“Chief Surgeon Who?” - Airdate: October 8, 1972
PLOT: Frank tries to court marshal Pierce on charges of insubordination. To finally curb their bickering in the operating room, Col. Blake appoints Pierce Chief Surgeon of the 4077. Frank whines up the ladder to General Barker, who drops by to investigate.
FRANK BURNS ABUSE:
-Overhears Col. Blake calling him the biggest horse’s patoot in the outfit.
-Radar smoking a cigar and drinking brandy!
OVERSTATED PRAISE FOR PIERCE: “Pierce is the best cutter in the outfit!”
We’ve gone through these paces before… in the Pilot, actually. We’ll go through them again. Pierce will get in hot water with Army brass, and will pull himself out of the fire simply by demonstrating his medical skills. I buy it as a plot device, because Pierce is unfailing in giving the Army exactly what they drafted him for, and M*A*S*H’s portrayal of the military is not so irrational and reactionary to invalidate their soft spot for Pierce. Besides, the show will play with the device a little over the years. Like the excuses made for why Mulder should be kept working on the FBI’s X-Files, it’s a tidy patch for a potentially disastrous hole in the fabric of the show.
Pierce thinks he’s above the law, because he’s a gifted surgeon. It’s also because he believes he’s a compassionate Good Guy at Heart. That’s his great character flaw, not his drinking, womanizing or slobbiness (though they’re all related, and he’ll be forced to confront them all). It’s not that he consciously believes he’s got special rights, but I think his occasional righteousness is fueled both by his good heart, and the way others treat him in the operating room. Pierce knows he’s a great doctor, and though he only brags about it when he needs to, it manifests when he thinks he knows best for everyone else.
OK, so “Chief Surgeon Who?” is not about Pierce’s personality flaws. M*A*S*Hreally won’t be for a while. But it’s a prime opportunity to bring them up, because it’s the unmitigated praise for Pierce, built up in early episodes like “Chief Surgeon Who?” that later allow the writers and Alan Alda to dig deeper into the Pierce’s contradictions. The episode is “about” how Hawkeye’s personality conflicts with Frank Burns. But the tendency in Hawkeye, outlined above is primary in Frank: he’s a hypocrite. Frank hides behind the Bible to sneer at Pierce and McIntyre’s vices, even though he’s cheating on his wife too. And he hides behind Army protocol as if it were more important than his mediocre medical skills. Neither of these nasty habits are truly about Frank’s religious conviction or patriotism. They’re about weakness and shame, as a little man tries to grasp at some power. Frank confuses the ability to boss underlings, and preach at degenerates – with empowerment. The joke is that he doesn’t know it. The difference between Burns and Pierce is that of course Pierce isn’t a hypocrite or phony, but they share a common moral certitude. So to inflict his morality on others, Hawkeye takes matters into his own hands, and pulls off a crazy scheme or tricks someone, while Frank tattles. Also Frank is an idiot.
“Chief Surgeon Who?” ends with a last act tag in which Frank humbly asks Hawkeye for help with a bowel resection. And Pierce reacts by not acting like a dickhead. It’s a nice moment of mutual respectful treatment but, er, yeah, right. The Frank/Hawk story is really about why they naturally butt heads.
The M*A*S*H Sketch Comedy Revue
The M*A*S*H writers sure love short comedy vignettes. They’ll use any excuse for a bunch of mini-sketches. When General Barker tours the camp, the point is to see what a madhouse the 4077 appears to be, before he witnesses Pierce’s surgery skills. So he stumbles, among other things, onto:
-Rader partaking of Col. Blake’s cigar and brandy supply, which is cute, though something later Radar would never do.
-Spearchucker and Ginger playing – and I shit thee not – “strip dominoes”. Hooray!
-Klinger on guard duty in a dress. With a gun. Now… it’s supposed to just be a gag about a man wearing a dress, but sometimes I forget that Klinger is allowed to carry around firearms. The punchline is later, when Klinger returns naked. With a gun.
-When Barker finally finds Henry, he interrupts the Colonel’s plans to go night-fishing with Leslie. This is also less “crazy” than adorable. Henry’s affair with Leslie is never a relationship that gets much screen time, but it’s funny that Leslie seems so indulgent of Henry’s ‘50s male pastimes, and even excited, because she gets to spend time with him.
That and who wouldn’t love the of pride on McLean Stevenson’s face when Henry enters his tent with a can of nightcrawlers to present to his mistress?