On M*A*S*H, surgeons at Mobile Army Surgical Hospital 4077th bandaged limbs, tended to wounds, and operated on soldiers torn apart by grenades, bullets, and shrapnel during the Korean War. Beyond the physical wounds, though, were mental injuries. To treat them, the 4077th called in their secret weapon. Dr. Sidney Freedman, played by Allan Arbus.
With compassion, patience, and calm, Sidney dove into the most mysterious part of the human body. The mind. In the episode Pressure Points, Colonel Potter calls Sidney to the 4077th for a special patient. Himself. Reluctant to discuss his concerns at first, Potter eventually opens up to Sidney, thanks to the psychiatrist’s gentility in dealing with matters of the mind. Simply, Potter is afraid of growing old and losing his surgical skills.
Sidney tells him that his fears will become real. Some day. He encourages Potter to accept his current challenge of leading the 4077th without worrying so much about the future.
In the episode Bless You, Hawkeye, Sidney counsels Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce, the 4077th’s star surgeon; Hawkeye is suffering from an unknown condition, which triggers sneezing fits. Sweating profusely, constantly sneezing, and violently scratching, Hawkeye is a walking wreck with no diagnosis in sight.
Hawkeye greets Sidney by describing his physical condition as “swimming in cold sweat.” Rather quickly, Sidney gets to the heart of the matter by exploring Hawkeye’s childhood. Hawkeye recalls growing up in Crabapple Cove, Maine as being in a “tidal wave of Americana.” He talks about his older cousin Billy, whom he idolized. Rather quickly, Sidney deduces that Hawkeye’s problem stems from a childhood incident. Billy saved Hawkeye after the latter fell from a fishing boat into the pond. In reality, though, Hawkeye reversed the event in his mind. Sidney guides Hawkeye to reveal the reality, buried in his subconscious. Billy pushed his younger dousing into the pond as a joke, then pulled him from the water.
Hawkeye, without realizing it, provided clues when he used water analogies. An odor triggered the current problem. After the incident with Billy, Hawkeye smelled like a wet burlap sack. It was the exact analogy he used to describe one of his patients on the operating table. After Hawkeye’s highly emotional breakthrough, the physical condition disappears.
Sidney wrote a letter to Sigmund Freud in the episode Dear Sigmund; letter writing was a plot device for several episodes. Characters voiced their letters; verbalization served as a narrative for the audience. For example, Hawkeye wrote letters to his dad. Klinger wrote a letter to his uncle. Potter wrote a letter to his wife.
In the episode War of Nerves, Father Mulcahy talks to Sidney about a friend causing him concern. The friend is Sidney. In fact, Sidney is the friend. He reveals his distress ignited by losing a mind when he loses a patient. For the surgeons, it’s a body. For Father Mulcahy, a soul.
Sidney’s greatest case, perhaps, was Hawkeye’s breakdown in the final episode, Goodbye, Farewell, Amen. Sidney, with his usual aplomb, peels back the layers of the incident that sparked Hawkeye’s breakdown. On a return trip from a July 4th holiday celebration at the beach, the doctors and nurses pick up some locals. When the 4077th’s bus breaks down, the doctors and nurses must keep quiet to avoid detection by enemy soldiers nearby; a Korean woman smothered her chicken to keep it quiet.
Again, Sidney guides Hawkeye through a torturous, volatile, and, ultimately, cathartic realization. Hawkeye, as with the incident involving Billy, alters the event in his mind. The woman smothered her baby, not a chicken, after Hawkeye admonished her to keep the baby quiet.
Sidney used the same line in his first appearance and his last appearance. “Ladies and gentlemen, take my advice. Pull down your pants and slide on the ice.”