, was able to break through to the officers of the 4077th and bring with him a lasting cheer that got the camp through some of its most devastating moments.
While Father Mulcahy often struggled with feelings of uselessness and inadequacy considering his lack of medical skills in the OR, M*A*S*H made sure to emphasize the need for Mulcahy’s presence around camp and the impact he had on its residents. And nowhere is that more clear than in season five’s “Mulcahy’s War,” wherein the padre accompanies Radar to the frontlines after feeling insecure about his lack of combat experience. The episode challenges Mulcahy’s trademark optimism and subjects him to firsthand horrors. But instead of crushing his spirit, the installment ends with Mulcahy more reaffirmed in his faith than ever.
Charles Winchester (David Ogden Stiers)
“The Life You Save” (Season 9, Episode 20)
Given the unenviable task of filling Frank Burns’ shoes as the camp punching bag following his departure after season five, the season six premiere introduced a drastically different kind of villainous major: the snobbish Charles Winchester. A prissy, upper-cruster who found his way to the frontlines after angering the wrong general in a game of poker, Winchester arrived at the 4077th thinking he was too good for the camp and too talented of a surgeon for Hawkeye and BJ’s so-called “meatball” surgery.
But, as Winchester was introduced after the show’s tonal shift, he was afforded the depth and growth that Frank Burns wasn’t. And slowly but surely, the writers helped morph Charles Winchester into a complex, empathetic (but no less infuriating or stuffy) figure who served as the center emotional touchpoint for some of M*A*S*H’s most compelling episodes. One such installment was season nine’s “The Life You Save,” in which Winchester grapples with a sudden burst of faith after a near-death experience. M*A*S*H was interested in exploring the emotional toll that war could take on someone entirely unsuspecting, and getting to see Winchester join the series completely unaware of what he would endure gives “The Life You Save” a depth and resonance that make it easy to forget you’re watching a half-hour sitcom.
Maxwell Klinger (Jamie Farr)
“Big Mac” (Season 3, Episode 21)
Arguably M*A*S*H’s most famous character after Alan Alda’s Hawkeye, nobody else could take over a scene quite like Jamie Farr as Corporal Maxwell Klinger, the smart-mouthed guard who wore women’s outfits in search of a Section 8 discharge from the Army for insanity. Klinger’s bombastic fashion sense and his larger-than-life personality (treated with remarkable matter-of-factness by the rest of the camp) helped make him a memorable presence.
One such moment, is, of course, General MacArthur arriving at the 4077th only to be greeted by Klinger in a Statue of Liberty costume, complete with a torch that sparked and shot smoke. Season three’s “Big Mac” shows the camp in a tizzy about MacArthur’s visit, which Klinger (obviously) sees as the perfect opportunity for a discharge. Though the later seasons ditched Klinger’s crossdressing habits, at the request of Farr, and focus more on his role as company clerk (and later his marriage to Korean local Soon-Lee), it’s undeniable that his snappy dress sense and charisma made for some of the first few seasons’ most cherished moments.
Hawkeye Pierce (Alan Alda)
“Goodbye, Farewell, And Amen” (Season 11, Episode 16)
All that said, there would be no M*A*S*H without Alan Alda’s Hawkeye Pierce, the quick-witted, constantly cynical but endlessly compassionate doctor and the emotional core of the series. Demonstrated by Alda’s frequent turns as both writer and director on the show, in addition to its lead actor, the identity of M*A*S*H as a series is intrinsically tied to him. So how do we choose just a single episode to encapsulate the brilliance and significance of Hawkeye?
If there has to be one, though, it’s “Goodbye, Farewell, And Amen,” the appropriately melancholy series finale that landed M*A*S*H the record for the most watched series finale of all time. At nearly two hours long, the episode ties up virtually every major character’s storyline, but special emphasis is appropriately given to Hawkeye, whose struggles with mental health in the later seasons land him in a psychiatric facility. Though not a flat-out tragic finale, there was always a sense that M*A*S*H as a series could never have a truly happy ending, not when Hawkeye and the rest of the characters will never be able to forget the lasting trauma of war or go back to the people they were before the 4077th. Directed, of course, by Alda himself, the finale is a powerhouse, with an epic Alda performance to boot.