Episode Spotlight: Old Soldiers


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

“Too Many Cooks” (#187, 8×18)
Originally Broadcast: Monday, January 21st, 1980
Written by Dennis Koenig
Directed by Charles S. Dubin

Capsule Summary: After returning from a mysterious trip to Tokyo, Colonel Potter begins acting strangely. Hawkeye, temporarily left in charge of the 4077th, must deal with a group of orphans in need of inoculations.

This episode featured one of if not the best dramatic performances by Harry Morgan on M*A*S*H, a counterpoint to his comedic tour de force in “The General Flipped at Dawn.” Colonel Potter’s toast to his deceased comrades from World War I is beautiful.

This wasn’t the first episode to feature Colonel Potter acting surly and withdrawn and everyone else wondering just what was going on. At least in this episode he didn’t yell as much as in others. At times, angry Colonel Potter became something of a caricature, too unbelievable to be taken seriously. In this episode, he was angry at the world, the passage of time and the toll it had taken.

Sometimes, when characters we’ve never heard of before are used as plot devices, it doesn’t ring true. Why should we care about people who have never been mentioned before and won’t be mentioned again? Here, though, it was Colonel Potter’s reaction to the death of his sole surviving World War I buddy — and by extension all of his buddies from the Great War — that mattered.

Old soldiers never die; they just fade away

The secondary storyline in this episode didn’t do much for me. It was nice that the two intersected, allowing Colonel Potter to rail against the killing of horses for meat. It’s a somewhat strange scene but it works.

If you watch look closely, you can tell that Charles was crying during Potter’s explanation of the tontine.

This is one of the episodes featured in the 1981 documentary “Making M*A*S*H.”

24 Replies to “Episode Spotlight: Old Soldiers”

  1. Col. Potter’s speech was top notch…..just so amazingly touching. Charles does a lot of little things in this episode that are easy to overlook.

    When Col. Potter comes into the mess tent to sit with the team, Charles was cutting up the little boy’s food. Such a small thing but give you a great insight into his character.

  2. My all-time favorite episode.

    Col. Potter’s speech about the tontine was perhaps his best dialogue ever. Second would be his rant about the world going right down the drain. They don’t make TV shows like that anymore.

  3. This has always been one of my favorite episodes, the acting is superb all round, and it is certainly one of Harry Morgan’s best performances. And the writers should be proud of creating one of TV’s finest moments.

    But this episode becomes more poignant with time. In another episode we learn that Potter is 63. In a couple of months I will be 63; I’ve known my best friend since we were 18; we have already lost a couple of our friends, one at age 20 (motorcycle accident), the other 7 years ago (cancer). Every time I watch this episode now, it is several days before I stop having an uneasy feeling whenever the phone rings.

    1. To Ryan, who died in WWI, the war to end all wars. To Gianelli, who died in the war after that. To Stein, the joker of the crowd. And to Grusky, my best friend, who just passed away in Tokyo. You were my friends, my comrades through thick and thin and everything in between. I drink to your memories. I loved you fellas one and all.

  4. I left this same comment after “Sons and Bowlers,” and it applies here as well.

    I get choked up at the toast at the end. When my mother died, my family deliberately excluded me from a toast to my mother while I was in another room. This was after I made all the funeral arrangements.
    This was done by a vindictive older brother who tried to have my father institutionalized and was later thrown out of the hospital for fighting with doctors when my mother was in a coma, and nothing could be done.

    Even if my brothers, father, and cousin got together right now and redid that toast with me there, it wouldn’t be the same. Last night I found my answer.

    Six years ago on June 20, it was my mother’s funeral. Last night, MeTV showed this episode when Potter has Hawkeye, B.J., Charles, Mulcahy, Klinger, and Margaret drink a toast to the last of Potter’s four best friends who just died. The five friends had made a pledge that the last survivor would do that from a bottle stored by a law firm. I’m doing the same thing with a former classmate who lost both her parents six months apart four years ago. We will toast all four parents when my father goes, but we will have to do it long distance as we are several states apart.

  5. I remember the PBS special showcased a number of bloopers from this episode– Potter saying ” Id take nose of that” to Klinger instead of “I’d take note of that” and at the end of the tontine segment everyone complaining of the taste of the prop whiskey.

  6. I remember the first time I watched this as a child. I thought to myself, “So… they’re all friends, now? Even Charles?” IMHO this was a turning point in the series, where the antagonist on the show ceased to be a human character (like Burns, Houlihan or Charles) and became The War.

    That’s my personal theory about the show, and specifically why the writers went so heavy with the “War is hell” theme in the last few seasons. As the friendship among the actors bled over into the characters, the show no longer had a “bad guy.” Since conventional wisdom has it that every show needs a bad guy to provide conflict, The War soon filled that role. Thus the conflict in MASH, over the course of its eleven year run, went from Hawkeye/Trapper -vs- Burns/Houlihan to The 4077th -vs- the Korean War.

    Anyway, that’s MHO.

  7. *I* get tears in my eyes when I watch that scene. Easily one of my top episodes of MASH hands down.

  8. Is there a reason why BJ is the only one in the entire camp, maybe the entire war who is allowed to walk around in Converse sneakers? He used to wear boots but somewhere along the way started wearing sneakers. I would think that would be against protocol and also dangerous walking around in canvas shoes with very little support when there are minefields, metal shards, and rocks all around. Not only that but I don’t believe that hideous bushy mustache would have been allowed either in the army. For a show that prides itself on accuracy, they really allow BJ a lot of unnecessary leeway. Yes I’m picking on BJ again. He bothers me because he’s so annoying and trying to kill my favorite show.

    1. I believe that the converse sneakers was a mistake on the part of the actors and crew. It’s been mentioned a few times that mash occasionally will forget the time period it’s set in and accidentally allow non-time-appropriate haircut, and sometimes actors will forget to take off too modern watches or sneakers. I don’t think B.J. is allowed to wear them against protocol, I think Mike Farrell simply made a small mistake. My roommate spotted this and her and I had a small friendly laugh about it. It’s nothing that ruins the quality of the show, if anything it’s a funny little Easter egg to spot a show’s inconsequential mistakes (see: starbucks cup in game of thrones or water bottle in downtown abbey. No big deal). As for the mustache, the whole point of him growing it when he did grow it out at the start of season 7 was to be anti-army, just like when he and Hawkeye, and trapper, and many other male characters will have a stubby face because they refuse to shave for a few days, against protocol. The writers made a point in having B.J. state that he was doing this, following along with the anti-war message that mash sends all the time.

      1. Their hairstyles were the most glaring anachronism of the show; everybody, including the guest stars who played regular soldiers seemed to have that seventies hair.

      2. I think it was just a continuity error (one of many in the show). I read somewhere that they often wore sneakers when you wouldn’t see their feet because the combat boots were too loud on the set floors.

  9. Also, is Tokyo General a military hospital or was it there before we got there? I noticed the nurse at the desk behind Potter on the phone was not Japanese. I realize the US still had Japan under military “protection” but thought they might have mostly Japanese medical people at a Tokyo hospital.

  10. For drama this if easily one of the best episodes of the series. Harry Morgan outdid himself. In fact the speech seemed to mean a lot to him personally. When the show ended he said of all the companies he’s acted in, the MASH cast were the best he had ever worked with. He talked about old and new friends just as he did here. The toast was riveting and I found myself holding my breath as I watched him deliver it. To me the show is divided into comedy episodes and drama. I really loved the early seasons because they were so funny. Some of the later seasons were majorly maudlin and melodramatic and often overacted. This was not one of them. Harry Morgan had no reason to do anything to get an award or attract attention. He had a long career behind him already. Beautifully acted.

    1. Does anyone remember the dialogue Harry Morgan had with the Korean boy? It was a great scene….something about what life boils down to ….

  11. I don’t know if this was mentioned before, but at the beginning of the Mess tent scene when Potter yells about the horse serum, you can see Charles helping a little Korean boy cut his food. It’s so sweet and if you blink you’ll miss it!

  12. This was one of the best of the “later” episodes when MASH started to get preachy. It allowed Harry Morgan to give 3 great speeches: he railed against a changing world, he shared his fudge with a Korean orphan while trying to sound positive, and he was able to tell his officers a great story from WW1, why he was upset about losing old friends but changed his perspective. Great toast, great to see Charles cutting a child’s food then tear up during Potter’s toast.

  13. After a number of episodes focusing on Potter’s age, this is the one where he confronts it head on in the form of his original friends all having passed away. Potter knows that his world is now gone, but realizes that he can still be an important part of the newer one. I think he finally accepts the role as a father figure in this episode when he names the members of the 4077th as his extended family.

  14. Has anyone noticed that at the end of Potter’s final toast, Winchester deliberately hold back on clinking glasses and misses ever single one of them.
    No one else misses at all.

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