Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Not-So-Sweet Dreams

Of all the thought–provoking episodes the MASH TV series created in its 11 seasons on the prime time schedule, the one that first aired 35 years ago tonight may have been the series' most poignant.

Called "Dreams," the episode explored the dreams of the series' leading characters, and each revealed something about the character — his/her desires, fears, insecurities. Everyone was tired after the marathon sessions the MASH staffers put in. Sometimes they flopped into their cots and were asleep before their heads hit their pillows. Other times they dozed off while sitting in the mess tent or post–op.

Inevitably, there was a peaceful quality to many of the dreams that would be interrupted by the reality of the nightmare they couldn't escape. Col. Potter (Harry Morgan) dreamed of riding his horse through an open field and hearing his mother calling to him. At that point, he was awakened by Klinger with news that he was needed in surgery. Potter lamented the fact that he couldn't have had a little more time so he could taste his mother's cooking again.

That was an indirect intrusion of the war. The intrusion was more direct with the others. It was absorbed into the story line of the dream — the way that dreams do. Or, at least, mine do. I don't know about yours. When my alarm goes off in the morning, it often weaves itself into whatever dream I am having, and for a moment there is a tug–of–war going on between my dream and my reality.

Father Mulcahy (William Christopher) was nodding off while listening to a wounded soldier's confession, and the soldier's words became gibberish. Mulcahy would rouse himself, and the words would begin to make sense again, but then he would drift off again and the gibberish would resume. When he finally fell asleep, he dreamed he was the pope blessing the faithful before he was roused from his slumber by the soldier.

I don't recall having many dreams that were as intimate and deeply personal as the dreams of the MASH staffers, but their dreams clearly revealed their most cherished desires and principles — and their greatest fears. Being awakened from the dream was almost a relief for many.

Charles (David Ogden Stiers), for example, dreamed he was a magician, performing magic tricks that astonished the MASH staff. But, when he was faced with a life–and–death matter, none of his tricks could save the patient.

Hawkeye (Alan Alda) dreamed he was in a medical school class being conducted in the camp's mess tent. He couldn't answer the professor's questions so, each time, he had to surrender one of his limbs. Then he found himself in a boat floating in a river with arms and legs all around him. On the shore, he saw a little girl who was holding an apparent wound. She looked at Hawkeye with the silent plea for help. He looked at her and shrugged.

Hot Lips (Loretta Swit) had perhaps the most bittersweet dream. She was dressed in a white wedding dress that became blood stained from the wounded.

Clearly, her mind had concluded that her problems finding the husband and home she had always wanted were the result of her work in a war zone. Not an entirely injudicious conclusion, either.

His dream took B.J. (Mike Farrell) all the way back to his home in Mill Valley, Calif., where he was dancing with his wife. But he was called away to the O.R. by his sense of duty, and his wife went back to the ballroom on the arm of another man.

Klinger (Jamie Farr), too, went all the way home in his dream — back to his beloved Toledo. He saw all the familiar sights, then looked in a window and saw Potter operating on someone. The person on the table turned and looked in his direction — and Klinger saw that it was himself.

Potter beckoned for Klinger to come in.

It was a powerful episode made plausible by the writers' ability to portray the ways of dreams. I was impressed with their skill when I saw this episode for the first time, and I have been envious of it, as any writer should be, on the occasions when I have seen it again. Given the fact that a 30–minute episode is really about 23 or 24 minutes when one accounts for commercial time, the writers had, on average, less than four minutes to tell the story of each character's dream.