Episode Spotlight: The Nurses


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

“The Nurses” (#101, 05×05)
Originally Broadcast: Tuesday, October 19th, 1976
Written by Linda Bloodworth
Directed by Joan Darling

Capsule Summary: Margaret cracks down on her nurses during a heatwave while Hawkeye, B.J., and Radar try to help a nurse spend the night with her G.I. husband.

Believe it or not, I completely forgot that this is the episode in which one of the nurses gets help from Hawkeye, B.J., and Radar so she can sneak past Margaret and spend some valuable one-on-one time with her husband. I did remember that it features Margaret’s “lousy cup of coffee” speech. Despite having seen every episode of M*A*S*H three or four times, if it’s been long enough since I’ve watched an episode, it’s almost like seeing parts of it for the first time.

“The Nurses” is a terrific episode from start to finish. It’s a bit of a novelty, too, because Margaret and her nurses take center stage while the rest of the cast are relegated to minor supporting roles. Hawkeye, B.J., and Radar are somewhat involved in Nurse Baker’s shenanigans. So is Colonel Potter to some degree. Both Frank and Klinger are given short scenes that, while not exactly necessary to further the plot, do add some color to the episode. Only Father Mulcahy feels like a complete afterthought, popping up only in the O.R.

I’m curious to know whether viewers watching this episode when it first aired in 1976 were confused by the fact that none of the nurses in this episode had ever been seen before. Only a few weeks earlier in “Out of Sight, Out of Mind” the nurses tent had been occupied by four different nurses. Where were they? M*A*S*H always played fast and loose with tents and personnel. Maybe there were multiple tents each filled with four nurses. At the start of the episode, during surgery, Margaret does refer to a Nurse Sweeney, so there was at least one additional nurse at the 4077th.

Still, “The Nurses” goes to great lengths to make it feel like these four women are the only nurses at the 4077th. I’m doubtful viewers in 1976 even noticed, let alone cared. Does it even matter? The episode is so well-done that including one of the regular background nurses like Kellye probably wouldn’t have added much other than a vague sense of familiarity or continuity.

It’s possible to break this episode down into two separate storylines: Margaret’s strained relationship with her nurses (the A Story) and the plot to unite Nurse Baker and her husband (the B Story). But the two are so intertwined that it’s really just one big storyline. Quarantining Margaret’s tent strains believability to some degree, as does Colonel Potter not insisting on checking out the sick patient himself.

Margaret’s breakdown in front of her nurses is an important step in the evolution of the character. She’s not actually as cold and distant as she often seems. She hides behind rules and regulation because the military is all she knows. Because Margaret is the only female main character, the bulk of her interactions are with men. If she is talking to a nurse, she’s usually yelling.

It’s too bad none of the nurses featured in this episode returned in later episodes. There’s still a change in how how Margaret and her nurses interact. In “Margaret’s Engagement” we don’t see any of the nurses congratulating Margaret or even asking to see her ring. They happily throw her a bridal shower in “Margaret’s Marriage.”

The minor subplot involving Nurse Gaynor feeling numb to death is very well done. It’s given just enough attention that the payoff near the end of the episode–her crying while holding the baby–feels earned and realistic.

All Margaret wants is a lousy cup of coffee.

“The Nurses” was the first episode of M*A*S*H to be directed by a woman and Joan Darling is one of only a handful women to direct an episode. The others are Nell Cox, Gabrielle Beaumont, Rena Down, and Susan Oliver.

Mary Jo Catlett, who played Nurse Walsh in this episode, previously played Becky Anderson in “The More I See You” during Season 4.

Lt. Tony Baker was played by Gregory Harrison, who later co-starred on Trapper John, M.D. from 1979 to 1986.

Am I the only one left wondering where the three South Korean kids came from, the ones who ran into the empty O.R. looking for candy?

I don’t think I’ve ever noticed before that the t-shirts worn by Margaret and the nurses have zippers on the back.

19 Replies to “Episode Spotlight: The Nurses”

  1. I used to like this episode, but now I don’t anymore. I got sick of it. And because the episode focuses more on the guest characters and less on the main characters, it feels less like an episode of M*A*S*H and more like an entry in an anthology series.

    I will say this: I still remember the first time seeing this episode how shocked I was by Margaret’s lousy cup of coffee speech, because I had no idea Margaret actually had feelings.

    1. I’ve never been able to stomach this episode after the first time I saw it with my dad. He carefully explained to me how wrong the Major was. She was a superior and she was making decisions based on how SHE was treated by her charges. It was wrong, and militarily will always be wrong. So Margaret’s feelings were hurt – she’s a major and it’s her job to suck it up and attempt to make the connection with her troops. Since then, I’ve seen Margaret that way.

  2. I don’t care either way for this episode. I’ll certainly watch it, but it also isn’t one of my favourites. It has its good moments, like Margaret’s ‘lousy cup of coffee’ scene, showing that Margaret most certainly has feelings, and that they’re not all directed at Frank (or at this stage, Penobscott).
    Overall, it was a very well written episode, but I don’t like it as much as I probably should. I don’t know why my mind decided not to like this episode, but it did. So I don’t particularly.

  3. Margaret and Kellye are the only consistent nurses in the series, others were apparently hired as needed by the plot (how many “Nurse Able”s and Nurse Baker”s did we see? …”able” and “baker” being radio phonetic for “A” and “B”).

    Tee shirts with back zippers are not uncommon on TV; they allow the actor/actress to change clothes without mussing hair and makeup.

    Contrast Margaret’s attitude about the nurse wanting to spend time with her husband in this episode with her attitude in another episode when she all but curses Potter for not giving her a three day pass because she “needs” to go see Donald.

    Margaret’s speech to the nurses is moving …but completely ignores the fact that 90% of the time she is a shrieking harridan, a domineering stickler for rules (except when those rules apply to her), and generally not a pleasant person to be around. No wonder the nurses don’t want to include her in their activities.

    Finally, why use Margaret’s tent for the honeymoon, which makes her irritated and suspicious? There is no indication the oft seen VIP tent is in use.

    1. I almost forgot, when first viewing this episode, lo, those many years ago, my first thought was – why didn’t Hawkeye, et.al., go straight to Col. Potter with the young couple’s plight? As sentimental as he was he would probably have authorized the use of an empty tent (VIP tent?) for the night. Of course that would have negated the remainder of the episode.

      1. Able and Baker became steady fixtures on the show when Judy Farrell (Mike’s then-wife) and Jan Jordan (Burt Metcalfe’s wife) took on those respective roles in Season Five. Similarly, that was the same year Bigelow was introduced and she became one of Hawkeye’s main squeezes during that time (much like Margie Cutler was in Season One). There were also Gwen (the only other black nurse aside from Ginger) and Jennifer (with the curly red hair), but they were mostly in the background as extras, and rarely spoke or had actual supporting roles. So yeah, there were other consistent nurses on the show, they just weren’t really expanded on or had as strong a presence on the show as Margaret and Kellye.

        Also, regarding Hawkeye going straight to Potter. Well, that’s where protocol came in: Margaret’s Head Nurse and in complete charge of the nursing staff, and the C.O. cannot interfere. Remember in “Requiem for a Lightweight,” both Hawkeye and Trapper went to Henry about Margaret transfering Cutler, but Henry couldn’t do anything about it (at least as far as military courtesy would allow) since Margaret’s within her rights as Head Nurse to do as she saw fit. So, yeah, since Margaret had the authority as Head Nurse to place Baker under house arrest, there wasn’t anything Potter could do about it.

      2. “So, yeah, since Margaret had the authority as Head Nurse to place Baker under house arrest, there wasn’t anything Potter could do about it.”

        But in another episode Potter vetoes Margaret’s transfer of a nurse. In the chain of command Margaret is the head nurse but Major Houlihan is still subordinate to Colonel Potter, who is head of the entire unit.

  4. I remember seeing this one back when it first aired and like R.J. was wondering; I was bothered by the fact that the nurses shown were never seen again and that the nurses tent was a different one in the episode just prior to this. And that still bothers me every time I see it.

  5. Well, once again, there’s that somewhat “haunting” music under the “Nurse Gaynor delivering the breech baby” scene. The sane exact music first used in the episode “Kim”, among others. I only music like that one and all the music used in the first season and others could be available here or YouTube or somewhere else. But that’s just wishful thinking on my part

  6. I think this episode might have served as a backdoor pilot for a series that never got off the ground, focusing on the nurses in a M*A*S*H unit. That would explain the focus and the number of nurses in the episode.

  7. When Margaret gives her coffee speech, perhaps a better response might have been, “You never gave us a reason to.” Looking back, it’s easier from today’s POV to see how Margaret, as a female officer who outranked Hawkeye and BJ (and Trapper John earlier) could be frustrated by their attempts to do end-runs around her authority with the nurses.

  8. If Hawk and BJ had explained the situation to Father Mulcahy, do you think he would have agreed to let the newlyweds use his tent for the night?

    1. I believe he would’ve allowed his tent to be used. Then again, where would Mulcahy have spent the night?
      At the start of the episode, there’s an OR session and they’re listening to a Dodgers-Reds game from Crosley Field in Cincinnati. The recently deceased Don Newcombe strikes out Gus Bell, whose son Buddy played in the Majors and Buddy’s son David now manages the Reds.

      1. And for timeline wackiness. That game is clearly from the 1951 National League pennant race…

        Why are Frank and Radar still there? Where’s Charles sweating his bets?? Why is Klinger still in dresses???

      2. How do you know it was supposed to be the 1951 pennant race? It’s not like the Dodgers and Reds didn’t play each other every season. Plus, Gus Bell was with the Pirates and not Reds in 1951. Newcombe played with the Dodgers until and including 51, then missed 52 and 53 to be in the service then returned to the Dodgers in 54, by which time Bell had gone from Pittsburgh to Cincinnati. I know mash plays fast and loose with the timeline but the game and timeline of show actually implies it’s 1954 not 1951.

  9. This episode bugs me. It’s without question a watershed moment in the series and signified the transformation from “Hot Lips” to “Margaret”. There’s a few things that don’t make any sense about it though.

    First is that the episode has a glaring plot hole. Why didn’t they just use the VIP tent? It was there and there was no reference to it being occupied.
    The bigger one is this though. Who was the sympathetic one? In my opinion neither were.

    Margaret’s speech to the nurses is undeniably riveting because Loretta Swit absolutely nails it. But the speech makes no sense in context and makes Margaret’s character seem delusional almost. Up to this point in the series, Houlihan for the large part was a tyrannical demagogue who constantly forced the rules on her nurses but ignored them when they applied to her. Though Margaret had begun to change by the time this episode came around, she still wasn’t a warm, friendly character like she became in the later seasons. The above comments are right, why would the nurses be friendly to her or include her when she was always terrible to them? It makes no sense and is highly hypocritical for the character. It wasn’t until after the speech when Margaret refuses to rat out the nurses that she truly changes into a better character.

    But at the exact same time, I didn’t like any of the nurses in this episode. I thought they were snide and irritating because we had no clue who they were. Nurse Baker is supposed to be sympathetic but the actress who plays her in this episode makes her annoying, the rest of the group was too. The episode would have been eons better had the classic cast of nurses like Kellye, Bigelow and Able been included. Why did they choose to have the nurses be played by a bunch of random actresses who never appeared in any previous episodes and never were seen again after? It doesn’t make any sense.

    Maybe I just read too much into it, but that’s why I don’t like this episode.

    1. Always wondered the same thing on two of the points you brought up. It made no sense that they didn’t use the VIP tent, and seemed far fetched for even Hawkeye to pull something like that off. The obvious answer is that they used Margaret’s tent as a plot device to get her with the nurses, but it’s still dumb.

      Also, I agree on the use of rando nurses being odd. I can understand if the primary nurse (Baker) was a rando actress since going forward the nurse would then have to be married to someone who’s in country, but for the other 3, they absolutely could have used Kellye, Bigelow, and Jennifer Davis, all three of which were around at the time, and it would make sense to help evolve Margaret’s character by having them there and closer to her now.

    2. You have to remember that Loretta Swit played two different characters in M*A*S*H. For the first 4.5 years, she played Hot Lips. For the rest of the show, she played Maaaaaaargret. There is no conceivable way that a person changes as much as she did, so in my mind, she played two different characters. Take the episode April Fools. Maaaaargret deliberately disobeys a superior officer (Pat Hingle). Hot Lips would never ever have done that.

      I agree with you on all your points. I don’t like the episode. But Loretta Swit absolutely nails it, both when she played Hot Lips and when she played Maaaaaaaargret

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