M*A*S*H (1983) – Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen

On 28 February, 1983, millions of viewers bid goodbye to the 4077th and its residents over the course of two hours. It’s one of those moments burned into my brain, and I remember exactly where I was and how emotionally it affected me.

The only other time I was affected in the same way would be in 1989 when I graduated high school. Teenaged years are tough, and the shared experience of that and school bound our class together. I wouldn’t have gone through it with anyone else, good and bad, I wouldn’t have traded those days and classes for anything (would I have done some other things differently, sure, but those folks will always be in my heart, and I’ll be at their beck and call should they need me).

On that February night in 1983, most of the other kids in CFB Kingston and I were supposed to be getting ready for Beavers, Cubs, and Scouts. But no one was going to go that night. MASH as a series seemed to speak to military families wherever they were, so that night, I’m pretty sure all events were canceled because everyone was going to be home to say goodbye to a family we recognized as part of our own.

Alan Alda directed this last episode which he wrote alongside Burt Metcalfe, John Rappaport, Dan Wilcox, Thad Mumford, Elias Davis, David Pollock, and Karen Hall. An unexpected fire necessitated a change in the script, and it was adapted and played out brilliantly and poignantly as we join the members of the 4077th in the closing days of the Korean War.

As peace draws closer, each person thinks about what lies ahead. But Hawkeye (Alda) is spending some time in a military sanitarium for an event that Sidney (Allan Arbus) is trying to get to the bottom of. It makes sense that this happened to Hawk, but it broke my heart as a child to see him there, and then the reveal of why really hurt. I identified so strongly with his character that if such terrible things could happen to him, then they could happen to me.

It truly showed the horror of war.

He is eventually returned to the 4077th, and from there, each character is given a final arc to ride to completion; Mulchay (William Christopher) attempting to save some POWs is too close to an artillery shell and begins to lose his hearing, Klinger (Jamie Farr) and Soon-Lee (Rosalind Chao) plan to get married and move to America (after they find her parents), Charles (David Ogden Stiers) makes a connection with some Chinese prisoners, and with Houlihan’s (Loretta Swit) secures her future, while she decides what to do with her life, Potter (Harry Morgan) is looking forward to going home to his wife, Hawk deals with his trauma and the fact that he and B.J. (Mike Farrell) will have to say goodbye.

B.J. has his own tough time in this episode. He gets orders early on that he can leave, and is packed, ready to go, and misses a chance to say goodbye to Hawk before orders screw him over and he’s summoned back to camp. That’s heartbreaking.

In fact there is heartbreak all over the episode as they (and we) begin to realize that they’re all going their separate ways. Alda has shown a deft hand at balancing the comic with the poignant throughout his scripts and directorial efforts through the series, and the finale is a perfect capping piece to a brilliant body of work on the show.

There were things I didn’t get as a kid, and it still made me weep. Now, decades on, rewatching it, I get so much more out of it, and it knocked me for a loop again, turning me into a mess.

Everyone has a moment to shine in the finale, it is happy, bittersweet, and poignant. The television landscape was different after the show finished. It also saw the close of a time in my life when my family would all come together to share in an experience together.

There were only a few television shows we would all sit together and watch, this was one of them, after that chopper took off that last time, revealing B.J.’s message, we didn’t have that anymore. I wonder how many other military families lost that connection that same night?

What am I gonna do with my Saturday viewing now? I guess we’ll find out next week!

Thank you Hawkeye and all the rest. It was a joy the first time around, and an equal pleasure the second time through. I loved this revisit. Goodbye.

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