Four Reasons Why Frank Burns Gets a Raw Deal on M*A*S*H
As I continue to re-watch episodes of M*A*S*H, I find myself joining the group of people who think the show wasn't as good after antagonist Maj. Frank Burns (Larry Linville) left the series following season 5. More importantly, my renewed interest in the classic series has made me realize Burns kind of got a raw deal while at the 4077th and, at minimum, was treated unfairly by those around him.
Here are my reasons why:
He was a better surgeon than he was given credit for. Throughout his time on the series, Burns was constantly belittled about his surgical skills. However, while obviously not as good as Hawkeye Pierce (Alan Alda) and lacking a good bedside manner, there is really no evidence he was anything less than at least average in the operating room.
Did he make mistakes? Of course, but you could also say the same thing about every other surgeon at the 4077th, including the God-like Pierce and, despite the ribbing from the other doctors, I didn't see anything that proved his mistakes caused more unneccesary deaths than anyone else at the 4077th.
The fact Burns had a successful practice prior to his stint in Korea should also be taken into consideration. While this success was often painted in an unflattering light to make Pierce look better, it is evidence of his competence.
He wasn't a terrible second in command. There is nothing wrong with a little bit of military discipline in a war zone and, while some of his methods seemed strict when compared to Col. Henry Blake (McLean Stevenson), I don't know if you could consider many (if any at all) inappropriate. More importantly, some of his decisions, while not popular, turned out to be correct.
For example, when he banned alcohol, he proved Pierce and Trapper John (Wayne Rogers) were drinking too much and even Pierce ultimately admitted he had a problem later in the series, when he voluntarily decided to stay sober. The calisthenics program he implemented during one of his stints as temporary commander was later implemented by Col. Sherman Potter (Harry Morgan) when he learned his staff was out of shape.
There's also no evidence to suggest he was as much of a tyrant as the camp thought. After all, when he was temporarily in command following Blake's death, he did give Pierce a recreational pass despite being short-handed and having no reason to do that for a doctor that gave him zero respect.
A more telling sign of his competence was how both Blake and Potter trusted him to run the camp in their absence. Yes, you can argue this was an automatic thing because he was the next highest in rank but, in later seasons, Potter seemed to prefer alternating the role amongst the doctors rather than automatically putting Maj. Charles Winchester (David Ogden Stiers) in charge.
He wasn't the only adulterer in camp. Burns' ongoing affair with Margaret Houlihan (Loretta Swit) is often painted as sordid throughout his time on the series and, yes, he was a married man but, big picture, did that really make him any worse than most of the other doctors?
Trapper John was also married with kids. So was Col. Blake. They both cheated on their spouses. Even the clean-cut B. J. Hunnicut (Mike Farrell) slipped while at the 4077th and, while it didn't happen in Korea, Col. Potter also had a history of cheating on his much-loved wife. So, in that regard, Burns was just one of the guys.
I guess you could argue that Burns was worse because he continued to lead Houlihan on by making her believe they had a future even though it was obvious he had no intention of leaving his wife. However, I just don't see it that way. She wasn't even remotely faithful to him and even got engaged to another man while they were still considered a couple. That, to me, is proof she was fully aware what they had together was just temporary and wasn't as much of a victim as people think.
His mental health issues either went unnoticed or were ignored. Burns going completely off the rails following Houlihan's marriage was a great way to write the character off the series following Linville's departure but it wasn't the first time Burns showed symptoms of a serious mental health issue (likely caused by five seasons worth of torment from his bunkmates).
For one, Burns had a tendency to run away from camp without warning. He did this when upset about something, such as when Potter was put in command, or if he felt his manliness was being challenged. When you combine that with his ability to act extremely childish, even throwing a tantrum, the signs of a serious underlying issue were there. What wasn't there was help.
In comparison, whenever Pierce seemed to have a hard time with something, nobody hesitated to call in psychiatrist Maj. Sidney Freedman (Allan Arbus) to help him through it. With that being only one of multiple double standards at the 4077th and Burns still being able to perform his duty without killing a patient (at least on screen), I think he more than deserved that promotion to lieutenant colonel at the very end.