Every Monday, I spotlight a random episode of M*A*S*H, providing a brief review and asking readers to offer their thoughts.
“O.R.” (#53, 3×05)
Originally Broadcast: Tuesday, October 8th, 1974
Written by Larry Gelbart & Laurence Marks
Directed by Gene Reynolds
Capsule Summary: All hands are on deck for massive casualties arriving by chopper, ambulance and jeep, plus a visit from Sidney Freedman.
Much like the letter home episodes, this episode doesn’t have any real plot, only assorted character moments. Unlike the letter home episodes, there isn’t the loose format of someone writing a letter or the random vignettes being retold in the letter. Rather, the only structure to the episode is that it takes place (almost) entirely in the operating room.
It is a masterful episode featuring a number of wonderful scenes and lines from a variety of characters. And yet is a very dark made all the more depressing by the lack of a laugh track. That was an oddity for the series when the episode originally aired and in its many years of syndication. With the DVDs, however, watching episodes without the laugh track is par for the course for many people, myself included. Perhaps the high point of the episode, at least dramatically, is Hawkeye’s heroic efforts to save a wounded soldier, culminating in a open-heart massage. Hawkeye is successful in reviving the soldier but in an abrupt and dark turn Radar later reveals that the soldier died four hours after Hawkeye brought him back from the dead.
Henry has a few good scenes. First, his conversation with Hawkeye about potentially having arthritis, which could be his ticket home. Henry would rather stay in Korea where he knows he can make more of an impact. Second, when he has to decide not to spend two surgeons and eight hours in a futile attempt to save one wounded patient when those doctors and those hours could be used to operate on many patients who can be saved. It isn’t something that comes up on the series often; triage is typically depicted as involving wounded patients who can wait, those who can’t and those who didn’t make it to the 4077th. As Hawkeye rightly tells Henry, a patient that severely wounded should never have made it to the O.R.
Frank and Trapper share a somewhat tender conversation just outside the O.R. during which Frank pleads for friendship from Trapper and Hawkeye. He opens up about his childhood, revealing that he was raised in a strict household and became a snitch to have someone to talk to. Trapper doesn’t seem to know exactly how to respond to this but promises to be friends with Frank if it’ll shut him up. There’s a moment after this when Frank agrees with Hawkeye, perhaps an extension of his quest for friendship, and Hawkeye seems surprised. But it doesn’t last and Frank is soon back to his old self.
Trapper gets to save the day twice: first when he stops Frank from the kidney from a soldier who only has one and again when an electrical fire starts on the wall behind him. He extinguishes it and it promptly yelled at by Frank and Margaret for his reckless behavior. Klinger, Radar and Father Mulcahy each have a small role to play in the episode: Klinger and his Dracula impression, Radar feeling weak because he was siphoned for blood after falling asleep, and Father Mulcahy taking a letter for a philandering soldier who wants to clear his conscious before being operated on. Margaret, though, doesn’t have much to do other than yell at Hawkeye and defend Frank.
Sidney Freedman shows up in the middle of the episode looking for the regular poker game but instead is roped into operating. We learn he has a son. He doesn’t add much to the episode but it’s enough: his memorable line just before he leaves, telling the doctors, nurses and corpsman “Ladies and gentlemen, take my advice: pull down your pants and slide on the ice.”
Finally, this was one of two episodes screened at the Museum of Television Radio (now the Paley Center for Media) as part of its M*A*S*H retrospective on March 6th, 2000. The other episode was “Dear Sigmund.” Larry Gelbart posted the following to the alt.tv.mash Usenet group on June 23rd, 2001 calling it “an oral forward” presented prior the episode being shown:
Every episode of every series has its own little history, most of them, invariably, forgotten in the course of time.
But the one we’re about to revisit, the episode we called ‘O.R.,’ stands out very clear among the shambles of my memory.
Perverse as it may seem, by the second year of the series, the more difficult and complex the idea, the more irresistible it became as a writing challenging.
Creating a medical mosaic, setting the episode completely inside the operating room, allowed the late Laurence Marks and I to restate in simple, non-linear terms, the keystone of the entire series: the way our characters, based on real-life models, coped with the carnage that war brings to both the body and the soul.
Secondly, even sweeter, the script was designed to take advantage of our understanding with the CBS that in any given episode we were allowed to keep the operating room a laugh-track-free-zone.
Canned laughter was, of course, the subject of a running, losing battle we persisted in waging against the network.
By doing an entire episode in the operating room we were in the happy, unusual position of having the last laugh by having none at all.
Now, if everyone’s scrubbed up, let’s get to the “O.R.”
Wait, there’s one more thing: did you notice that when Radar brings in orange juice he calls he “freshly squozen?”