Episode Spotlight: Dear Sis

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

“Dear Sis” (#158, 7×14)
Originally Broadcast: Monday, December 18th, 1978
Written by Alan Alda
Directed by Alan Alda

Capsule Summary: Father Mulcahy write his sister, telling her of his worries that he doesn’t make enough of an impact at the 4077th.

Last week I reviewed “Dear Mildred,” a letter home episode from Season Four that didn’t involve much writing. Today, thanks to the random number generator, I’m reviewing another letter home episode, this one from Season Seven, that also doesn’t involve a lot of writing. It is fitting that for an episode about Father Mulcahy, there’s a lot going on that only involves him passively.

The plot point that packs the most punch for Mulcahy is him slugging the unruly soldier. While watching the episode for this review, I found myself wondering why Mulcahy punched the soldier at all. Why was that his immediate reaction to being punched? Although an amateur boxer, Mulcahy wasn’t a trained fighter and he wasn’t in immediate danger when he punched the soldier, so I wonder how realistic it is that he would react that way.

Other than that, Mulcahy spent the episode hanging around the edge of effectiveness, as he put it. He wasn’t of much use in surgery, he couldn’t convince Charles to donate money to the orphans, he wasn’t able to complete his blessing for Edna and he didn’t help either Klinger or Margaret with their problems while tending bar (to be fair, that’s because they wouldn’t give him the chance).

And yet, he still managed to make a big impact on Charles simply by suggesting that Radar make a telephone call to Boston. Charles telling Radar about his Boston Christmases and later his reaction to receiving his old toboggan cap for Christmas are powerful scenes, as is the scene in which he thanks Father Mulcahy:

Charles: “You saved me, Father. You lowered a bucket into the well of my despair and you raised me up to the light of day. I thank you for that.”

I’ve noted before how I’ve grown to appreciate Charles, and the performance of David Ogden Stiers, more and more over the years. Conversely, things like Potter giving Radar his grandson’s pajamas for his teddy bear have grown increasingly difficult to hear. It’s one thing for a character who’s supposed to be young and dealing with the horrors of war to sleep with teddy bear. Having him dress the bear in pajamas is something else entirely.

The best part of this episode is the camp singing “Dona Nobis Pacem” after toasting Father Mulcahy for all he does without recognition. It’s a really nice performance, so nice that while I’d like to think that a group of people could spontaneously sing that well, I suspect there had to be both rehearsal and some coaching. I’d love to know if the song was filmed in one take or if took a few tries to get it perfect. And if there was additional singing filmed but cut from the episode.

Give us peace

While they’re singing, Charles takes off his toboggan cap and Colonel Potter puts his arm around Radar. I often wonder if little things like this are planned, perhaps by director Alan Alda, or improvised by the actors. I doubt they’d be in the script.

There’s a lot of Christmas decoration in the background throughout this episode. There’s a manager scene and Christmas cards in Radar’s office, Christmas cards on the jukebox and strings of popcorn in the Officers’ Club, cards in Potter’s office and wreathes in post-op.

When Potter takes a drink from his glass in his office, Harry Morgan apparently tried to swallow too much, too fast. You can see liquid dribbling down his chin.

The freeze frame in this episode has no music, which giving it a quiet, introspective feel.

22 Comments

  • Crabapple Cove says:

    I agree about the scenes with Charles, Radar, and Mulcahy regarding the toboggan. My eyes tear up every time I watch them.

  • Mouse says:

    No mention of snow? this is one of 2 episodes where thers snow the other being The Late Capt Pierce.

  • Seoul City Sue says:

    The most memorable part of this episode is Charles’ reaction to receiving his toboggan cap. The emotion in his face was so genuine that in one of the cast and crew interviews, DOS’s mother specified that she did not, in fact, knit the cap and that it was all DOS acting in that scene. Very powerful stuff.

    Other than that, this is a fairly OK episode. To also add to Mouse’s observation above, the other episode with snow in it was ‘A War for all Seasons’

  • Tuttle says:

    My favorite MASH Christmas episode and in my top 20 of the whole series.

  • Joe says:

    I never saw it.

  • hrflyer says:

    I know I am in the minority, but I never got the Mulcahy love. I think his effectiveness was greatest during seasons 1-4. When his character’s role expanded, I felt he became less believable. His best episode was the one with Ned Beatty. After that, I just am not a big fan.

    • jgf says:

      William Christopher has written that as the seasons progressed the writers made his part less and less religious, and he thought the character suffered for it.

      • Amy says:

        I always felt they moved Father away from his primary duty of religious centerpiece due to the fact that we are told, in a great many episodes, that he doesn’t feel he is needed in the specific are of “preacher/reverend/minister because his Sunday AM services are hardly packed.

        There’s plenty of episodes wherein potter lets father know that the camp needs to unwind on the Saturday nights they aren’t operating all night.

        There are also a great many times where Father has tried to lend a hand in the OR and takes a “gut punch” when the surgeons bark at him that the “patient isn’t dead yet” and things to that effect.
        I would imagine that even a man of God would start to feel like a grim reaper waiting in a darkened corner for someone to die.
        Father wasn’t like that. He listened when asked, he offered sound advice in ways that sounded like conversations and not preaching, he was a genuinely caring man (who happened to have a great hook!).

        I always felt that he took it upon himself to step back in the “expected” Sunday preacher and to just be there for whomever needed or wanted him.

        To me, that makes him just as much of a Man of God as the one you see once a week at the pulpit.

      • Maggie Hoolihan says:

        That’s surprising to hear because I listened to an interview with him where he said he wanted to be more than a spiritual leader, almost like a psychiatrist. In fact he days he never understood why they had Sidney Freedman in the show because he felt he could fulfillb the same duties as him. He didn’t understand that people with certain kinds of problems don’t want to speak to a priest who has no experience with women, marriage, or sex about it. Not to mention that they really didn’t have psychiatrists to deal with the mentally ill during the war. I’m not sure what Mulcahy could do for someone with hysterical paralysis or schizophrenia. He was just too innocent and naive. I think William Christopher just wanted more screen time.

      • Maggie Hoolihan says:

        Typo “did have psychiatrists” not didn’t

  • Lee Appleyard says:

    This is one of my favorite episodes. I’ve seen it many times and the cast’s singing “Dona Nobis Pacem” still gives me goosebumps.

  • Doc Funnypants says:

    This was a very thought-provoking episode from start to finish. I especially loved it when everyone gathered in the mess tent and sung “Dona Nobis Pacem”. Truly a great episode and that’s really saying something.

  • Mash Fan says:

    I found this site because I was looking for the direct quote “You have lowered a bucket…..” and found the part reminding me about Potter’s giving Radar the pajamas of Potter’s grandson for Radar’s teddy bear. I gathered this might have seemed out of the realm of importance. However, I found it extremely touching because, at age 74, I still have my first teddy bear, given to me by my father on my first Christmas. B.B. – the bear, who sits in a child’s rocker in a guest room, still wears a pair of burgundy-colored corduroy overalls made for me by my father. One of my early memories is seeing Daddy holding B.B. and sewing a button back on to the strap of the overalls. That holds a reminder of how my father was always sensitive to the emotions of his children, whatever age we were; and it is what I see in Col. Potter’s empathy for Radar’s attachment to his teddy bear and home.

    • Amy says:

      I agree about the Teddy Bear and, having watched the episode at least 4x, it never occurred to me to be “bothered” by dressing the bear in old baby pjs (until reading the story above).

      Truthfully, I still don’t see an issue with it. Soldiers to this day carry things with them that make them feel safe, loved, comforted and close to home. Those objects aren’t there for anyone else except the soldier it belongs to.

      If that soldier is performing their duties, keeping everything running smoothly (as only Radar could), then WHO is a dressed teddy bear hurting?
      He’s not toying around camp with him, he’s not sitting him in the mess hall and pretending to feed him, he’s not late on duties because he’s changing a fictional diaper.
      It’s an object that gives a very young man some solace in an awful place.
      IMO, his bear, dressed or not, is no less sentimental than the still in the swamp, the robes constantly worn by the docs, the constant chamber music played by Charles, etc.
      just because those items aren’t seen as ” hilslike” on the outside, my money says a hole would be left should the still, robes and music disappear.

  • Felina says:

    I re-watched this episode for Christmas, and still enjoy it. In my view, Father Mulcahy slugging the soldier actually brings a good moment of weakness for his character. After all, he’s the one in camp whose patience and gentleness in any situation show his character’s true fortitude.

    But he’s still human. Even the good Padre is subject to (though rarely compared to the others) moments of sin. He may have been angry that the soldier was being so difficult, or nearly hurt Margaret, or that he got slugged himself. Maybe his frustrations boiled over, or just for one moment, the war FINALLY got to Mulcahy.

    It’s a moment that’s sobering, that not even Father Mulcahy is above it all, and he’s just as shocked as we are when it happens. We don’t always know WHY we do things, or why we do things that we then regret. (Humans are weird like that.)

    • BDOR says:

      I think humans just instinctively want to hit someone back for hitting them, so while I can understand why Mulcahy feels so much regret for his actions, I can also understand why he impulsively hit the soldier for hitting him.

  • Rich Rogers says:

    I’ve carried the quote from Charles–You lowered a bucket into the well of my despair and lifted me up to the light of day–for years in my head. I found this site, because I was looking to find and watch the actual episode.

  • Jetfire59 says:

    You’re mistaken. Father Mulcahy IS a trained fighter and had every right to hit that jrk back. The soldier should have been court-martialed for assault a Chaplain.

  • Phil says:

    I love Mulcahy’s quote at the end:

    “You know, Sis, it doesn’t matter whether you feel useful or not when you’re moving from one disaster to another. The trick, I guess, is to just keep moving.”

  • Maggie Hoolihan says:

    Father Mulcahy bothers me sometimes. It was annoying when he was in the OC with Klinger and asked him what was on his mind. When Klinger started to tell him, Mulcahy turned to the side and put his hand over his face as though he was hearing confession. Every conversation isn’t a confession! This is why people don’t come to your tent to talk! They aren’t looking for absolution in every word they say. Not to mention Klinger is Lebanese and has no background as a Catholic. It just bugged me to see Mulcahy trying to push his religion on random people. If it wasn’t in the script for him to do that and it was a choice made by the actor, that’s almost worse because it shows how out of touch WilliambChristopher was with what was needed from his character.

  • Harry Stiers says:

    Is there a continuity error in the episode? Radar asks Father to bless Edna the cow over the phone. Charles is in Potter’s office dressed in a winter coat and in line for the phone “waiting for hours” when just moments earlier he was in OR refusing to give up cash for the orphans.

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