Thursday, October 15, 2009

Episode 186 - Heal Thyself

Season 8, Episode 186: Heal Thyself
Original Air Date: 1/14/80
Written by: Dennis Koenig and Gene Reynolds

Directed by: Mike Farrell

Col. Potter comes down with a case of the mumps, much to the glee of Winchester, who mocks Potter for coming down with a "childhood malady."

Even though Winchester didn't have the mumps as a kid--making him vulnerable to catching them--he is sure his "superior breeding" will keep him safe. Klinger is also susceptible, but unlike Winchester, he's taking it very seriously, keeping Potter at arm's length (he also begins spraying his office with some sort of mumps-killing mist as if he's an exterminator).

Of course, within just a few hours, Winchester catches them too, so he is quarantined along with Potter in Potter's tent, much to both their consternation.

With two doctors out of commission, they put in a request for a replacement surgeon, later that day, one arrives--Captain Steven Newsom (Edward Herrmann), who greets Hawkeye and B.J. with the same quick wit, and they take an instant like to him. As Hawkeye comments, "We can put a sign up in the OR--three stooges, no waiting."

In OR, Newsom shows his chops. Even though he's regularly stationed in Tokyo, he's a superb surgeon, and tells horror stories about his previous experience in combat surgery. Everyone in the unit seems to take to him immediately, and his jokey method while working fits in well.

Meanwhile, Potter and Winchester are at each other's throats cooped up in Potter's tent. Margaret brings Newsom by to meet them, and Winchester embarrasses himself assuming Newsom, after mentioning he's from Chicago, is poorly educated. He's chastened when Newsom mentions he went to Johns Hopkins.

Later that night, even more wounded arrive, so Hawkeye, B.J., and Newsom have to put in another long session in OR. The next morning, Hawkeye finds Newsom wandering the compound, unable to sleep. Newsom admits that the situation at the 4077th is about as bad as everything he's seen.

Later that day, there's more wounded, and with some of the nurses out sick with the mumps, OR is chaotic. During one operation, Newsom starts to seem nervous and indecisive, unable to decide whether to try and save the leg of a patient.

Newsom begins muttering to himself, staring off into space. Hawkeye steps in, but Newsom, instead of taking an easier case, runs out into the hall. B.J. finds him and tells Newsom that he should take a few moments to calm down, but they need him back in there ASAP.

Another badly wounded patient is brought in, but Newsom is nowhere to be seen, leaving Hawkeye and B.J. to handle the load on their own.

Later that night, Hawkeye and the rest try and find Newsom and figure out what happened. Potter, from the door of his tent, alerts them that Newsom is inside.

They find him sitting on the floor of the tent, in tears, rubbing his hands back and forth. Hawkeye and B.J. try and talk to him, but Newsom seems barely there--he mutters a bunch of random thoughts, clearly having experienced some sort of nervous breakdown.

Potter suggests calling Sidney Freedman, and Hawkeye and B.J. head back outside. B.J. marvels that Newsom seemed "As strong as any of us." Hawkeye responds, "That's what scares me."

Fun Facts: Mike Farrell does a great job as director of this episode--his first directorial effort, Season Seven's "Ain't Love Grand?" was a more lighthearted episode, but this one contains some dead serious moments, which Farrell handles well.

This episode's final scene is about Potter and Winchester (and now Klinger) having the mumps, and no mention of Newsom is made. Its too bad that they couldn't have found a way to throw in a line about Newsom, just for the audience to know what happened to him.

There's a great--if grim--moment in OR, where Hawkeye takes over Newsom's patient, the one whose leg is damaged. When another badly wounded patient arrives, Hawkeye says to Margaret to prepare for amputation. Margaret asks if the leg can't be saved, and Hawkeye admits that he doesn't have time--if he saves this leg, he loses that life. What a horrible choice to have to make, just because you don't have the time.

The only thing remotely negative I can think of concerning this episode is how telescoped it is: Dr. Newsom has a breakdown pretty quickly, maybe a little too quickly.

This episode, and M*A*S*H in general, aired before the TV landscape changed where longer "story arcs" became more the norm for prime time TV. So it probably just wasn't a possibility to have Edward Herrmann guest star on the show over two or three episodes, trying to fool the audience into thinking that Dr. Newsom was a permanent addition to the show, and then have him experience his breakdown, which might have packed more dramatic punch.

Favorite Line: Hawkeye and B.J. offer Newsom his first martini, and after a sip, he blanches and says, "Woo--now I know what the corporal is spraying the office with."


What the Parrot Saw said...

I agree rob- it is interesting to ponder the effect of having Newsom in a multi-episode story arc would have. In its time, it might have been a somewhat nervy and certainly innovative move. If any show could pull this off, M*A*S*H could, I believe, despite much of its identity being tied to it being an ensemble show with set characters.

This is one of my top 10 episodes. I've mentioned Newsom's character prior as an example of a one-shot character par excellance. He fits into the dynamics of the Swamp perfectly; even Hawkeye admits, "hey- we got a new man for the act!" His dry sense of humor seems to lie midway between Hawk's and BJ's and I still enjoy watching him get acclimated to the camp. Even as he is starting crack under the strain, he is very likeable and even funny ("It's just a little insomnia, but I'm not going to lose any sleep over it")

That said, I think that his crack up, as sudden as it occurs is indeed the point here. A crucial detail in his backstory is that he has already served in serious frontline surgery. He had obviously suppressed some deep trauma from these experiences; an interesting question remains as to whether he might have had a breakdown had he been permitted to stay in Tokyo. This speaks volumes about the stresses involved in living and working in a war zone.

Hawkeye's last line in the scene in which they find Newsom (who is terrific here) will, of course, prove prophetic- ironically enough.

Russell said...

I remember fondly when MASH was more of a comedy and less about melodrama. This is another of my least favorites...blech. I do like the idea, but (like Hawkeye's bout with insanity a few years later) it just doesn't ring true.

No, this is another episode where I remember the B plot more fondly. DOS as Charles has a few great moments with Harry Morgan...I especially like the scenes where Charles shows concern that the mumps may turn him sterile. Both actors play the scene very well.

Robert Gross said...

I love the moment when Col. Potter just quietly says to go call Dr. Freedman. Sidney really was the cavalry.

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