The creators of the TV series M*A*S*H deserve credit for using the massive popularity of their Korean War medical sitcom as an excuse to experiment, whether by dropping the laugh track or by spending a whole episode on Luis Buñuel-esque dream sequences. But those creators often couldn't tell the difference between sophisticated storytelling and smug preachiness. M*A*S*H's best and worst qualities are apparent in the series finale, "Goodbye, Farewell And Amen," a quintuple-length episode that remains the highest-rated single TV broadcast in history. What an estimated 100 million viewers saw that night was an ambitious two hours of television (not counting commercials) that tried to push the show's "war is hell" message to a new level of psychodrama, while also providing a satisfying send-off to beloved characters.
When "Goodbye, Farewell And Amen" begins, it doesn't look much like M*A*S*H. Leading man Alan Alda is stuck in a mental hospital, while back at the 4077th, an influx of POWs has transformed the camp. The M*A*S*H finale is more war-specific than usual, and also more subtly cinematic, marked by diverse locations and dynamic camera moves—all supervised by Alda, who directed and co-wrote the episode. Alda underscores the war's horror through his own character's mental breakdown and slow recovery. It's excruciating to watch, not just because of Alda's alternately sullen, snappish, and weepy performance, but because it demonstrates M*A*S*H's persistently pat, anachronistically New Age-y approach to "sickness" and "healing." The rest of "Goodbye, Farewell And Amen" is more palatable, though it too leans on the strained quippy dialogue and torturous coincidences that increasingly characterized the series in its later seasons.
Still, few TV series have done a better job of closing up shop. The final half-hour is beautifully bittersweet, as the characters get their chances to say goodbye, knowing they'll likely never see each other again. M*A*S*H always excelled at making its viewers appreciate real life's sublime mundanity, as opposed to war's misery. When Alda and company waxed rhapsodic about Crabapple Cove or Mill Valley, we pined right along with them, even though secretly, for more than a decade, our preferred home was that Korean camp.
Key features: Six hours of series reminiscences, some shot around the time this episode aired, some filmed for CBS' 30th-anniversary special, and some made for the season-eleven DVD set.