Episode Spotlight: Communication Breakdown


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

“Communication Breakdown” (#220, 10×06)
Originally Broadcast: Monday, November 30th, 1981
Written by Karen Hall
Directed by Alan Alda

Capsule Summary: Charles tries to hoard his stash of papers during a newspaper shortage. Meanwhile, Hawkeye helps a South Korean soldier reconnect with his North Korean brother.

There’s nothing wrong with Charles and his newspaper story line but maybe it should have been relegated to the B story in order to give Hawkeye’s darker story line more time to unfold. On the other hand, expanding Hawkeye’s story line may have undercut its effectiveness. Perhaps the tale of two brothers opposite sides of the war, unable to speak to one but desperate to do so, works precisely because it is concise and not dragged out. Alan Alda directed “Communication Breakdown” which could explain why Hawkeye has such a small role in the episode.

Would a newspaper shortage really drive everyone at the 4077th so crazy? Perhaps. It’s believable enough, I suppose, although presumably the camp got a lot of its news over the radio. I don’t know how long it took to get mail from the United States to Korea but those newspapers must have been out of date to some degree.

Father Mulcahy stumbling upon one of the newspapers in the Swamp is a little too contrived for me. For one thing, he should’ve been helping out in surgery or in Post-Op, right? For another, I doubt he would’ve walked into the Swamp without asking.

When the camp swarms Charles after the newspaper is discovered, Igor yells “Hey, give me the classifieds, I need a job!” I don’t know why but I find that hilarious. Someone else calls out “Let me see Louella Parsons!” She was a pioneering gossip columnist specializing in Hollywood news. Colonel Potter, of course, is only interested in the L’il Abner comic strip.

Who knew Charles was so spoiler-phobic? How else do you explain his insistence on reading every page of each newspaper before handing it off to the general public? He wants to learn the news and read the editorials without anyone ruining them for him.

Still from the M*A*S*H episode Communication Breakdown.
Charles tries to cover up

I’m just going to come out and say this: It really looks like David Ogden Stiers is naked under those newspapers.

This episode features a jazzier version of the opening credits. Although I like the way it sounds I’m not sure it particularly fits M*A*S*H.

According to the closed captions, these are the names Klinger calls out while distributing mail: Papazian, Mercer, Foytack, Margolese, Moran, and Yarborough. Perhaps these were all people involved somehow in the production of the series?

If the Internet Movie Database is accurate, Abigail Nelson–who portrays an unnamed nurse in this episode–has only one other acting credit to her name: a 1959 episode of Mr. Lucky.

The brief exchange between Kellye and Charles is amusing. I don’t recall any other episodes that involved subtitles on screen. Does anyone know if she is A) actually speaking Japanese, and B) actually saying “Boy, you look ridiculous”?

Byron Chung made his sixth appearance on M*A*S*H in this episode, James Saito his third.

17 Replies to “Episode Spotlight: Communication Breakdown”

  1. An example of how M*A*S*H was always so inconsistent with its continuity was the amount of time it took to get and send mail to and from the states: sometimes it seems to take weeks, sometimes it seems to take months, and on some rare occasions, it seems to only take days.

    1. True. In Dear Sis, Fr. Mulcahy writes that his sister will not receive his letter until Ash Wednesday, but that he’s writing it just before Christmas. Since Ash Wednesday typically falls in February or early March, that means the mail would take approximately 2 – 2 1/2 months to arrive. Yet in episodes such as this one it seems to arrive much quicker.

  2. There’s a few things about this episode I must bring up. First, Charles mentioning Joseph Alsop, who was a syndicated columnist, possibly equal to Walter Winchell; The unexpected sighting of a crew member in civilian clothes; And, lastly Col. Potter reading from “Lil’ Abner” and referencing “that Fiorello fellow”, whoever that was.

    Col. Potter: Just a hunch, Winchester. Will Rogers never met you, did he?
    Great job, providing a perspective on the episodes I never really knew.

    1. “…“that Fiorello fellow”, whoever that was”

      Fiorello LaGuardia, three times mayor of New York. A well remembered politician, he endeared himself to the people of New York City when, during a two week delivery truck strike in 1945, he went on radio every day to read the funnies for children.

      1. Thanks for the clarification. I honestly didn’t get the reference for a very long time. I really thought Charles came across as extremely possessive of his newspapers. The only thing that would’ve made Charles’s lambasting of the camp more over-the-top would be having it broadcast on a large monitor ala “1984”, the book.

  3. In response to your query, there was one other episode with subtitles. It was “Dear Sigmund”, and the subtitles happened when Klinger got amnesia and could only speak Arabic, albeit using non-sequiturs.

  4. One of my favorite episodes, even though “When the camp swarms Charles after the newspaper is discovered…” again displays the inconsiderate attitude shown when the camp hears Hawkeye and BJ have a bathtub. These people, who live and work together, become squabbling baboons whenever anyone has something they want.

    “How else do you explain his insistence on reading every page of each newspaper before handing it off to the general public?”

    Perhaps he would like to enjoy his paper before it is torn apart by a dozen hands? Just look how everyone acts when they see Mulcahey reading a paper – no asking, they just run up and grab, “give me the fashion section”, “give me the sports section”, etc. I do not blame Winchester at all for his stance.

    1. No matter how many times Charles is rude to the others and constantly hurls insults at them, I felt sorry for him in this episode and resentful towards the others.
      After all, they were his newspapers and he did promise to let them have it a day later after reading each one.
      As ever his performance was great.
      As you say, Hawkeye and BJ behaved the same with their bath tub.

    2. Yes and why on Earth would Mulcahy think it’s ok to just steal a paper out of Charles’ tent knowing that everyone is dying for newspapers and they’re a very hot commodity? Charles should have taken his head off for doing that, priest or no priest. He broke a commandment just to read the paper! And he took advantage of the fact that Charles wouldn’t yell at a priest. What a hypocrite. But Charles left the paper laying out in a tent with open windows where anyone could see. That’s his stupid mistake. And why was Mulcahy even free to read the paper when he’s normally helping in the OR? How lazy.

  5. Apparently this episode takes place around March 31, 1952, according to Wikipedia,the LIFE Magazine of that date broke the news of Lil’Abner’s wedding and Charles mentions the “missing” issue of The Globe was a May issue. no idea yet if The Globe actually ran LA.

  6. This episode highlights something I’ve noticed the costume director does with BJ periodically (haha). This time they put him in a complete set of very tight longjohns. In several episodes they had him in a yellow robe that ended way above his knees. Few episodes ago he sat on the bed facing the camera in very short boxers that had shifted so you could see his upper thighs and other intimate parts of his body. Plenty of other episodes where he’s shirtless, taking off his pants, or in various states of undress. I know others have been seen in the shower here and there but BJ seems to have to endure semi-nudity the most. There was one episode where we saw Margaret in her underwear during a heat wave but that wasn’t repeated. I’m not sure why they made Mike Farrell do this but maybe they thought he was the closest they had to a sex symbol? I don’t agree but maybe other girls thought he was a dreamboat.

  7. The more I watch this episode the more I hate the behavior of these people. What adult would just grab another man’s things without even asking? I’m totally on Charles’ side. They all behave like children when they want something as though they’re not in a war deprived from the comforts of home every day. They shout at Charles when they find out he has newspapers. Mulcahy looks at Charles with disapproval as though to force him to hand over the paper. Kellye even calls Charles a creep. Why? Because his sister was nice enough to send them and hers wasn’t? Any of their families could have sent papers to them but they didn’t and that’s just tough. If they think this behavior is acceptable then why doesn’t everyone start stealing from everyone else then? Hey, I don’t like this food but I know BJ’s wife sent him cookies. I’ll just steal those.

    I know it’s meant to be funny but it isn’t. It’s just rude and it IS stealing. It’s not as though they don’t have anything to read. Every time we turn around Potter’s reading Zane Grey, Winchester has some poetry, and everyone else should have lots of back issues of their home town papers and books lying around. Considering Winchester’s papers had to be somewhat dated, why didn’t they just trade whatever reading material they already had?

    There was no reason for them to act like drug addicts with Charles’ paper. Even Potter got grabby and that’s not something I would think he would do with someone else’s property. And their entitled attitude, getting angry when Charles was upset over a missing paper was total crap too. They aren’t owed a newspaper. Charles isn’t demanding what they have. They behaved like spoiled children who can’t get their way. Charles should have read his papers and burned them in front of everyone.

    Also, why did the Korean MP try to hit his brother when he first saw him and then try to help him by telling Hawkeye about his kidneys? And why did Margaret shout hysterically when she saw the wound was bleeding? I realize it’s an emergency but isn’t the idea to keep the patient calm especially when he’s been panicking over being around Americans?

    1. About the Korean MP trying to hit his brother, he wanted to keep up the appearance of being South Korean. Telling Hawkeye about his brother’s kidneys was his way of revealing his familial ties.

  8. Yes, pretty much everyone in the camp acts like a moron during the newspaper subplot. First, Hawkeye and BJ; then Father Mulcahy and the rest of the camp — Everybody gets grabby with Charles’ newspapers, even though he offered to let everybody have the newspapers when he was finished. So what if they didn’t like his terms (1 paper a day)? They were HIS papers!

    Mulcahy taking the newspaper off of Charles’ cot was meant to be funny, but it’s way out of character for the Father and makes him look very bad. I also don’t believe that Charles would have left the paper out for anyone to see, but he had to in order to advance the story. At any rate, Stiers’ acting saves what is a very contrived and silly subplot.

    The story about the brothers is much better and probably mirrored actual situations in the war. It’s nice that the staff was able to give the brothers a few moments to talk, but it’s also kind of sad when you realize that they likely never saw each other again.

    As for why the South Korean attempted to hit the North Korean, I’m pretty sure it was to mislead his lieutenant and the other North Korean patients. He was worried that they had noticed him and his brother exchanging a familiar glance. As he later explained to Hawkeye, it could be dangerous for either of them to acknowledge the other.

    That would also explain why Margaret was acting so over the top. She was trying to convince the lieutenant that there was a real emergency, so they could get the brothers together.

    1. Agree 100% I’ve always felt that it’s everyone else in the camp that acts like a jerk, and that Charles was not in the wrong until he kept retaliating to what the people in the camp were doing to them. I get that people were hungry for news, but that doesn’t give anyone the right to something that Charles’ family sent to him directly. He didn’t have to share at all, and there’s nothing wrong with saying that he gets to read them first.

      Sure he jumped to conclusions with the missing paper, but so would anyone else after seeing how the camp reacted to him having newspapers.

      There’s a couple instances throughout the series where Charles gets something in the mail and people get all jealous and crappy about it, such as his jacket. The show seems to always try to spin it that Charles was in the wrong each time, I guess to fit his role as the “villain” like Frank, but it always annoyed me.

      RIP Mr. Stiers. Gone but not forgotten.

      1. Could also have been the left-of-center bend of the Alda crew in charge of the show. Distributing the wealth by force or intimidation.

  9. I always wondered. At the end of the show when the guard is speaking to his brother in Korean, is there anyone here that can translate what he was saying?

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