Honor thy Major: Margaret Houlihan's emotional evolution across 10 episodes

10 episodes that show how the character changes over the course of the show

Over the course of M*A*S*H, the "protagonist" could be any one of a total of six men. The hopes, dreams, desires, and fears of these men are centered in the narrative, offering viewers a full portrait of "men at war." Some of the men are witty, and some of them are terrified. Some are capable, while others are comedic relief. The job of displaying this range of humanity is spread across multiple characters, allowing each to highlight a few traits or a few emotions. Added up, it's a spectrum of what it is to be a man at war. 

By contrast, we the viewers have only one top-billed character to show us what it meant to be a woman in the Korean War. This monumental task belonged to Major Margaret J. Houlihan, the head nurse of the 4077th, as portrayed by Loretta Swit. Yes, there were other women on M*A*S*H. But, as far as long-term, seasons-long storytelling, Houlihan is the singular, unwavering representation of women at war. 

Here are 10 episodes that show how the character changes over the course of the show, from a steely soldier to a fully fleshed-out person. A woman is no one thing, and these episodes show the multitudes that Margaret Houlihan contains. 

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1. Hot Lips and Empty Arms

The fourteenth episode of season two takes a look at Major Houlihan's personal life, and specifically, what could have been. In addition, this is the first peek into Margaret's discontentment with her relationship with Frank Burns. The idea for the eventual breakup came from Loretta Swit herself!

2. Aid Station

Houlihan is tasked with some of her most stressful work in "Aid Station" going above and beyond even her role as chief nurse. She cuts into a patient while exploding shells ravage the off-site aid station. What's most revealing is Margaret's fear. She's scared, and she shares Hawkeye's blanket, one of her only displays of true vulnerability.

3. Deluge

"Deluge" overwhelms the characters with a barrage of casualties and shelling from China, which has now joined the war. Things get so bad that nurses are ordered to be temporarily shipped out. But Major Margaret Houlihan was born to serve. She stands her ground, resolutely refusing the safety offered to her. Houlihan is the face of bravery.

4. Margaret's Engagement

Houlihan comes back from Tokyo with news of her own engagement. Nothing is going to stand in the way of her joy. Not the war, and certainly not Frank Burns. This is a great example of Margaret focusing on her happiness, even if it comes at the expense of someone like Burns, who has a complete meltdown and even stabs her. She is, of course, a person who deserves happiness, and this episode does a great job of highlighting just that. 

5. The Nurses

This is one of the first peeks behind Houlihan's steely facade. Here, she reveals the loneliness inherent to her position as chief nurse. Take it from Swit herself, in the 1980 book M*A*S*H - The Exclusive Inside Story of TV's Most Popular Show: "Margaret's fallibility and her vulnerability were graphically revealed in the episode called 'The Nurses,' which marked the first major change in her character."

6. Fade Out, Fade In

"In some ways, Donald is no Frank Burns." With this scathing statement, Margaret lets us see the first threads of her relationship with Penobscott beginning to unfurl. Following a party celebrating their recent wedding, Donald begins to completely shut down, and Margaret picks up on his cold demeanor. She's aware of it, and it rings alarms for her as a huge red flag. No man is worth being treated poorly. 

7. Images

"Images" is an episode that best illustrates the control it takes to keep it together. A new nurse is overwhelmed, and Margaret absolutely lets her have it, not holding back at all. Later, a stray dog that Houlihan has been caring for gets hit by a jeep. This is the straw that breaks Margaret's back, as she tearfully reveals just how much she's fighting to remain composed. Despite her best efforts, though, Houlihan is human and needs to let it out.

8. Comrades in Arms

This two-part episode deals with Margaret's relationship with her then-husband Donald Penobscott. He'd once seemed so perfect, but things turn for the worse when Margaret receives a letter Donald wrote for another woman. Stuck in a bombed-out hut with Hawkeye, Houlihan is forced to take refuge in their strange friendship, letting her guard down. Margaret protects Hawkeye, and Hawkeye protects Margaret. It's beautiful.

9. Hot Lips is Back in Town

Margaret's divorce from Donald Penobscott is now official. Instead of displaying just happiness or just remorse, Swit's portrayal shows that multiple things can be true at once, especially when it comes to emotions. Houlihan is dazed, especially when General Weiskopf uses the opportunity to make an advance. Instead, Houlihan doubles down on her dedication to improving things around camp and develops a new triage procedure. Houlihan stands her ground and refuses the General, even amidst a vulnerable post-divorce hangover. 

10. Father's Day

Viewers rarely get a chance to see a nervous Margaret Houlihan. She is typically cool in the face of insurmountable pressure. However, with the news that her father is set to arrive in the 4077th, Margaret is filled with anxious anticipation. This is a glimpse into the "why" of Margaret Houlihan, and viewers piece together the backstory that has made Houlihan the soldier that she is. Plus, by the episode's end, Margaret gets a much-deserved "I'm proud of you."

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Moverfan 19 days ago
I've seen these episodes I don't how many times (I was ten when M*A*S*H premiered) and it took a while to realize this...but in The Nurses when she's talking about "walking past the tent...and knowing I'm not wanted", the natural thing would have been for one of the other nurses to ask when she'd ever given them any sign she wanted to be included! Did she think they could all read her mind...or that they wanted to hang out with Miss--excuse me, Major-- I'm-In-Charge-And-I'm-So-Wonderful?
healingmindn 19 days ago
I'm trying to figure out why she didn't go to the big screen after MASH.
musicman37 healingmindn 19 days ago
She did - in 1981 she took a part in Blake Edwards' "S. O. B.", which wasn't a critical or commercial success. Afterward, I guess she just wanted to retire in connubial bliss - she married Dennis Holahan, who played Per Johannsen (with whom Margaret gets involved) in 1983, and the marriafge lasted until 1995.
Coldnorth 20 days ago
The number 7 question always makes me cry when I see that episode . To watch her character go through the loss of that little dog, shows how deep she feels, how tough she was under all the military pressure, and the rule following head nurse and other pressures, just shows under all that, that little dog meant so much to her, she showed her vulnerability. It didn’t seem like acting. Her emotions felt quite real. She sucked me into those emotions. That is an actor, a great one
jaelinsmith40652 22 days ago
I like before loretta played Margaret Houlihan from M*A*S*H, she played in other tv shows that were on CBS Mannix, Mission:Impossible, and Hawaii Five-O
Runeshaper 22 days ago
Loretta Swit is a very talented lady!
Andybandit 23 days ago
I liked Margaret more after Frank left the show.
Rob Andybandit 22 days ago
I think that pretty much everyone did.
LoveMETV22 23 days ago
Thank You MeTV Staff- Excellent story.
" Honor thy Major:"
Loretta Swit deserves honor for the role she played on M*A*S*H. True there were other women on the series, however the majority of the woman's perspective was portrayed by her.
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