Episode Spotlight: Life Time

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

“Life Time” (#180, 08×11)
Originally Broadcast: Monday, November 26th, 1979
Written by Alan Alda and Walter D. Dishell, M.D.
Directed by Alan Alda

Capsule Summary: Hawkeye and B.J. only have 20 minutes to save a patient. They desperately need an aortic graft and must wait for another soldier to die so their patient can live.

Decades before FOX debuted 24, an action drama that unfolded in “real time,” M*A*S*H experimented with this unconventional episode. Like earlier experimental episodes “Hawkeye (Season 4) or “Point of View” (Season 7), “Life Time” is an episode most fans and even many casual viewers are familiar with, simply because it was so unusual. It also happens to be quite good.

The opening scene in which Hawkeye, B.J., Margaret, and Klinger play poker while waiting for a chopper to arrive is a little bizarre. Perhaps it was intended to set the tone for viewers, implying that this would be a light and funny rather than then dark and tense. It just makes no sense to be playing poker at the chopper pad. The cards and money are blown away the instant the chopper approaches.

Once the chopper lands, the episode takes a drastic turn away from light and funny. There’s a soldier with an open chest wound in such bad shape–his aorta has been lacerated–Hawkeye has to reach in and compress the aorta against the spinal column to stop the bleeding. It works but the doctors only have 20 minutes to operate before the soldier risks being paralyzed.

To increase the tension and remind viewers of the real time nature of the episode, a stopwatch graphic appears on the lower right. To be honest, I didn’t much attention to the stopwatch because I was too busy watching the episode. The ride from the chopper pad is incredibly well done, with Hawkeye yelling instructions and various people running off to gather blood and clamps and grafts. The stopwatch doesn’t pause for a commercial break; it jumps from 1439 to 1445. It dramatically lingers for a few seconds before the break and returns a few seconds before the episode resumes.

“Life Time” succeeds in large part because there’s only one storyline. Every character is connected to it. Some play much larger roles. Hawkeye and B.J. are the primary players here, working on opposite ends to keep the soldier–whose name we eventually learn is George–alive.

There are two moments in the episode where things get slightly too melodramatic for me, both of which involve B.J. The first comes when he steps outside the bus and talks to Roberts. The timing is too perfect. B.J. has just told Father Mulcahy how awful he feels waiting for the dying soldier to die and then the soldier’s friend convenient comes along to make B.J. feel even worse.

Timing is once again the blame later on. Klinger barges into the pre-op ward while B.J. is talking to Roberts and says the wrong thing about Hawkeye waiting for the aorta. What makes this scene even more melodramatic is Klinger pathetically apologizing to B.J. with the line, “I hope I didn’t say anything wrong.”

Some might argue that Father Mulcahy’s plea to God is likewise melodramatic. I disagree. It’s chilling and moving:

Dear God, I’ve never asked you for this before and I don’t know what you’re going to think of me for asking now. But if you’re going to take him anyway, please take him quickly so we can save the other boy.

(I do wonder where Father Mulcahy was going in the jeep, though. Was he just moving it back to the motor pool?)

Charles giving blood was a brilliant way to give him something to do other than stand around and make snide remarks. He may be a snob but he donates regularly and helpfully tries to talk Hawkeye through the aorta transplant.

The ending leaves me feeling conflicted on two levels. The freeze frame on the group hug is so cheesy. I hate it. More importantly, though, I wonder if the episode would have been even more powerful if viewers never found out whether George was paralyzed or not. It wouldn’t have been a very happy ending but it would fit with B.J. telling Hawkeye that saving his life is “more than something, it’s everything.”

I wonder if any other endings were ever considered.

Still from the M*A*S*H episode Life Time showing Hawkeye and B.J.
Hawkeye can’t believe they couldn’t beat the clock.

“Life Time” was written by Alan Alda and Walter D. Dishell, M.D. Dishell served as Medical Advisor on M*A*S*H.

I realize they were operating on a dead body but why weren’t B.J. and Nurse Jo Ann wearing gloves while they were removing part of Harold’s aorta?

Kevin Brophy, who played Roberts in this episode, later went on to guest star in three episodes of Trapper John, M.D. as well as an episode of AfterMASH.

Gary Burghoff receives an “Also Starring” credit during the opening credits.

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