The Tooth Shall Set You Free was the 15th episode of Season 10 of the CBS-TV series M*A*S*H, also the 233rd overall series episode. Written by Lee H. Grant and directed by Charles S. Dubin, it originally aired on February 8, 1982.
While Winchester fearfully avoids getting his agonizing toothache treated, the other surgeons discover a racist commander is sending his African-American soldiers disproportionately into dangerous duty.
Full episode summary
Wounded arrive, late into the night, mostly made up from a unit of combat engineers. Winchester is surlier than usual, due to a toothache he's trying desperately to cover up. After the session in OR, the doctors are met by Major Lawrence Weems (Tom Atkins), who is here to see his men. Everyone is impressed that Weems made a trip this late at night, but he says it's the least he could do.
Hawkeye and B.J. offer to let Weems sleep in the Swamp, and he mentions how guilty he feels sleeping in a bed when it takes getting shot for his men to get the same opportunity. Hawkeye and B.J. are further impressed at Weems' care for his men.
In Post Op, Weems suggests one of his men - Cpl. Dorsey - should go home, but Hawkeye tells him the young man's wounds aren't that serious. Weems is insistent, telling Hawkeye in private that Dorsey comes from a poor farm family, and they really need him back home. Hawkeye promises to see what he can do. Later, Father Mulcahy happens to mention that Dorsey is from Brooklyn, which doesn't jibe with what Weems told Hawkeye. Hawkeye then asks Dorsey (Laurence Fishburne) about living in Brooklyn, and his story checks out. He asks Dorsey about Weems, which elicits a surly, tight-lipped response.
Hawkeye talks it over with B.J., and they notice that Weems is desperate to send Dorsey - a black man - home, but wants to keep the more seriously wounded Sturdevant, who is white. That doesn't seem to make sense to either of them. More wounded combat engineers arrive, and the ambulance is filled with young men - all of them black. This leads Hawkeye and B.J. to do some research, and they learn that even though black soldiers only make up a small part of Weems' unit, they suffer an overwhelming proportion of the casualties. They turn to Col. Potter to tell them their findings.
Meanwhile, Col. Potter is having a personnel problem of his own: he is well aware of Winchester's toothache and is concerned that the afflicted tooth will abscess soon and put Winchester out of action as a surgeon for an unacceptable period unless he gets it treated. Col. Potter confronts Major Winchester on the issue in the Mess tent and he vociferously denies his medical problem. Feigning remorse for his accusation, Potter pretends to offer a reconciliatory gesture and hands Winchester a bowl of ice cream before anyone else in camp, and expects him to eat it immediately. Knowing the likely pain eating a frozen dish that would happen from his bad tooth would expose him, Winchester tries to weasel out until Col. Potter bluntly orders him to eat. Winchester eats some and shows no reaction and Col. Potter, momentarily thinking he could be alright, allows him to leave. However, Winchester cannot maintain that pretence for more than a few seconds and howls in pain outside, well in earshot of the Colonel who angrily vows to arrange a dental appointment immediately.
That night, Hawkeye and B.J. are having drinks outside the Swamp when they are joined by Col. Potter and Major Weems. Weems starts suggesting again some of his men should be sent home, and Col. Potter starts playacting - pretending that he's angry at Weems for sending so many of "them" home. Hawkeye and B.J. play along, and Weems feels comfortable enough to say how he really feels - he admits he simply doesn't want to associate with black soldiers, so he assigns them risky duty so they earn more rotation points and get sent home faster. Or they get wounded or even killed - it's all the same to Weems.
They go inside for more drinks, where they are met by Major Rockingham (Jason Bernard), Deputy Assistant Chief of Staff of Personnel at I-Corps, waiting inside. Rockingham, who happens to be black himself, has overheard Weems' entire story from inside and confronts him with Potter, B.J., Hawkeye, and Winchester looking on. Weems tries to cover, but Rockingham says he plans to bring Weems up for a court martial for flagrantly abusing his command to create a situation where, as Hawkeye puts it, "Any black soldier has the life expectancy of a dead man."
Weems argues, but when Hawkeye, B.J., Potter, and Winchester say they plan to testify against him, he tries to bargain his way out of it. Rockingham offers him an alternate deal: instead of a court martial, Weems resigns his commission, then and there. Weems refuses, but Rockingham says he plans to call the JAG immediately - it's one or the other. Weems crumbles, signs the paperwork, and storms out.
Everyone celebrates their victory, but there's one more part to the plan - Major Rockingham is actually Captain Rockingham, DDS! Winchester cowers in terror, but finally gives in and allows his tooth to get worked on.
The dental procedure is a success, but Winchester bites Rockinghams' hand in the process, which Charles blames on "very old instinct" and apologizes profusely - though the expression on his face just before the end credits suggests it may not have been so accidental after all.
Colonel Potter (after Winchester refuses to eat some ice cream to show that his aching tooth is better): Present...SPOON!
Pierce (as Winchester moans in pain in the dark): Beej, don't forget. In the morning, it's your turn to milk Charles.
- Rockingham to Weems (after hearing Weems confess to his racist actions): Major, do you realize how appropriate it is that we should meet in a hospital?
- Weems: I don't understand.
- Rockingham: You make me sick.
- Potter: Amen! Major, you're fighting the wrong war; The Civil War ended almost 100 years ago.
- Charles' aching tooth keeps switching sides. Two times, he's sitting in the Mess Tent - first time, his right side is to the camera; the second time, his left side is facing us. Each time, his toothache is on the side of his face not facing the camera.