time warp

That groundbreaking gay episode of ‘MASH’ was almost even gayer

Screenshot: ‘M*A*S*H,’ CBS Television

This month, M*A*S*H celebrates its 50th anniversary.

Spun off from Robert Altman’s 1970 film of the same name, the TV dramedy followed the lives of U.S. military medical personnel stationed in South Korea during the Korean War. The iconic CBS show was widely beloved, and its ’83 finale remains the most-watched scripted television episode in history.

The thought of revisiting these TV classics is usually a thorny one. Products of their time, it’s not uncommon to stumble on episodes, plot lines, and characters that look more than a little problematic in hindsight—especially in terms of their treatment of LGBTQ characters. So, it’s not entirely unfair to be wary of the fact that, in 1974, a M*A*S*H episode addressed the hot topic of gay men in the military.

Related: 5 of the worst attempts at queer(ish) sitcoms ever

But, as a new retrospective piece from SlashFilm reminds us, M*A*S*H was always a show with a “radically compassionate ethos,” and this quote-unquote “gay” episode was indicative of that, telling a rather progressive and open-minded story—even if the ending wasn’t quite the boundary-breaking one the writers had in mind.

The season two episode was called “George,” and it opens with the MASH unit treating a badly bruised George Weston (Richard Ely). After his recovery, George comes out—indirectly, but openly—to Hawkeye (Alan Alda). There’s no big reaction, there’s no hatred or discomfort, and there are jokes, but George isn’t the butt of them.

Screenshot: ‘M*A*S*H,’ CBS Television

And when others at the camp learn about George, their reactions are refreshingly unphased. With one exception.

As the piece notes, the episode—written by John W. Regier and Gary Markowitz—”makes sure its heroes treat George’s sexual identity as neither a problem nor even a novelty.” It’s pretty astounding considering it aired a full 36 years before the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

The lone dissenting voice and driving force of the drama is Frank Burns (Larry Linville), a stern disciplinarian who frequently took on the role of M*A*S*H’s antagonist. He’s the only character to express any kind of homophobia toward George, and he does so under the guise of “following the rules” as he tries to have the gay soldier dishonorably discharged.

Related: It gets worse: 5 more awful attempts at queer(ish) TV shows

Hawkeye and Trapper’s (Wayne Rogers) scheming to help their friend leads to them buttering Frank up and coaxing him to admit he once cheated on a med school test. They then use this intel as blackmail so that Frank won’t submit the discharge report, and prove that he has no room to judge anyone else.

It turns out, the writers initially had a different ending in mind. As Markowitz revealed in a 2021 episode of the M*A*S*H Matters podcast, the original plan was to have Hawkeye and Trapper get Frank drunk, during which point the stringent major revealed that he once experienced sexual attraction for another man.

So, right, the intended ending does veer a little too closely to the overused stereotype that homophobic bullies are, themselves, secret closet cases. But its implications were unprecedented for the time in terms of queer representation on screen. SlashFilm sums it up nicely:

“It’s a scene that, if executed as well as M*A*S*H typically pulled off its major moments, could have conveyed a genuinely judgement-free sexual fluidity among the men of the 4077th crew. That in itself would have been extremely groundbreaking, but CBS apparently had other plans.”

Related: Thank You For Your Service: Five LGBT Veterans Who Helped Change The World

Still, the ending that aired is fine final note for a truly landmark episode of television. LGBTQ characters were still few and far between, and they were so frequently the target of mean-spirited jokes—or worse. But with “George,” M*A*S*H presented a gay character on his own terms, and then showed its massive, mainstream audience what it means to be a thoughtful and supportive ally.

For further insights into M*A*S*H, we highly recommend you read the full retrospective at SlashFilm, or check out the below video essay from Matt Baume, both of which offers an insightful reexamination of this historical episode.

All 11 seasons of M*A*S*H are available to stream exclusively on Hulu.