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.

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