Episode Spotlight: Commander Pierce


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

“Commander Pierce” (#145, 7×01)
Originally Broadcast: Monday, September 18th, 1978
Teleplay by Ronny Graham
Story by Ronny Graham and Don Segall
Directed by Burt Metcalfe

Capsule Summary: Hawkeye is left in temporary command of the 4077th and the pressures of command soon begin to get to him.

This isn’t a particularly memorable episode. It kicked off Season Seven with a bit of flare by introducing B.J.’s mustache (more on that later) but the storyline is relatively ho-hum. Colonel Potter drunk is always worth a few chuckles. Charles being sick fell flat, though. It was a necessary plot point in order to force Hawkeye to become acting C.O. but otherwise it didn’t really go anywhere.

I did like Klinger trying to get a discharge from Hawkeye the second he became temporary C.O., reminiscent of how he introduced himself to Colonel Potter in “Change of Command.” Potter taking the key to the liquor cabinet was a nice touch, too.

Radar greets Generalissimo Benjamin Franklin Pierce

Radar greets Generalissimo Benjamin Franklin Pierce

The focus of the episode was the obvious clash between Hawkeye’s complete lack of interest in all things command and the realities of being in command. As a doctor and chief surgeon, Hawkeye was certainly used to making split second, life or death decisions. He wasn’t used to duty rosters, reports or piles of paperwork. Or was he? He was officer of the day in “Officer of the Day” during Season Three, and that meant he was basically in charge of the 4077th although Frank was actually temporarily commanding officer.

Margaret telling Hawkeye “it’s not easy to play the clown when you have to run the circus” was fitting and a nice moment between the two. The fight between Hawkeye and B.J. felt forced and unrealistic.

As the fourth episode produced for Season Seven but the first aired, “Commander Pierce” offers a rare continuity error for M*A*S*H. B.J.’s mustache is on full display in this episode but he then grows it in “Peace On Us,” the next episode to be broadcast but the first produced. The mustache can be seen in a new show of B.J. inserted into the opening credits.

I can’t identify the book Potter is seen holding at the start of the episode. It looks like the title ends with “-ADERS.”

24 Replies to “Episode Spotlight: Commander Pierce”

  1. It’s a nice episode. I like when people have to do different things than usual, of course only if it doesn’t happen too often. Hawkeye is the commander the way I expected. I only don’t understand BJ, who goes away not even checking if he is allowed to and later says it’s not his fault that the others had to perform surgeries without him. A good doctor like BJ wouldn’t do so.

  2. I liked this episode myself. Somehow, I think the network may have made a pretty good decision in airing this one first and having the season kick off with the resident class clown being thrown into a situation where he has to run the circus instead.

    And actually, Ken Levine just recently talked about the network airing this episode first instead of “Peace On Us” (7×02) on his blog a couple of weeks ago.

    It was a shock too: Potter talking about dreaming Mildred had Hunnicutt’s mustache, I’m like, “What?” then we see Beej lying in his bunk, that big cheesy mustache staring us in the face, I’m like, “Whoa! Where’s B.J. get that thing?” Personally, I thought the subplot with Charles being sick was played to a T, it really showed how spoiled he was, feeling that others need to drop what they’re doing to wait on him and take care of him during his time of “suffering”.

    Margaret had an interesting point: “If only Frank Burns could see you now”… how would this episode have played out if it was done when Frank was still at the 4077th? I have no doubts Frank would gloat about Hawkeye not being able to handle the responsibility of running the camp, but then would probably have second guesses about him once he slowly started turning into Instant Hitler afterwards.

    All in all, an enjoyable episode I think.

  3. Margaret outranks Hawkeye – so why wasn’t she made commander? She thrives in order and paperwork.

    I would love to see a shot of that book Potter was reading. Perhaps it is Lousi L’Amour “The Daybreakers” or Zane Grey’s “Twin Sombreros” or his “Raiders of Spanish Peaks” – but the title would have to take more than one line for tha one. I’m going with old Louie!!

    1. The Army apparently didn’t think a female officer could handle the responsibility of being in charge. I know it sounds sexist but it seemed to be the truth then.

  4. Is this episode called “Commander Pierce” (as it’s listed at the top) or is it called “The Most Unforgettable Characters” (as it’s listed just a little below that)?

  5. This is probably one of my favourite episodes, possibly because in the past I’ve been shanghaied into being in command at work and reacted not unlike Hawkeye (though I probably wasn’t quite as much of a jerk, considering I did hold the position for two and a half years). My favourite line is when after Potter returns and Hawkeye is complaining at him and when Potter asks him to cool off on the temper tantrum and Hawk responds, “I don’t want to- I like being mad!” LOL

  6. A running theme in this episode is Hawkeye’s irritation at Potter taking the key to his office cabinet where he keeps his liquor. If Hawkeye “needed” a drink so badly …what happened to the famous still in the swamp?

    1. I like Hawk and Radars exchange when he first finds out Potter took the key.

      Hawk:Potter doesn’t trust me with the key?
      Radar:Well, if you were he and he were you, would you?
      Hawk: Thats catchy,set that to music.

    2. He was probably stuck in the office or in the OR too often. Also maybe he didn’t want to catch whatever Charles had?

      Hawkeye: “Why didn’t you let me have the key to the liquor cabinet?”

      Potter: “Are you kidding? Look at what you’re like sober.”

  7. “It’s not so easy to play the clown when you have to run the circus, is it?” Margaret was in charge of the nurses, so she knew what she was talking about! Watching the anti-establishment Hawkeye turn into the kind of regular army clown he made fun of-actually saying he could report BJ for desertion-showed how different he was as the boss. Hopefully this accounted for his less cocky behavior in later episodes.

    1. That part of it wasn’t fleshed out enough for me. We see Hawkeye not caring about anything and really not having to deal with any real crises except maybe getting the blankets. Then suddenly he’s acting like a tyrant. What exactly was his problem? Radar does all the paperwork and all he’s gotta do is sign it. It made absolutely no sense that Hawkeye would react the way he did. Nothing really happened to get him there but that could have been an editing problem.

      1. I agree with you. IMO, a dumb episode because I can’t buy Hawkeye turning into a TOTAL jackass., emphasis on TOTAL. If you followed MASH , Hawkeye just can’t be that stupid. No sale. Shame on Alan Alda for not standing up for his character.

  8. Wonder if Radar ever told BJ that Potter dreamed of Mildred wearing his ‘stashe?

  9. I laughed aloud at RJ’s observation that the episode offered “a rare continuity error.” The sarcasm was dripping off the page…ahem screen. Just this episode alone there are several. Radar balking at the idea of forging Hawkeye’s signature. I seem to remember him making a joke about how he had learned to sign Henry’s name. Not to mention all the three day passes he wrote up without Henry’s knowledge. He also rather comically reproached Hawkeye for lying to ICOR. Radar has lied to ICOR and various people at ICOR regularly over the phone: pretending to be someone of higher rank, pretending to be the CO, pretending to have an emergency to get what he wants. His surprise at Hawk not taking the job seriously was a bit unbelievable too. Why didn’t he just put the papers in front of Hawk to sign the way he always does with the other COs? Why is he so insistent Hawkeye read everything he’s given? I thought the whole Radar/Hawkeye office thing was forced. Perhaps if it was Margaret trying to get Hawkeye to take it seriously, but Radar? He’s getting more and more self-righteous as the show goes on which may be his real character influencing the writers. Later seasons definitely incorporate the real traits of some of the actors. Gary Burghoff was very Christian so maybe that’s how he would have reacted. Either way his attitude, coupled with naivete that stopped being plausible in someone who has been at war for years, just didn’t fit.

    1. Well,if you pay attention to Radar’s personality in the early seasons, typically the first 3,he is seen as a
      young adult sort of coming of age and exploring adult lifestyles,yet quite naive in the sense that he is still very young and inexperienced in adult life,and he had probably taken to the notion that sometimes you have to lie to get by or get what you need. But later on he becomes more of the childlike character that we’ve come to know,like he prefers more things more fitting to his innocent rose-colored perception he seemed to have,to the more sophisticated adult way of things and his naiveness was probably a psychological reaction to all the horrors he had witnessed firsthand over time. The change followed visibly to me following the death of Henry at the end of season 3. You see that they were the best of friends and Radar thought the world of him,like the father he didn’t have growing up. That undoubtedly traumatized him and I like to think that the shock of the sudden demise of his friend had a psychological and emotional effect on him that changed him like that.

      1. And I meant to add,with his reverse transition from a young adult to a manchild he probably developed a conscience too,feeling that it was wrong and knowing the risks and consequences of getting caught twisting the rules and lying to administration.

  10. Why didn’t Charles take over after he got better (I think he was in the OR when Hawkeye was complaining about the noise.)

    Why wasn’t Radar just as used to handling the paperwork as he would have been under Potter?

    Was BJ in any real trouble after his rescue operation?

    Margaret’s speech to Hawkeye is probably the best part of the episode. Charles might have had a few things to say to him, too.

  11. LOVED the line by Margaret: “If ONLY Frank Burns could see you now…” Smart, to the point, and loved the character continuity.

  12. Is this the episode where Hawkeye has one of the funniest lines ever: “Now I know why they shoot people at sunrise. Who wants to live at six o’clock in the morning?”

    1. Yes, it is.
      Hawkeye: While you were out gallivanting, I was cooped up here with the children. The young clerk with the paper fetish, the Lebanese Machiavelli in a garter belt, not to mention my bunkmate, who can’t just wait for business to come, he’s got to go out and get it.
      A funny episode with the added bonus of the debut of BJ’s mustache.

    2. In a real life military scenario, wouldn’t Margaret have been the next chosen to be acting C.O. After Winchester since she outranked Hawkeye? I understand the show needed pierce to be CO to pursue the plot line. But I was wondering if there was actually a military rule that a doctor and not a nurse had to command a medical unit or heaven forbid the commander had to be male?

  13. I always feel a little sorry for Hawkeye in this episode. He was only in command because Charles whined. He made it clear that he didn’t want the job and said that he didn’t have the capability to do it, then got lots of grief from everyone from the first second without any support.

    He actually didn’t do a half-bad job by the end either and ran the clinical crisis great. Though perhaps the heat on BJ for running off was a little hypocritical given that in literally the next episode he ran off to Panmunjom himself without permission.

    I have a recollection that there are a couple of other episodes where Hawkeye was left in charge without great disaster (At least mentioned in passing), but I can’t remember which they were now.

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