Episode Spotlight: Letters


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

“Letters” (#196, 9×02)
Originally Broadcast: Monday, November 24th, 1980
Written by Dennis Koenig
Directed by Charles S. Dubin

Capsule Summary: The 4077th receives letters from a grade school in Hawkeye’s home town and set about answering them as best they can.

I love this episode. It offers a nice twist on the letter home plot device, allowing our favorite characters to respond to letters from home. It retained the familiar flashback sequences to highlight various goings-on around the camp, including Irving the Alcoholic Dog, Colonel Potter attempting to set a new free throw record, and the story of poor Major Bainbridge.

I will admit that Hawkeye agonizing over how to respond to Ronny’s angry letter about his dead brother was a bit much. His reactions over the course of the episode are typical of later season episodes. The letter and .If the episode had spent just a little less time on that letter, perhaps there would have been room for one or two others. Hawkeye’s re

Here’s a list of all the letters that were replied to in the episode:

  • Stacy – Father Mulcahy told her about Irving
  • No name – Charles insulted his or her handwriting
  • Ronny Hawkins – Hawkeye asked him not to hate
  • Fred – Klinger told him about his failed Chinchilla Villa Breeding Farms
  • Jimmy – Margaret told him about a patient she’ll never forget
  • Peter – Charles told him to have his father’s best suit altered
  • Lewis – BJ told him about Major Brainbridge
  • Danny – Colonel Potter told him about his free throw record attempt
  • Virginia – Charles thanked her for sending him the birch leaf

A few others were mentioned but not directly replied to, including one Father Mulcahy got from a student who was only writing because the teacher made him and another Margaret got from a student who thought MASH people sit around making potatoes.

Irving the Alcoholic Dug is just a bit too cutesy for my taste. It’s too bad M*A*S*H so rarely referenced earlier episodes. Rather than Mulcahy recounting to Stacy how he cured Irving’s alcoholism he could have told her about the emergency tracheotomy he performed on a wounded soldier in “Mulcahy’s War” back in Season Five. Maybe that would have been too graphic for a fourth grader. He also could have told her about the times he had to assist during surgery.

It’s fitting that Charles is the one to respond to multiple letters given his initial disgust at the idea. Out of everyone involved it’s obvious that Charles got the most out of writing to the students. His first response was sarcastic. His second involved the terrible idea for young Peter to have his father’s suit altered. His third was heartfelt, however. The leaf would have been a nice reminder of home to Hawkeye but to Charles it was even more meaningful.

Charles and his leaf

Just how many dogs are there around the 4077th? Look closely during the start of Colonel Potter’s free-throw attempt, when Klinger first approaches him. There’s a white dog with a black face in the background. It’s not Irving.

Charles is wearing the toboggan cap he received from home in “Dear Sis” during Season Seven.

It’s hard to tell but it looks like all of the letters from the students have writing on them. Did somebody in the prop department actually write out the letters? Likewise, who typed out the letter Klinger was supposedly composing on his typewriter?

23 Replies to “Episode Spotlight: Letters”

  1. The best thing about this episode is anything that involves Charles. His recordings to the kids are hilarious…from berating the child on his “aaaatrocious” spelling to telling another one to take daddy’s best suit down to the tailor so he can alter it to fit it to his little body. The look on his face when he sees the leaf and his gratitude to ‘Virginia,’ the little girl that sent it to him was just so touching. Charles was amazing here and it is worth watching this episode for his scenes alone.

    Irving the dog took on many personas in the series. He was the dog that Margaret doted on (and the one that got hit by the car) in ‘Images.’ He also was Leo, the dog (that became dinner) in ‘Rumor at the Top.’ I wonder if he was anyone’s pet and filled in when a dog was called for. He was absolutely adorable.

      1. Irving was a Mongolian sheep hound. Very rare breed and very fitting breed because Korea has lots of this breed. I’d like to know who Irving belonged to in real life. Obviously, he resided in California.

    1. I assume he was the same dog who gets a credit on imdb as Leo the Dog as the regular character Jack in “Tales of the Gold Monkey”

    2. Totally agree. Charles was brilliant in this episode. He is a very emotional guy in a lot of ways and takes small things to heart in a good way. The leaf certainly meant a lot to him because it symbolized home. Great job by Stiers.

  2. I remember when I first saw this episode once on a local station, the weather was exactly the same as it was in the episode.

      1. If you google “Mongolian Sheep Hound” you will find giant, furry monsters…not the cute little Irving.

      2. Yeah I don’t think he was a purebread dog at all. I’ve got a brindle pit bull/boxer that looked very similar to Irving as a pup. Same face, same musculature around the hindquarters. I really don’t think it’s a Mongolian sheep hound at all I’m sorry to say.

  3. This is a pretty good episode. It’s an example of the show going a bit more dramatic, but doing so in the right way (where as a lot of the later seasons did not do it right).

    The part with the alcoholic dog Irving is funny because it shows how different times were back then. Giving a bunch of alcohol to a dog in this day and age would cause most people to scream of animal abuse, and animal rights people to have a conniption fit. In this episode every one stands around and cheers afterwards.

    On a random note, I love that green camo-ish looking shirt that Hawkeye wears during Potter’s basketball free flows.

    1. I’ve never noticed Hawkeye’s camp shirt but am rewatching this episode. How strange of Hawkeye to wear a civilian shirt based on military fashion! Do we ever see that shirt again? I’ll be on the lookout now.

  4. I thought it was a bit late in the series for Hawkeye to deal with the fact that they saved wounded soldiers so they would be able to go back out and fight. But Charles was at his sentimental best in this episode and it was a reminder that he was far less of a jerk than he appeared to be.

  5. I’ve always wondered if the name “Virginia” from Charles’s last letter, is an deliberate reference to the “Virginia” from the famous “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus” letter published in 1897 in The Sun by Francis Pharcellus Church. Virginia is a common name but uncommon enough to be intentional. Also, the tone of Charles’s response to Virginia’s letter is akin to the tone of Church’s answer to Virginia O’Hanlon’s letter.

    1. I’ve wondered about that myself. I love the fact that he picks up the microphone to dictate his response, then pauses and decides to answer by writing it himself.

  6. An often overlooked moment in this episode is the prayer that Dr. Breuer offers before Hawk and BJ operate on the little girl with the head injury. You know Hawk and Beej aren’t religious men, but it is obvious they are moved by the prayer:

    ” Dear God, I thank You for providing these skilled surgeons. To have them here in this place at this time is truly a sign of Your providence. Please bless their work.”

  7. The one highlight for me in this episode is when Margaret is remembering the unforgettable patient that is terminal. It left me wondering why they didn’t tell the patient that he was dying? He may have had enough time to dictate a letter or two, like to his parents or fiancé.

    1. I think they didn’t tell him because they were afraid he would lose his optimism about going home. Potter’s reply about boredom was appropriate but the exalting over breaking the camp free throw record was dumb.

  8. I like everything in this episode except the alcoholic dog story. I feel disappointed for the kid who wanted a story about saving a life but instead got a dog story. Every time I‘ve seen the episode I want to yell, “the tracheotomy!”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.