Episode Spotlight: Follies of the Living-Concerns of the Dead

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

“Follies of the Living-Concerns of the Dead” (#224, 10×10)
Originally Broadcast: Monday, January 4th, 1982
Written by Alan Alda
Directed by Alan Alda

Capsule Summary: A feverish Klinger interacts with a dead soldier who wanders through the 4077th trying to come to terms with his death.

I’ve always thought of this episode as M*A*S*H meets The Twilight Zone. I’m sure I’m not the only one to make the comparison. It’s an apt one, given that the episode involves the “soul” or “ghost” of a dead soldier leaving his body and walking around the camp. Only Klinger, suffering from a high fever, can see and hear the deceased soldier.

As the title suggests, the episode isn’t about the dead soldier, not really. It’s about how petty the living can be. With the exceptions of Father Mulcahy and Colonel Potter none of the characters are depicted well in this episode. Hawkeye, B.J. and Margaret in particular are shown at times to be selfish and inconsiderate, while Charles is seen to be argumentative and stubborn.

Private Weston has stepped out of his dead body and is crouched between Klinger and Father Mulcahy
The Two Privates Weston

There are two endings to this episode. The first sees Weston and a group of other dead soldiers walking off to their final destination and the other in which Klinger’s fever breaks and he tries to get somebody to tell him what happened to Weston, to no avail.

Notice that during the first ending, the one with the “souls” or “ghosts” heading down a dirt road, there are a few people not wearing army fatigues. Are they supposed to be civilians? Chinese soldiers? North Korean soldiers?

The second ending ties back the characters being inconsiderate and selfish. They either don’t remember who Weston is or are too self-absorbed to be bothered to answer Klinger.

It’s a heavy-handed episode, to be sure. And for many viewers it may have been a bit too much. It wasn’t the dead soldier’s “ghost” or “soul” walking around that went too far for me, though. No, where the episode went wrong was having Klinger be able to talk to Weston.

Margaret’s angry soliloquy outside Post-Op after kicking a trash can is bizarre, ostensibly one-sided but awkwardly written to match Weston’s musings.

Father Mulcahy’s story about being a champion at Spin the Bottle when he was 12 years old is a good one.

I wonder if it was difficult to film this episode, with so many scenes involving Weston talking to or at characters who weren’t supposed to react to him at all.

The scene in which Weston climbs out of his dead body is a rare example of an optical special effect on M*A*S*H.

26 Comments

  • Seoul City Sue says:

    I like this episode. The ending always feels so poignant. When Weston is walking away, you see some North Korean soldiers along with some villagers. It brings home the point that war doesn’t discriminate…soldiers, civilians, everyone is fair game. Good episode and I like the guy who played Weston.

  • Larry P. says:

    This is one of the more “inventive” episodes, that is, one that attempted to break the mold as far as this type of show goes (though M*A*S*H was certainly not your typical show in the first place). Think “Point Of View”, “Life Time”, “Dreams”. I gotta say, the premise sounds a little ‘out there’, but I really enjoy this episode every time I see it. The end with the soldiers and civilians walking off to the afterlife is very, very moving.

    I think everyone (except Klinger) forgetting about Weston at the end was meant to show how treating so many people so quickly can affect the surgeons/nurses memory of an individual, how easy one person can get lost in the shuffle (as it were). That doesn’t make the loss any more tragic, of course, but it’s still a sad outcome. It ends the episode on an especially downbeat note.

    Really good “late-era” episode, IMO.

  • Benjamin says:

    Whenever I’m watching through Season Ten, I always have to talk myself into watching this one because it’s a little thought-provoking, different beat, and to be honest a spooky episode. The question I always ask when the show ends is, what happens when we die? The show just leaves us hanging on that question and if they would’ve answered that question it probably would’ve gotten some public outcry for pointing out a religious episode. Don’t get me wrong, I think having that kind of an ending was a good way to go as far as the show and public reaction goes but, it still gives me some goose bumps along with it. The other half of the episode where everybody is so concerned about there own problems and not paying attention to Klinger about Weston at the very end is interesting. I agree with Larry P that each of the characters have there own worries or problems, but compared to what is going on they seem silly, ignorant, selfish. They aren’t paying attention to what really matters in the big picture. BUT, they don’t even know what the big picture is, in fact, no one does until that time comes for us. Which is another one that gives me some chills down my spine. Just thought I’d give my opinion on this one.

    • Maggie Hoolihan says:

      The argument could be made that that did answer the question about after death, at least in part. At the very least they took the stance that the soul moved on someplace else after death. The people walking at the end show that. The non religious believe it’s all a big nothing after death. Buddhists and Hindus believe in some form of reincarnation. It’s only the Christians,Jews, and Muslims who seem to believe in the soul going on somewhere else. So that narrowed it a bit.

  • TWoods says:

    Well, this one indeed is one of the more bizarre episodes for sure. All good comments above. I agree that it demonstrates how selfish and self-absorbed we can become and that war impacts everyone . And I agree too that they should’ve left the part out with Klinger being able to see Weston – totally not needed. As for the ending, fortunately the Bible clearly says that we don’t need to go down the “road” this episode depicts (John 3:16 and 1 John 3:16, et al).

  • PinkPagoda says:

    I think it is very true today, that people see what is important from what their perspective is at the time. We tend to forget that this is a journey with a very real end, and we never know when the end will be – so we engulf ourselves in worrying about our importance, our appearance, and other things that seem like the end of the world, until you are actually FACED with the end. Then suddenly you realize what is truly important.

    I know when I lose something valuable I think it is so terrible, until I see something about a school shooting, a tornado, a car accident with loss of life, and then I see, you really CAN’T take it with you.

    As far as Klinger being able to see him, he must have been much sicker than anyone thought, and had this “near death” out of body experience – which is a real thing, and I think fits in nicely with the show.

    • PinkPagoda says:

      This is one of my favorite episodes. I love this one – A war to remember – Lifetime – and the ones with Clete Roberts due to their realism, and lack of slapstick humor.

  • Larry P. says:

    “As far as Klinger being able to see him, he must have been much sicker than anyone thought, and had this “near death” out of body experience – which is a real thing, and I think fits in nicely with the show.”

    I agree with this, it seemed to me that Klinger being able to speak with Weston implied that he was much worse off than anyone realized. I don’t know if that’s how the writers meant it, but that’s how I take it, and for that reason, I didn’t mind that aspect of the show. If nothing else, Klinger’s being able to speak with Weston sets up the final scene of the episode, which I find both sad and powerful.

  • David G. says:

    The night after this episode originally aired on CBS for the first time, I had a school teacher who talked about this episode during class, and he pointed out that he thought the dead people at the end appeared to be “walking downhill” (!).

  • J.P. Pelzman says:

    There were some good ideas here, but like a lot of later eps, it was VERY heavy-handed. Guess Weston didn’t have the good fortune to be at the 4077th when they were being selfless and kind, as they often were. I don’t like when characters have to behave differently than normal to service the plot. The Twilight Zone comparison is spot on. In fact, the end is pretty much a copy of the TZ ep The Passersby, in which dead Civil War soldiers walk to their final destination. This would have worked better as an anthology show ep, as opposed to shoe-horning in existing characters and painting them as cruel.

    • Leland Frame says:

      I consider this episode to be a sequel to “The Passersby” (One of my favorite Twilight Zone episodes!) I just wonder if Alan Alda meant it to be one. I’ll bet he used to watch it when he was younger!

  • dougO says:

    It was the best episode ever, I think. It left me thinking about the story as a piece of writing, as well as thinking about the story itself. I liked that Klinger was a bridge between the dead and the living, and that the dead had a chance to keep telling their story, instead of immediately exiting the story like usual.

    Other than the final episode and the episode where Colonel Blake died, this is the only Episode I still remember, after all these years.

  • Craig says:

    A ‘serious’ episode from later in MASH’s run, particularly one written and directed by Alan Alda, is all too often considered code for preachy. Not so much here. Probably because it so deftly bursts the bubbles of our main characters, reminding us that they (and hence we) are all human; petty, argumentative and small-minded. They don’t, or perhaps won’t (given their position) consider the larger questions of mortality.

    One truly chilling moment rams it all home; when Charles and Hawkeye are arguing about hooks/nails and shirts we feel we’re in for patented MASH wackiness as two characters argue minor points of territorialism in the midst of the war’s lunacy. Until Charles walks over to the wall and Weston’s ghost/soul asks “Am I dead?” It’s like a kick in the guts, always gets me does that scene.

    Klinger talking to Weston is a tricky angle, it’s success or failure probably depends on the spiritual leanings of the viewer, but I’ve always managed to take it in my stride. I guess it’s necessary for the final scene of a now recovered Klinger asking about Weston whilst the rest of them argue rostering. Does the episode hit us with a hammer? Yes, but sometimes the hammer is wielded more deftly, and I think this is one of those episodes.

  • mspence says:

    I guess it makes sense they wouldn’t even remember Weston-Hawkeye often pointed out how they had too many patients to remember them all, but the special ones stood out, and Weston was already gone. If he were dying and they were still able to interact with him they might have behaved differently. Klinger’s babblings were hilarious. The final scene seems to indicate that they were all headed towards a better place, at least Weston was since he seemed to be a good guy.

    • Maggie Hoolihan says:

      I think that Hawkeye might have remembered him if he’d had the chance to work on him. He showed up basically dead so he really can’t be expected to remember someone he had no time to bond with.

  • 007 says:

    Decent episode, but I agree it’s stupid that Klinger is able to talk to Weston, especially after he already passed the kidney stone and was feeling better. It is a bit of an example of M*A*S*H being a bit too preachy, as is the norm for episodes written and directed by Alan Alda, but I do like the end and think it’s very poignant and memorable.

  • Joe says:

    How the living spend so much time with the.mudane, the meaninglessness​, the trivial, etc when eternity is staring them right in the face at every moment. The dead are taking the journey so many do not prepare for, wondering where they are headed. Death visits all, plays no favorites, good solider, bad solider, civilian. Klinger hovers in the transition between life and death, having the curtain drawn back for a moment, glimpsing the path we all must walk.

  • Chuck G says:

    I like this MASH episode, and the Twilight Zone episode The Passersby. I swear I see Jamie Farr at the beginning of this TZ episode when Rod Serling is talking, once the camera is on the ground, there is an old soldier and next person looks like Jamie Farr with bandages covering parts of his face. I recently saw Jamie Farr in two episodes of “The Rebel” with Nick Adams, interesting to see him in something other than MASH.

    • Lady you ARE a Piece of Cornbread says:

      He’s also an office food delivery kid in a few “Dick van Dyke Show ” episodes.

      • Rosemarie says:

        Jamie Farr and William Christopher also both played hippies in a movie called “With Six You Get Eggroll” back in 1968.

  • Lady you ARE a Piece of Cornbread says:

    One line I quote out of context all the time– “A mouse has four paws, but he doesn’t wear a belt.”

  • Steve Wyzard says:

    I’m one of those people who believe the show went downhill after Radar left, but this episode is one of the best of the “post-Radar” era. Very moving and thought-provoking, and the Twilight Zone comparison is very apt. I’m not convinced the regulars are acting out of character in this one. One of the main points of the show is that ALL of them are trying their best to hold on to their sanity in the truly heartbreaking situation they are in, and the detached pettiness they display in this episode seems “normal” for them. There’s no laugh-track, and Potter and Mulcahy are the camp’s pillars of strength. The only questionable scene was when Charles is shown passing out after having “a few too many” with Hawkeye and BJ. When did he become their drinking buddy? Or is this intended to show how Charles is being affected by his time at the 4077th?

  • Peter Woodhouse says:

    Agree that this is one of the better later season episodes – not packing the preach, merely thought-provoking.
    I like the ‘TZ’ or similar vibe & I prefer it when the production team tries something off the beaten track. Doesn’t always work, but bless them for trying.
    I can buy – just – the Klinger stuff as being an ‘OOB’/near death experience, but as someone pointed out with the kidney stone, once he begins to recover that should’ve been the end of it, Weston could have ‘faded from view’ from his (Klinger’s) perspective.
    Perhaps Klinger should have been only AWARE of Weston-the-soul/ghost and not been able to interact?

  • Cin Williams says:

    This haunting episode really stuck with me. I was frequently sick as a teen/young adult and have been to that high-fever la-la land where it feels like anything (especially something otherworldly) was possible. It was brilliant that someone acknowledged its existence and used it in a plot!

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