Every Monday, I spotlight a random episode of M*A*S*H, providing a brief review and asking readers to offer their thoughts.
“Sometimes You Hear the Bullet” (#17, 1×17)
Originally Broadcast: Sunday, January 28th, 1973
Written by Carl Kleinschmitt
Directed by William Wiard
Capsule Summary: An old friend of Hawkeye’s visits the 4077th; later, he is wounded in battle and dies on the operating table. Meanwhile, an underage Marine is desperate to return to his unit. And Frank throws out his back and applies for a Purple Heart.
Here it is, the episode that proved M*A*S*H could be more than just a sitcom set during a war, that it could be dramatic and serious and dark without alienating viewers, that it could mix comedy with tragedy successfully. Without “Sometimes You Hear the Bullet,” would the series have lasted so long? Would it have even returned for a second season?
What is there to say about an episode so widely regarded as a classic? I still get chills watching the scene in which Hawkeye and Colonel Blake discuss Tommy’s death and the two rules about war: that young men die and that doctors can’t change that reality.
I will say that the tag scene in which Hawkeye gives Wendell/Walter the Purple Heart meant for Frank, which I believe is often cut in syndication, doesn’t really work for me. Hawkeye’s line about hoping Wendell/Walter has a long and healthy hate was such a perfect way to end that story line. The subsequent scene ruins that ending.
Here’s what Larry Gelbart had to say about the episode in a post to the alt.tv.mash Newsgroup on January 10th, 1999:
Somehow, over the years, I have come to remember this as the seventh episode of the first season. It was, as some you may know a lot better than me, the eighteenth. The episodes that preceded it were a mixed lot. Some good, some less so. What was missing was a certain tone and perhaps a certain courage. The ideas for the shows came from several sources: from research, from original thoughts that occured [sic] me, or Gene Reynolds, or from both of us. Not a lot of outside writers (there was no staff – I was the staff) contributed to the idea pool. The show was in its infancy and quite unlike any others that were on the air, so it was difficult for free lance writers to key into us.
The original idea for Bullet came from a writer named Carl Kleinschmitt dealt with a civilian friend of Hawkeye’s, a writer, covering the war as fighting man so he could best tell realistically what going through battle was all about – and paying for that search for truth with his life.
That, in itself would have probably made a successful episode. Gene and I wanted to add an another element, however. We wanted something constructive to come from the experience, wanted the man’s death to
something. We did not want him to be just one more war casualty.
To Kleinschmitt’s original outline, we added the character and storyline of the underage Marine who enlisted to prove his manhood, using the experience of Hawkeye’s friend’s to prevent the death of the boy.
Besides enriching the episode, the succes [sic] of the resultant script emboldened us to dig a little deeper with all subsequent scripts.
I wish it
been the seventh episode. Who knows what the first might have been.
(Although “Sometimes You Hear the Bullet” was the seventeenth episode to air, it was the eighteenth produced.)
This episode marked the first of six appearances by Lynnette Mettey as the nurse Hawkeye was attempting to romance throughout the episode, only to be continually interrupted. She was credited as Lt. Nancy Griffin in this episode and her next two. In her last three appearances she played three different characters.
The two patients fighting about salami seem almost out of place. Perhaps they were included to give the episode a little more humor.
There’s a wonderful Blake-ism in this episode: “Pierce, that’s a decision I’ll decide when I decide and make my, uh, decision and that will decide it.”