In which I ponder the big questions in the dregs of a limited-resources martini
The past few days have sparked a debate in my home country (that is, on my home country’s social media) over just how many doctors, real or fictional, are more qualified than Dr. Phil to assess the threat posed by COVID-19. I came up with one rather quickly.
Dr. Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce (as portrayed by my hero Alan Alda) captured my heart three years ago when I started watching M*A*S*H, and I’ve been thinking about him ever since. Because he is fun-loving, quick-witted, and charming, yes, but not only because he is fun-loving, quick-witted, and charming. (And, um, reliable with the ladies, as I think Aaron Burr once said.)
Allow me to elaborate by detouring to another show. In 2016, for a college class, I watched David Simon’s The Wire, which tops best-TV-shows-of-all-time lists far and wide (though I can’t say I got attached to any of those characters like I did to Hawkeye, with the possible exception of Omar Little). Across five seasons, the increasingly complex plot is underpinned by the idea of “good police”: who is it, what makes it, how you can spot it. Being good police is about more than just doing your job diligently: you have to try to live a morally upright life, championing the people who have no champion, striving for justice. Conflict flares when characters differ in their definitions of these things, or when they stumble in their pursuit (see: Detective Jimmy McNulty basically all the time).
Applying this standard to M*A*S*H, I can pretty confidently classify Hawkeye as a “good doctor.” He is an excellent surgeon, approaching his work just as seriously as he approaches his play; but he also reacts with horror to the inhumanity of the situation at the base, particularly to the untenable conditions under which he and his colleagues are expected to perform. At any given moment he is either railing against the atrocities of the war (ahem, police action) or staging absurd shenanigans to take everyone’s mind off it. Essentially, he does anything but grin and bear it.
This extraordinary balancing act—devotion to his job and revulsion for the reason behind it, absorption in little joys out of a firm belief that there are in fact bigger joys—leads me to a fascinating conclusion: that Hawkeye might be the ideal fictional character. The Vitruvian man of the canon.
I’m not calling him a perfect person: if anything, his imperfections keep us grounded. Whether he’s struggling to understand people who don’t share his views (looking at you, Frank Burns) or refusing to take criticism (like that episode where Radar gets mad at him and he just sort of loses it) or blatantly disregarding authority because it’s authority (every episode ever), it’s clear that this is someone with tremendous faith in his own ability to make the best of things and, thus, someone with a problem accepting his own limitations. He doesn’t like to consider that there are forces out there which are too big for him, and so he doesn’t consider them until they blow up in his face (occasionally literally). Heck, his steady presence at the heart of the show wasn’t enough to keep it at the top of its game for eleven seasons—which, to be fair, is much longer than it probably should have lasted, and nearly four times as long as the war it depicts actually lasted.
While I have no experience defusing a bomb, nor phoning in instructions for an emergency tracheotomy in the middle of a minefield, nor cobbling together a derby by racing gurneys around the compound, I have a lot of experience ignoring, resenting, and ultimately facing my own limitations. And I get the feeling I’m not the only one. Hawkeye gives us something we can understand. He might be rebellious to a fault, hide behind his humor as a defense mechanism, and engage in the ‘lovable misogyny’ of the time, but he does the right thing when the time comes and he is a beacon of hope for anyone who sees him in action. I will never not be inspired by his litany of things he would carry before a gun—surely one of the all-time greatest pledges to nonviolence. Besides, there has to be something to a character who can hold the effects of a terrible concussion at bay by monologuing about opposable thumbs. They might be the mark of human superiority, but I think there’s one human who’s a tiny bit superior to the rest of us.
If a vaccine for this thing ever appears, I’d get a shot from him any old time.
(P.S. Strange how no episode got around to a compound-wide quarantine—there are no more than one or two individuals isolated at once. There’s also that episode where he and Margaret are trapped under fire, but that’s, uh, not quite the same thing.)
(P.P.S. Of course, you’re all entitled to your favorites. I’m just making a case here. Who knows when invented personalities will start getting awards of their own; we’re only a month into our boredom.)
Image: “I brought a book with me to the war. A dictionary. I figure it has every other book in it.”