Episode Spotlight: O.R.

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.

No One's Succeeding Them
No One’s Succeeding Them

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?”

9 Comments

  • I used to didn’t care for this episode very much, mainly because I found it difficult to invest in, since it basically took place in one location for almost the entire episode (similar to “Hawkeye” or “A Night at Rosie’s”), but in the last few years, I’ve kind of grown to appreciate it more for what it’s worth, and I do believe this was probably one of the finest earlier dramatic episodes they ever produced.

    And it’s also a really good thing that M*A*S*H, in general, is such a brilliant and wonderfully written show, because for a laugh track nerd like myself, if there is no laugh track, I’m not interested, yet with certain episodes like this, you really don’t even miss it… heck, I honestly didn’t even realize there wasn’t a laugh track on “The Bus” or “Quo Vadis, Captain Chandler?” until it was pointed out to me, that’s how well written this show is when you don’t even pay attention to it.

    But I think the biggest highlight of this episode is seeing why exactly Frank is the way he is, and I actually like that “moment” he has with Trapper.

    FRANK: And, what I don’t understand is, why do people take an instant disliking to me.
    TRAPPER: It saves people time, Frank.
    FRANK: But deep down, there’s no REAL hatred, is there?
    TRAPPER: Deep down? No. It’s just that you’re a joyless person, Frank. You’re D-U-L.
    FRANK: I’m from a very strict family, we weren’t allowed to talk at meals, we couldn’t hum… anyone who’d hum would get a punch in the throat.
    TRAPPER: That’s terrible.
    FRANK: I think that’s why I became a snitch, so I could talk to someone.
    TRAPPER: You were a snitch, Frank?
    FRANK: I’d squeal on anybody. Once, in school, I caught my best friend smoking… I didn’t tattle on him, but later I snitched on myself for not snitching.
    TRAPPER: Gimme a break, Frank. I’m very tired, I’m hearing you through the wrong end of the binoculars.
    FRANK: All I’m asking is for you and Pierce to let up razzing me.
    TRAPPER: Okay Frank.
    FRANK: Friends?
    TRAPPER: Friends, Frank, friends. No more hostility, no more hatred. Friends.
    FRANK: 🙂
    TRAPPER: Now shut up Frank, or I’ll kill ya.

    Actually, it’s sceneslike this that lead me to believe that if anything, Frank desperately at least wanted to be friends with Trapper; he seemed to genuinely dislike Hawkeye, but Trapper on the other hand, he seemed to really want to be friends with.

  • Tuttle says:

    The scene between Hawkeye and Henry about Henry’s arthritis is my favorite part of this episode. It’s a nice character scene for Henry and really lets you see who he is underneath the goofy exterior.

    I agree with Big Daddy re: Frank’s feelings about Hawkeye and Trapper. I think Charles felt the same way about his bunk mates – kinda liked BJ, and with a few exceptions pretty much despised Hawkeye.

  • Doc Funnypants says:

    There’s a grammatical mistake in this episode. Hawkeye tells Henry arthritis comes after acne and before arrangements before time payments. Actually, arthritis comes after the latter term. Was this done on purpose?

  • Lady you ARE a Piece of Cornbread says:

    I know it’s a joke they repeat in a few episodes, but what’s the song Hawkeye’s alluding o when Frank says “Sick, sick, sick” and Hawk singsays “the boys are marching.”?

  • JocularityGirl says:

    Its a bit late, Lady You ARE a Piece of Cornbread, but the song is an old song from the Civil War called “Tranp, Tramp, Tramp (The Boys are Marching)”.
    It’s a song from the point of few of a prisoner of war to other POWs to not be afraid and to have courage becuase the boys of thier army are marching to liberate the camp and will save them. Hope that helps!

  • JocularityGirl says:

    Whoops, meant “Point of view”

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