When the Korean War comedy M*A*S*H aired its final episode, “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen,” 40 years ago this week, its impact was seismic. Not just because it was an Emmy-winning, top-rated series that ran 11 years (almost four times longer than the real war) or because CBS sold 30-second commercial spots around the finale for what would be $1.2 million apiece today. Nor was it because 106 million people — nearly half the population of the United States at that time — tuned in, making it the most-watched single episode of a TV show in American history. It was because M*A*S*H signed off with one of the best television episodes ever produced in the United States — bold in form and content while confidently walking that high-wire of giving audiences catharsis without pandering to them.
Even if you’ve never watched an episode of M*A*S*H, its finale gives you the gist of what drives the characters and what they might have done (or who they might have been) before their final scene. Its two and a half hours are built around actors on the brink of tears, their bittersweet reaction to leaving the show fusing to the fiction of doctors, nurses, and staff at the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital going home after the war’s end. The show’s “joking so you don’t crack up” ethos made this raw expression of emotion feel earned. More importantly, though, it helped the series arrive at a powerful ending through one of the most formally adventurous subplots in its 255-episode run. In subtly likening one character’s repression of unspeakable horrors to American commercial television’s decades-long commitment to sanitizing the ugly parts of life, “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen” showed that, to the very end, the people who made M*A*S*H were committed to expanding scripted television beyond the bounds of the network sitcom format.
The story opens with a shocker: Surgeon Hawkeye Pierce (Alan Alda, who also directed the episode), a motor-mouthed womanizer whose sharp wit and impetuous do-gooder tendencies inspired members of the 4077th to grin and bear it, is being treated in an Army mental-health facility by the camp’s psychiatrist, Dr. Sidney Freeman (Allan Arbus). In a series of therapy sessions, Sidney smashes through Hawkeye’s layers of repression to discover what caused his breakdown: When he and his colleagues were taking a bus home from an R&R day at the beach, they picked up wounded soldiers and refugees to provide aid, but had to pull over and keep silent to avoid detection by nearby Chinese soldiers. After Hawkeye desperately begged a woman on the bus to quiet her baby, she suffocated it.
The tragedy is initially presented in visual code. A series of flashbacks replays the same actions with shifting details that get at the truth: a bottle of plasma used to treat a wounded soldier is first depicted as a bottle of booze to entice the soldier to join the party on the bus. Hawkeye initially claims the woman killed a chicken. Sidney, a classic Freudian “talking cure” therapist, draws Hawkeye into confronting reality by picking apart his words, using the superficial, cynical patter that defined the surgeon as a tool to open him up.
“Take the common fallacy that chickens are afraid,” Hawkeye says during a card game with Sidney. “Who else has the nerve to run around when you cut their heads off? Have you ever seen a chicken break out in a cold sweat? Have you ever known a chicken to have a weak handshake? I grant you they’re afraid of flying. In a recent survey, two out of three chickens preferred to take the bus.”
“Chickens take the bus,” Sidney says knowingly.
“As a matter of fact, there was a chicken on the bus,” Hawkeye says, blurting it out like a man who’s just been given permission. The episode cuts to the woman on the bus holding a squawking chicken on her lap and looking terrified. “It was driving me crazy. Every time it made a noise, I was sure the Chinese would hear us and find it. Everybody’s life was in danger because of that damned chicken.”
Sidney’s gradual excavation of Hawkeye’s trauma was the most realistic representation of the actual practice of therapy yet shown on American TV. The medium tended to depict psychiatric care in terms of comedic cliché: the man of few words who doesn’t like talking about his feelings; the therapist who stares blankly before finally asking, “And how did that make you feel?” Even by the standards of M*A*S*H, a show targeted by conservative pundits for its “War is Hell” moralizing, vocal disdain for military and political authorities, and implicit criticism of what’s now called toxic masculinity, the jagged realness of Hawkeye and Sidney’s therapy scenes was an unprecedented portrayal of the damage inflicted on the psyche by avoiding hard truths.
I hadn’t seen the episode from start to finish since it first aired. Rewatching it for this piece, I was struck by how bracing it still is. In look, rhythm, and tone, it is more modern and adult than most of what’s on television now. Alda, a solid filmmaker who did good work as a writer-director-star in theatrical features including The Four Seasons and A New Life, directs much of the action in long, unfussy takes that find characters in the frame. A hospital-hallway conversation between Hawkeye and Sidney begins with a shot taken through the chain-link-covered window in a steel door, then zooms back to let them open it and step through — one of many images emphasizing the idea of prisoners freeing themselves.
The situations, dialogue, and tone are trickier to praise because of recency bias. There’s no denying that this series, which was considered cutting-edge by ’70s sitcom standards, seems of its time in 2023. Even without the laugh track, and even with the surprise appearance of profanity that was rare in sitcoms (Hawkeye tearfully calls his therapist a “son of a bitch” after realizing the chicken was actually a baby), you’re aware you’re watching a scrubbed-up depiction of war — one made by people who had to constantly negotiate with, and sometimes mislead or thwart, the network brass to do justice to what they thought of as their mission.
But M*A*S*H is fascinating in the way it wove awareness of its own constraints into the fabric of each tale. Alda, showrunners Larry Gelbart and Gene Reynolds, and their fellow writers and actors were like the many beleaguered truth tellers in the 4077th. They kept tripping over the incompetence, intransigence and pettiness of network leaders pushing empty, self-serving social codes of acceptable behavior that applied only to certain people in particular circumstances. (The long-running gag of Klinger wearing dresses in hopes of getting a mental-health discharge was less about a man wearing a dress than the Army ignoring its own retrograde rules in wartime because it needed everyone it could get.) The Hawkeye-cracks-up plotline feels like a summation of the compromises and transferences required to get M*A*S*H on the air and keep it there.
The series was inspired by Robert Altman’s raucous, profane 1970 film adaptation of the same-titled novel by Richard Hooker. Tapping into the anti-authoritarian, countercultural energies that made films like The Graduate and Easy Rider hits, it became one of the top-grossing comedies ever made. It had profanity and nudity and was supposedly the first Hollywood release in which a character said “fuck.” Down to the yippie abrasiveness and misogynistic streak, the show tried its best to approximate Altman’s movie during the first few seasons.
It started to drift toward compassion and enlightenment after season three, which included one of the biggest shocks of 1970s television: Potter’s predecessor, Lieutenant Colonel Henry Blake (MacLean Stevenson), leaves by helicopter and is soon reported dead in a crash. The blunt illustration of the camp’s grief seemed to spur the writers, filmmakers, and actors to find what else they could get away with; not in a brazen, nose-thumbing sort of way, but as storytellers testing the limits of the medium in which they worked. They had already done, and would do, quite a lot within network-TV limits — M*A*S*H aired an episode from the point of view of a dying soldier and another showing the characters through the eyes of a documentary crew — but they remained constrained by the need to satisfy advertisers, network executives, and the standards-and-practices department. Plus, a reputation for being groundbreaking will only get you so far on a broadcast network, even on a top-rated series. Dig too deep too often and the bosses confiscate the pickaxe.
The M*A*S*H writers, like comedy filmmakers in the old studio era of movies, had to figure out how to slip things past censors or make them think a note had been satisfied when it hadn’t. In a way, they were following in the footsteps of the 1968 novel and 1970 film. Though both were set in a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital unit during the Korean War, they were really about Vietnam, a conflict that had involved U.S. combat troops since 1965 and continued during the show’s first four seasons. They also documented the recurrent political and class differences that have been fragmenting the United States since the Civil War and were manifesting themselves in pop culture through stories that circled back to the same sorrowful realizations: The system was broken, the people who ran it were cowardly and corrupt, and since reform was impossible, the only alternative was subversion or destruction.
This was the general feeling among creative people toward the institution of broadcast television as well. M*A*S*H was one of the shows that articulated that pervasive discontent in its scripts, where the writers had to intimate more disturbing things than could be shown on CBS. It may or may not be an accident that the cheerful bus ride Hawkeye first describes happens in sunlight while the real one occurs in the wee hours of night. The difference between what actually happened and what Hawkeye’s brain will allow him to envision is literally night and day. Hawkeye’s translation of the baby into a chicken feels like the mental gymnastics a network showrunner would go through during a meeting with network executives or censors: “Does it have to be a baby? People will turn the show off. Can you change it to an animal?” They did, and then they changed it back.