Popdose stalwart J.A. Bartlett provided a solid piece about the 40th Anniversary of M*A*S*H last year, and it is highly recommended (read it by clicking http://popdose.com/welcome-to-korea-the-40th-anniversary-of-mash/). He focused on its beginnings, but I would like to take a moment to look at the show’s ending.
In 1983, over 125 million Americans tuned in to watch the 251st and final episode of M*A*S*H on CBS titled, “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen”. That meant that the finale roped in many people who had given up on the series. There were several reasons for the disenchantment although the series itself never suffered crippling ratings drops (although this has more to do with the media of the times, as we’ll touch on in a moment). The series existed for a decade, from 72/73 to 82/83, whereas the war it depicted (the Korean War) lasted from 1950 to 1953. M*A*S*H had been from the start anachronistic because, while it used Korea as the stage, the series was more a commentary on the Vietnam War, and had outlived even that.
Other arrows slung at the series were that, while ostensibly a comedy, the whole was getting less and less funny. Cliches about combat fiction were spilling out fast and furious. The longtime leads on the show were wearing out their welcome. Mostly, the guiding force of the program had, over time, become Alan Alda himself who found his role as perpetual smart-ass combat surgeon Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce pushing against his desires to direct movies and to be seen as a dramatic actor versus just a comedic one. In its best moments the show allowed the characters a chance to show their more human, less caricatured sides, as in the episode depicting the nightmares of the Mobile Medical Unit’s inhabitants. In the show’s worst, it was preachy, predictable, and viewers could not be bothered to hear one more time the following exchange:
(SFX: Missile screeches and bomb concussions cease. Hawkeye and Hot Lips open their clenched eyes.)
Hawkeye: Do you hear that?
Hot Lips: I don’t hear anything!
Hawkeye: That’s what I mean!
It should be noted that this gem of dialogue seemed to occur at least every third episode.
The last episode, more a TV movie than the standard sitcom closeout, centered around the one thing most viewers never expected: the nervous breakdown of Hawkeye. The first section of the show recounts Hawkeye’s conference with a psychiatrist, Sidney Freedman (Alan Arbus, who had been a semi-regular guest on the show during the final few seasons) at a psychiatric hospital. This was meant to get to the heart of a trauma Hawkeye was repressing: being trapped on a bus that was nearly overtaken by the North Koreans. Hawkeye cycled back to the woman on the bus who had a chicken that kept cackling. This detail, of course, did not seem plausible. Why would she have a chicken on the bus?
In the moment of a truly upsetting breakthrough, Hawkeye is forced to remember the chicken the woman suffocated into silence was actually her crying baby. This was perhaps the bravest moment the show had yet taken, if ever, and viewers were rightly shocked in recognition — this wasn’t about the loose morals in a military setting, or the banter in the operating room, or of Kilnger’s cross dressing or Charles’ condescension. M*A*S*H was about war and atrocity and survival, and even the harshest critics of the series had to be taken by surprise by the reminder.
The M*A*S*H finale was one of those rarest of pop culture events, the shared moment. In 1982 the VCR was only beginning to move into the majority of family homes, and when they finally did arrive a large number of recipients couldn’t figure out how to set the clock to its right time, much less set it to do timed recordings while owners were away. What that means is that the viewership for that episode was not an aggregate figure split among time-delay, TiVO, or Internet rebroadcasting ad infinitum. Everyone who saw the episode that day saw it at the same time, largely (factoring in differences in time zones). The concept of a mass audience sharing the single nexus point of a TV show is foreign now, even with the annually popular Super Bowl broadcast.
One question I wish I was old enough to ask then of the adults (I think I would have been 14 at that time) would have been what it meant to them that Hawkeye cracked. The character of Hawkeye Pierce came, as I’m sure you’re aware, of the original film M*A*S*H directed by Robert Altman. That character, much like that of the TV version early on, was cavalier and used his sarcastic quips and unfazed demeanor to deflect the harshest of realities — they were up to their elbows in war and, as individuals, had only so much free will they could exercise. They took a certain level of glee in their renegade attitude. These were characters for whom the court martial held little to no threat. Would you throw me in jail, or dishonorably discharge me? Go for it. Drinks for the house.
Hawkeye was of a piece with Steve McQueen’s Cooler King who would defy authority and keep breaking out, no matter what. He was like Jack Nicholson who only wanted toast, and he knew how you can bring it to him, and what you can do to yourself if you don’t. Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name, Dirty Harry, and a raft of other characters who reveled in being his own island. And we still had Charles Bronson who was Charles Bronson. These people got angry. They fought back. They did not allow “the enemy” to get into their heads, but Hawkeye, at least 1983 Hawkeye, did. And they broke him. I wish I could have asked the adults at that time if that held any significance to them, or whether they were resigned to the notion that “shellshock,” what we refer to now as Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, is real and not a dodge from combat as General George Patton once famously sneered. What did it mean to you that they finally “got your guy”? At some point in every life are we all condemned to be “got” somehow, and if so, what victory is there in being a temporary bad-ass?
Now I tend to wonder about Hawkeye’s life post-Korea. You wouldn’t get it from the, quite frankly, awful continuation of the series AfterM*A*S*H which paired up Col. Potter (Harry Morgan), Klinger (Jamie Farr), and Fr. Mulcahy (William Christopher). That, as has been the custom of many networks and production houses, was an ill-fated attempt to resuscitate the golden goose they just finished strangling (think Friends begat Joey). In reality, Alan Alda fared marginally well directing and becoming a respected character actor. David Ogden Stiers went from Charles Emerson Winchester III to becoming a well-respected voiceover talent/narrator. For the rest of the cast, M*A*S*H was the end of a career, not the beginning. About the only true breakout was the character of Trapper John M.D., but that show would be anchored not by Wayne Rogers but by Pernell Roberts.
Fictionally however, as much as we want to believe Hawkeye would regain his devil-may-care attitude, open a private practice, and spend his days healing the sick and sickening the heels (while, in pre-Mad Men style, pinching some sexy nurse butts on the way to the OR) I suspect it wouldn’t have turned out like that at all. He would likely have become a very isolated person, unable to articulate the horrors of war to those who were preoccupied and getting their fill of this marvelous television thing. He would have a very difficult time of picking himself up, dusting himself off, and being an “American man.” Having lost his family because of being in Korea, he would find himself unable to relate to them, and them to him. On top of that, his new family in his comrades-in-arms, legs, and the rest were also gone, though they may not have as hard of a time readjusting as he did. Hawkeye was, through it all, the conscientious objector, the resister, even though he was physically present in the conflict.
In reality the Korean drama has never fully ceased but has transformed. In the North Kim Jong Il passed away recently, after decades of provocation and threats against the South. The totalitarian regime continues under son Kim Jong Un who, at this point, remains a bit of an enigma. Un has had more than a passing interest in western media and pop culture and has at times seemed like a man looking to be independent of the generals who, by and large, have been North Korea’s true power base all this time. Un speaks of building better relationships with his neighbors and the world. He hints at hopes of reunification with South Korea.
In 2012, to the condemnation of the leaders of the world, Un also launched a satellite into space which, in itself, was not the problem. The action was largely seen as a ruse to test the distance capacities of their rocket technologies, possibly with the intent to build long-range weaponry. The test commenced and succeeded, pointing to North Korea’s, and Un’s, advancement…but to what?
South Korea, on the other hand, has become a hub for technology and manufacturing with companies like Samsung and LG. They have effectively mirrored Japan during that nation’s miraculous growth in the 1980’s. Their culture, in part fed on imports from the western world, is reverberating back. The unlikely rise of K-Pop in the U.S. was illustrated by the popularity of “Gangnam Style” by PSY. One would have to wonder, for the real Hawkeye Pierces in modern America, what all this means to them. What emotional conflicts do these changes provoke and do they mirror those from WWII vets who had to come to terms with Germany and Japan not as combatants but as allies and business partners?
At the end of that last M*A*S*H show, with rocks rolled into place as the helicopters ascend to view the word “goodbye,” it was easy to think that all involved would live happily ever after in somewhere other than Joseph McCarthy’s America, which was just starting to kick into high red-baiting gear in 1953. This story’s conclusion was seen somehow as victory, or at least it was perceived as such in the purview of media consumption, and is why a series such as M*A*S*H could never be attempted again. We simply know too much now.