Episode Spotlight: The Life You Save

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

“The Life You Save” (#214, 9×20)
Originally Broadcast: Monday, May 4th, 1981
Written by John Rappaport & Alan Alda
Directed by Alan Alda

Capsule Summary: Charles does some soul searching after realizing he was nearly killed by a sniper. Meanwhile, Hawkeye must oversee the mess tent while B.J. deals with the camp’s laundry.

Like so many episodes, “The Life You Save” attempted to pair a serious story line with a comedic one. Unfortunately, the serious story line is so serious that it overpowers the comedic story line. It’s jarring to go from listening to Charles talk about the death of his little brother to Hawkeye worrying about missing mess tent trays.

I’ve said time and time again how I’ve come to appreciate both the character of Charles and the talent of David Ogden Stiers more and more over the years. This episode is yet another example of how superbly Stiers portrayed Charles. His obsession with discovering what happens to someone when they die could easily have felt forced or exaggerated. Stiers was able to play the scenes as a profound exploration of humanity and a struggle for understanding rather than mushy melodrama.

The highlight of the episode has to be the battalion aid scene. Charles tells the surgeon he doesn’t know why he came. His conversation with Colonel Potter on the phone takes a dark turn at the end:

Colonel Potter: “Winchester, what the hell are you doing up there?”
Charles: “Taking care of wounded.”
Colonel Potter: Do you realize we’re about to get a whole bunch of wounded in here?
Charles: “Of course I do. This is where they come from.”
Colonel Potter: “Do you also realize you could get yourself killed up there?”
Charles: “Ah, actually, no, that hadn’t occurred to me. That would be interesting, wouldn’t it?”

Later, when a wounded soldier dies, Charles desperately asks him to explain what he’s going through. “Please, I have to know,” he begs. “What is happening to you?” All the soldier says is “I smell bread.” Then he dies. Before heading back to the 4077th, Charles leaves his cap behind. Is it a signal that he’s come to terms with not knowing the truth about death? Or just that he knows he has to move on and not dwell on the unknown.

It’s interesting that Charles never talks to Hawkeye about what he’s going through. B.J. is cruel when he confronts Charles in post-op and Margaret almost worse in the Officers’ Club. Colonel Potter at least seems to understand the what Charles was feeling (he called it the “heebie jeebies”). Perhaps Hawkeye would’ve been able to empathize or at least sympathize with Charles.

The B story involving the additional duty assignments was harmless. M*A*S*H occasionally had episodes like this one that involved the officers being given other duties at the 4077th. We’re supposed to assume they always had other jobs to do–garbage supervisor, morale booster–but most of the time the series ignored this aspect of military life. The same can be said for officer of the day, something that only came up a handful of times throughout the series.

The problem is that only Hawkeye’s assignment is given any depth. We see almost nothing of B.J. tackling the laundry, Margaret trying to boost morale, Charles overseeing the motor pool, or Father Mulcahy being in charge of garbage. This easily could’ve been expanded to fill an entire episode.

Finally, am I the only one who wishes more had been done with Gwen’s bullet wound? Not only do we not see her get shot but other than a few seconds of Hawkeye examining her, we don’t see anything at all.

Still from the M*A*S*H episode The Life You Save showing Charles.
“Please, I have to know.”

“The Life You Save” was originally scheduled to air on Monday, March 30th, 1981. But CBS decided to pull the episode due to an attempted assassination of President Reagan earlier that day. The network aired a repeat of “Cementing Relationships” instead. “The Life You Save” finally aired six weeks but not before three weeks of summer repeats.

I don’t believe Charles ever mentions his dead brother again after this episode.

We get a pretty good look at cap Charles was wearing during the sniper attack and the bullet holes in it. I’m surprised he wasn’t at least winged by the bullet. It’s a tight fighting cap but maybe the bullet slid by his bald spot.

I’d love to hear how the prop department built the wall of garbage Father Mulcahy was fighting to contain.

There are an impressive 14 guest stars in this episode. Is that a record?


  • Doc Funnypants says:

    It must be noted that Meshach Taylor was one of the guest stars in the episode. He later starred on “Designing Women”, which was created by Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, who wrote several episodes of MASH.

    Charles: Now I know what it’s like to be at a skeet shoot from the skeet’s point of view.

    A rather deep episode at times, but unnerving with Charles obsessing about death 24/7.

  • Phil says:

    So, in this episode we finally find out the man responsible for the bad food in the 4077th Mess Tent, SSG Sal Pernelli. Igor just served the food…he was never revealed as the culprit who cooked it.

    • Jon says:

      Igor made this point that he served rather than cooked in a nice rant that he delivered in S8’s great episode “Morale Victory”.

  • Daniel says:

    The Ken Levine blog is a gold mine of MASH info. Here is his comment on the “I smell bread”/Charles obsession with Death:

    John Rappaport oversaw the writing on MASH from the time we left until the series end. I asked him if he or the other MASH writers layered in any symbolism during his tenure. Here is his answer:

    “Ken, its a scary thing how they want to add brilliant meanings to things. Alan Alda and I wrote an episode called “The Life You Save” in which Winchester becomes absurdly fascinated with death when he is almost killed by a sniper’s bullet. So, he subsequently goes to the front and dramatically asks a dying young soldier what he was experiencing. Alan and I then wanted to insert a totally meaningless response to completely mystify and bewilder Charles. We came up with the soldier saying, “I smell bread.” Then he dies. Satisfied with our “shaggy dog” ending, we took a break and had a snack. A week after the show aired, I got a letter from a high school civics teacher, who wrote that she devoted an entire class period to discuss the meaning of “I smell bread.” And, they reached the conclusion that it represented “The second coming of Christ.”… Other than that piece of metaphysical brilliance, nothing immediately comes to mind.”

    • DeAnn Lowe says:

      I felt it symbolized a better time in his life..like the smell of baking bread makes the house smell comforting and happy.

      • 007 says:

        Agreed, this is how I always saw it too. Basically a variation on thinking of mom before you die, by thinking back to a good time in his life when she was baking some nice warm bread.

  • Dave D. says:

    Always loved this episode. “I smell bread” (to me) was maybe not as non sensible an answer as it might seem or even declared by the writers. Though to someone like Winchester it was absolutely puzzling. Wouldn’t a Winchester have been looking for details and specifics? i.e., pearly gates…, an angel in white…images of “heaven”. What he got was “I smell bread”. I think of fresh baked bread as (symbolically) “warmth”, “home”, “comforting”. To me, the dying soldier is saying, “I am going home (heaven) and I’m finally at peace (with God).

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