The surrealism of Henry Blake’s “handmade American antique” desk sailing through the air as the dazed C.O. watches from below (while still recovering from the disappearance of the entire back wall of his office) is all the more irresistibly funny for McLean Stevenson’s surface calm through the whole sequence. He underplays it beautifully, leaving the audience to fill in what Henry is thinking, with only his darting eyes to provide a clue. Stevenson’s contribution to MASH is sometimes under appreciated, because he’s so good at playing confusion overlaying panic, which is itself desperately suppressed, that you could miss it. Hawkeye and Trapper are more pyrotechically funny, but Stevenson makes you empathize with Blake, who just wants some normalcy.
Jack Soo (of Barney Miller fame) comes close to walking off with the episode as the perversely likable Charlie Lee, a black marketeer who is willing to sell anything to anyone, and from whom Hawkeye and Trapper John try to repurchase the 4077th’s stolen hydrocortisone. Trapper is more bewildered by the bizarreness of having to give money to the guy who has their drugs because his agents stole them than Hawkeye is, but he’s game enough to join Hawkeye in convincing Charlie that his desire for “only the best” mandates a finestkind desk. And the boys know just where to find him one...
An interesting character beat takes place when, prior to the realization that the 4077th’s drugs have been stolen, Hawkeye and Trapper accuse Margaret of making a mistake in the inventory. Her anger at having her professionalism questioned is volcanic, and when she can’t explain the discrepancy, Loretta Swit plays Margaret’s bluster as frustration that she genuinely can’t account for it. Even this early, the dichotomy between Margaret’s hardline persona and her professional perfectionism is being thinly sketched; Major Houlihan is a consummate nurse who doesn’t tolerate errors—especially her own.
Frank and Margaret are unexpectedly effective in their efforts to thwart Pierce and McIntyre (they unknowingly trap Hawkeye and Trapper in Henry’s office, thinking they’re barring the captains’ entrance, and go off for some, er, private time). Their escape requires toppling the back wall to Henry’s office, and Radar improvising a quick desk lift from a chopper pilot.
The whole thing has the feel of a Damon Runyon story, with con and mark changing places swiftly throughout. Hawkeye and Trapper prove to be as quick thinking and fast talking as Charlie is. Their goals are laudable—to save lives by replacing the stolen drugs—and if they don’t feel guilty toward Henry, well, they do care about the wounded.
MASH hits its stride in its second episode, humane, funny and surreal (I kept expecting the desk to hit a rock, a tree, or just to fall, but it sails, as Henry mutters, “up, up, up.”)
The series has achieved liftoff.