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?

11 Replies to “Episode Spotlight: The Life You Save”

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

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

  3. 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.”

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

      1. 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.

  4. 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).

  5. Hard to watch this episode after DOS’s actual death. Wonder if he smelled bread.

  6. I thought the bread comment was something to do with what’s going on in the brain. I thought they had some biologist esque help. Smells are the only one of all the senses that do not go through the thalamus. Also, found from another site on the subject “the olfactory regions do not only serve for smelling, but are also used, if we experience emotions and when we are memorizing events. This is the reason why odors can evoke very strong associations and memories of situations and place from a long time ago. Probably everyone knows an anecdote where he smelled a food or a perfume, and was brought back to early childhood and remembers exactly the circumstances of when he smelled that odor.”
    Maybe it’s the sense that’s triggered at that time.

  7. Charles was full of surprises in this episode. The heartfelt story about his brother’s death, his mini breakdown, and his despair at not being able to save the dying soldier were all brilliant. The scene at the end where he holds the guy’s hand as he’s dying had me weeping. “Oh God I’m gonna die!” The look on Charles’ face was devastating. I half resented MASH for doing that to me when I just wanted to be entertained.

    Stiers and Alda are by far the best actors in the show. I’m surprised not to have seen a movie career similar to Alda’s for Stiers after MASH. I think he did theater. Perhaps his appearance may have precluded any film work since Hollywood is so damn obsessed with looks (and full heads of hair).

    Once again BJ acted like a complete ass. He overreacted in yelling at Charles and was totally out of line. Markham seemed to want to help. BJ acted like a self righteous idiot. Nobody yelled at him when he hovered over every kid because it reminded him of Erin. And why did he follow Margaret into the O Club after he just complained he had so much laundry to do? He’s just the worst and drags every episode down. It gets tiring after awhile.

    I love that the cook in this episode was the father from Saturday Night Fever. He was a jerk in that movie and he played the same character in this episode.

    Why was Klinger trying to trick Hawkeye into paying for the missing trays? What did he care? Is he just so obsessed with scamming everyone that he couldn’t help himself from trying to trick someone into paying for something they didn’t really owe?

  8. I guess I could see BJ thinking Charles was acting like a ghoul…I don’t remember but did Charles try to talk to Father Mulcahy about what he was going through? He would seem to be the one person to be able to help him the most. Charles’ obsession with what happens after we leave this world was kind of creepy, though. Maybe given his wealth and usual arrogance he was worried about where he was going?

    “I smell bread” generated a great deal of discussion at my school as well…I always thought it was the image of his Mom or somebody making some.

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