‘Hot Lips is Back in Town’

M*A*S*H: A writer’s view. #10 in the series.


Let us go back a bit, to the spring of 1977. The finale of the fifth season of M*A*S*H was ‘Margaret’s Wedding’, which was also the swan song for Gene Reynolds (who directed the episode) and Larry Linville. It also marked the first on-screen appearance of Col. Donald Penobscot, whose off-screen engagement to Margaret Houlihan had already caused such far-reaching changes to the tone of the show and the balance of the cast.


On this occasion only, Penobscot was played by Beeson Carroll: clean-cut, likable, well-spoken apart from a tendency to mix up words when drunk (he finished ‘396th out of 227’ at West Point, where he went in for ‘Greco-wrestle Romaning’). It was a hilarious rather than a happy ending to the engagement. The Swampmen, in one of their most heartless practical jokes, encase the hapless Penobscot in a body cast the night before the wedding. By the time they relent and try to tell Margaret that he has not broken half the bones in his body, it is too late: the newlyweds are already departing by helicopter, and can’t hear over the noise of the chopper blades. The only blue note in the composition is played by Frank Burns, standing alone and forlorn on the helicopter pad, saying to the empty sky: ‘Goodbye, Margaret.’


And goodbye it is: for while Loretta Swit returned in the new season and remained with M*A*S*H to the end, Hot Lips was gone for good. (It is significant that her nickname is used only a handful of times in the last six seasons.) Nor was it simply a case of replacing ‘Miss Houlihan’ with ‘Mrs. Penobscot’. The new production team, dominated by Alan Alda, decreed that Margaret’s marriage should be doomed from the start.


In ‘Fade Out, Fade In’, besides writing out Frank Burns and writing in Charles Emerson Winchester III, Fritzell and Greenbaum were assigned the task of wrecking the marriage during the honeymoon. Margaret actually leaves Donald in Tokyo and returns to the 4077th before her leave is over. The Swampmen, consumed with curiosity, pester her with kindness until she confesses:


          HAWKEYE
Something went wrong, didn’t it, Margaret?

          MARGARET
Your word of honor?

          HAWKEYE
Sure.

          MARGARET
What about him?

          B. J.
Him too.

          MARGARET
Well… The first two days were perfect. Then after that, it was like being on a honeymoon with my old auntie.

          HAWKEYE
What happened between the second and third day?

          MARGARET
Nothing! We were having a wonderful time. Tennis, shopping. A lovely party that evening at General Weiskopf’s. Lyle was a charming host.

          B. J.
Lyle?

          MARGARET
General Weiskopf. He’s an old friend. We stayed up and talked and laughed until three in the morning.

          HAWKEYE
Was the groom in the room?

          MARGARET
Sure, he was right there, listening.

          HAWKEYE
What— What happened after the party?

          MARGARET
     (choked with grief)
Nothing.

          B. J.
As in… nothing?

          MARGARET
He stopped talking. He stopped smiling. He stopped… everything.

          HAWKEYE
As in, everything?

MARGARET nods and gulps her martini.

          B. J.
Well, Margaret… Don’t you think that’s it?

          MARGARET
What?

          HAWKEYE
That’s probably it. Donald was competing with your whole past.

          B. J.
Some guys just can’t take that kind of pressure.

          HAWKEYE
The male libido can be a very fragile thing.

          MARGARET
     (shocked, realizing what she’s done)
Oh, poor Donald!

          B. J.
Oh, he’ll get over it. It happens all the time.

          MARGARET
     (puzzled)
Frank never had that problem.

          B. J.
Frank didn’t need it. He had every other one.

The Queen of Tact strikes again. Walking out on her own honeymoon is rather above the odds even for Major Houlihan. We swallow it, I suspect, because we are not required to see it happening. Margaret is already back in camp, and we have to settle for whatever backstory we are given to explain the fait accompli. It is a sort of rider on the rule that ‘truth is stranger than fiction’. What happens on the screen is not exactly truth; but we already expect Margaret to be stranger than most fiction, and we can accept an account of an off-screen event that would likely be phony and unconvincing if played in full for the camera. Fritzell and Greenbaum sell us the story by sheer sleight of hand.


After this inauspicious beginning, the Penobscots’ marriage soon goes to pieces entirely. In one or two episodes, there is a kind of awkward and abortive flirtation between Margaret and Charles, which founders partly on the gross incompatibility of the two characters – lowbrow Army brat vs. highbrow Boston Brahmin – but chiefly on a painful lack of chemistry between Loretta Swit and David Ogden Stiers. Donald makes one more appearance, played this time by Mike Henry as an amiable dunce who costs his team (and Margaret) a week’s leave in ‘The M*A*S*H Olympics’. The revised Col. Penobscot is harried, henpecked, tongue-tied, and fearfully stupid.


‘The M*A*S*H Olympics’ was written by Ken Levine and David Isaacs, the new story editors, who would go on to greater fame as writers and creative consultants on Cheers. They had written three previous M*A*S*H scripts, including ‘Out of Sight, Out of Mind’, which allowed Alda to fully indulge his inner ham tragedian by playing Hawkeye as a (temporarily) blind man. At this point in their careers, they might be described as a poor man’s Fritzell and Greenbaum – talented, funny, but inexperienced. They did not quite have the senior duo’s knack for revealing hidden depths in existing characters without contradicting their established qualities. They rode roughshod over Penobscot, turning him from a sympathetic figure into a cipher, as empty, though not as despicable, as Frank Burns.


This was not good writing, but it set the stage for the destruction of the ‘Margaret Penobscot’ version of Maj. Houlihan. From the moment that Hot Lips ceased to be Frank’s lover, she could no longer be portrayed as the town bicycle of the Eighth Army. If she were to remain as a significant character on the show, she had to be given some other qualities to flesh out her personality. The character so perfectly expressed in the monologue written for her by Larry Gelbart and Simon Muntner was dead and buried. Margaret rediviva had to be constructed out of new materials.


The first ground was laid by Alan Alda, in his script ‘Dear Sigmund’, discussed earlier. The visiting psychiatrist, Dr. Sidney Freedman, is witness to a classic Houlihan temper tantrum, which firmly establishes Margaret as not only Queen of Tact, but Queen of Denial. Over drinks in the Swamp, Margaret is explaining the secret of keeping calm at the 4077th:


          MARGARET
I just don’t let it get to me.


          SIDNEY
The wounded don’t get to you? The cold, the food, the rats?


          MARGARET
Major, I have three nurses down with dysentery. I have a shortage of sulfa, surgical gowns, and rubber gloves. And I got a call from my fiancé in Tokyo this morning, who celebrated his birthday last night – without me.


          SIDNEY
He must miss you very much.


          MARGARET
No, he said they had a very good time.


          SIDNEY
I see.


          MARGARET
Am I upset? Am I distressed?
     (laughs)
No! One has to be strong, Major. In strength is serenity.


          SIDNEY
Well, I take my hat off to you, Margaret—


          MARGARET
Just a minute, Major. What is that thing doing over there?


          SIDNEY
     (looking around)
I’m sorry, what thing?


          MARGARET
You let a woman sit down and have a drink with you with that thing there?


          SIDNEY
You mean the athletic supporter? Major, you’re a nurse!


          MARGARET
It’s disgusting! Will you put something over it?


          SIDNEY
Like a fig leaf?


          MARGARET
How dare you parade that thing in front of me?


          SIDNEY
Major, it isn’t even mine!


          MARGARET
     (getting up, walking around the tent, agitated)
It belongs to one of those repulsive – drunken – lecherous – evil cretins. They live like pigs! They have the morals of baboons!
     (screams)
Will you please put your hat on it!


SIDNEY takes off his hat and covers the jockstrap.


          MARGARET
Thank you.


          SIDNEY
My uniform is proud to serve. I’m sorry you got upset.


          MARGARET
     (suddenly calm)
I’m not upset.


          SIDNEY
Well, a little agitated.


          MARGARET
Not at all. It would be useless, I wouldn’t permit it.


          SIDNEY
Right.


          MARGARET
And you can do it if I can. I don’t feel a thing.


This version of Margaret is part ice, part shrieking lunatic – insensitive to other people’s feelings, comically oblivious of her own.


It is this dysfunctional character whom Alda puts through her paces in his two-part script, ‘Comrades in Arms’. Hawkeye and Margaret are sent to the 8063rd MASH to demonstrate their new arterial graft technique; but the 8063rd bugs out before they get there, and they are stranded behind enemy lines.


This, by the way, is one of the good bits of continuity on M*A*S*H. The new graft technique is central to the plot of ‘Patent 4077’, by Levine and Isaacs, which had been filmed just before ‘Comrades in Arms’, but unfortunately was broadcast after it. Indeed, the arterial clamp invented by the Korean craftsman, Mr. Shin (brilliantly played by Keye Luke), is specifically mentioned in ‘Comrades’. Alas, this nicety is bound to be lost on a casual viewer watching the episodes in broadcast order.


Alda paid more attention to continuity than most M*A*S*H writers. In ‘Life Time’, he has Hawkeye mention his collapsible canvas bathtub, the arrival of which kicked off the plot of ‘None Like It Hot’ the previous season. This is a clever touch. Unfortunately, the bathtub was horse-traded away within 48 hours, on Col. Potter’s orders, to remove a nuisance that was disrupting the whole camp; so it could not have been there, weeks or months later, after Radar’s departure from the unit. We can only give Alda credit for good intentions, not always for results.


But let us return to ‘Comrades in Arms’. Stranded, lost, their jeep stolen by enemy troops, Hawkeye and Margaret take refuge for the night in an abandoned hut, and in each other’s arms. The cliffhanger at the end of Part I shows them in close-up, violently kissing; we are left to infer what happens next.


Part II begins with the aftermath. Margaret has fallen in temporary but passionate love with Hawkeye. She showers him with compliments, makes him breakfast from the scanty provisions on hand, fusses over his leg (injured in the enemy attack the previous day). She turns girlish and even giggly, and repeatedly calls Hawkeye ‘darling’, to his alarm. Part of her wants to make him her hero, and part wants to make him over to her minute specifications; she even talks of throwing away his beloved Hawaiian shirt. Since this version of Margaret is both tactless and out of touch with her own emotions, she can freely express her conflicting motives in a brilliant one-liner: ‘I love to see a strong man who takes charge like that. Now do what I tell you!’

Since this is an Alan Alda script, Hawkeye has to have at least one chance of behaving like a damned fool. It gradually dawns upon Margaret that her new-found amour poses a problem:


          MARGARET
What are we going to tell Donald?


HAWKEYE reacts with silent panic while he tries to think of an answer.


          HAWKEYE
Tell Donald? About what?


          MARGARET
About us.
     (smiles)
About what happened.


          HAWKEYE
Uh… Well. What do you usually tell him?


          MARGARET
     (pulling away, offended)
What do I usually tell him? What do you mean, what do I usually tell him!


Just then they are discovered by a searching party from the 8063rd. Hawkeye is saved from the impossible task of extricating his foot from his mouth. But he committed the unforgivable sin of pulling away first, and Margaret’s emotions instantly flip from passionate love to icy hatred. She puts on her Queen of Denial hat again.


Back at the 4077th, Hawkeye goes to her tent to try to make peace:


          HAWKEYE
I don’t think anything could ever come of it because we’re so different, but something happened to us out there. Both of us. Maybe we cared for each other a little more than either of us would like. I don’t see why we can’t own up to that. We might even turn out to be friends.


          MARGARET
I don’t know what you’re talking about. Nothing happened out there. Not a thing.


          HAWKEYE
Wait a minute. Nothing happened? Is that what you’re trying to tell me?


          MARGARET
Not unless you took advantage of me while I was drunk.


          HAWKEYE
You know, for a minute I was afraid I might like you too much, but I don’t think I have to worry.


In the end, that much denial is beyond even Margaret’s capacity. In Part I, she was upset because she received a letter from Donald by mistake – a letter he had written to a former girlfriend named Darlene, casually mentioning the ‘sturdy woman’ he had married. Margaret takes her revenge by sending him ‘a very carefully worded letter’ back, which she reads to Hawkeye:


Dear Hank, I’ll never forget that night we spent in that abandoned hut. You gave me your warmth and your caring when I was afraid. And now I think from time to time, when I’m afraid again, I may have the courage to let another person know it. You’ve helped me to grow a little. Thank you, Hank.


Hawkeye smiles and answers: ‘Thank you, Darlene.’


At this point, Margaret’s marriage is a walking corpse, but the writers are not ready to bury it yet. In ‘The Merchant of Korea’, she has a falling-out with Donald over money, and in ‘What’s Up, Doc?’ she is afraid that she is pregnant, which will put an even greater strain on their relationship (and, what matters more, means an automatic discharge from the Army). In ‘Peace On Us’, she arranges to meet Donald in Tokyo to work things out, only to find that he has been transferred permanently to San Francisco at his own request. His behaviour is inexplicable, but the show is done with him as a character; henceforth he is only an excuse for Margaret to rant against the Perfidy of Men.


After that, Margaret crosses over into permanent incoherence; and I am afraid it is an incoherence dictated by the very specific ideology of ‘second wave’ feminism. On the one hand, she has to be a Liberated Woman: twice as competent as any man, secure in her own identity, the sort of woman who (in the cant of those times) ‘needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle’. On the other hand, she has to be a Persecuted Victim, oppressed by the evil Y chromosomes surrounding her, and dependent upon a Great Reformer (usually male, for this kind of feminism ran skin-deep in Hollywood) to rescue her from the horror of Men. We shall examine several instances of this pattern in the remaining run of the series.


The feminism of M*A*S*H does not all stick at this low level. The theme of the self-actualizing career woman is handled much more deftly in ‘Lil’ (written by Sheldon Bull), which happened to be the next episode aired after ‘Peace On Us’.

Col. Lillian Rayburn is an Army nurse near the end of her career, who does not regret a minute of the life she missed, and looks back with pride on the one she chose: ‘Women like us are lucky, Margaret. Why, we’ve seen more of the world than most people dream of. And let’s face it, there’s an excitement about our work. It’s exciting when you help put some kid back together and then watch him walk out of here.’ She has no fear of spending her retirement alone: ‘What man my age would turn down a nurse with a pension?’ For Lil, life is a matter of making choices and living by them. It is not something to be wasted on an impossible balancing act in which one tries to have everything at once, and generally ends up with nothing. Though the ideologues may disagree, this makes her a better practical feminist than thousands who wear the label and treat feminism as a permanent political campaign. And there is nothing anachronistic about it at all.


If Sheldon Bull had been a regular writer for M*A*S*H, Margaret might have wound up becoming rather like Lil herself, and it would, I suspect, have been a pleasure to see. As it was, Bull wrote only two scripts for the show, and the feminist transformation of the show’s only female regular was left in less capable hands.


For the show’s stable of writers was growing thin. Greenbaum and Fritzell, too, had joined the long procession to the exits by this time. They accepted a one-year contract from Universal Studios to develop new shows. Nothing they worked on ever went into production, and in fact their stint at Universal was cut short, for Jim Fritzell suddenly died, and Greenbaum went into semi-retirement. Greenbaum did not think much of the work done by his successors on M*A*S*H:

Everybody talked too much. Everybody wanted to be nice… and I just finally stopped watching. The last show, that was supposed to be tremendously successful, I didn’t care for.


The next stage in Margaret’s evolution is marked by an episode called ‘An Eye for a Tooth’, written by Ronny Graham. The script breaks with her character in innumerable ways; here one suspects that Loretta Swit is actually playing Loretta Swit, and not even trying to act like Margaret Houlihan any longer. If this is indeed what happened, she at least played herself with panache. The episode begins with the Swampmen nursing hangovers in the mess tent. Margaret strides in to make a triumphant announcement about her divorce proceedings:


Gentlemen! Today is a day that will live triumphantly in the hearts of freed women everywhere!


—said no woman, ever, in the 1950s. The triumph? Margaret’s attorney has procured the release of her half of her joint savings account. In other words, a petty victory, not even won by Margaret in person: the Great Reformer has handed her what she wanted, and she crows over it as if she had single-handedly discovered a continent. At least she did not say ‘liberated women everywhere’, though that is the clear meaning: that anachronistic the producers did not dare to be – yet.


But they were getting there. In that particular shot, Mike Farrell is wearing a decidedly non-regulation moustache and longish Seventies hair, and Margaret herself is wearing an elaborate Seventies hairdo (dyed ash blonde instead of her previous pale gold). Even Hawkeye is shaggier than he was. The U.S. Army did not permit its officers to look like that even in the 1970s, and nobody looked like that in the 1950s; but we have reached the point at which the inmates, led by Alan Alda, are running the asylum, and their personal fashion quirks take absolute precedence, and realism be damned. It is a small point, perhaps, but a telling one: a symptom of the sloppiness the show was beginning to exhibit in more important matters.


In ‘An Eye for a Tooth’, Margaret is revealed as a Grade A practical joker. One simply cannot imagine the straitlaced, by-the-book Hot Lips of the earlier seasons either committing a practical joke or willingly being the butt of one, but this version of Margaret does both, without so much as a ‘You’re on report!’ The main plot of the episode is childishly simple. Margaret and the Swampmen engage in a war of escalating pranks, separately and secretly egged on by Winchester (who actually arranges several of the pranks himself). In the climax, Margaret takes matters into her own hands:


I sent a letter to your wife, funny man, telling her all about our year-long love affair, and how you didn’t have the nerve to tell her that it was all over between you and her.


The enraged B. J. physically attacks Margaret, prompting Winchester to break down and make a tearfully abject confession:


          CHARLES
It was all me. The lemon meringue pie, the shower, the dummy. Margaret, I’m sorry. Are you all right? I had no idea anyone would take this seriously.


          HAWKEYE
Well, what do you think, does that do it? We’re even?


          B. J.
I think so.


          MARGARET
     (suddenly smiling)
Yeah, I feel pretty even.


          B. J.
     (helping Margaret up)
Did I hurt you, Margaret?


          MARGARET
Not at all, I loved it.


This is a far cry from the Major Margaret Houlihan who described the Swampmen as baboons and cretins just a short time before.


Margaret’s divorce papers finally come through in an episode entitled ‘Hot Lips is Back in Town’ – one of the most blatant lies in the history of M*A*S*H. For it is this episode that finally flushes the whole character of ‘Hot Lips’ down the latrine to make way for the bipolar Liberated Woman/Persecuted Victim act. This episode was written by Larry Balmagia and Bernard Dilbert, and aired late in the seventh season.


The show opens with a meeting of the senior medical staff: i.e., those listed in the opening credits – Margaret and the four surgeons. Radar delivers the mail, interrupting the meeting. Margaret receives her final divorce decree, and sits staring at it while the others scramble for incoming wounded. Hawkeye turns back to interrupt her brown study:


          HAWKEYE
Miss Houlihan, you’re on!


          MARGARET
     (glumly)
Yeah, yeah. I just can’t get over this good news.


After a typical gruelling O.R. session, we see her in the Officers’ Club, most uncharacteristically, getting drunk with the Swampmen. Then she heads for Col. Potter’s tent, waking him with a kiss on the ear:


          POTTER
Radar, what the—
     (Turns to see who kissed him)
Margaret.
     (Rolls over to go back to sleep; then does a double take)
Margaret?!


          MARGARET
Can I talk to you?


          POTTER
Have you dropped all your beans? It’s the middle of the night!


          MARGARET
I know it’s late, sir, but I’ve just realized something that changes my whole perspective. On life! Colonel… The Army is my career!


POTTER groans and turns away, pulling the blankets over his head.


          MARGARET
Colonel! Colonel!
     (Shakes him until he turns to face her again)
I guess I’ve always known it, but I just couldn’t see it because I kept getting lost in all those men. Donald, and then before him Frank, and then before him—


          POTTER
I remember, I remember.


          MARGARET
And now I finally realize that I don’t need anybody else to help me live my life. I’m in control! And I’m going as far in this man’s Army as any woman can go. Maybe even general!

          POTTER
With the general’s permission, I’d like to get a little sleep.


          MARGARET
So, for starters, I’ve got a few ideas about how we can improve things around here. Efficiency-wise, I mean.


          POTTER
Whatever you want, you got it.


          MARGARET
Really?


          POTTER
Good night.


Margaret takes Potter’s words at face value, and sets in motion a grand scheme to train the nurses to take over triage. This is a fine idea in itself: as Col. Potter says, ‘In a couple of months we could have the crack staff of the Far East.’ But it turns out that Margaret wants to complete the program in three days, and has already invited Gen. Lyle Weiskopf to review the new triage system on Saturday. Potter is incensed that she has gone over his head.


          POTTER
Absolutely not. I won’t permit it.


          MARGARET
It’s too late, he’s already accepted!


Since nothing is impossible for the Liberated Woman, the nurses all pitch in and learn to handle triage in 72 hours. (Here, perhaps, we have an early instance of the Two-Minute Training Montage, made infamous by The Karate Kid, in which a raw novice magically becomes a world-beating expert at a difficult skill in a ridiculously short time.)


Weiskopf – the same Lyle who unwittingly helped to derail Margaret’s honeymoon – is duly impressed with the demonstration, but more interested in Margaret herself. With Donald out of the way, he imagines that Hot Lips is going to resume business at the old stand. He opens with the proposition direct:


          WEISKOPF
I have an opening on my nursing staff in Tokyo for a lieutenant colonel.

          MARGARET
But I’m only a major.


          WEISKOPF
Here you’re a major, but in Japan—


          MARGARET
We could do wonderful things together.


          WEISKOPF
We sure could.


          MARGARET
A triage program for all the nursing units in Korea.


          WEISKOPF
If we have time.


          MARGARET
Oh, Lyle! First the divorce, and now this. It’s like a wonderful door has been opened up on my life.


          WEISKOPF
The door was always open, Margaret. All you had to do was walk in. It’ll be like old times. Romantic suppers at the Officers’ Mess, cool night strolls through the cherry blossoms. Then up to my billet for a nightcap and a game of ‘Escaped Convict and the Warden’s Wife’.


ANGLE ON MARGARET as WEISKOPF talks. Her smile disappears; this is not the ‘wonderful door’ she had in mind.


          MARGARET
Is that what this promotion talk is all about?


          WEISKOPF
Oh, no.  No, no, no, no. The promotion’s legit, I’ll make you a colonel.

          MARGARET
A colonel in charge of what, your boudoir? I’m a head nurse, and a damn good one! What do you think that demonstration out there was all about, anyway?


          WEISKOPF
     (smoothly; trying to placate her)
At ease, Major! You know how the game is played. You rub my back and I’ll rub yours.


          MARGARET
I’ll rub my own back, thank you. How dare you assume such a thing?


          WEISKOPF
Oh, come on, Margaret. I know you better than that. You have the talent, I have the clout, now let’s get together and have a few laughs.


          MARGARET
You haven’t been listening to me, General. I’m not a pushover anymore. Get yourself another clay pigeon.


Of course, Gen. Weiskopf was quite right: he knew Hot Lips Houlihan better than that. But while he wasn’t looking, the Body Snatchers invaded and replaced Hot Lips with an entirely new character. The old Hot Lips, on at least one occasion, had openly acknowledged playing ‘the game’, and speculated on her chances of getting a promotion out of a complaisant general. But that was when Henry Blake was in command, the surgeons at the 4077th were skirt-chasers, and it was still Gene Reynolds and Larry Gelbart’s M*A*S*H. It would not do at all on the Alan Alda Show.


In one respect, this episode ends with a ‘reset to zero’: the next time we see a triage scene, the surgeons are once again performing that duty, and they will continue to do so until the end of the series. After all, they are regular cast members; it would not do to give so many lines and so many choice scenes to a bunch of minor characters. But in another way, the change we see is permanent, for Margaret will never be a ‘pushover’ again. She will be subjected to the advances of various men, but she will always refuse them like a good Liberated Woman; and most often she will need the help of other men to do so, like a good Persecuted Victim. Some instances:


• ‘Are You Now, Margaret’ (season 8): A visiting Congressional aide, a cartoon McCarthyite come to sniff out Commies, points the finger at Margaret for having associated with a known Communist in college. Combining blackmail with seduction, he offers to sniff elsewhere if she sleeps with him. She turns him down with scorn:


          MARGARET
You’re so sure I’m a Communist, but for a little tumble you’ll let me off the hook?

          WILLIAMSON
Don’t be absurd. I would never have let you off the hook!


          MARGARET
You mean you were gonna— And then you— You creep!


The aide is defeated, not by Margaret’s refusal, but by an elaborate bit of counter-blackmail, set up by the Swampmen with the aid of Klinger. The Liberated Woman cannot submit to Williamson’s lust, but the Persecuted Victim cannot be permitted to rescue herself.


• ‘Stars and Stripes’ (season 8): Sgt. Scully, a hard-bitten combat veteran with whom Margaret has already had a brief fling, comes to visit. Margaret makes a special effort to please him, putting on an elaborate dress and makeup, but Scully, playing the perfect male chauvinist pig, lies down on her bunk and starts giving her orders to cook for him. She gives him a good feminist lecture: ‘You take it for granted that everything you want is yours. What about what I want?’ The conversation leads up to a ludicrous Moment of Shit, in which the poor downtrodden major rebels against the tyrannical sergeant:


          SCULLY
I’m used to a simple chain of command – with me in command.


          MARGARET
And me in chains.


Here, at least, the Persecuted Victim is rescued by her own efforts, because Scully recognizes that things will not work out between them. He leaves, never to return.


• ‘No Laughing Matter’ (season 9): Col. Baldwin, who exiled Winchester to the 4077th, comes by on an inspection tour. He offers Winchester a transfer back to Tokyo in exchange for acting as his procurer. While Winchester is lining up a business girl to visit Baldwin’s tent, Margaret inadvertently walks in on Baldwin and he makes a comically inept attempt to bed her. To cover his tracks, he claims that she made sexual advances towards him, and calls on Winchester to corroborate his story. Winchester (the Great Reformer du jour), kissing his transfer goodbye, sourly confesses: ‘Colonel Baldwin is lying through his teeth.’


But let us not get the wrong impression. A man did not need to make a pass at Margaret to be put on the official list of villains. Any man at the 4077th would do. All he had to do was take the Idiot Ball when a writer handed it to him. Col. Potter, who had hitherto always had the utmost respect for Margaret’s personal and professional abilities, suddenly turns into a blithering sexist fool in ‘Sons and Bowlers’ (season 10):


The 4077th, having been beaten by a Marine unit at everything else, challenges the Marines to a bowling tournament. The Marines happen to have a ringer, Marty Urbancic, a professional bowler in civilian life. When Col. Potter is trying desperately to find a fourth player for the MASH team, he is completely incapable of noticing Margaret’s equally desperate attempts to volunteer. Of course Margaret is grudgingly admitted to the team at the eleventh hour, and of course (being the Liberated Woman) she saves the day, scoring a strike and winning the match, all filmed in slow motion to the sound of a triumphal marching band.


Then, in the tag, with consummate idiocy, the writers (Elias Davis and David Pollock) undercut Margaret’s whole achievement and make a hash of the story. We could believe that Margaret insisted on joining the team because she was already an expert bowler and knew she could beat the Marines. No such luck:


          POTTER
You never told me. Where’d you learn to bowl like that?


          MARGARET
What do you think Marty and I did last night? Between drinks, he taught me everything he knew.


Like most athletic skills, bowling is largely a matter of muscle memory. It can only be perfected by long practice, and certainly not by a single night of coaching ‘between drinks’. We could do a ‘fan save’ by surmising that Margaret is pulling Potter’s leg, but there is nothing in the episode as filmed to suggest this. No, this appears to be a straightforward case of the Liberated Woman performing an impossible feat of learning, and the Persecuted Victim being rescued by a Great Reformer who (O twist of fate!) happens also to be the principal bad guy. This is ghastly writing. But it fairly represents the level to which the concluding seasons of M*A*S*H frequently descended.


As Everett Greenbaum pointed out, in the last seasons of M*A*S*H, everyone wanted to be nice – Margaret most of all. So she spent part of her time becoming positively chummy with the Swampmen, fussing over Col. Potter, and being a kind of den mother to the 4077th generally. But when required, she could still play the martinet; and that generally occurred when some other nurse was being cast as the Persecuted Victim, and Margaret had to be dragooned into service as the persecutor. Her last fling in this vein occurred in the penultimate episode (and the last one filmed), ‘As Time Goes By’, when she proposed burying a 4077th MASH time capsule in the camp, and Hawkeye set out to guy the proceedings by collecting a lot of irreverent joke items to put into it.


Increasingly, on such occasions, Margaret abandoned the no-nonsense, by-the-book demeanour she had so thoroughly established in the first five seasons. The old Margaret would have answered such impertinence by barking an order, or with a simple ‘You’re on report!’ The new, sensitive Margaret generally responds with impotent exasperation. The Liberated Woman is offended, but the Persecuted Victim cannot strike back, despite having the obvious rank and authority to do so.


A case in point: In ‘April Fools’ (season 8), the insufferable visiting inspector, Col. Daniel Webster Tucker, is yelling naked threats at the surgeons. Margaret tries to pour oil on the waters:


          MARGARET
Sir, we all know that you’re really just trying to do a very difficult job—


          TUCKER
Don’t patronize me, Major.


          MARGARET
I was trying to support you.


          TUCKER
I hardly need the support of a woman!


Whereupon Margaret gasps like a Victorian maiden aunt who is shocked, shocked, by the sight of the piano limbs without their lace pantelettes on. Hot Lips would have torn strips off of Tucker, and probably reported him to a general at I Corps for ‘conduct unbecoming’. The ‘liberated’ Margaret is far less effective, has less agency, than the old pre-liberated Hot Lips ever had. The writers were trying to portray both her anachronistic rebellion against 1950s sexism and her exaggerated oppression by it, and they routinely fell between two stools.


Hot Lips Houlihan began as a cartoon figures, but she was at least a consistent cartoon: a comic-opera martinet tangled up in an adulterous love-affair with the equally cartoonish Frank Burns. She ended, not as a rounded character, but as two separate cartoon figures, the stock Women’s Libber perpetually warring with the stock Damsel in Distress.


The blame for this belongs squarely to the writers. The inferior talents who wrote for the show in its last years simply did not know of any way to win the audience’s sympathy for a character, except by making him suffer undeservedly. This worked well for the wounded, and tolerably well for the doctors; but for an officer in a position of command, it did not work at all. With great regularity, Margaret seemed to forget that she was Chief Nurse, and outranked most of the people who oppressed her. Her ineffectual responses remind me of Bugs Bunny’s laconic reaction when Daffy Duck fell off a cliff: ‘I wonder if that silly duck will remember he can fly? Nope, I guess not.’


The dissolution of Margaret’s character was a grave fault, but it was far from the worst failing of the later seasons of M*A*S*H. It is to those other failings that we turn next.


Back to M*A*S*H: A writer’s view

Comments

  1. Jay Allman says:

    I wonder how many comments this post will get. It’s the kind of post where, when you’re done reading it, you can only shake your head and murmur, “Well, he tied *that* one up neatly.” Which isn’t the kind of comment many people feel is worth leaving.

    You are devastating here, less because of your arguments (which are just fine) than because of the way you get the reader (or this reader, at least) to *see* what you’re talking about. A few posts back, when you were talking about Frank Burns, I made the off-the-cuff remark that they should have made Frank a real person, as they did with Margaret. You demurred from the assumption that they had made Margaret a “real person,” and promised you’d be talking about it.

    I was actually skeptical that you’d convince me, because I remembered liking Margaret in the later seasons as a more complex character than the ball-breaker of the early ones. I had a fairly vivid memory of her, though it’s been years since I’ve watched those episodes.

    I still have those memories, and this post didn’t change them. But you succeeded absolutely in making me see them under a different light. Or it’s like when someone points out the hidden figure in the image, so that you can’t unsee what had previously been invisible. You’ve made me see those seams in her character now, so that qualities that seemed to me at the time textured and complex now seem coarse and constructed. I see what you meant, now, and I think that you’re right.

    Still, I’d dissent this far, though I’m sure this is a quirk of mine: I actually like it when characters contain contradictions, even if they’re jarring. Or maybe even especially when they are jarring. They stop me short and cause me to reconsider the character, to understand them in a new way that explains the seeming contradiction. I won’t waste pixels by defending this possibly indefensible line. Maybe I just think a comment, even a flattering one, should contain a little dissonance.

    Oh, one last comment, on the episode where Winchester provokes the war of practical jokes. I remember that one, less for the war than for the very sour conclusion where his victims turned his prank round on him. I think that was the moment “M*A*S*H” really lost me: the show forcing a funny sub-plot to kneel before a Serious Point. A decade later “Murphy Brown” had a similar storyline about escalating practical jokes, but made the same “serious point” in a much sweeter and funnier way by playing it out to a final lunatic absurdity instead of short-circuiting it with an MOS.

    • It’s true that Margaret Houlihan was a likable character in the later seasons – most of the time. Loretta Swit is a very likable performer, and I suspect she got tired of playing the heavy, even if it was a cartoon heavy. I just don’t believe that her likability reflects on the writing of the show, which is what I’m trying to concentrate on here. So I definitely take your point, but I don’t think it really disqualifies mine.

  2. Carbonel says:

    “Well, that ties that one up with a bow.” Good show.

  3. Scholar-at-Arms says:

    Just wanted to drop in and say that despite never having watched MASH, I’ve found this series of essays both interesting and entertaining. I hope some of your points about storytelling will stick with me in the future, in case my creative streak ever develops beyond running D&D campaigns.

  4. I’m doing a series on “The Office” as I go through it, though not nearly as well done as yours, partially because it is my first watch, partially because I know little of the behind the scenes issues, and partially because this is outstanding.

    I will, however, probably take my cue from your analysis of the early episode with the poker table (the name escapes me right now) and do an in-depth analysis of “The Office”‘s best episode, “Dinner Party”. Fascinating stuff.

  5. OMG! Thank you for this! This is what I’ve been saying about M*A*S*H for years. And I’ve caught a LOT of flack for it at MASH fang groups and message boards. There are so many fans of this show, who say the like the later seasons best, because “everybody were friends.” When I point out that’s why the earlier seasons were the best, because the later seasons lacked any hint of tension. It was so bad that they had to drag in an external character to be antagonist of the week, to have any sort of tension towards the end. It’s telling that I have M*A*S*H on DVD only up to season 8, and I only bought season 8 to get Radar’s final episodes.

    You write: “But while he wasn’t looking, the Body Snatchers invaded and replaced Hot Lips with an entirely new character.”

    YES! When people write, “I love how good Loretta Swit was portraying her character,” I always reply: “Which of the two characters she did on the show did you like best? Hot Lips or Maaaaaaargret?”

    Yes, the characters changed, but no human can change as much as she did. Hot Lips was fun. A character filled with contradictions, hypocrisy, passion and heart. Yes, she was what a lot of people would call a slut, but that only added to the complexity of the character. She was a strong, and in man ways a self sufficient, woman. But at the same time, she played the game. But as the world became more and more PC, the producers were afraid that viewers couldn’t make out that even if a character does something on the screen, it doesn’t mean that the producers of the show condone it. They just portray and write a character.

    The other character Loretta Swit played, Maaaaaaargret, had her moments. But she was a completely different person from Hot Lips. There’s no way that it’s the same character. It makes me glad Trapper and Henry left. Can you imagine how much the later writers would have ruined two such brilliant characters?

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