WASHINGTON — The passage of three decades has solidified the cultural significance of the final episode of the M*A*S*H television series, which aired Feb. 28, 1983.
“Anybody who was alive at that time, and old enough to remember, is probably going to think “Oh, I remember what I was doing back when the final episode of M*A*S*H played or what I was doing,” says Robert Thompson, professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University.
The 251st episode of M*A*S*H, entitled “Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen,” chronicles the final days of the Korean War at the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital.
From 1983 until 2010, the finale was the most-watched TV broadcast in American history. It was surpassed in total viewership by the Super Bowl in 2010.
“M*A*S*H had become a really beloved series, and when people heard these people were going to go home, and the war was going to be over, they really wanted to see that,” says Thompson.
Thompson says in 1983, television had only recently started providing closure at the end of popular series, citing The Mary Tyler Moore show, which in 1977 was one of the first shows to tie-up the stories of its characters.
“M*A*S*H had this really schmaltzy ending where they put the word “Goodbye” written in rock to be seen from a helicopter that really seemed to resonate with audiences,” says Thompson.
Foregoing the show’s usual 30 minute format, the finale episode ran 2 1/2 hours, turning it into what Thompson called “this big lifestyle event.”
Thompson says few details of the episode were revealed prior to its airing. The finale didn’t contain any surprise turns, such as the episode in which Col. Henry Blake left the 4077th.
“He gets to go home, and of course we learned at the end of the episode that en route his (plane) crashes and he dies, it was a very, very moving episode,” says Thompson.
The finale was not without drama — Capt. Hawkeye Pierce, played by Alan Alda, had been sent to a mental hospital for treatment after a nervous breakdown.
“Even though it’s set in Korea, it really was about the Vietnam War, which we were getting to the end of,” recalls Thompson, of the show’s beginnings in 1972
M*A*S*H’s run stretched from during war “into a very, very different age,” says Thompson. “It’s durability and adaptability of that program over that period of seasons was really kind of extraordinary, and it kept getting better.”