Episode Spotlight: Some 38th Parallels


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

“Some 38th Parallels” (#91, 4×19)
Originally Broadcast: Tuesday, January 20th, 1976
Written by Regier & Markowitz
Directed by Burt Metcalfe

Capsule Summary: Frank wants to sell the 4077th’s trash, Hawkeye has problems of a personal nature and Radar befriends one of B.J.’s patients after helping to save his life.

All three of the story lines in this episode, two of which are connected, could be considered the A story. I suppose one could time the episode and see which story gets the most air time. For no particular reason, I’m going to call Frank’s garbage auction story the A story.

I don’t doubt that the military has strict rules about dealing with garbage. I would be surprised to learn there are actually regulations that allow it to be auctioned off. Wanting to do so was pure Frank, though, as was the zeal and glee with which he pursued the venture.

I can understand why Hawkeye and B.J. were so upset about Coner’s callous indifference to losing so many soldiers and his lack of concern over Phelan’s death. But the colonel was charged with retrieving the bodies of soldiers killed in action. That’s a pretty important job and apparently did it quite well. He just got a lot of additional soldiers killed doing it.

We don’t see any repercussions but Colonel Coner had to be pretty upset after having all that garbage dumped on him. Perhaps he was even injured by falling tongue depressors or became entangled in stretched-out nurses’ bras. There’s no way Hawkeye could have avoided punishment.

The helicopter carrying Hawkeye’s trash was obviously filmed outdoors. But the trash actually being dropped on Coner was filmed on indoor sound stage.

I’m calling Radar’s quick friendship with Phelan, and his disbelief and anguish at Phelan’s death, the B story. It works as a counterpoint to Frank’s funny garbage story line. We never learn exactly what happened to Phelan. He seemed to be doing well and thus his death comes abruptly and without
explanation to viewers, just as it did to Radar.

Screenshot featuring a helicopter carrying a load of trash just as it is about to be dropped

Trash away!

That leaves Hawkeye’s impotence as the C story. Also a serious story line, it feels both out of place and unnecessary in this episode. Had it been left out, Hawkeye could have been given more to do involving the garbage auction or he could have been drawn into Radar’s story line. But that may have robbed viewers of some nice interaction between Radar and B.J.

This episode marks the sixth and final appearance of Lynnette Mettey. She had a recurring role in three Season One episodes as Lt. Nancy Griffin and then made one appearance in Seasons Two through Four, each time as a new character.

I think my favorite piece of dialogue from this episode comes at the end of the garbage conversation in Colonel Potter’s office:

Potter: “Burns, what are you leading up to?”
Frank: “Sir, it’s un-American to get nothing for nothing. Now I propose we auction our garbage off to local contractors. Let it go to the highest bidder.”
Potter: “That’s ridiculous.”
Frank: “As per Pentagon directive, uh, N/R/358/9-8.”
Radar: “The Trashy Substances Act, sir.”
Potter: “Really? Burns, some men are born to greatness. Others have garbage thrust upon them. You’ve got it.”
Frank: “I won’t let you down, sir.
Potter: “There’s no way you can.”

Frank refers to the late Colonel Blake, who apparently said Frank was the best rubbish officer the 4077th ever had.

Margaret does not appear in this episode but she is mentioned briefly when he explains that the Margaret confiscated all the best parts of the Jane Russell puzzle.

There’s a very brief scene in which Klinger and Kellye are seen getting ready for a date.

I may be missing something really obvious but I’ve always wondered exactly what the title is supposed to refer to. The 38th parallel, of course, was the pre-Korean War boundary between North and South Korea. Within the context of the episode, however, what are the parallels?

11 Replies to “Episode Spotlight: Some 38th Parallels”

  1. I read a synopsis on another site that explained it as well as any I guess. We have three different subplots developing in a parallel manner – meaning that they do not intersect – and yet at the end, the problem that Frank experiences in his story (the garbage being stolen instead of sold) – ends up being the solution to Hawkeye’s other problem (i.e. the needless deaths – as outlined by Radar’s story – having stressed him to the point of impotence) – which is “cured” upon his release of stress – by the release of the garbage on the officer’s head. So – it may be convoluted, but it kind of “sings” – as in Provo’s Privy (stolen from “The Green Berets”)

  2. Where is all the garbage?

    From a kitchen serving roughly 200 people would be the uneaten food dumped from people’s trays, remains of drinks, the leftover and unused food from the kitchen, the “gunk” from sinks and grease traps and grills …left to ripen for a few days into a putrid, partially liquified, mass surrounded by swarms of flies. (Something I’m certain no actor would want dumped on them.)

    But what we see suspended in a net below the helicopter is nothing like that – no pieces falling out, no disgusting fluids dripping, no flies; but a sizeable mass that would easily fill the interior of a jeep, cover its occupants, and spatter the surrounding ground (and probably cause a few choice comments about Hawkeye from whoever had to clean up the mess)..

    And what we see actually land on the general appears to be no more than a trashcan full of wilted lettuce.

  3. I’ve seen this episode a hundred times, and I just noticed a very subtle joke right after this exchange:

    Frank: “I won’t let you down, sir.
    Potter: “There’s no way you can.”

    Then Potter nudges Radar playfully and Radar says, “Congratulations, Major.” Frank gets this goofy grin on his face as he walks out of the office.


  4. Anyone else catch Klinger and Kelleye going on a date? Maybe that subplot was cut for syndication, but it’s right when Radar finds out about Phelan. He even brings her flowers.

  5. Will be watching this tonight.
    Thanks for highlighting the following quote, it’s one of my favourites from the entire series — Frank: “I won’t let you down, sir.” Potter: “There’s no way you can.”

  6. I thought Radar’s subplot was interesting, but weirdly unresolved. If they had canned the Hawkeye story like you said, they maybe could have given Radar’s traumatic experience more time to round out. The last shot of the episode is of him looking mortified. There’s something to be said for a grim ending, but it didn’t feel right as the final image.

  7. I guess what bothers me about the colonel (didn’t he play the doctor in Little House in the Prairie?) is how casual he is about his men. He was more concerned with numbers than the lives of the men under him. He didn’t even know Phelan’s name!
    Also love the scene with Burns and Potter in the office.

  8. No mention of Margaret Houlihan in this or the Novocaine Mutiny episode I think both she and Frank were on the outs and that she was to come back engaged to Donald Penobscot
    L also thought the mention of Hawkeye’s problem of a personal nature was not necessary
    and I am personally sick of that

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