Discuss: Was Breaking Up Margaret and Frank a Mistake?

Monday M*A*S*H Discussions offers fans the opportunity to offer their opinions on a wide variety of topics relating to M*A*S*H. Please share your thoughts and ideas in the comments section. My hope is these discussion posts will continue to elicit comments in the weeks and months after they’re initially published. Have a suggestion about something you think might be worth discussing? Let me know and maybe it will become my next Monday M*A*S*H Discussion topic.

Today’s topic is: Was breaking up Margaret and Frank a mistake?

It Was Larry Gelbart’s Idea

Before Larry Gelbart departed M*A*S*H after Season 4, he offered one piece of advice to those remaining with the show: have Margaret get married. He discussed his reasoning for breaking up Margaret and Frank several times at the alt.tv.mash newsgroup:

My one suggestion when I left the series was to have Hot Lips marry someone, so that her character and Frank’s could go in new and different directions.
(September 12th, 2000)

I suggested breaking up the Hot Lips/Frank affair because I thought it would a challenge to the writers and the actors to seek new areas to explore — and possibly help Frank develop beyond merely being an ND (Nerd Doctor).
(September 13th, 2000)

My parting – and only – suggestion to Gene Reynolds (upon leaving the show after Year Four) was to have Hot Lips get married, thereby giving her character and Frank Burns’ a whole new set of dynamics.
(January 21st, 2002)

(“If I’d any more ideas,” Gelbart joked in an April 2004 post , “I probably wouldn’t have left.”)

Gene Reynolds and the M*A*S*H writers listened and had Margaret get engaged in “Margaret’s Engagement” early on during Season 5. The on-again, off-again relationship between Margaret and Frank was finally off for good. At the end of Season 5, Margaret marries Donald Penobscott. Frank takes it hard and, after a brief mental breakdown, winds up promoted and transferred stateside. Poor Margaret doesn’t have the happy marriage she wanted, however.

This is a difficult question to answer. There are many aspects to ending Margaret and Frank’s lengthy affair. On the one hand, it allowed Margaret to grow as a person and no longer rely on Frank for so much of her identity. Her evolution from Hot Lips to Margaret began long before she ended things with Frank, but her engagement truly freed her.

On the other hand, without Margaret, Frank became little more than a punching bag for Hawkeye and B.J. Ending the Margaret-Frank relationship likely played a big role in Larry Linville’s decision to leave M*A*S*H at the end of Season 5. Of course, it’s impossible to say whether Linville would’ve stayed past the end of his five-year contract had Margaret and Frank’s relationship continued.

There’s also the question of whether or not the Margaret and Frank affair could have continued. It took her a long time to admit to herself Frank was never going to leave his wife for her. She was only ever going to be his mistress and only while the two were stationed together at the 4077th. How much longer could their relationship last?

Personally, I don’t think it was a mistake to break up Margaret and Frank. The relationship had run its course. It was growing stale. Keeping the characters together, without any changes to their dynamic, wouldn’t have worked. But I wish the writers had come up with something more for Frank to do during Season 5. Larry Gelbart thought breaking up Margaret and Frank would allow both characters to “go in new and different directions.” Margaret did, but Frank didn’t.

Hit the comments with your thoughts.

12 Comments

  • dhla says:

    I think it was a smart decision to break them up. This is the beginning of the evolution of television shows where every character shows growth. Most sitcoms would leave their characters in basically the same place at the beginning of every episode. M*A*S*H didn’t do that. And series beginning in the 1970s started to evolve… where today that evolution gets measured by the episode and not be the season.

    I agree with the evolution because while it may have been bad for Frank (and Larry Linville) it ultimately led to a much more three-dimensional character in CEW3.

    • BDOR says:

      Well, back in those days, character development, growth, and evolution was more or less kind of discouraged, because even then, syndication had a tendancy to broadcast episodes out of order, and it would have been disorienting to see a character behave one way one day, and behave another the next – even Gary Burghoff noted this when in syndication, Radar would bounce back and forth being the worldly little sneak that he was, and the naive farmboy he became.

      Plus, as far as relationships go, there’s always the fear that if a relationship between two characters changes, then audiences have nothing to invest in anymore because the character arcs have been given closure, which is why in many, many cases, relationships in fiction almost always remain in “will they or won’t they” scenarios to keep audiences hooked and interested.

  • Doug says:

    I agree with you. I mentioned in another discussion that had the show remained static, it would have lost quite a bit and devolved into Hawkeye/Trapper/BJ vs Frank/Margaret. In addition, the dynamic began to change with Colonel Potter stepping into command. Frank and Margaret rode roughshod over Henry, mostly because Henry wasn’t interested in playing soldier, and really not interested in commanding the unit. Potter was a long-serving professional who wasn’t about to take crap from a draftee who thought he was Patton (Frank) and his minion (Margaret). Also, Margaret had a great deal of respect for Colonel Potter. That would have doomed their affair in any event.

    I agree with all your points. The writers had written Frank into a corner, and who could blame Larry Linville for asking out? The changes allowed for Margaret to evolve beyond just Frank’s mistress, and allowed the writers to showcase the character’s talents. Even having the marriage fail helped the character’s development, although there was still room for improvement.

    My wife, who rarely remarks about TV shows or characters, has often told me that she cannot see what Margaret sees in Frank, nor can she see why she’s with him. To her, Frank is selfish, ignorant, and self-centered, and Margaret has a caring and intelligent side. Aside from the fact that the characterizations are inherited from the novel and the film, and in the interest of comedy, that would probably be true in real life.

    Just my opinion, but were I among the writers and producers of the series at that point, I’d have begun to figure out how to wrap the series up. You’d just lost a third original actor, the dynamic of the series was changing, so why not begin to tie up loose ends and prepare for a finale?

  • 007 says:

    I’d like to throw out another spin here. What if instead of what we got, Frank finally decides to leave his wife, or she leaves him, and Margaret and Frank got married. There were already plenty of hints of this throughout the series, and I think it could have possibly worked. Certainly it would have worked better than we got. Season 5, despite having a number of good episodes, is almost unwatchable at times because of what they did to Frank’s character, and because of Margaret going on and on about Donald all the time.

    There’s a number of directions they could have gone with this too. They could use it as a chance to make Frank grow, somehow. They could also have basically had it end up the same way things did in the show, just with a few changes. The marriage could have gone bad, because Frank would be…well Frank, and it would end up in divorce. As a result of losing Margaret for good, after losing his first wife could have driven him to go crazy just like at the end of season 5. For Margaret, it wouldn’t have really mattered if she married and divorced Donald or Frank, if she got divorced and grew like she did. At least with Frank though, they wouldn’t have to introduce a new (terrible) character.

    Really everything I’m saying comes from my soft spot for Frank, and my complete disdain for what they did to his character in season 5. I still think Frank should have eventually left so that we could get Charles, but it could have been handled MUCH better, and there was no need to introduce Donald.

    • Doug says:

      A good point about Donald, as Margaret was totally obnoxious about him, and then he only appears in two episodes.

      As for Frank marrying her, I doubt it would have happened. In one episode–I can’t remember which one, but it’s the one with Pioneer Aviation–Frank merely offers to set up Margaret in her own apartment with an allowance of 100 bucks a month. I think that, and other hints, show that Frank never intended to leave his wife, even had he become financially independent of her,

      • 007 says:

        True, but it would make complete sense for Frank’s wife to leave him, such as getting another report about Frank and Margaret like in Mail Call…Again. They even gave hints about Franks wife possibly leaving him in episodes like Dear Sigmund.

        Once she was out of the picture, it’s not out of the realm of possibility to think of Frank asking Margaret to marry him, especially if she was threatening to leave him too. It would actually make much more sense IMO than Margaret going to Tokyo for a couple days and getting engaged to some rando.

        I will say it would probably take more than just a single season for it all to play out though, so if they didn’t start it until season 5, it likely would have meant Frank stayed into season 6. If that had happened and he then left, would we still have gotten DOS? No way to know.

      • Doc Funnypants says:

        The Pioneer Aviation episode was titled “Mail Call”. As for the topic at hand, it was the right decision. Frank was increasingly becoming a buffoon and writing him out was the right thing to do.

      • Doug says:

        @Doc Funnypants: Thanks. I get confused with so many similarly titled episodes.

  • BDOR says:

    I had no idea that the idea to have Margaret’s splitting from Frank and getting married was Larry Gelbart’s idea . . . I’ve read in different sources – including THE COMPLETE BOOK OF M*A*S*H – Gene Reynolds claims it was not only his idea for Margaret to marry, but it was his intentions that she stay married (hence why he was unhappy with her eventual divorce from Penobscott, but he was also unhappy with Linville’s departure).

  • Larry P. says:

    No, it wasn’t a mistake. It allowed Margaret’s character to evolve, to become more human. Though, unlike when she was definitively an antagonist, her occasional bouts of shrillness (and outright cruelty towards Radar and Klinger) were, to me, even more annoying when she increasingly became “one of the guys.” Still, it was the right move, and provided a stronger foundation for the character when moving forward into that new, more-dramatic era of M*A*S*H.

    The same can’t really be said for Frank, who was left with nothing to do but become even more of a bumbling, neurotic whiner. Given the tone of that fifth season and everything that we now know transpired after it, Linville’s leaving was a smart decision. As such, Margaret’s marriage was a natural jumping-off point for Burns. If they had kept Frank and Margaret together, but continued to evolve the show as a whole otherwise, IMO it would have felt forced, not to mention increasingly played-out.

    Also, from a strictly-personal standpoint, it was a further break from the casual adultery that colored the earlier seasons, something that continues to not sit well with me.

  • UglyJohn says:

    Character development works if it’s a soap opera, or a issue-based show. MASH ran into a headlong problem. It started as a screed about war, and changed into a stage play.

    That was because the thing it was using as a touchstone went away. The character changes were designed to fit into the 1970s mould of drama, morality boundaries and opinions projected onto characters.

    Not all shows have to change and evolve their characters. Seinfeld, Cheers, Taxi. These shows kept disfunctional static characters as did WKRP. Loni Anderson’s Jennifer was serious and smart but was still shallow as puddle of water. Never really changed.

    Cheers: Norm and Cliff could get dramatic but they never changed much on the bar stools where they perched themselves. Timeless characters.

    There’s an advantage to keeping characters comedic and milking good gags.

    Arthur Spooner on King of Queens didn’t change a bit and provided comedy relief for the main characters.

    MASH changed because its writers changed. Gelbart ran out of steam and the only way to keep CBS happy was to play to ratings. And of course soaps and issues always did well for ratings.

  • BeccaLeo1972 says:

    The decision to break up Frank and Margaret was the right one. I just don’t care for the way it played out. I’d rather Louise found out about their affair from a trusted friend and Frank had to end it, get transferred back to the states, or go through a divorce. Margaret then has to face the real affect of their affair and move forward with establishing her own identity and life without having Frank as her go to man.

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