Episode Spotlight: The Late Captain Pierce


Every Monday, I spotlight a random episode of M*A*S*H, providing a brief review and asking readers to offer their thoughts.

“The Late Captain Pierce” (#76, 4×04)
Originally Broadcast: Friday, October 3rd, 1975
Written by Glen Charles & Les Charles
Directed by Alan Alda

Capsule Summary: The Army mistakenly declares Hawkeye dead, causing all sorts of problems for him and prompting him to consider going AWOL.

This is a solid episode. It’s not perfect, but I like it. I think maybe it suffers somewhat from a common problem on M*A*S*H: trying to mix comedy with drama. Something feels off but I can’t quite put my finger on it. Is Hawkeye’s anguish at becoming an un-person diminished by the antics of Digger (aka Lt. Detweiler)? Is that what bothers me?

Digger is a funny character. Richard Masur does a great job playing the sarcastic, somewhat apathetic morgue officer. I love this exchange between Digger and Klinger:

Digger: Hey, aren’t you the guy who’s trying to get out, pretending you’re a woman?”
Klinger: “No, no. I’m the woman trying to get in, pretending I’m a guy.”
Digger: “Funny.”

Maybe it’s just me, but Hawkeye worrying about his poor father while Digger wandering around the 4077th worrying about losing bodies doesn’t quite work. As the episode progresses, Hawkeye becomes increasingly distraught at how his life has been impacted since it ended. It’s bizarre at first, almost comical, and B.J. throws Hawkeye a wake. True, Hawkeye worries about his father, but it’s not until he learns isn’t getting his mail or getting paid that the seriousness of the situation starts to sink in. To make matters worse, he can’t reach his father to let him know he’s alive.

The telegram Hawkeye dictates to Klinger is amusing, yet also laced with some of the distress Hawkeye feels:

Hawkeye: “Dear Dad. I am not dead. Stop. Hope you are the same. Stop. Thinking of selling my clubs? Stop. Spending my insurance money? Stop.”
B.J.: “Poetry.”
Hawkeye: “Will call soonest. Please don’t worry. Sign it, ‘Love, your nowhere-near-late son, Hawkeye.'”

Later, after fighting with Frank and trying everything he can think of to contact his father, Hawkeye decides to go home. He’s dead, according to the Army, so is it really considered going AWOL? B.J. tries to talk him out of it and their conversations includes one of the show’s most memorable lines of dialogue:

Hawkeye: “I don’t care. I really don’t. They’ll keep coming whether I’m here or not. Trapper went home. They’re still coming. Henry got killed and they’re still coming. Wherever they come from, they’ll never run out.”

In the end, Hawkeye can’t leave knowing wounded are on their way, injured soldiers he can help, lives he can save. After surgery, Hawkeye is able to call home and let his father know he’s still among the living. Poor Digger has to leave without the body he came to collect.

Still from the M*A*S*H episode The Late Captain Pierce showing Hawkeye.

Hawkeye calls his father.

According to the Internet Movie Database, this was the first television writing credit for brothers Glen Charles and Les Charles. The two later went on to create Cheers, which ran on NBC from 1981 to 1993.

Eldon Quick made his third and final appearance on M*A*S*H in this episode, playing Captain Pratt. He previously played Captain Sloan in “The Incubator” during Season 2 and “Payday” during Season 3.

Margaret and Radar do not appear in this episode. Klinger explains that Radar has been given a few days in Seoul to unwind. Margaret’s absence is never addressed.

17 Replies to “Episode Spotlight: The Late Captain Pierce”

  1. This was a particularly visually interesting episode for the inclusion of snow on the ground, which save for it snowing during the tag of “Dear Sis,” I believe was the only time we ever saw any accumulation on M*A*S*H (unless we also count when it started falling at the end of “Twas the Day After Christmas”).

    One thing that sticks out for me about this episode is the fight between Hawkeye and Frank in the Mess Tent, if mainly because Frank is showing his true colors during the fight, as he wimpily asks Hawkeye not to hurt him in front of everybody, calls out for help, and has veggies shoved down his shirt and into his face. And as the MPs finally arrive, Frank chansts, “Punch ‘im in the throat! Punch ‘im in the throat!”

    My favorite line is when the lines get disconnected, and Klinger asks into the phone, “Hey world, where’d you go?”

  2. Why didn’t Klinger ask Mr Pierce why he wanted to talk to BJ? That would have cleared the whole thing up right there.

    1. And come to think of it, how did Mr. Pierce already know who B.J. was, considering he was the newbie in camp?

      1. Perhaps, in one of his letters home, Hawkeye told his dad about BJ.

        Capt. Pratt: You are what George Orwell described in “1984” as an unperson.

        I really don’t have any feelings, sympathetic or otherwise, for Lt. Detwiler. He came across as being hamstrung by his job.

        In short, an episode that falls flat, even with Hawkeye and BJ’s revealing conversation in Digger’s ambulance.

      2. I have no way of knowing this, but I suspect that this episode was written before Wayne Rogers left, and then they shoe-horned BJ into it. At any rate, Klinger certainly would have told Mr. Pierce that his son was alive. Otherwise, a very good episode.

      3. On second thought, after seeing this again last night, it could be argued that Klinger never actually talked to Mr. Pierce. When Klinger returns to the office with BJ and Hawkeye, he picks up the phone and says, “Okay, Sparky, we’re ready.”; then Mr. Pierce is patched through. So maybe that explains the misunderstanding???

        Regardless, the plot requires that Mr. Pierce thinks his son is dead, and that Hawkeye cannot get in touch with him, which leads Hawkeye to become more and more distressed. Hence, other conveniences like Eisenhower’s visit, Hawkeye’s mail and pay being stopped, Digger hanging around like a vulture, and Captain Pratt’s unhelpful bureaucratic attitude.

  3. I was mistaken about Digger’s last name. It was actually Detmuller, not Detwiler. Hawk was unintentionally funny with all the dead wordplay.

  4. One of my favorite episodes. The only thing that seems off is that Klinger and his antics are apparently famous enough outside of the 4077th to rank a ‘hey aren’t you that guy’ from Digger upon their first meeting.

    I wonder if kids watching today can understand truly the feeling of being totally cut off from communications as Hawkeye is here.

  5. I think there is a slight blooper at the end, Hawkeye takes his duffle bag on the bus, but doesn’t seem to have it when we see him walking back.

    1. It’s been a while since I saw this one, but I’m pretty sure that when Hawkeye climbs out of the bus and slams the door, he hauls his duffle bag over his shoulder and trudges back to the camp.

      At any rate, I love the music that plays at that time.

  6. Frank’s attitude seemed to make him more annoying than usual, but the fight seemed a little overboard. Why couldn’t Hawkeye wait for the money? And would he really have deserted before they found him not dead?

  7. Trapper John/Blake caracthers would have made this funnier. Historical note President elect Eisenhower visted Korea for 3 days in December 1952….so if MASH had keep to the real Koren war Timeline…this would have been the series finale as the war ended July 1953…besides this would have been a nice series finale…Hawkeye going home…then 20 years later the Army cathes up with him…so he has to work in a VA hospitsl gratis…where he meets a younger version of himself from the Vietnam war…and where the Hos Administrator is …Frank Burns!

  8. This is one of my favorite episodes. It combines two of my favorite themes in fiction: bureaucratic absurdity and commitment to duty. I love the scene where Hawkeye gets off the bus and trudges back to the OR because the insanity of the situation can’t overcome his dedication to saving lives. It’s like Kafka tempered by idealism.

  9. Just noticed a bit of foreshadowing…when BJ wakes Hawkeye he was apparently dreaming of being executed.

  10. Saw the money line scene unedited for the first time on MeTV last night. I liked Frank’s pathetic “Stop it, you’re hurting me in front of people!”

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