Episode Spotlight: Abyssinia, Henry

Every Monday, I spotlight a random episode of M*A*S*H, providing a brief review and asking readers to offer their thoughts.

“Abyssinia, Henry” (#72, 3×24)
Originally Broadcast: Tuesday, March 18th, 1975
Written by Everett Greenbaum & Jim Fritzell
Directed by Larry Gelbart

Capsule Summary: Colonel Blake is going home and Hawkeye and Trapper decide to throw him a party to say goodbye.

This is perhaps the second most famous episode of M*A*S*H after the series finale. If by some chance you’re reading this and you haven’t seen “Abyssinia, Henry” and you don’t know what happens at the end, stop reading immediately and go watch the episode.

Everyone else, keep reading.

For those of us who didn’t watch “Abyssinia, Henry” when it originally aired in March 1975, it’s a pretty safe bet we had the episode spoiled for us, robbing us of the chance to react to the shocking twist ending. It’s unfortunate but that’s how these things go (who among us doesn’t know the twist ending to The Sixth Sense even if we haven’t seen the movie?).

Of course, as I discussed back in July 2011, there’s a chance viewers watching the episode in 1975 had also been spoiled thanks to various newspaper articles published as early as November 1974 that revealed Colonel Blake’s fate.

There are so many stories surrounding this episode that someone could write a whole book just about it. The controversy surrounding Henry’s death and the fact that both CBS and 20th Century-Fox were against it. The angry letters sent by irate viewers. McLean Stevenson’s reaction. The final scene having to be reshot due to some sort of issue with the first take. The rumored appearance by Stevenson on The Carol Burnett Show shortly after “Abyssinia, Henry” first aired.

As an episode, removed from its iconic status, “Abyssinia, Henry” works pretty well. I do feel the party scene lasts a little too long while Henry’s final review of the troops was too short (he says goodbye to one or two nurses by name but ignores the rest?). If it had ended with Henry getting on the chopper without Henry dying, it would have been a memorable farewell to the character. Henry never making it home, as so many during the Korean War never did, makes the episode unforgettable.

Henry Leaves His Tent for the Last Time

A few minor things:

Henry, after determining when to call the States to tell his family he’s coming home, looks at a picture of his family and says to Radar, “Lorraine and the kids are going to die.” Foreshadowing or just a turn of phrase?

Poor Frank. Notice that when Margaret asks him if he doubts his ability, he makes a sound indicting he just might.

This episode takes place in 1952 and mentions the previous 4th of July.

Near the end of the episode, after Henry tells Radar to behave himself, Radar says something but there’s no audible dialogue. It looks like he’s saying “thank you.”

Aaccording to Larry Gelbart in the 1981 documentary “Making M*A*S*H,” during a rebroadcast of “Abyssinia, Henry” CBS cut out the final scene. I’ve never been able to confirm that. Anyone remember watching it without Radar’s announcement that Henry had been killed?

12 Comments

  • Monsieur Alphonse says:

    This episode was certainly not spoiled for us who are abroad. In my country M*A*S*H was broadcasted first time in the middle of 1990s and I was literally jaw-dropped when Radar makes his announcement. Until then M*A*S*H had been seen as a lighthearted comedy about a couple of womanising doctors and their incompetent officers, war was something depicted like “5 o’clock Charlie” aiming prowess and this episode really turned the tables around. Really, really great episode.

  • When I saw this episode for the first time, I was floored… and I had only been watching M*A*S*H for a short time: I started when Hallmark Channel went back to the pilot in its rotation of 4-episodes a day reruns, and kept watching all the way through. Henry had become one of my favorite characters of the original cast, because he was so funny, especially in those scenes when he was drunk (from this episode, the conversation about which tree is the toidy, and which tree is for which number cracks me up)… him going home was bittersweet enough, but to learn that he was killed, I was not prepared for that, and I got rather choked up. I ended up taping this episode.

    One thing that gets me though is that today’s viewers don’t even appreciate this episode, at all, in fact, there was a discussion at the IMDb boards talking about, “Stupid” Radar was in this episode for springing the news on everyone while they were still in surgery… THAT WAS THE POINT! Larry Gelbart and Gene Reynolds both said that was the whole point! That Henry was dead, and there was nothing they could do about it, but they could perhaps save the life of those who are on the tables. Plus, Radar was just as shocked as everyone, do you think he’s going to be able to think straight after learning who was once his father figure was killed?

    Another thing that needs to be mentioned too is the urban legends that surround this episode, and were even touched on in a documentary series about TV sitcom scandals: was Henry Blake’s death really about showing the harsh realities of war, or, was it a plot cooked up by Larry Gelbart, Gene Reynolds, and CBS to get rid of Mac Stevenson once and for all, because he was such a meddler on the set? They spoke with Loretta Swit, Larry Linville, and Gary Burghoff, and Gary mentioned that Mac always stood up and voiced complaints about improper and insufferable working conditions while other actors were too afraid to speak up themselves, and that having his own show was never the reason behind his leaving; however, Loretta painted a different picture, saying that Mac told her, point-blank, one day that, “I can’t be number three, I have to be number one”, and that most of his motive behind leave was indeed so he could star in his own shows (I have also read from different sources that Mac really wanted the role of Hawkeye, but was given Henry instead).

    To touch on what was mentioned in the review, I kind of believe that Henry’s line of, “Lorraine and the kids are going to die” was foreshadowing, but then again, someone on another forum once mentioned that the fact that Henry’s skeleton was in every shot in his office, particularly when he was on the phone, was meant to be foreshadowing as well. As for what Radar said after Henry threatened to come back and kick his butt, I always assumed he was saying, “Yes sir.”

  • Larry P. says:

    A landmark episode if there ever was one; I never get tired of watching it. Even though I know what the outcome is going to be, that doesn’t make it any easier to take. Rather, knowing the inevitable conclusion just makes everything that precedes it all the more powerful (and gut-wrenching, because you KNOW what’s about to happen). The final scene in OR never fails to knock me out, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen it at this point.

    Obviously, the whole ‘going home’ plot line and it’s conclusion overshadows everything else in this episode, but there are some funny moments. Drunk Radar cracking up at the “toity tree” always gets me, as does Hawkeye’s “Leave him alone, he’s eating!” line when Henry is making the “num num” noises to his kid on the the phone.

    A definite ‘top ten’ episode for me.

  • CrabappleCove says:

    I agree with all the comments thus far about the impact of this episode. I think it works better for me than any other “war is a terrible thing” episode of M*A*S*H.

    I feel this episode brings home the harsh reality of war and the tragic loss of life without being the leftist-preachy “all war is always bad” that comes across in so many episodes. War is a terrible, horrible thing that should be avoided when possible, but it is sometimes a necessary thing. Any culture that forgets that is doomed to fail.

  • Joe says:

    I remember back when this episode first aired I purposely didn’t read or listen to anything about it so I would be totally surprised by it. But then, I told my sister I was doing that so she purposely told me about the ending, (she had read it in the newspaper) I was REALLY mad at her, but it still came as a shock when Radar walked in and said that line.
    And all these years later that scene still saddens me no matter how many times I see it.

    • Ed says:

      Just watched this ep for the upteenth time (saw it when it originally aired, as I can personally attest that this was a show you just DID NOT MISS). As for the impact of that scene even knowing what was coming, even after all these years, I started getting choked up when Henry kissed Margaret, since I knew that was only comic relief to prep the audience for the ending. My eyes started to get watery when Henry hugged Radar, and the tears came when Radar walked into the OR. And that’s after 40 years of knowing how the episode ended.

  • Joe says:

    I can never understand why, but my father always laughs out loud at that scene where Radar walks into the OR and says that line.

  • unkadunk0801 says:

    I remember when I first saw the episode how truly stunned I was at the end and that the next day in my office everybody who had seen it was commenting on it .And even now when I watch the episode on either TV or my DVD set it still affects me at the end even now because even though by now I know whats going to happen its still an unforgetable moment and I have the same reaction that I had from when I saw it the first time which is one of total shock again ! And I guess thats what it so remarkable that an episode youve seen so many times still effects you each time that you see it I guess thats what makes a classic !

  • J.A.R. says:

    I’ll never forget when my wife (who at that point had never seen a single episode of “M*A*S*H”, she’s from the Phillipines) and I went through the entire series a few years back…when we got to this episode, and the scene at the end in the O.R., my wife jumped off the couch and just yelled, “What?! What?!!!” She couldn’t believe they could kill off a TV character so brazenly like that, so I had to explain the whole backstory behind it to her, and she understood why they did it.

    And yeah, for all the times I’ve seen this episode, that scene is still a kick in the guts.

  • Joseph Bogo says:

    I just saw it on a Sundance TV rerun. I was floored! The final scene had been replaced with snippets of Henry’s time at the 4077th. Frankly, I felt cheated. In fact, I had to start searching for “Abyssinia Henry two endings.” It brought me to this site.

    The new ending sucks, having sen the original. 🙁

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