Episode Spotlight: Germ Warfare

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

“Germ Warfare” (#11, 1×11)
Originally Broadcast: Sunday, December 10th, 1972
Written by Larry Gelbart
Directed by Terry Becker

Capsule Summary: Hawkeye and Trapper siphon Frank’s blood to treat a North Korean soldier, leading them to worry he might be infectious.

This episode is most notable for the number of final appearances it contained. It featured the final appearances of supporting characters Spearchucker, Private Boone and Lt. Dish. Although the 11th episode aired, it was the fourth produced, so in production order both Spearchucker and Boone actually appeared in later episodes.

Of the three, Spearchucker made the most appearances in the series (six), followed by Boone (four) and Dish (two). Boone was played by Bruno Kirby in the pilot episode before Robert Gooden took over the role. Karen Philipp as Dish was featured heavily in promotional material prior to the series premiere — including the original CBS fall preview and promotional images distributed to the press — but that was likely due to the CBS publicity department only having access to the pilot for promotional purposes. This was the only other episode Dish appeared in.

As for Spearchucker, his character was written out of the series after the producers realized there were no black surgeons serving in MASH units during the Korean Conflict. Here’s how Larry Gelbart explained Spearchucker’s departure in a July 1998 post to the alt.tv.mash newsgroup:

Extensive research indiated [sic] there were no black surgeons in MASH units in Korea.

We were not interested in empty tokenism.

We also had to cut down on the number of characters in the series for budgetary reasons.

Also notable in this episode are two unusual sequences that reflect the fact that the producers were experimenting with the tone of the series early on. First there’s Hawkeye’s Lt. Dish fantasy in the mess tent, in which he pictures her drinking coffee naked. Even more bizarre is the lengthy scene in which Hawkeye provides voiceover narration as Frank and Hot Lips as they try to “arrange a bit of brass rubbing.”

According to TV.com, Hawkeye’s narration is a parody of a series of comedic MGM film shorts titled “Pete Smith Specialties” from the 1930s and 1950s, one of which you can see here.

Hawkeye’s fantasy

As for the plot of the episode, the idea that Hawkeye and Trapper would steal Frank’s blood is disturbing. And although played for laughs it’s also highly unethical. That’s not to say it wasn’t played for laughs well; it is a hilarious episode. But hilarity doesn’t negate immorality. Even Frank deserved better. It’s unbelievable that Frank wouldn’t press charges for the theft of his. More unbelievable is the tag in which he is seen playing checkers in the Swamp with the North Korean soldier.

I’m pretty sure at the start of the scene in which Hawkeye and Trapper are siphoning Frank’s blood, the distinctive sound of a Theremin can be heard.

This episode ends in a freeze frame rather than a fade, long before that become the norm in later seasons.

9 Comments

  • Seoul City Sue says:

    Karen Phillip was featured heavily in the opening scenes of the pilot episode (which would later go on to become the opening credit sequences). I wonder if she was contracted to appear on the show but then for some reason was dropped by the producers.

    I think dropping Spearchucker was a good decision. He really didn’t add anything special to the show and many of his lines could easily have been given to the other characters. This episode also highlights how much Frank wanted to fit in with his tentmates. Them tricking him into drinking all that beer was just a mean prank…concocted just to get him to use the facilities.

    Henry’s cluelessness was just so cute. “Frank, if I would have sent for you, don’t you think I would know??”

    Good first season episode although I still don’t understand why the first season gets so much flak. It’s a pretty solid season. Memorable episodes and lots of laughs.

  • Larry P. says:

    Very good early episode. Whether it’s ethical or not, Hawkeye and Trapper siphoning Frank’s blood is a riot. Trapper’s “We may start something we don’t want to finish!” line while Hawkeye directs Frank’s dreaming is hilarious!

    As for the character departures, none of them really added all that much to the show. Sure, with only two episodes to her credit, Dish never had much of a chance to add much anyway, but it seems like if she had stayed it would have become a one-note “Hawkeye chases Dish” sort of thing. Maybe not, there was character growth all throughout the first season of course, but as it stands I’ve never really missed her.

    And removing Spearchucker and Boone was ultimately a good idea too; like Dish, neither really added anything, and dropping those characters allowed the show to move further away from the book/movie source material and continue flourishing fully into the iconic TV series that we all know and love (though it was really pretty terrific right from the start, anyway.)

  • Crabapple Cove says:

    I posted this question in the forum, but I also wanted to cross post it here.

    Regarding a scene in “Germ Warfare”:

    The scene takes places as Hawkeye walks into the mess tent. He sees Radar (with a tray full of food as usual) and says “I see your having the Hunt breakfast”. Radar seems to have no clue what he means and Hawkeye says “nevermind”. I have tried searching this phrase online but had no success finding it.

    Anyone know what it refers to? Is Hawkeye quoting some old movie or is it a cultural reference of some sort?

    • RJ says:

      According to the now-defunct M*A*S*H Episode Guide website, a Hunt breakfast refers to “a sumptuous feast associated with fox hunting, typically eaten after the morning’s hunt.”

  • Lady you ARE a Piece of Cornbread says:

    Did anyone ever translate ‘Pavo’ from Korean to English?

  • Lady you ARE a Piece of Cornbread says:

    I’m pretty sure at the start of the scene in which Hawkeye and Trapper are siphoning Frank’s blood, the distinctive sound of a Theremin can be heard.

    I think that was mainly to set the “movie ghoul” mindset the dialogue was talking about

  • Lady you ARE a Piece of Cornbread says:

    like the camp library mentioned in the pilot and never seen on camera, Frank mentions a P.O.W. section of Post Op. in this episode.

  • Lady, You ARE A Piece of Cornbread says:

    Anyone know what “Pavo” means or if it is actually a Korean word?

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