The old man and the cats…

MASH Revisited:

S. 1, Eps 7-8: “Bananas, Crackers and 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 fine 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.

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 through 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.

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