‘Deal Me Out’

M*A*S*H: A writer’s view. #4 in the series.

Until the middle of the 1970s, conventional wisdom had it that a half-hour situation comedy had room for only one plot per episode. Subplots, if any, were kept down to the level of a running gag. Fitting a good story (and some laughs) into 25 minutes of film was hard enough; to tell two was thought to be impossible. M*A*S*H was one of the first sitcoms to break that rule and introduce multiple story lines per episode: so successfully, in fact, that the technique became a mainstay of the show’s formula in later years. Nearly every episode from the fourth season on has clearly identifiable ‘A’ and ‘B’ stories.

In those later years, when the original writers had been replaced by lesser talents, the ‘A’ story was usually straight drama. This afforded the actors opportunities for Serious Dramatics and tub-thumping on their favourite causes célèbres, whilst making the writers’ jobs easier. Comedy is much more difficult to write than drama; it is harder to act, too – though far less gratifying for the performer’s ego, since Oscars and Emmys and the like are generally awarded by humourless clods. (Charlie Chaplin never won an Academy Award as an actor; he got his sole Oscar as a composer, for the score to Limelight. Before he died, the Academy gave him an honorary award for lifetime achievement as an actor: the feeling was that if they let Chaplin die without winning an Oscar for his acting, the Oscars themselves would be devalued. Chaplin did not win an Oscar so much as the Academy won a Chaplin.)

In the first year and a half of M*A*S*H, there were several ‘odds and ends’ episodes, consisting mostly of comic sketches strung together without much pretence of a plot. Usually, the unifying device was a character’s letter home, as in the ‘Dear Dad’ episodes. ‘Showtime’, the final episode of the first season, lacked even that. Commissioned at the last moment, when CBS demanded one more episode than Reynolds and Gelbart thought they were under contract for, it features a USO performance at the camp, intercut with brief comical interludes. This was not where the future of the series lay.

That future began with an episode called ‘Deal Me Out’, in which, for the first time, the writers worked multiple plot lines together into a unified story. The structure is complex and ambitious, and in lesser hands, could easily have turned into an unfocused mess. Fortunately, the writers were Larry Gelbart and Laurence Marks, and the script is a landmark, not only in the history of M*A*S*H, but in sitcom history as a whole.

‘Deal Me Out’ is built round an ingenious unifying device: an all-night poker game in the Swamp. Since it is more or less an open game, the various cast members and guest stars need no special excuse to come and go as the plot requires. This device frames the episode, and ties together three story lines, which I shall refer to as A, B, and C. A: Radar, returning from a night out, runs over a Korean with his jeep. B: A wounded Army counterintelligence man nearly dies in the O.R. because regulations forbid him to be anaesthetized unless there is another CID man present. C: A patient, tried beyond endurance by Frank Burns’s callous bullying, blows his top and tries to kill Frank. The three stories are carefully interlaced, scene by scene; the technique is worth studying.

Here, then, is a scene-by-scene breakdown of ‘Deal Me Out’. The storyline pertaining to each scene is indicated by letter, with P to indicate the poker game.

1. (P) VIP tent. Major Sidney Freedman (Allan Arbus) checks in for a ‘medical conference’ to commence at 1800 hours. Radar unpacks his bags and offers him the hospitality of the 4077th: ‘Compliments of Colonel Blake, Scotch, gin, vodka… and for your convenience, all in the same bottle.’

2. (P) Another tent. Captain Sam Pak (Pat Morita) arrives for the conference, giving Radar orders for a wakeup call: ‘Have a nurse wake me… a little at a time.’

3. (P) The shower tent. Radar tells Hawkeye and Trapper that everyone has arrived for the conference. They rib him about his height and glasses; he takes his revenge by walking out with their bathrobes.

4. (P, A) Col. Blake’s tent. Radar reports that all is ready. He asks to borrow a jeep for a visit to a local night spot. Henry gives him the keys, but does not think much of the venue: ‘Oh, Radar! The Purple Dragon is a Lockheed bomber packing crate they emptied, and stuck in a jukebox and a bunch of B-girls on rollerskates.’

5. (P) The Swamp. Sidney Freedman calls for the ‘conference’ to begin. It turns out to be nothing more than a marathon poker game. Hawkeye, Trapper, Henry, and Sam are also playing. Klinger, in drag, brings sandwiches from the mess tent and joins the game. Sidney tells Klinger to be more creative in angling for a Section Eight: ‘I had a young man who claimed to be reincarnated. Said he was with Washington at Valley Forge, and therefore he’d already done his military service.’ Sam is merely critical of Klinger’s dress sense: ‘Earrings with a sweater?!’

At this point we are five minutes into the show. Except for the brief mention of Radar’s trip to the Purple Dragon, all the action has been concerned with the frame story. Every player in the poker game has had a chance to establish his character, usually with a one-liner that signals his role in the story whilst also getting a laugh. This is good, economical writing; but now it is time to pick up the pace.

6. (B) The O.R. Frank Burns comes in while the nurses and anaesthesiologist are prepping a patient, Lt. Rogers (Tom Dever), for surgery, and tells them to stop. Rogers is a CID man, and can’t be anaesthetized without another CID man present. One is on his way from headquarters. Frank tries to reassure Rogers: ‘I guarantee you you’re absolutely in no danger… I think.’

7. (P, A) The Swamp. Radar interrupts the poker game, urgently requesting to talk to Henry. Henry doesn’t want to be interrupted: ‘Whatever it is, sign it, cancel it, or order five more.’ Radar insists that it’s important – and private. Henry tells the others to deal him out.

8. (A) Ext., the compound. Radar tells Henry that on the way back to camp, he ran over a Korean, who is now in the hospital. Radar apologizes for taking Henry away from the game. Henry: ‘Oh, Radar, don’t you think you mean more to me than a pair of deuces?’

9. (P) The Swamp. A bit of by-play at the game, inserted chiefly for pacing.

10. (A) Post-op. Henry examines the injured Korean (Jarry Fujikawa), who is not bleeding but seems to be stiff and in severe pain. He orders X-rays and returns to the game.

11. (P, B) The Swamp. Frank walks in on the game and exchanges insults with the players. Klinger tells how he tried to dodge the draft by hiding in a train station pay toilet: ‘It cost them four dollars in nickels to get me out!’ Frank is not amused: ‘Officers laughing at a draft-dodger while a real soldier lies bleeding in O.R.’ Hawkeye and Trapper demand to know what Frank is talking about. When he tells them, they take matters into their own hands and leave to treat Rogers immediately.

12. (B) O.R. Hawkeye and Trapper operate on Rogers.

13. (A, C, B) Post-op. Frank is examining an uncooperative patient, Private Carter (John Ritter). Henry tells Radar that the Korean has no broken bones; his trouble is psychosomatic. ‘Trauma-induced hysterical paralysis. It’s a classic, Radar. His mind’s raising hell with his body for getting him in an accident. So it just says, “You just lay there for a while and be rigid, and that’ll teach you.” It’s all said in Korean, of course.’

A nurse brings a tray of food for Carter, who politely refuses it. Frank grabs the tray and shoves it at him; Carter knocks it away. Carter says he doesn’t want to go back to the line. Frank doesn’t care: ‘There’s nothing wrong with you, see? It’s all in your head. But don’t get the idea it’s psychological!’ He threatens to ship Carter out immediately if he doesn’t shut up.

Hawkeye and Trapper enter and razz Frank about his poor bedside manner: ‘What’s up, Frank? Fort Sumter been fired upon?’ Frank tells them they’re in deep trouble for operating on the CID man.

14. (P) The Swamp. More byplay at the game. Hawkeye: ‘Everybody freeze. One of the sandwiches just moved.’

15. (B, C) Post-op. Captain Halloran, CID (Edward Winter), has arrived to check on Rogers. He orders an MP to watch Rogers and write down anything he says, and tells Frank to take him to the surgeons who performed the operation. Turning back at the exit, Frank shouts at Carter: ‘Lights out, soldier!’ Carter throws a cup at him. Halloran: ‘What the hell is that?’ Frank: ‘Oh, he’s just pretending to be violent.’ Halloran: ‘Great imitation.’

16. (P, B) The Swamp. Frank and Halloran enter. Halloran announces that Hawkeye and Trapper are under arrest. Henry objects: ‘Nobody arrests them without telling me the whys and wherefores or the reason thereofs.’

Halloran questions Hawkeye and Trapper. Finding out that Rogers said nothing at all under sedation, he snaps at Frank: ‘I split a gut getting down here.’ Trapper invites him to join the game. Frank leaves in a huff.

17. (P, A, C) The Swamp, some time later. Radar comes in and tells Henry that the Korean patient has demanded $50 not to report the accident. Sam recognizes an M.O.: ‘Corporal, is this a little guy about five foot nothing, anywhere between 50 and 200 years old? He looks like he fell off a charm bracelet?… You know who you got here, Henry: the famous Whiplash Hwang.’ Hwang is a professional accident victim, but in reality, a victim of the war: ‘He was a farmer before the war, and then he had to hit the road – literally.’ The players take up a collection for Radar.

After Radar leaves, we hear gunfire coming from the compound. Radar comes back in and tells Henry that Carter ‘blew his cork’. Halloran offers to stop him with a bullet, but the surgeons won’t hear of it. Then we hear Frank’s voice. Carter has trapped him in the shower.

18. (C) The shower tent/The compound. Carter is pointing a pistol in Frank’s face. He refuses to go back to the line. From outside, Henry asks Frank if he is OK, and Sidney tries to talk Carter out of shooting him. Trapper sneaks round the back of the tent and lifts the pegs to crawl inside and grab Carter from behind. Carter gets off a wild shot but drops the gun. The doctors rush in. Sidney leads Carter away.

19. (A) The compound. Radar is driving an ambulance into camp. We hear a loud thump, and see Whiplash Hwang lying on the ground, crying out in pain and clutching his leg. Hawkeye and Trapper carry him into the hospital again: ‘Come on, Whiplash, you’ve had a busy day.’

20. (P) The Swamp, next morning. The players are in varying states of exhaustion and unconsciousness. They agree to end the game – and then figure out whose deal it is, and carry on playing.

As a unifying device, the poker game is a stroke of genius. It not only provides comic relief, but allows the various characters to come and go as required, to exchange information at strategic moments, and lets them (and the viewer) switch their attention seamlessly from one plot to another.

The plots are introduced and resolved in order of increasing seriousness. The ‘Whiplash Hwang’ plot is fundamentally lighthearted, since Hwang is never actually injured; the comedy arises from his overacting and Radar’s remorseful gullibility. What tension there is in these scenes depends upon neither Radar nor Henry knowing that they are being shaken down. The resolution is supplied by Sam Pak, who knows Hwang by reputation and tells them how to deal with him. Hwang’s backstory provides a contrasting note of pathos, and illuminates the waste and cruelty of war without any of the heavy-handed moralizing that the writers so often brought to later seasons of M*A*S*H.

The CID plot is more serious, since Rogers’ life is genuinely in danger, and Hawkeye and Trapper are taking a real risk by breaking regulations to save him. Fortunately, Halloran has enough sense to realize that the operation was necessary and security was not compromised. Once again, the subplot has to develop without giving Halloran the opportunity to find out all the facts, and it is resolved at the poker game, when he has the opportunity to interrogate the two surgeons in person.

The Carter plot is the most serious, though it is kept within the realm of comedy by Frank’s imbecilic mishandling of the situation. He begins by bullying his patient in post-op, and ends by desperately sucking up to him in the shower. Frank is a gung-ho armchair warrior; he is tough and callous about the war, as long as it is going on somewhere else. The moment a gun is trained on him, he turns to jelly. Once again, the resolution comes through the medium of the poker game. Trapper provides the physical force, Sidney Freedman the moral force (or at least distraction), that disarm Carter and save Frank from the consequences of his own stupidity.

The three plot lines blend well thematically. We see in turn the cost of war to the noncombatants, the cost of military stupidity to the combatants, and the cost of getting out of the war – the damage that a man may inflict to save his own skin. Carter’s scenes make up the middle act of a tragedy, though played as farce: he only wants to get away from the killing, but finds himself turning into a killer to do it.

This is bitter medicine, made palatable by a sugar coating of humour. We never go more than a few seconds without a laugh; but the shadow of death is never absent. This perfect balance, this tension between comedy and real-life horror, is maintained through all three plot lines. ‘Deal Me Out’ is a tour de force of screenwriting, a textbook study in the handling of multiple storylines, and withal, one of the best M*A*S*H episodes ever produced.

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  1. Well done. Glad you are back in the saddle.

  2. Andrew Parrish says

    Well written, sir.

  3. Stephen J. says

    Greatly enjoyable, not least for getting me to actually think seriously about a forty-year-old sitcom episode as an example of polished writer’s craft.

    Oddly, it’s studying the craft with which the story is structured that highlights, for me, a weakness in how its argument is presented: Frank becomes almost literally a Straw Man, in that anything worthwhile he might have contributed to presenting an opposing viewpoint (the regs about CID officers are there for a reason; a soldier trying to escape his duty is in fact doing a bad thing, albeit out of wholly understandable reasons) is undermined or neutralized by his personal hypocrisy and cowardice. For comedy, Frank as caricature is acceptable; for drama, Frank as unrealistically flat straw man is not.

    One of the things I always liked about the character of Colonel Potter, when he was introduced, is that he demonstrated the honor and courage of real soldiers who were still willing to fight a war while being perfectly aware of its costs and dangers. I have never liked wholly one-sided portrayals of anything or anyone, as it almost always sets off my ‘message alert’ buttons.


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