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.


  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

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