Sometimes my husband and I end up eating lunch together at home. He likes to watch the news. I won’t eat and watch the news. So when it happens that we’re eating at the same time, we watch a comedy. I found out that he’d never watched all of M.A.S.H. He’d enough here and there in syndication to know what went on but he hadn’t watched all of them.
We got to Henry Blake’s last episode. At the end he commented, “They killed him off screen.”
Now, maybe they’d have shown the mangled plane and a few bodies, but not then, and the episode is more powerful for it.
We spend most of the episode watching Hawk and Trapper and Radar plan the good-bye party. We get reminders of the father-son relationship between Radar and Henry. We watch as Henry gets into the chopper and Radar stands there, alone, saluting, lip trembling. He’s going to miss this guy who is like the father he never had, no matter how much Henry doesn’t want the role. But because he’s a good guy, Henry goes over and says something before getting into the chopper to leave.
The operating room. Radar walks in without a mask. Hawkeye yells at him to put on a mask. Radar, who always follows orders (however bizarrely) doesn’t even acknowledge Hawkeye’s order. The room falls silent as Radar says there’s been a message. Henry’s plane was shot down. There were no survivors. He ducks out quickly after delivering the message.
The room remains silent. Pan to Major Hoolihan and we see her cheeks move beneath her mask and she blinks away tears. Father Mulcahy is also in scene clutching his rosary and silently mouthing a prayer.
Hawkeye and Trapper look back down at their surgeries and say nothing. Cut scene.
The power of this was not in my reaction to Henry’s death but in the reactions of the people who knew Henry. It’s probably the only episode where Hawkeye doesn’t make a sarcastic, snarky comment upon learning bad news. He has nothing.
As a writer I need to remember that while my readers might love a character, if it’s not a major character, there are other people in the book who love them more–who knew them in a way my reader knows they will never know them. And it’s the pain of the more major characters that they need to share that packs the gut punch of emotion when something horrible happens. And sometimes the emotion comes from what the character’s don’t do rather than what they do.
The power of this episode in M.A.S.H is that as many times as I’ve seen it, I never fail to tear up.