Episode Spotlight: Sometimes You Hear the Bullet

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.

Screenshot of Alan Alda as Hawkeye Pierce, looking sad and facing Colonel Blake
Hawkeye cries for the first time in Korea

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.

Best,

Larry G.

(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.”

12 Comments

  • Admittedly, I don’t watch this episode very often, but I do appreciate the effort they tried to make in distinguishing M*A*S*H from being considered, “Just another sitcom”; I think Larry even said in another interview that the network was nervous about this episode, and to them, that was a good sign that they were finally heading in the right direction in trying to find the right tone for the show.

    I disagree about the ending though; yes, the tag is cut from syndication, but I find that to end it when Hawkeye finking on Wendell/Walter, and telling, “Let’s hope it’s a long and healthy hate” was quite a downer, especially after the turn the episode already took just moments earlier with Tommy dying. The tag ends on a more positive note: Hawkeye and Trapper swipe the Purple Heart that Frank didn’t even deserve, and presented it to Wendell/Walter, now not only will he not have to risk his life fighting in the war anymore since Hawkeye was sending him home anyway, but he also gets to go home with a medal, and also with pride and confidence.

    As for the salami scene, it makes me laugh, only because of Hawkeye dragging those two huge rough-n-tough marines over to lil’ Radar and tells him if they give him anymore trouble to beat them senseless with their own salamis… the image of Radar trying to beat up a couple of marines with salamis is quite amusing.

    • RJ says:

      It was a downer of an episode and I think it should have stayed that way. The “happy” ending with the Purple Heart gives Frank some comeuppance but really detracts from the “long and healthy hate” exchange.

    • Doc Funnypants says:

      I thought ending the episode the way they did was the right thing to do. Cutting the tag in syndication left too many loose ends for me. Furthermore, seeing Ron Howard as a soon-to-be adult fueled interest for his acting future.

  • Larry P says:

    A terrific episode in every way, and there’s just no faulting Henry’s talk with Hawkeye; one of the seminal M*A*S*H moments, IMO.

    I have to agree with Larry Gelbart about the 1st season: Prior to this ep, there are some really great, really funny episodes, as well as some that clearly show the series trying to establish a groove; that is, a little uneven (and often trying too hard to be a TV version of the movie). This is the episode where M*A*S*H found that groove, even if it wasn’t taken to it’s fullest potential right away during the rest of season one. (that’s one of the reasons I-like-but-don’t-love that 1st season. IMO the show didn’t hit it’s stride until season two).

    That said, there’s no doubt that this episode paved the way for so much of the rest of the series.

  • Seoul City Sue says:

    I like this episode a lot mainly because it is one of the first episodes which establishes why exactly Henry was chosen to be its CO. From the scene where he orders Pierce to quit working on Tommy and go help McIntyre to him consoling Hawkeye with the rules monologue, he was just in command. McLean rocked the rules scene!! So powerful and so true. You can see that deep down below all the teasing and insolence, Hawkeye listens to Henry because he is his CO. One of the best episodes that showcases Henry’s CO persona.

    • RJ says:

      Great comment and something I should have mentioned in my review. Henry may often have seemed to be a bit of a buffoon but he was a good commanding officer, even if he wanted nothing to do with command.

  • doc funnypants says:

    Contrary to what other people think, I never liked it when Margaret spoke for Frank. It gave me the impression that Margaret had Frank wrapped around her little finger and she knew it. Just once, I wanted Henry to ask Frank a question, have Margaret answer, and have Henry say “Is your name Frank?”. Furthermore, I thought “Burnslihan’s” exploiting Army loopholes was stupid and beneath both of them ethically.

    • jgf says:

      Is this the episode where Margaret keeps answering for Frank and finally Henry holds up a hand to silence her, turns to Frank and says, “Frank, say something …anything …even a gurgling sound”.

      • Doc Funnypants says:

        No, it’s not. Henry’s message about the rules of war really brought this episode the acclaim it deserved. Just curious, was Tommy’s kiss of Henry the first same-sex kiss on television?

  • jgf says:

    For anyone familiar with TV, and to a lesser degree, movies, the denouements of both plots here were telegraphed from the start. From the minute we meet Hawkeye’s friend we know he is going to die, probably in Hawkeye’s arms (even if figuratively). And the underage marine plot only has two ways to go – he is discovered and sent home, or he is killed.

    So, a good episode with some good interaction, but dramatically weak.

  • Lady you ARE a Piece of Cornbread says:

    I wonder if CBS brass had the same concerns with Ron Howard as they did with Mary Tyler Moore: that the same viewers they worried would think Laura Petrie divorced Rob would think that Opie Taylor got wounded in the Korean/Vietnam war.

  • Lady you ARE a Piece of Cornbread says:

    Hawk’s comment “I know a red who gets me green olives on the black market” Sounds like the line in a later episode when he tells Flagg “You’re even boring in technicolor.”

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