M*A*S*H: A writer’s view. #5 in the series.

In one of my previous posts on M*A*S*H, I mentioned that the original cast, with its three distinct comedy double acts, could have carried on almost indefinitely, but that external forces prevented them. The old theologians liked to talk about the three great sources of temptation, the World, the Flesh, and the Devil; and one could make a pretty fair case that these three tempters broke up the three double acts and prepared the way for the series’ eventual decline. Actually, the frequent changes of cast were a mixed blessing for M*A*S*H. The exquisite structure of the original cast was broken up. On the other hand, new actors and new characters meant new situations that the writers could exploit; and since the writers themselves were replaced at a fairly steady rate (until the great climacteric of ’79, to be discussed later), there were always fresh approaches and new points of view in the scripts.

The third season, for instance, featured the first scripts by Linda Bloodworth and Mary Kay Place, the show’s first women writers; their chief contribution, perhaps, was to make the nurses more important to the stories, without using them merely as love interests or sexual foils for the surgeons. Mary Kay Place guest-starred in an episode she had co-written, ‘Springtime’, playing a nurse whom Radar inadvertently (and comically) seduces by reading her a horrible poem by ‘Ruptured Brooke’:

The damned ship lurched and slithered. Quiet and quick
My cold gorge rose; the long sea rolled; I knew
I must think hard of something, or be sick….

Do I forget you? Retchings twist and tie me,
Old meat, good meals, brown gobbets, up I throw—

At which point Place throws herself at Radar, moaning, ‘You don’t give a girl a chance!’ Whereupon the rest of the poem (‘A Channel Passage’) is fortunately lost.

But the real genius of the middle years of M*A*S*H belonged to a veteran writing team that Larry Gelbart brought in for the third season: Jim Fritzell and Everett Greenbaum, who had cut their teeth in radio, and had worked in television since the beginning of that medium. Before he died, Greenbaum did a long interview for the Archive of American Television, which (among many other reminiscences) sheds much light on the process of writing for M*A*S*H.

Greenbaum and Fritzell, more than anyone except the show’s creators, had their fingers on the pulse of M*A*S*H; they understood the characters (and the armed forces) intimately. So the producers relied on them exclusively for the most difficult and delicate writing jobs of all: writing out old characters and introducing new ones whenever the cast was changed. The duo’s first script also marked the first appearance of Harry Morgan on the show. The third season premiere was a lighthearted episode called ‘The General Flipped at Dawn’, in which Morgan played the loony Gen. Bartford Hamilton Steele (‘Three E’s, not all in a row’). Steele tried to court-martial Hawkeye, but sabotaged himself by asking his first witness, a black chopper pilot, to perform a musical number: ‘It’s in your blood, boy. Just let it out!’ Steele then danced out of the tent singing ‘Mississippi Mud’, officially ending the hearing. This sounds like an invention from the remotest fringes of fantasy, but it is actually based on a disciplinary hearing that Greenbaum personally witnessed during his Navy service in the Second World War.

That episode was an instant classic, fully justifying the decision to bring the new writers aboard; they wrote five more episodes that season, and about two dozen over the four years that they worked on the show. Their next important assignment was to write the season finale, ‘Abyssinia, Henry,’ containing an event that sent a seismic shock through the sitcom business: the death of Henry Blake. At this point we introduce the first of the three classic tempters: the World.

The original cast of M*A*S*H took their roles on the understanding that it would be a show with a true ensemble cast, and for the first season, that promise was largely kept – though even then, Alan Alda was clearly more equal than the rest. The show narrowly avoided cancellation after that year, and CBS seems to have insisted on various changes as the price of renewal. One was the elimination of minor characters like Nurse Cutler and Ugly John. Another was an increased emphasis on Alda’s character, as he was the one actor on the show whom the network considered genuinely bankable. Alda took an increasing role behind the scenes as well. He was the first cast member to write a script for the show, a bit of comic fluff called ‘The Longjohn Flap’; in the third season he began directing episodes, and by the sixth he had largely taken over creative control.

Alda’s increasing pre-eminence chafed the other regulars to various degrees, to say nothing of the crew. Jackie Cooper, for instance, the former child star, directed a good many episodes of M*A*S*H in the first two seasons, but then left the series. By the time he left, according to his memoirs, he was barely on speaking terms with Alda, whom he saw as filled with barely concealed anger and hostility. Wayne Rogers, though he was (and at the time of this writing, still remains) close friends with Alda, was unhappy at being turned from an equal co-star into a definite second banana, and also, perhaps, at being denied the opportunities that Alda was receiving behind the camera. In an interview given some years later, he said approximately (I am quoting from memory): ‘I felt that I was giving a hundred percent of my time and thirty percent of my creativity.’

But it was McLean Stevenson who was unhappiest, and who provoked the first crisis that led to a change of cast. Stevenson, who played Col. Henry Blake, had originally auditioned for the role of Hawkeye Pierce; we may suppose that he was less than happy when the network decreed that the part was reserved solely for Alda. An experienced comedy writer (he had written for the famous 1960s sketch comedy show, That Was the Week That Was), he was accorded one or two opportunities to write for M*A*S*H, but he came to resent his position as third on the bill behind Alda and Rogers.

Now the World made its move. Various people in Hollywood whispered in his ear that he had the makings of a star; that he could have his own TV series, and it would surely be as big a hit as M*A*S*H. In the show’s third year, he demanded to be released from his contract, and after a lengthy squabble with Twentieth Century Fox and CBS, they reluctantly complied. As it turned out, each of the shows in which Stevenson starred thereafter was a flop, and the World did not live up to its promise; but its work was done – the temptation had been accepted. Once you have sold your soul, you cannot repossess it for non-payment.

By this time, M*A*S*H was a fixture among the top ten shows on American television. There was no question of cancelling it merely because Col. Blake was leaving. Gene Reynolds and Larry Gelbart decided, since they could not persuade Stevenson to stay, that they would make the best possible use of his departure. They commissioned Greenbaum and Fritzell to write a script in which Henry Blake would receive his orders and be shipped home, and after a full goodbye, part celebratory, part tearful—

Well, nobody knew the ending at the time except the writers, the producers, and (significantly enough) Alan Alda. McLean Stevenson was not told; nor were the rest of the cast. On the last day of shooting for the third season, the actors were given a new page of script for the tag scene of ‘Abyssinia, Henry’. The shock and grief you see on film in the finished episode were not acted; they were completely genuine. (One of the extras was surprised enough to drop a surgical instrument on the floor with a loud clang. Gelbart liked that touch well enough to leave it in the final cut.)

Everyone who remembers M*A*S*H at all recalls the impact of that last scene:


RADAR enters, overcome with grief.

     (off camera)
Radar, put a mask on!

     (off camera)
If that’s my discharge, give it to me straight, I can take it.

     (choked with emotion, pausing frequently)
I have a message. Lieutenant Colonel… Henry Blake’s plane… was shot down… over the Sea of Japan. It spun in.… There were no survivors.

When the scene was shot, McLean Stevenson was standing in the wings, watching. That was how he learned that his character had been killed off. Reportedly, he was so upset that he shut himself in his dressing room and did not attend the end-of-season cast and crew party, at which he was meant to be the guest of honour. He was convinced that either Fox or CBS had ordered Blake to be killed out of pure spite, so that he could never play the character on another series.

The truth was that Gelbart and Reynolds had wanted to use this moment, this opportunity, to give the audience an unforgettable example of the bitter cost of war. They had been justified in keeping the secret from the actors until the last moment, because they wanted their reaction to be genuine, and still more because they wanted the previous days of shooting to be happy and festive, without any inadvertent foreshadowing that might diminish the shock. But they blundered in not making some effort to prepare Stevenson himself, who was not in that final scene, and deserved to find out his character’s fate in a less distressing way.

Those of us who write for print have no need for such subterfuges, no actors’ reactions to manipulate or egos to massage. For us, the death of Henry Blake can serve as a fine example of how to kill a major character for maximum surprise. The value is not only in shock; it also creates a dramatic new plot problem in a state of high tension. At such a time, the reader positively aches to find out what happes next. How will the other characters get by, now that one of them is dead? Who, if anyone, will step up and fill the dead person’s shoes?

It is essential that we play fair with the reader: the character must stay dead. This is why character deaths in fantasy stories, and to a lesser degree in other genres, seldom have this powerful effect: it is too easy for the writer to wave his magic wand and bring them back. Even Sherlock Holmes was brought back to life after going over the Reichenbach falls; and the resurrection of Gandalf was felt to be a flaw by many readers, and even by J. R. R. Tolkien himself. Great caution is called for; and if there is any mechanism by which a character might be brought back to life, we need to close off that option in advance of the death, so that our readers will fully understand that we mean it. M*A*S*H, however, did not have this problem. It was set in a war in which well over a million people died, and they were all real deaths. When the Grim Reaper calls on the 4077th, he does not go back on his word.

Gelbart and Reynolds’ next task was to replace Henry Blake as commanding officer of the 4077th. It would not do – it would undercut the whole point of Henry’s death – to replace him with an equivalent character. A more radical form of surgery was called for. The new C.O. had to be a character in his own right, with a different personality and style, and he had to relate to the other characters in his own way. What Gelbart and Reynolds came up with was, in itself, an excellent idea; but it had unforeseen knock-on effects on the rest of the cast, and, I believe, created an impasse from which the show’s creators could not discover a way out, and contributed directly to their eventual departure from their own series.

The new commander was a full colonel, a Regular Army surgeon who had been in the service since the First World War and knew every angle. Col. Sherman T. Potter quickly put his stamp on the unit. This was no lovable but bumbling civilian doctor; this was an experienced leader who knew when to let his subordinates have their head, but also when to tighten the reins and ride them hard. (As Potter was an ex-cavalryman, the metaphor inevitably suggests itself.)

The first casualty of Potter’s competence was Klinger, who was quickly disabused of any notion that his new commander would grant him the Section Eight discharge that Col. Blake had so long denied him. (It was during this fourth season that Jamie Farr officially became a series regular, having his name added to the end of the opening credits.) Klinger puts on his best evening gown, Japanese fan in hand, and marches into Potter’s office to try his luck with the new man:

Colonel Potter, sir! Corporal Klinger. I’m Section Eight, head to toe. I’m wearing a Warner bra. I play with dolls. My last wish is to be buried in my mother’s wedding gown. I’m nuts! I should be out.

          COL. POTTER
     (returns salute)
Horse hockey!

Luckily for Klinger, he was a thoroughly competent corpsman, devoted to his duties and completely reliable, except for his dress sense and the odd escape attempt. Potter soon came to appreciate his value and humour his foibles. On occasion, he even pretended to offer him the longed-for Section Eight, only to snatch it away when Klinger slipped up and showed untimely signs of sanity.

The second tempter is the Flesh; and in this case, as fairly often happens, the temptation takes the inverted form of a misplaced puritanism. Of the original six regulars, four were surgeons, three of them married; but all four were womanizers to varying degrees. This was perfectly true to the facts of the Korean War (and wars generally), but offensive to Alan Alda. Alda is a frank atheist and a thoroughgoing East Coast American liberal; which is to say, he rejects most of the Judaeo-Christian moral code that he was brought up in, but attaches an exaggerated and even perverse importance to the bits that he retains. Besides being a pacifist, Alda was an absolutely faithful family man – a striking oddity in Hollywood. (It helped, perhaps, that his wife remained in New Jersey with the children, and Alda flew home every weekend to be with his family.)

Stevenson and Rogers were unhappy because the character of Hawkeye upstaged them; Alda was unhappy with Hawkeye himself. It pained Alda – still does, by his own account – that people thought he himself was like Hawkeye; in particular, that he was a skirt-chaser. He took a strong moral stand against the constant womanizing that Hawkeye and Trapper indulged in during the first three seasons. This had several odd effects in later years: while Hawkeye’s lecherous nature was too well established to be changed, Alda at least turned him into a failed lecher. We often see him seducing nurses in the early years; later on, we almost always see him striking out, frequently in a public and humiliating fashion.

But it was not enough to show Hawkeye reaping the consequences of his own misdeeds. Alda wanted a counterexample: an faithful family man like himself, hopelessly in love with his wife, but tragically, without the safety valve of being able to fly home weekends. In effect, Alan Alda wanted someone to play Alan Alda; and since he was already playing Hawkeye, someone else had to be given the part. So B. J. Hunnicutt was born, and stepped into the shoes vacated by Trapper John.

For Wayne Rogers, too, three seasons in Alda’s shadow was enough. He was tired of giving thirty percent of his creativity, and felt that Trapper John had not been developed as a character. He reported for work Monday morning, said his lines, cracked his jokes, got his (canned) laughs, and went home Friday night. With the rest of his time and attention, he took up a lucrative second career as an investor; he made his fortune on the stock market, and by the time the breach came, he no longer needed his income from acting. ‘You’ll never work in this town again’ was, to him, an empty threat. He could not be bullied into doing the studio’s will.

Rogers’ exit from M*A*S*H was messy, and would have been litigious, had not the legal department at Twentieth Century Fox been inexcusably lax. Rogers was hired on the basis of a memorandum of agreement, which made all kinds of promises about working conditions, most of which were not kept. Those promises were not actually written into the final contract between Rogers and Fox – but Rogers never signed the contract. He had worked for three years simply on the strength of the original memo. When he quit the series, the studio tried to sue him for breach of contract; but it turned out that there was no contract. Rogers got away scot-free. By this time, the series was in hiatus, and there was no chance of writing an ‘Abyssinia’ for Trapper John; so he was quietly written out of the show, and replaced by Mike Farrell.

Mike Farrell is, in my estimation at least, a lesser actor than Rogers, and certainly a less funny one. It was an act of high chutzpah, when he joined the cast in 1975, to lay down the law and insist that he not play a kind of Trapper John, Mark II; but he had Alan Alda on his side, and could get away with it. He himself was even more liberal than Alda, an activist for all kinds of fashionable Hollywood Leftist causes, from the Equal Rights Amendment to Castroism. He is less strident in his M*A*S*H role, but he admirably performs the task that was set him: to serve as Alda’s alter ego in the fictional world of the 4077th. In later years, his pining for his beloved wife Peg, and his paroxysms of grief and rage at missing the babyhood of his daughter Erin, attained the dimensions of melodrama and bathos; but in those first years he was a welcome voice of reason and sanity amidst the craziness of the war.

Where Trapper was clownish, B. J. was quietly witty. Both men were practical jokers, but where Trapper was theatrical, B. J. set up his pranks anonymously, and let others do the laughing. B. J. is like the second movement of a sonata: andante to Trapper’s allegro. But his fundamental nature is dictated by Alan Alda’s reaction against the show’s (entirely realistic) portrayal of marital infidelity as an integral part of wartime life.

All these changes of cast were ably handled by the duo of Fritzell and Greenbaum. After the tour de force of ‘Abyssinia, Henry’, they co-wrote (along with Larry Gelbart) ‘Welcome to Korea’, in which B. J. makes his first appearance, and Trapper’s disappearance is finessed away. (Hawkeye returns from leave to hear that Trapper has been sent home, and races after him to Seoul, only to miss Trapper’s flight by ten minutes.) They followed that up with ‘Change of Command’, in which Col. Potter takes over, putting an end to Frank Burns’s last ignominious interval in charge of the 4077th. They would eventually finish off Frank’s decline and fall with ‘Margaret’s Marriage’, the last episode of the fifth season, and write him out of the series with ‘Fade Out, Fade In’, the first episode of the sixth.

The replacement characters are steeped in the crucible of Fritzell and Greenbaum’s style; for the manner of their arrival contributes greatly to the strength and variety that Potter and Hunnicutt bring to the series, and (in due course) Charles Emerson Winchester III. If you want a series of case studies in how to introduce a major new character in the middle of a story, seamlessly and stylishly, you could hardly do better than to study those particular episodes of M*A*S*H. Unfortunately, they did not stay on to oversee the eventual fate of their creations, and the show was carried on by lesser talents. But that is a story for another time; along with the story of our third tempter, the Devil, doing some of his subtlest work on the hapless carcase of Frank Burns.

Back to M*A*S*H: A writer’s view


  1. Fascinating stuff. I had never heard the back story of the extensive changes in characters. I also never suspected that Alan Alda was (is) not as lecherous as his well played character. His publicly East coast liberal stands on issues certainly led me to believe that he was personally one and the same.
    I look forward to the next installment.
    Have you considered selling this series of articles to an industry website/periodical?

    • I considered the idea, but getting permissions from Twentieth Century Fox to quote the scripts would probably cost more than I could get for the articles – even if I could sell them.

      • My very limited understanding of fair use in reproduction of copyrighted material is that it is allowed when used in teaching and criticism. These articles are at the pinnacle of both. Perhaps you are jumping to a conclusion that may be incorrect. Alas however, all this is opinion for me. I have no expertise, only admiration for the craft expertly presented.

        • What I’m doing now certainly counts as fair use. If I were to put it into a book and sell it, it would become commercial use, and as I understand the matter, could then be construed as requiring permission. Ultimately, I don’t believe a case for copyright infringement would lie; but meanwhile I should have to go up against the legions of lawyers and other minor and major devils employed by Fox, and fight them on the weird and shifting terrain of DMCA takedown notices. I believe the retailers of my other books would be much happier if I didn’t do that.

  2. The death of Spock, too, was an incredibly moving scene; but the movie shot itself in the foot when, afterward, it blatantly lampshaded the Genesis project that would bring Spock back to life.

    So while the death scene itself was sad, you learn almost immediately afterward that it’s not going to be permanent anyway. So the effect was dulled, and the crew’s reactions of grief became, not quite eyeroll-worthy, but definitely felt much less genuine.

    • Yes, that’s a very good counterexample.

    • And then there is Sirius Black’s death in Harry Potter.

      Intended to be final and permanent. Consisting of shoving him through a portal.

      One-way portals do not shout “Death!” to fantasy readers. It was not until the seventh book when Harry conjured him back that we have any evidence that he had really died.

      • I disagree (this will be long). The real moment, absent in the movies (which neatly avoided the problem by having Sirius Avada’d, which we’ve emphasized throughout as being infallible to the point that its failure is so significant an event it is the literal catalyst of the plot of the entire series), is the moment that Harry finds the two way mirror, only to find, and be crushed, that Sirius did not bring his mirror with him.

        Book five is rightly maligned for its poor editing, but the ending is actually masterfully executed. Rowling is being the perfect amount of cruel in her dealings with Sirius’s death. She leaves us two clear outs, set up by a lack of the true killing curse: The two-way mirror and the avada kedavra.

        The failure of the first out is incredibly cruel because it feels like the sort of trick Rowling would pull. The fact that the mirrors existed at all should theoretically be all but forgotten by the readers, and in typical Rowling fashion their sudden re-reveal is totally unexpected yet perfectly natural (a trick used to best effect in her best book, “Prisoners of Azkaban”, when the secret of Hermione’s time-turner is revealed. “Goblet of Fire”‘s twist ending was clever, but its effect was dulled a bit by the long infodump necessary to make sense of it).

        So when we suddenly learn that Sirius doesn’t have the mirror, it’s not just Harry who has been tricked: So have we. Harry’s frustration is ours.

        But Rowling then gets even MORE cruel afterward, when she brings up the possibility of Sirius being a ghost. This one is less exciting, because most readers probably wouldn’t expect Rowling to use such a cheap trick, but Harry is so excited, so sure of himself, that we simultaneously pity him because of the immense disappointment he is about to feel and, perhaps just a little, feel that just maybe

        So when Nick shoots down the idea, its less cruel, but it still stings, and our pity for Harry becomes even more acute. It also allows Rowling to get in a nifty bit of exposition about ghosts that becomes relevant later in the series.

        In fact, Rowling is masterful in her handling of the dead throughout the series, continually striking the perfect balance: The (confirmed) dead always stay dead, and any glimpses we get of them in the afterlife are always used extremely sparingly in carefully selected environments.

        Continually she uses the conventions of the genre to tease the idea that she might have a trick up her sleeve (most obviously with Harry seeing his father in “Prisoner of Azkaban” and Harry seeing Dumbledore’s eye in “Deathly Hallows”), but inevitably the trick is that there IS no trick. Her playing with this common fantasy tropes was one of the most brilliant things about the Harry Potter series.

        The series had flaws, but Rowling was no hack, and this was not one of those flaws. In fact, it was one of the series’ greatest strengths.

        The handling of Sirius’s death was one of the most moving things for me in the entire series.

        • (Early on, the two clear outs should be the two-way mirror and the “ghost out”, not the avada kedavra.)

        • But all that means is that wherever Sirius went, the mirror didn’t work, and he’s not a ghost. Yes, that could mean it’s the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns. But that’s not the only possibility.

          • Well, theoretically, yeah. But then you can make that excuse for basically every character in the series. When it comes to Sirius I have to say that if you weren’t as sure he was as dead as Dumbledore then you’re looking at the series in an entirely different way than me.

            Rowling left the purpose of the veil extremely clear: Fall through, you die. She gave the reader two reasons to hope we’d see Sirius again, then took them both away.

            That he TECHNICALLY might not be dead is facile. Sure, technically not. We never see Lily’s body either. So what?

            • No, she put it into the mouth of characters. Who could easily be mistaken.

              • Sure, they could be. One of those characters was Dumbledore, and the concept of the veil was never said to be anything but the entrance to the land of the dead, and Rowling made sure to explicitly shoot down the two best get out of jail free options she had, but yeah, he COULD have been alive.

                So could Lily, James, Quirrel, and Mad-Eye Moody, of whom we only actually see the eye. But we don’t actually think any of them are, since we have no reason to believe any of them are.

                With respect, I submit that on this issue you are dead wrong. Rowling set up her scenario with two clear get out of free options, shot down both, and for the rest of the series made it nothing but clear that Sirius was dead. He was understood as dead by every character by the end of the book and Dumbledore, who is virtually never wrong and certainly not about things like this, refers to him as dead.

                Sirius Black was as dead as a doornail, and her handling of his death was masterfully done.

              • Dumbledore knows no more than anyone else what lies behind a door that no one’s ever come back from.

                All the other characters are given causes of death that, like, actually KILL.

                Homer nods. Rowling, intending Sirius to have definitively died, did not set it up properly.

              • She absolutely did, though. First off, nobody denied that they knew EXACTLY what the veil did. Nobody was “pretty sure”. Nobody said, “We’ll never know.” We know that room in the Department was specifically meant to study death. Rowling makes a point to shut down the only two options we know that will allow Harry to speak to Sirius again.

                And most importantly, it would fly in the face of one of the series’ major themes.

                You could believe he was alive if you want to. It would fly in the face of everything we’ve heard from the point of his death to the end of the series, and go against the themes that Rowling had been setting up since book one, but you can believe it. I don’t think that’s fair to Rowling, though.

        • Stephen J. says

          “Rowling is being the perfect amount of cruel in her dealings with Sirius’s death. She leaves us two clear outs, set up by a lack of the true killing curse: The two-way mirror….”

          This is an interesting argument but I actually think this is to miss Rowling’s actual intended point of that moment.

          I don’t think the reader is ever meant to think that the mirror will give Harry access to Sirius in the afterlife; certainly I never thought it would work for a second. The cruelty of that moment, I think, is meant to be its dreadful irony, as it demonstrates that Harry could have effortlessly verified Sirius was in no real danger and avoided the whole battle, if only he had remembered that he had it — a lapse facilitated not only by Harry’s stubborn decision never to use it, for fear of tempting Sirius into leaving safety in the first place, but also by his ultimately rather vainglorious instinct (on which Hermione rightly calls him, if tragically not with enough force to stop him) to throw himself into action as a rescuer rather than hold back and verify his information first.

          This is rather understated in the book and almost completely missable in the movie, but for me it stood out as one of Harry’s most devastating failures — and, of course, it would be completely lost if the readers, or any character except Harry himself, had any grounds to hope that Sirius might have survived.

          • This is rather understated in the book and almost completely missable in the movie, but for me it stood out as one of Harry’s most devastating failures — and, of course, it would be completely lost if the readers, or any character except Harry himself, had any grounds to hope that Sirius might have survived.

            I both agree and disagree with this.

            I agree that the horrible irony of the moment is what makes it so powerful (and in the book, at least, the moment is very powerful). But I don’t agree that it’s necessary for us to believe Sirius was definitely dead.

            Here was how I read it:

            – Harry suddenly remembers two way mirror. Brief flare of hope!

            – Nobody answers: Sirius either forgot it or cannot answer (“Deathly Hallows” confirms he forgot it)

            After we realize Sirius is definitely dead (or at least almost definitely), it occurs to us that with the mirror there, Harry could actually have contacted him beforehand anyway, saving himself all of the grief.

            I don’t think it’s necessary for us to believe Sirius is dead.

            The movie lost a bit, but in a few ways the streamlining actually improved the story. Harry’s “I must not tell lies” line in the forest was absolutely gold, to the point that when I read the scene in the book I get disappointed Rowling didn’t include it.

  3. Jay Allman says

    This is wonderful, insightful, deeply engaging. Some time ago you indicated doubts about whether this series was popular enough that you wanted to continue it. For myself, I’ll say I won’t forgive you if you don’t continue it until the end! And I say that as someone who was never particularly fond of MASH.

    Re: the temptation to take back a death. There is a persistent legend that, some nights after the first broadcast of “Abyssinia, Henry,” McLean Stevenson did a cameo for a variety show, floating in a raft and shouting “I’m okay!” “The Carol Burnett Show” is most often cited as the show with the gag, but “Tony Orlando” and “Cher” have also been mentioned. I can’t find any documentary evidence that such a skit was ever actually filmed. Still, it’s interesting that the desire to take back a death is so strong that a resurrection will surface in this way, even if it’s only viewers pretending that some other TV series did the Gandalf, and only did it as a joke.

  4. A lot of TV shows managed to slot in a new character that was the old one with a new name. Takes rather more to change the dynamics.

  5. (Gandalf’s death, meanwhile, actually hit quite hard, as when he died it was quite a long time before we saw him again, and there was never really a hint that such a thing was possible. When Gandalf does show up again it’s in a new role as, essentially, the replacement and perfection of Saruman.

    I never once got the impression, for example, that Theoden’s death was anything less than permanent. Gandalf was very obviously a special case, and in any case the pathos of the novel wasn’t really based around death so much as it was based around the general idea of the old ways passing into memory. That Gandalf eventually does this is much more important thematically than if he just died, full stop.

    Also, it would have meant that the amazing scene with the Witch-King at the battle of Pelennor Fields could never have happened. So, I’m on the record as being glad he came back.)

    • Jay Allman says

      I agree with the above. The shock in Moria, to me, is less a matter of “beloved character has died” than of “important piece removed from play” with the knock-on effect of showing that the story was not going to make it easy for the heroes. Gandalf is such a vital character to the quest and to the story of the quest (through his character) that his removal is more about raising the stakes of the combat, not showing the reality of mortality.

      I think that’s also one reason his return didn’t bother me, because during his absence lots of other bad things had happened–the Fellowship fractured, Boromir slain, Pippin and Merry captured–and his apparent death had allowed them to happen: the quest had paid a serious price. That too made his death-resurrection sequence feel like a good storytelling move–it was a way of ramping up the crisis–and not just a manipulative trick.

      It might be interesting to compare and contrast various kinds of “surprise deaths” and what they mean for stories. For example, Henry Blake’s death in “MASH”; Gandalf’s in “LotR”; Obi-Wan’s in “Star Wars”; Marion Crane’s in “Psycho.” I think these are all “successful” deaths, in that they do not only work as “gotcha” moments, but they also seem to work in very different ways. E.g., Marion’s abrupt murder in “Psycho” rips the plot-up-to-that-point off its hinges, disorienting the audience in exactly the way Hitchcock intended to disorient them. None of the other cited deaths have or are intended to have that particular effect.

    • I should point out that I agree with you about Gandalf. However, Tolkien himself took so much flak from critics (and even from genuine readers) about Gandalf’s resurrection that he wound up heartily wishing he could have managed without it. But as you say, it was necessary to the story, as he well knew.

      The trouble, perhaps, is that Gandalf was sent back by Authority; and quite a few readers of The Lord of the Rings had a bee in their bonnets about authority in general, and that Authority in particular, and wanted the comfort of believing that Middle-earth had no religion because there were no overt religious practices.


  1. […] is sometimes criticized (see the comment I responded to for one example, but it’s not the first time I’ve heard it) for not killing Sirius off […]

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