Episode Spotlight: Hepatitis


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

“Hepatitis” (#115, 5×19)
Originally Broadcast: Tuesday, February 8th, 1977
Written by Alan Alda
Directed by Alan Alda

Capsule Summary: Another full, rich day at the 4077th: Father Mulcahy comes down with hepatitis, Hawkeye has severe back pain, and B.J. tries to perform a complex surgery with only the help of a textbook.

Although a low-key episode, “Hepatitis” is nevertheless a solid one. Colonel Potter springs into action after Father Mulcahy is diagnosed with hepatitis in the Mess Tent. He orders B.J. to give Mulcahy a blood test; tells Hawkeye to examine the staff and give everyone gamma globulin shots; sends Radar to inspect the water supply; and tasks himself with talking to the cook.

We don’t see B.J, Radar, or Colonel Potter doing their part to handle the potential hepatitis outbreak. The bulk of the episode consists of Hawkeye giving people their shots while also listening and offering advice. He gives Frank, Margaret, Klinger, and Radar shots; his talks with Frank and Klinger are silly; those with Margaret and Radar are serious.

I think a lot of fans like Hawkeye’s chat with Radar but I don’t. I’ve never liked the astonishingly innocent and exceedingly naive Radar. The point of the talk, that Radar doesn’t have to feel bad about not wanting to booze it up like so many other soldiers, is perfectly fine. It’s just too mushy for me.

Hawkeye also drops by Father Mulcahy’s and learns that Mulcahy is concerned about carrying out his priestly duties while under isolation. “People are depending on me,” he explains, before suggesting he take confession through a flap in his tent. In real life, if a MASH unit’s priest was sick, would the military have sent a temporary replacement to handle religious duties and administer the last rites?

Aside from the hepatitis, there are two other storylines: Hawkeye’s back pain and B.J.’s difficult surgery. The surgery goes well, despite B.J. having to follow instructions in a medical textbook, and he celebrates by getting drunk in the Officer’s Club. That’s where Hawkeye finds him and finally manages to give him a shot.

I don’t know why but I find the following exchange between Hawkeye and B.J. about Hawkeye’s back pain simply hilarious:

B.J.: “What’s eating you?”
Hawkeye: “My back is eating me.”
B.J.: “Still?”
Hawkeye: “I have a hungry back.”
B.J.: “You want a massage?”
Hawkeye: “Not unless you put your shirt on.”
B.J.: “How about if I x-ray your back later?”
Hawkeye: “I did already. There’s nothing there.”
B.J.: “Nothing? No spine, nothing?”

Hawkeye: “The pain goes clear through to my lung. I thought maybe I had a spot.”
B.J.: “Or a Fido or a Rover.”
Hawkeye: “Oh, you’re really cute. If I die from this, will you read the joke at my grave?”

B.J.: “You know, I’d really dig that.”

Hawkeye’s back pain turns out to be psychosomatic. There’s nothing wrong with his back. Colonel Potter, after giving Hawkeye his own shot of gamma globulin, helps Hawkeye realize he’s angry about being stuck in Korea. He’s also frustrated because an average doctor back home is doing very for himself because he’s not stuck in Korea.

“Listen, it’s too big a world to be in competition with everybody else,” Potter tells Hawkeye. “The only guy I have to get better than is who I am right now.” If only we could all stop comparing ourselves to people we think are more successful than us.

Still from the M*A*S*H episode Hepatitis showing B.J.

B.J. Hunnicutt, the Hippocrates of Ouijongbu

William Christopher spent eight weeks recuperating from hepatitis while production on Season 5 was underway. As he explained in The Complete Book of M*A*S*H, all exterior shots for the season were filmed early. He got sick while interiors were being filmed on the Stage 9 soundstage. Thus, despite being written out of interior scenes for many episodes, he still made appearances throughout the season thanks to the completed exterior shots.

According to Gene Reynolds (also in The Complete Book of M*A*S*H), when William Christopher returned to work after recovering from hepatitis, his chair had been painted yellow.

11 Replies to “Episode Spotlight: Hepatitis”

  1. I agree, this is a good, solid episode, and I really have nothing more to add, except that one of my favorite parts of the episode is what a big baby Frank is about Hawkeye drawing some of his blood, then giving him a shot in the butt. That, and Frank just being a hypochondriac:

    FRANK: Listen, while you’re here? Would you check my arms? I think my arms are getting longer.
    HAWKEYE: So take two bananas and call me in the morning.
    FRANK: Feel under my armpit!
    HAWKEYE: Not for five bucks.

    And I can’t help but feel if the later exchange with Margaret is supposed to have double meaning to it:

    HAWKEYE: You’re certainly braver about this than my last patient.
    MARGARET: Who was that?
    HAWKEYE: Frank. He was afraid his body was being attacked.
    MARGARET: He has very little to worry about.

  2. I find it such a coincidence that Frank was paranoid about feeling a lump under his armpit, and years later, Larry’s cancer was initially diagnosed because of a lump discovered at roughly the same spot.

  3. This is one of my favorite episodes of M*A*S*H! It does a brilliant job of mixing comedy with heartfelt moments (as so many other episodes of M*A*S*H do). I also love how we get to see character interactions between Hawkeye and all of the major characters. Plus, there are so many hysterical moments in the show. One of my favorites:

    B.J.: “My tongue? That’s small potatoes: I’ll show you my butt.”

    All-in-all, an excellent episode. I’ve always loved the episodes that Alan Alda does, and this is no exception. 🙂

  4. Two great lines from the episode:

    “Tough friends last longer.” – Hawkeye, to Col. Potter

    “The only guy I have to get better than is who I am right now.” – Col. Potter to Hawkeye

  5. Also was a bit offended on behalf of Wayne Rogers that they allowed BJ to do the gastrectomy when they would have never let anyone but Hawkeye do an unusual surgery in the first three seasons. Rogers was the better actor and I suspect the better surgeon based on his experience and residency alone. Also the idea that Hawkeye wouldn’t have read up on any new procedure is unusual and out of character. He used to criticize Frank for being even a couple months behind on medical journals. I felt like they were trying to force us to see him as just as good if not a better surgeon than Hawkeye and it bugged me. Fresh out of medical school BJ vs vastly experienced war weary Hawkeye? Hmm

  6. One joke I have never understood in this episode takes place when Potter is consoling Hawkeye in his office over scotch & fig newtons. Potter tells Hawkeye to write a nasty letter to his ‘incredibly average’ former colleague and threaten him with a malpractice or a paternity suit. Hawkeye then says “Doctor, Doctor, I can walk” and laughs. I just don’t get this joke. Is he quoting something with that line?

    1. I think it’s just that Potter’s suggestion to scare the other doctor made Hawkeye recover from his back pain.

  7. Aw. Radar’s talk with Hawkeye was my favorite. I love seeing the guiding older brother come out in the otherwise promiscuous Hawkeye. Didn’t think it was too mushy at all.

  8. This one is in my Top 5 episodes. A nice quiet but balanced episode in a way, where everyone has a chance to shine.

    I hadn’t realised before now that Alan Alda wrote this one but it makes sense, as he was the best at writing the character pieces, in my opinion. Really nice observations throughout the episode of everyone – some funny, some touching. One of my favorite scenes from the whole series is the one between Potter and Hawkeye at the end. A mature conversation between the two men without any cheap gags.

    Also, due to this I discovered that the combination of Fig Newtons and Scotch/whisky/brandy actually is fantastic!

  9. This really was a solidly decent episode, and one I had largely forgotten about. My family owns all eleven seasons on DVD with each season being divided across 3 discs. But from age and over-use some of the discs don’t work anymore and need replacing. So when I saw that Disney had all the episodes on their streaming site I saw it as a chance to binge the entire show and I’m just now realising how many season 5 episodes I had forgotten about (seeing as only one disc currently works).

    I actually found I liked Radar and Hawkeye’s conversation in this episode. Something about Radar’s naivety brings out a softer, older brother side of Hawkeye, and there’s something vulnerable in those moments that is uncommon for television of the time. Margaret’s conversation is another one that I love, mostly because I am a big fan of Hawkeye and Margaret’s dynamic in general.

    I also really liked that BJ was given a chance to shine a little bit in this episode by performing that operation. Usually such a storyline would be given to Hawkeye (which I wouldn’t mind) and it’s nice to see BJ have a chance to show off his surgical prowess.

    All in all, a perfectly decent episode.

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