China Beach (“Chao Ong”)

Season 1, Episode 7
Date of airing: June 8, 1988 (ABC)
Nielsen ratings information: 11.1/20 in Households

The writers managed to craft a very well-done season of television, if this season had been the only one and ABC would not have renewed CHINA BEACH for a second season. Thank the heavens I am completely spoiler-free when it comes to the show (I only know of the series finale premise, as well as which character is removed from the show in a specific season for a specific reason), because I do not know whether Laurette will return in the next season premiere, or if this was truly the end of her story, and the writers not only closed the season like they would have closed the series (just in case of cancellation), but they also gave the viewers closure, as well as a look of how goodbyes looked like in Vietnam and probably any other situation in which you have to say goodbye to a friend. By the way, I was impressed that this episode was in fact the season finale, instead of the previous one. It’s almost like this season had two finales, but now I can sort of understand why the writers decided to finish Cherry’s arc in the previous episode — it was a big series arc after all, and maybe the writers didn’t want it to carry over to the next season, and there was no room to finish the story in this episode. Which is perfect, because Laurette needed this big a goodbye episode, as she was a charming character, always a good sport, always with a positive attitude, which you can’t find anywhere in Vietnam (and if Laurette’s goodbye story would have been paired up with Rick White’s story, the different styles of both stories would have been biting each other). All this makes me wonder whether she will return though. If she is back in the next season premiere, all the goodbye moments she had in this episode would be negated. I mean, the “With a Little Help from My Friends” scene was freaking great. It would be less great when Laurette shows up in China Beach to hug Boonie in the next episode, continuing their romance.

It’s a date with the women of the beach.

I can also imagine that the remainder of CHINA BEACH would look like how the first third of the episode looked like: A medical emergency opens up the episode, and as soon as that section of the episode is done, the characters move on to some personal free time, making out, talking with each other about each other, followed by scenes in which the group hangs out during their time off, with a few jokey scenes in them, like the women sending the men on their ways — which was both hilarious and weird, and scenes like that need to be in the show more often. Also, it felt great that McMurphy wasn’t blasted with an emotional angle of her story, that Cherry didn’t need to deal with the fear of finding her brother dead on a gurney, that Beckett didn’t seem to have an emotionally traumatic experience among his dead men. Throwing away the emotional character depth ballast away for this episode made for a better hour, although I can see it was being thrown away for the sake of Laurette’s goodbye arc, which was already emotional enough (an I did almost cry when she sang “With a Little Help from My Friends”). With all that in mind, the writers might have thrown out that ballast, knowing this was the season finale, knowing they would need new and better arcs for the characters with the next season. In a way, the second season starts with a clean slate, which can be a good or a bad thing. For the sake of this season, it was a great thing.

Anyway, McMurphy had to deal with a missing body, and it quickly tuned into a bureaucratic story, which quickly ended with the predictable ending of the body turning up alive at the end of the hour. I knew that would happen, because there are only two reasons a body walks away from a Vietnam base: One, the body took medication to slow down the heart rate and pulse for the sake of desertion, and as a dead body you have an easier way of getting through the hurdle of deserting he war. Two, someone stole the dead body for whatever reason. Both are different stories, and both are bigger stories that fill airtime, but since this episode needed to focus on Laurette, there was no time to have Lazaro be a bigger character here, trying to run way from the terror that is Vietnam. By the way, the line “I didn’t even know I was dead until this kid from Missoula came out to replace me” was pretty hilarious. If that ever happens to you — a new guy or woman replacing you at your job — you know that everyone thought you were dead. By the way, did Lazaro’s parents back home got the sad news of their son having died in Vietnam? Was the letter of condolences already sent when McMurphy threw her eyes at the mossing, still living body?

Learning what life in Vietnam really looks like can be heartbreaking.

All in all, this might have been, along with “Home”, the best episode of the season, and while I see “Home” as the prime example of what the show should look like narrative-wise, this episode shows what CHINA BEACH can be when the writers don’t want to particularly care about deep and emotional stories, and just want to show the activity on the base, which are mostly random and forgettable, because that’s what life should be on a military base or in a hospital. People come and go, the revolving door is always moving. And every once in a while the goodbye arc of a certain character gets expanded to an entire hour because you got to love and appreciate the character over these last few days, weeks and months.

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