The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Thursday, December 12, 2019

MASH Revisited: S 1, eps 10 & 11: “I Hate a Mystery”/Germ Warfare

Remember back in “Requiem for a Lightweight” how Trapper John ended a surprisingly nice conversation between Maj. Houlihan and Hawkeye by calling her “Frank’s bag?” Well, that slightly nasty streak comes out again in “I Hate a Mystery,” and Trapper turns it on—surprisingly—Hawkeye.

Ok, a little plot recap, for those who aren’t watching with me. There’s a crime wave at the 4077th, with small personal valuable items disappearing. We first find this out during a poker game, where Captain Jones and Trapper are grousing about Hawkeye’s run of good luck at the table, his having won over $300 (he claims it’s because his “heart is pure”; the other Swampmen aren’t buying). As they wrangle, Frank notices his mother’s picture is where he keeps it—but without its silver frame. Then Margaret discovers her hairbrushes, a gift from her father, are gone. As is Trapper’s watch.

Henry tries to stage a camp wide meeting in the mess tent, dims the light to allow the culprit to return the stolen items, and, when the lights come upmore Items have been stolen.

So Henry does a bunk-to-bunk inspection (welcome, Radar’s teddy bear!), getting drenched in the shower, and—oh, hell, this sequence is one of the funniest scenes the show ever shot, and just go watch it here.

I have to say, Rogers and Alda are perfect in their reaction to Henry’s misfortune in searching the Swamp. (Rogers is laughing so hard you can actually count his fillings.). But Alda—that hyena-like laugh that keeps taking him over, and laying him out flat—I don’t know if it was direction, Alda’s ability as an actor, or genuine—or a combination of the three—but it is utterly contagious and totally in character.

As is his sobering up when Henry opens his footlocker and finds all the missing items.

Mark the sequel: Trapper goes utterly cold toward Hawkeye, convinced that his erstwhile friend is guilty. He doesn’t speak to him, only to Radar or Jones. There’s a bit of a mean streak in John McIntyre, and Rogers delivers it.

With Radar stalking him, Hawkeye dodges into Father Mulcahy’s tent, and, with Mulcahy thinking he’s there to make a confession, the two men try to take seats. Both folding chairs keep snapping at the hands of the man who is trying to unfold them, so after a bit of comic choreography, Pierce flees. He gets Henry to reveal where the recovered items, evidence for the court martial the Majors have been pushing for, are hidden, over the company loudspeaker.

Later, he calls everyone into the mess tent, and, sweeping in with a hat and what our friends at TV Tropes would call a “”Badass Longcoat”, does a nifty little Ellery Queen/Nero Wolfe pastiche, identifying his colleagues as suspects. He announces that the chemical he has smeared on the re-stolen items will turn the fingers of the culprit blue, and watches as Ho-Jon, the Swamp houseboy, fearfully checks his hands, only to breathe a sigh of relief, and hold them out, saying—“look, no blue!”

Proving himself the culprit. It was, of course, a bluff. Ho-Jon confesses that he stole the items and Hawkeye’s winnings to bring his family down out of the combat zone to Seoul.

Burns, Margaret, Leslie, all agree to let Ho-Jon sell the money. Margaret even gently murmurs, “they’re just brushes. I have others.”


“The only reason I'm paranoid is because everyone's against me.”—Frank Burns

“Germ Warfare” is a light little episode. It doesn’t start that way; Pierce and Burns are at war over a POW who is taking up room that an American soldier could use, and so the Majors push for his transfer to another camp, even though his wounds might reopen on the way. Burns has the regulation son his side, so Henry can’t back Hawkeye up.

So they move him to the Swamp, but, because he needs a transfusion of AB-, which they are low on, they need a donor. A sleeping Burns is AB-, as Radar confirms, so Hawkeye (“Excellent, Igor!” Pierce intones as the blood flows) and Trapper (“Yes, my Count! But be quiet!” He replies, in character as Igor—NOT the mess hall Igor) get the pint they need. They give the North Korean (named Pai) Franck’s blood, and he shows signs of hepatitis. the rest of the episode is a MASH farce—Feydeau in khaki, with Hawkeye and Trapper tricking Frank into giving them another type of sample (beer. It’s not Frank’s friend.), the two Swampmen keeping Burns away from patients, and Houlihan and Burns away from each other. (Both Pierce and McIntyre seem to genuinely care about protecting Burns and Houlihan from getting sick.)

Finally, as Burns is about to go into OR, they handcuff him to Houlihan, to the confusion of Col. Blake. Trapped, they confess. When the analysis of Frank’s sample is brought in, he’s clear.

We return to the Swamp for the stinger—Burns is amicably playing checkers with Pai (!), and McIntryre and Pierce bring Frank some flowers as an apology—which he accepts, visibly touched, only to throw them back when the boys ask if he’d be interested in serving as the donor for a heart transplant.

There’s not a lot to unpack in these two episodes—they are quite funny and stand up pretty well. In fighting to keep Pai in a bed, Hawkeye uses a line from the film, calling Henry “a Regular Army clown.” (In the movie, that line is disdainfully tossed at Major O’Houlihan (Sally Kellerman) by Donald Sutherland’s Hawkeye. It’s pretty withering, but Alda says it in exasperation, not dismissal, as Sutherland does).

The draining of Frank’s blood is based on a similar incident in the novel, but again the series is kinder and lighter here.

There are some nice grace notes in the two episodes—Houlihan softening when she learns why Ho-Jon was stealing, Burns playing checkers with Pai, and his willingness to accept the amends of Hawkeye and Trapper.

Only 11 episodes in, and the Majors are growing, and the Swampmen are showing some darker streaks. This is some fine comedy, in a highly unlikely setting, with sharp writing—sharper every episode, as it emerges from the shadow of the film—and character development is beginning to complicate things.

Monday, December 2, 2019

MASH Revisited: S. 1, Ep 9: “Henry, Please Come Home.”

This episode gets its own entry because it’s at once a throwback to the film, and a step forward in the development of the characters. The premise is simple: Henry Blake has impressed General Hammond by the efficiency and good results achieved by the 4077th, the highest in all Korea. As a result, General Hammond offers Henry a sinecure position in Tokyo, where he advises on how to get similar results. At the mercy of the gunger-ho than usual Frank Burns, the Swampmen realize that they are no longer in control, and that Frank’s willingness to enforce discipline will make their lives a misery. (Frank even confiscates the still. Just because he can.)

So Hawkeye and Trapper (thanks to a defy little maneuver by Radar) get a furlough to Tokyo, where they visit a relaxed, comfortable Henry. He’s genuinely glad to see them, but in no way interested in returning to the 4077th. Not even the charms of Lt. Leslie Scorch, his mistress at the 4077th, are enough to entice him back. Hawkeye and Trapper, anticipating this reaction, have arranged for Radar to feign a serious illness, and, when Trapper and Hawkeye prepare to depart, Henry insists on going with them. Henry, in his concern, decides to do an exploratory surgery (Gary Burghoff’s appalled terror is pitch-perfect), and the whole thing falls apart. Blake is about to return to Tokyo, but when he hears Burns announce that he intends to court-martial Pierce and McIntryre, Henry realizes that Burns (though technically correct) doesn’t consider the consequences. Not just the 40787th’s efficiency rating, but the lives that will be lost at the removal of the men he described (just before his departure) as “two of the best cutters I’ve ever worked with.”

So, beings Henry, he stays.


So, the throwback to the film is in the Tokyo frivolity—the Japanese singers doing adaptations of Wesytern songs, the hinted at availability of sex For hire as routine, and the tacit acceptance of this. The Tokyo scenes, to that extent, partake of some of the worst aspects of the film—though not historically inaccurate.

What we see here, though, is some deepening of the characters—Henry’s deep concern for Radar leads him to not just return to see what is up, but to one of his very few medical misjudgments in the series. He takes Radar’s suffering at face value and acts to investigate it, though Burns, correctly, sees it as the sham it is quite quickly.

Henry also gives up his release from the hellish (albeit with good company) 4077th to save Pierce and McIntyre from punishment, not just for their sake (he’s pretty angry at being fooled at the moment), but because he immediately sees the consequences: more dead soldiers. Unnecessary deaths. Because he gets it, he sacrifices his own comfort and stays. Earlier in the episode, Henry refers to “my right hand, Cpl. Radar O'Reilly, who incidentally is in command of this unit, and just uses me as a front.”

This is also the episode that proves that statement false; Henry is a terrible administrator. But he’s the right CO for this time and place. He just doesn’t know it.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

The Problem of Non-Parables: A Sermon on Luke 20: 27-38

[Delivered at St. Bartholomew;s Church, NYC, November 10, 2019]

Sometimes the Gospel readings are so self-evident that it’s almost impossible to miss the point, that the difficulty in writing a sermon on it is not just re-stating the obvious lesson.

Sure, we sometimes want to hide from the implications of those Gospel readings for our own lives, but shutting out the Gospel to maintain our own comfortable existence is a struggle against out desire to not want to know where we are going wrong. Think of Jesus’s telling us that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of the needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

That’s hard.

We struggle with it.

And one way of struggling with that is to domesticate it, paper over the chasm between what Jesus teaches us and the lessons of the culture in which we live. Of course, to do that, we have to deceive ourselves as to what Jesus is telling us. Or, as Susan Howatch so memorably paraphrased Jesus, “High and wide is the gate which leads to self-deception and illusion, but for those seeking truth, strait is the gate and narrow the way—and brave is the woman or man who can journey there.” [Glittering Images, 190].

With parables, of course, we have to look for the meaning—C.H. Dodd in the 1930s and Joachim Jeremias in the 1950s and 60s pioneered the art of stripping away the centuries of allegory and theology that well-meaning preachers like me have added to the parables, and tried to recover them as Jesus’s audience would have experienced them and heard them. And then they had to deal with Gospel warnings that the disciples outside the Twelve were told parables so that they could hear, but not understand, and be lost.

And today’s discussion between Jesus and the Saducees has been the source of reams of speculation on the nature of the afterlife, from the Church Fathers to our own day. Will we really be pure souls, loving only God, and no longer those who have enriched our journeys below?

Are we really hoping and aspiring to enter the kind of afterlife that led Mark Twain to recommend heaven for climate, but hell for company?

But, hold on—aren’t we missing something here?

We aren’t dealing with a parable today. No, this is part of a test of Jesus’s acumen.

Specifically, of his legal acumen.

Which means we are, at long last, playing on my home turf.

The legal test comes in two prongs. The first question, posed by the scribes and Pharisees, involves them showing Jesus a coin, and asking if it is lawful to pay the Emperor tax. This question is an effort to put him into a Hobson’s Choice, a question where there is no safe or good answer. It’s as much a test of Jesus’s political savvy as of his legal ability—will he slight the Emperor or the Torah?

Jesus brushes this one away easily. He asks whose name and image is on the coin, and, being told that the name and image are Caesar’s, he simply answers, give to Caesar what is Caesar’s—and to God the things that are God’s.

Now that is a good answer. Succinct and to the point, but, best of all, avoiding the political pitfall of advocating denying the legal authorities their due, without slighting the legal responsibilities under Jewish law. Clever, unanswerable, unassailable. Advantage, Jesus.

The next question, though, is like something out of torts class. A tort is a civil wrong—an accident, or act of negligence that harms someone in their person and their property. And torts professors are famous for their a long, detailed hypothetical stories, in which an improbable series of events are posited to make you question the legal fundamentals.

The classic torts class hypothetical used when I was in law school was based on a real case: Palsgraf v. Long Island Rail Road. So a woman named Helen Palsgraf decided to take her two girls to the beach in 1924. This was her big mistake. While she was waiting to board the Long Island Rail Road train, an earlier train pulls in, and, as she’s waiting, two men start getting on the train. One of them is lugging a package along with the help of sme LIRR employees. They drop the package, it explodes, a piece of shrapnel hit a large coin-operated scale on the platform, which teeters over and hits Mrs. Palsgraf. After this incident she develops a stutter, and sues the LIRR.

So how about it?

Is the LIRR liable?

Or to use an actual Talmudic legal question summarized by Herman Wouk in his Inside, Outside a cow is tethered in a market. It kicks a stone, which flies into a market stall shattering a vase. Is the cow’s owner liable?

By the way, that one is so well known in the Talmud, that it’s just summarized as “Stone in market—so what?”

Here, instead of the ricocheting shrapnel, or the bovine launched rock, we have the legal hypothetical of the perennial widow. Seven bridegrooms for one wife, they all fall down.

So, say these Sadducees, who don’t believe in the Resurrection of the Dead, in the next life, whose wife is she, anyway?

They’re trying, of course, to make the Resurrection look silly, and to make Jesus look silly for defending it. Their regular opponents, the priests and the scribes, can’t be happy—they don’t like Jesus any better than the Sadducees do, but this is not just Jesus under attack, but their own special belief is being made to look ridiculous, along with Jesus.

In other words, unlike a torts hypothetical, it’s not a question posed in good faith to test the limits of doctrine.

So Jesus does what’s called in fencing a “disengage.” That’s when a fencer tries to block her opponent’s sword, and then lunge, but the other fencer—well, the other fencer moves her sword under the first fencer’s sword, and now controls the bout.

Jesus disengages with the question by denying its premise; rather than talk about whose wife she is, he tells us, “those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage.”

So, she’s nobody’s wife. Indeed, she “cannot die anymore, because she, [and all they who are resurrected], are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection.”

Then Jesus knocks out the Sadducee with a simple appeal to the Torah; the story of the burning bush, where Moses “speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob,” and adds that “he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”

Game, set and match.

It’s a wonderful example of how the itinerant preacher from Nazareth keeps besting the sharpest minds of his own tradition when they try to trip him up.

But is there more to it?

Well, let me suggest two implications of Jesus’s words. First, Jesus tells us straightforwardly that the long-dead patriarchs were alive to God in Moses’s day, and in Jesus’s own day. Jesus teaches us that he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive."

Second, terrible use has been made in Christian teaching of hell, as a place of eternal punishment and suffering. Yet when Jesus speaks to the Sadducee about the resurrection of the dead, he makes very clear that only those who are worthy of resurrection will see it.

How do these two statements match up—how is that all are alive to God, and yet only the worthy will see the resurrection of the dead?

And, I think back of the Lutheran Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber, who reminds us that:
God's grace is not defined as God being forgiving to us even though we sin. Grace is when God is a source of wholeness, which makes up for my failings. My failings hurt me and others and even the planet, and God's grace to me is that my brokenness is not the final word .... Grace is God saying, "I love the world too much to let your sin define you and be the final word.
Or, as she also says, “We’re all sinners, we’re all saints, 100 % of the time.”

In other words, we are here to come to the table of a God who loves us in all our brokenness, who is always working to redeem us. And who is always trying to coax us into playing our own part in the redemptive process—forgiving others as we have been forgiven, and freeing them to go on, doing the same.

Passing the redemptive love around—like we pass around communion bread, but more intentionally. Understanding, as out bishop told us in his address at Diocesan Convention yesterday, that we need to redeem our time, because our time is evil, and the accelerating disdain among our conflicting tribes is bringing that evil into ever greater potency.

When Bishop Dietsche finished his address, I couldn’t help but think of Leonard Cohen’s song, “The Future,” where Cohen tells us us:
You don't know me from the wind/
You never will, you never did
I'm the little Jew/
Who wrote the Bible

I've seen the nations rise and fall
I've heard their stories, heard them all

But love's the only engine
 of survival.
And, in essence, that’s what our bishop told us yesterday, that only reaching out across our divides in love, dropping our hostility, and meeting people where they are, and as who they are, can create the Beloved Community we all yearn to belong to.

To do our part in that cycle of redemption, we have to accept that we are all broken, all sinners, all saints, and that it’s from our brokenness that—to steal another Cohen line—that’s how the light gets in.

And that light is the light of God.

In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Monday, November 4, 2019

Elspeth P. Kitten, a Memorial

"“My heart has joined the Thousand, for my friend stopped running today.” --Richard Adams, Watership Down

The little devils came to my door. I know it sounds like a setup for a joke. But it's true, mind you, and how I became a cat fancier on the epic scale. A group of kittens led by Giles, the Cat Who Came in From the Cold came to my door, and I kept two, and found homes for the rest. But a week or so later, I found two very small kittens outside, on a the stump of a tree. Then my three cats and la Caterina's three (Elspeth, Betty, and Buster) became a pride with mine. Elvis and Giles kept the peace until such time as the cats all saw each others as siblings and friends.

Over the tears, we have lost them, all but one of them, Elspeth P. Kitten. She has been with me nearly 19 years. Nearly 8 years ago, she survived a bout of hepatic lipidosis (la C was excellent at frae-feeding her, and even I could do it, having been her person since kitten hood). She made a full recovery, and resumed her ornery, lovable ways.

In some ways she was always a kitten--she used to curl up against me, jam her tail into her mouth and nurse while kneading me.

Elspeth was our mouser, once excelling herself by launching herself through the air on a moonlit night, and bringing down a bat on the wing--and was widely rumored to be a witch. (Just ask my sister in law!)

You know where this is going; we lost Elspeth today. She'd become a little thin--but not dangerously so. She had trouble with her eye, and her third eyelid, more precisely called her "nictitating membrane." But she seemed, mostly herself. But I was worried, and la C brought her up for a vet visit. I brought her in this afternoon, to the good vets of Sand Creek Animal Hospital and was informed that her third eyelid was inflamed because she couldn't blink. And she couldn't blink because she had a facial nerve paralysis. The result of either a stroke or of a brain tumor.

Once again, I had to say goodbye.

I stayed with her till the end, holding her and petting her. I had been the first person to care for her, and I was the last. La Caterina, who was such a good kitten mama to her, couldn't be with us, and it couldn't wait. So I held my dear friend, that soft, soft fur against my cheek one last time.

Vogue la Galère, lttle Elspeth, cat of magic and mischief. Let your ship sail free.

Friday, November 1, 2019

MASH Revisited: The Matter of Mulcahy

(Not Season 1's Mulcahy)

Many years ago, when I was in high school in the 1980s, the Catholic League riled me. You see, my primary memory of the Catholic League in high school was its consistent denunciations of the television version of MASH, based on its portrayal of Father Mulcahy, the Catholic chaplain of the 4077th MASH unit as "weak" and "indecisive".

As a fan of the show even as a student, this seemed to me an absurd misreading of the character portrayed in the series. And, even though we are only in season 1 in this rewatch--and not even halfway through season 1--I want to challenge that reading of the series. Because I think that the critics were wrong from as early on our rewatch as season 1.

But let's begin where the critics have a point.

In the original film, religion takes something of a beating, including through Robert Duvall's Frank Burns,and (to a lesser extent) Rene Auberjonois's Father Mulcahy. In the film, Mulcahy is affable good natured, but, yes, a little weak, and a little easily imposed on (watch Donald Sutherland fast-talk him into presiding over a "Last Supper" for the suicidal dentist.)

The problem is, none of this really carries over into William Christopher's portrayal of the priest. Take this first shank of Season 1. We have met Father Mulcahy three times: In the pilot, played by George Morgan (the celibate priest wins the trip to Tokyo with Lt. Maria "Dish" Schneider); we see Christopher's Mulcahy in "Requiem for a Lightweight" in which he s sensibly skeptical of Trapper John's winning a fair fight; and we see him in "Cowboy," demonstrating a respect for faiths other than his own.

Let's dwell on it a moment. On seeing that a wounded soldier on the operating table is named "Goldstein," Mulcahy asks "Think he'd mind?"

Now, I had forgotten this moment entirely--I haven't seen the show in 30 years. So I expected Mulcahy to offer a Catholic prayer, almost certainly (for the period) in Latin. Instead, he recites, gently, and with meaning:
Mi Shebeirach avoteinu v’imoteinu,
Avraham, Yitzchak v’Yaakov, Sarah, Rivkah,
Rachel v’Lei-ah, hu y’vareich et hacholim
[names]. HaKadosh Baruch Hu yimalei
rachamim aleihem, l’hachalimam ul’rapotam
ul’hachazikam, v’yishlach lahem m’heirah
r’fuah, r’fuah shleimah min hashamayim,
r’fuat hanefesh ur’fuat haguf, hashta
baagala uviz’man kariv. V’nomar: Amen.
It's a lovely moment, because it's so understated. Mulcahy doesn't just refuse to impose his faith tradition on the wounded Jewish soldier--he knows how to pray for Goldstein in his own tradition. This means Mulcahy cared enough for non-Catholic--indeed, non-Christian wounded, to learn to care for them by having studied and memorized prayers outside his own tradition. In "Cowboy," we see Mulcahy drawing on that preparation, caring for the patient by meeting him where he is--the first rule of good pastoral care, as I was taught in my diaconal training.

Yes, Mulcahy isn't quite the character we'll get to know much better in later seasons. But even now, he is not the easily led figure from the film. He's a wry, ex-CYO boxing coach with enough scholarly chops to have looked beyond his own perspective, and one who knows that he is called to be a chaplain for all, not just his own co-religionists.

Not bad for a first draft.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

MASH Revisited: S 1, Eps 7-8: "Bananas, Crackers & Nuts"/"Cowboy"

This idea of pairing up episodes has (so far) been fortuitously effective.

In the Beginning, there was the Deluge.

No, I don't mean the biblical one, but rather a portion of "Richard Hooker's" MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors that depicts the 4077th MASH under siege, a two week push pushing the doctors to their breaking points.

Episode 7, "Banana, Crackers & Nuts," gives us a taste of such a period, and despite the limits on 1970s television, manages to get across the fatigue, irritability, and sheer frustration of watching patients die quite well. (It also makes clear that Chief Surgeon Pierce and Chief Nurse Houlihan are extremely good working together. Swit and Alda do a marvelous job of conveying their characters rapport in the OR, however at odds they are outside of it. Houlihan is quietly supportive of Pierce in surgery, and seems solicitous of Pierce's well-being as the strain increases.) Burns is fractious, and Margaret flashes an impatient glare his way.

But when the Deluge is over, at least for now, Hawkeye needs a change, as does McIntyre. They try to get a pass for R & R in Tokyo--but Henry takes his own break, leaving Frank Burns in charge (to be fair, Henry tries to warn Frank not to push his authority too far, but Burns, of course, is sure he knows better.)

So Pierce decides to convince Burns that he's cracking up, and needs R & R. In full scrubs, Pierce enters the mess hall with liver on a surgical tray--and liver is not on the menu. Burns and Houlihan are at first perturbed (Alda is hilarious as the allegedly cracking Hawkeye, but he manages it by deftly underplaying the scene--he's dark, and a bit macabre, and he's far more convincing than the benign Corporal Klinger ever will be). If that's not enough, Pierce picks a fight with Lt. Margie Cutler--whom he'd just successfully wooed away from Trapper in the last episode.

Margaret, with her nose for fraud, calls in Cpt. Philip Sherman, a psychiatrist who is infatuated with her, and he quickly works out that Pierce's alleged infatuation with Burns (yeah, he's desperate) is fake.

All might be well, if Blake didn't describe some of Pierce's crueler pranks on Burns, trying to get the Majors to laugh with him, and reassure Capt. Sherman that it's all just fun and games. Sherman, who has not experienced a war zone, thinks these "exculpatory" stories evince real mental illness, and not releases of intolerable stress, and margaret and Frank play the moment perfectly. (Linville's sad face, and Swit's murmur of "poor, poor, Hawkeye" are classic--without breaking character, their eyes are gleeful.) Sherman resolves to take Pierce to Tokyo for further testing the next morning.

Pierce and McIntyre come up with a plan, having radar lead Sherman to the "visiting officers tent" as night falls, and, in the absence of a light bulb, the psychiatrist goes to sleep in hat is (of course) Margaret's bed. When she comes in, cursing the "burned out" bulb, and undresses, Sherman awakes and--

--OK, this part doesn't hold up well. Sherman basically tries to sexually assault Margaret. The show wants us to find it funny, and the fact that within seconds Swit is pummeling Stuart Margolin quite mercilessly helps, but her cries for help and Pierce's and McIntyre's insouciant air until Henry arrives are pretty disturbing.

So it's Sherman who is despatched from the 4077th, and Henry gives Hawkeye and Trapper passes for leave, and as they get ready to go--the next Deluge is upon them.

The episode is a mixed bag; the "liver" scene is classic, the OR sequences really convey the exhaustion and frustration of the doctors and nurses--but that scene in Margaret's tent, though a reworking of many French farces, is a bit too true to be good.

"Cowboy" is a very different type of episode. A heroic chopper pilot, known only as "Cowboy" is bringing in wounded--including himself. Not for the first time He is fuming at being helpless to get back home, because he's afraid his wife is cheating on him. Pierce and McIntyre try to get Henry to send Cowboy stateside, but Henry, who is himself in an incredibly tetchy mood, just doesn't think his condition is serious enough.

A series of highly comic attempts on Blake's life ensue, a jeep running through his quarters (A shocked Henry: "Jeep. Tent. Boom"). The latrine detonates with him in it, and he stumbles trgoug the wreckage wearing the toilet seat as if it were a ceremonial collar. (Henry, blankly: "Boom.)

Radar goes to absurd lengths to avoid being near Blake, as does the mess tent server (not Igor yet, folks). Finally, Blake agrees to go to Tokyo--and accepts a ride from Cowboy.

Too late, the Swampmen realize that Cowboy is the one trying to kill Henry (this is good example of what TV Tropes calls grabbing the idiot ball, because it's pretty obvious from the midpoint of the episode.) But by the Hoary Hand of Hoggoth, the long awaited letter from Cowboy's wife arrives just as Cowboy is pushing Henry out of the chopper. When he hears that his wife still loves him, despite being tempted to stray, Cowboy relaxes, and Henry, suddenly calm again, simply says "Let's go home, Cowboy." He doesn't press charges, but makes sure Cowboy gets the care he needs--stateside, with his wife.

For all of its farcical elements, "Cowboy" has some very serious character beats. Unlike Hawkeye's feigned madness in the last episode, Cowboy is really falling apart. His anxiety is turning him into a killer, and Blake escapes with his wife due to simple good luck. Cowboy's increasing mania works because Billy Green Bush plays the character straight--laconically heroic when we first meet him, unraveling as the episode progresses.

McLean Stevenson's Blake is just the sort of man who would turn his attempted murderer into a patient, and his "let's go home" is reassuring to the man who just tried to kill him. What makes henry different from anyone in the show is that for all of his incompetence as a commander, he is a first rate doctor--and that's how he treats Cowboy the minute he understands the sutuation. He's not heroically brave--Stevenson projects real fear--but he's concerned not just for himself, but for the pilot whose symptoms he'd misjudged.

Theres a little moment in "Cowboy" I want to mention, because it'll come up in the next post. Father Mulcahy, as he goes from wounded man to wounded man, sees that the next patient is named Goldstein. Without missing a beat he says from memory the Mi Shebeirach, a Jewish prayer for healing.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

MASH Revisited: S. 1, Eps 5 & 6: The Moose/Yankee Doodle Doctor

Yung Hi apparently got off lightly.

It seems that the "moose" (a corruption of the Japanese word "musume" ("Girl") was a real phenomenon. (There's a singularly unedifying section on the relationship in Japan during the Korean War in a Korean War veteran's online memoir, which asserts that the relationship was generally sexual in nature.)

So Sgt. Baker, who is perhaps the most unsympathetic character in the series to date, is not as abusive as the reality would have allowed, as Yung Hi insists that Baker has not taken advantage of her in that way.

The Swampmen--Hawkeye, Trapper, and Dr. Oliver Harmon Jones (Oliver Wendell Jones, in the original novel--don't make me put his nickname in print; it hasn't aged well!) recoil at this young woman being sold by her family into servitude. After a failed effort by Captain Pierce (in full uniform for a change) to bully his subordinate officer into releasing Yung Hi, the Swampmen set up a rigged poker match, with Radar spying on Baker's cards, and a receiver in Hawkeye's ear allowing Radar to transmit the information. Hawkeye wins the poker game, and Yung Hi.

Happy ending?

Not quite yet; Yung Hi now seeks to serve Hawkeye as well as she served Baker. Pierce tries to teach her how to enjoy freedom, but she keeps trying to be a good worker. Hawkeyes tries to send her to Seoul, but she returns.

When they try to return Yung Hi to her family, as a free woman, her baby brother Benny--an Americanized young tough of the Damon Runyon variety, with a heart filled with larceny--who explains that he will just sell her again, for even more money.

In a lovely moment, the Swampmen are downcast at her leaving with Benny, only for her to return, having learned who to tell to "shove off!"

So the Swampmen try to "de-moosify" her, teaching her self-respect, having her work around the hospital, and discover that she's capable of more than serving American soldiers. She finds a home at convent school in Seoul, and the episode ends with Pierce, McIntyre, and Jones celebrating her freedom, and her new attitude, as revealed in a happy letter from Yung Hi.

The episode is funny--Benny is a comic monster who uses Korean tradition to exploit his sister, while ignoring tradition himself--and poignant. The censors in 1972 would hardly have let the show show Baker as the sexually exploiting Yung Hi, but by having her allude to Baker's not having done so, the possibility of it is underlined for the audience.

But even absent the specter of sexual exploitation, the fact is that Yung Hi has been treated by her family, by Baker, and by who knows who else, as a commodity--a thing, not a person. Pierce, McIntyre, and Jones are genuinely revolted by this, and their efforts to free Yung Hi are comic, but increasingly urgent.

Timothy Brown is another alumnus of the film, but as Corporal Judson, not as Dr. Jones, is very good--he's warm, confident, and holds his own in his scenes with Alda and Rogers--in fact, he's memorable when he gets to mock Alda's Pierce for not living up to his high principles. His anger at Yung Hi's position is equally authentic, and his rapport with the two leads is convincing.

Brown's part is especially visible in this episode in part because the cast is so shrunk--this is the episode where he is most directly involved. "The Moose" is something of a "bottle episode" as, part for a brief scene in Henry's office, the story really exclusively belongs to Yung Hi, the Swampmen (minus Burns) and the guest stars.


Alan Alda is clearly enjoying himself in "Yankee Doodle Doctor," and his enjoyment is infectious. He gets to do a long--really long--impression of Groucho Marx (its first appearance in the series), with Wayne Rogers as Harpo as they subvert a ridiculous propaganda movie (starring Pierce, scripted by Burns, and sponsored by yet another of Margaret's general rank conquests--Herb Volland as General Crandall Clayton).

While Alda's is the star turn, Larry Linville's pompous narration--absurd, but just this side of plausibility, only a little more over the top than Don La Fontaine--is as funny as any of Alda and Rogers's antics. Though the unveiling of the narration to a mocking Pierce and McIntyre is possibly the best comic beat of the episode, as Frank tries to impress, and Loretta Swit does a great slow burn:
Frank Burns: [practicing reciting for upcoming film] "A group of brave men are at work in a make shift operating room struggling to save your sons and brothers while outside the dogs of war bark at the door of this sanctuary."
Trapper: [Hawkeye barks like a dog] Down, boy, down, down! Roll over. Jump through that.
Frank Burns: "These are the saints in surgical garb, dedicated surgeons, all volunteers. Every red-blooded American knows, if he is wounded, he will be in the strong, capable hands of a Yankee Doodle Doctor."
Hawkeye, Trapper [singing]: A Yankee Doodle Doctor? Stuck a feather in his nurse and called her macaroni.
Hawkeye and Trapper destroy the film, and make one to their own taste--Groucho and Harpo impressions, slapstick, and a sober finale from Captain Pierce:
Hawkeye: [Recorded at the end of the film Hawkeye and Trapper made] Three hours ago, this man was in a battle. Two hours ago, we operated on him. He's got a 50-50 chance. We win some, we lose some. That's what it's all about. No promises. No guaranteed survival. No saints in surgical garb. Our willingness, our experience, our technique are not enough. Guns, and bombs, and anti-personnel mines have more power to take life than we have to preserve it. Not a very happy ending for a movie. But then, no war is a movie.
It's a good ending. Even General Clayton agrees--he intends to keep it in the new version, that will open with his intro, and end with Pierce's musings. But the General wants a copy of the Pierce/Mcintyre version, too. He needs a good laugh, every now and then.


*Major Houlihan seems particularly irresistible to Generals Hammond and Clayton.

*In a nice call back to "Requiem for a Lightweight," Hawkeye manages to reverse Trapper's winning the affections of Lt. Margie Cutler (Marcia Strassman), and walks off with her at the end of the episode.