M*A*S*H, like the Korean War, was always going to have to come to an end. Nothing is forever, but studio executives thought it should. At least, that was the directive they gave the writing team ahead of the finale.
Mike Farrell (Capt. BJ Honeycutt) recalls a studio executive telling the production team they couldn’t do an episode where the Korean War ends. The reason was to protect the viability of the show’s syndication. The executive told them that The Fugitive had ruined its prospects after Richard Kimble finally found the one-armed man who killed his wife (spoiler alert). And that M*A*S*H would be doing the same if it ended the Korean War.
Farrell said the cast and crew was dumbstruck.
“We sat and looked at him for a minute, and I finally said ‘It may surprise you to know that most of the people in the country understand that the Korean War came to an end,'” Farrell told MeTV.
The finale of the series — still the most-watched scripted show of all time — ended with the end of the Korean War. Hawkeye Pierce boards a helicopter bound for home and his best friend had left him a note written using large white rocks, “GOODBYE.” It was as much for the audience as Pierce.
“Some of us said, ‘We could go one more,’” Alda said. “The head of the studio said, ‘Why do you want to stop? I love it.’ We could have gone on, we could have enjoyed it, but we were too old for the characters. Those people [who actually were in M*A*S*H units] were in their 20s.”
‘M*A*S*H’ as an ‘Existential/Comedy Paradox’
M*A*S*H was a show of routine. It portrayed war as banal and often boring. That’s where the show mined its comedy. The doctors and nurses getting into trouble for lack of something else to do. But M*A*S*H also liked to then show the audience the horrors and often the pointlessness of war. The show became an allegory for the Vietnam War, which was raging as the show aired. Though the writer of book M*A*S*H, and person Alan Alda’s character Hawkeye Pierce is based on, hated the show’s anti-war sentiment, History.com said.
But the writers of the tv show knew that the paradox was at the heart of the show.
“M*A*S*H to me is the great existential/comedy paradox,” writer Ken Levine said. “You have these men who are forced against their will to go to a war zone to try to save lives in an arena where the objective is to kill people.”
Show co-creator Larry Gelbart said he wanted to use the show as a platform to preach peace.