This essay is part of our series Episodes, monthly column in which TV Critic Valerie Ettenhofer digs into the singular chapters of television that make the medium great. This time she’s revisiting an early M*A*S*H episode that showed just how much the classic sitcom was willing to blend comedy with deeply felt drama.
Fifty years ago, M*A*S*H premiered and changed television for good. Over its eleven seasons, the show would break ground in more ways than one, championing progressive, anti-war attitudes and frequently blurring the lines between comedy and drama in way that would influence decades’ worth of sitcoms to come. But in its first season, the Korean War-set series was still finding its footing, playing in the same bawdy comedic sandbox as Robert Altman‘s 1970 movie of the same name. Despite its rebellious spirit, early M*A*S*H aimed to amuse above all else — until, suddenly, it didn’t.
The episode “Sometimes You Hear the Bullet” arrived in 1973, late in the show’s first season, with a deceptively simple plot that gave way to a sobering peek inside the show’s bleeding heart. By the end of its 26-minute runtime, the episode had deftly communicated nearly all of the themes that would preoccupy the series’ writers for the next eleven seasons. Among them: expectation-defying images of masculinity, deferred trauma, the perils of misguided patriotism, and the devastating human toll of war. Not bad for an installment with a B-plot about Frank (Larry Linville) trying to get a Purple Heart after throwing his back out during a hot date with Margaret (Loretta Swit).
“Sometimes You Heart the Bullet” starts off innocuous enough. While secret lovers Frank and Margaret attempt to cover up the evidence of the former’s bedroom injury, Hawkeye (Alan Alda) gets cozy with a woman over a less-than-impressive jar of black market olives. When his date is interrupted – first by Frank, then by a new round of injured patients – the surgeon heads to the O.R. There, a patient arrives with his hands over his face, calling out for Hawkeye specifically. When the doctor leans over, the man gleefully springs up, calling, “I think I love you!” before he seems to kiss the doctor’s neck.
It’s not a real patient, it turns out, but Hawkeye’s childhood friend Tommy (James T. Callahan), a reporter turned enlisted soldier who’s writing a book about the war. We don’t know much about Tommy, but what we do know reveals that he’s as gleefully counter-cultural as his best pal. M*A*S*H is full of gay jokes, but in a move that’s surprising for its time, they’re often more winking than homophobic. By letting Hawkeye and his fellow soldiers idly flirt, they hint at a half-joking fluidity among the men of the 4077th MASH unit that’s a comfortable opposite to the traditional, hyper-masculine Army-man image. Tommy plays into this constantly, kissing Lt. Colonel Henry (McLean Stevenson) on the mouth and joking with Hawk about how he “prances” around camp.
Other than his good humor and freely given affection, though, we never learn too much about Tommy. We do know he’s anti-war – Hawkeye points out the irony that he used to be a Communist, and now he’s fighting them – and that he wants to capture truths about the front lines that don’t appear in overly-romantic battle stories. He tells Hawkeye and Trapper (Wayne Rogers) his idea for a book, titled You Never Hear the Bullet, as the three catch up in The Swamp:
“There’s always that big blonde kid who’s in all those war movies, right? The one that should never die and always does…Well, you always hear this big, loud ricochet just before he gets killed, right? Well, that’s not the way it really happens. There was a young blonde kid in our outfit. One day I looked over and half of him was gone. And you know what he said? He said, ‘I never heard no bullet.’”
It’s a downbeat moment, one that Hawkeye only knows how to respond to in one way. “Let’s get drunk,” he says as if he’s offering a life-saving prescription. Only, like every moment of revelry, romance, or respite attempted in this episode, they’re interrupted by the radio call: more wounded have arrived. Among them is Wendell (Ron Howard), a young Marine with appendicitis. He says he’s 20, and when Hawkeye hits him with a knowing look, he lowers his age to 18. “For somebody who’s both 20 and 18, you look awfully 16 to me,” Hawkeye says. Tommy, meanwhile, hits the road to keep working on his manuscript.
As the show does with countless guest stars throughout its lengthy run, M*A*S*H uses Howard’s Wendell to put a human face to the ever-churning machinery of war. He’s just a teenager, but he’s already internalized dangerous and nasty ideas about wartime glory; he’s no doubt been watching those movies Tommy hates. Hawkeye corrects Wendell when he uses a racial slur to describe the North Koreans, and when the doctor finds the still-recovering teenager trying to leave camp to avoid being turned in for his underage enlistment, he discovers that Wendell plans to impress an ex-girlfriend by becoming a war hero. It’s a fool’s errand, and Alda’s sad eyes make it clear that Hawkeye knows there are countless more kids like Wendell on the front lines, waiting to make their way to his O.R. when their rose-colored glasses inevitably shatter in battle.
Hawkeye’s concern only grows, though, when yet another batch of wounded arrives, with Tommy among them. When he sees his friend’s face, his own goes blank with shock, and he responds to Tommy’s joke – “I’d give you a kiss, but I can’t lift my head” – as if on autopilot. It’s suddenly clear now that Hawkeye’s martini glasses and quips and flirtations all work as defense mechanisms, insulation between himself and the unthinkably tragic truth of his circumstances. He’s not ready to face this truth yet, so when Tommy makes a heartbreaking reference to his own book, admitting he did hear the bullet, after all, Hawkeye quickly insists he can just change the title. “Sometimes You Hear The Bullet, it’s a better title anyway,” he says.
The surgeon’s voice betrays a hint of anxiety as he speaks, and he begins calling out assured medical commands to the nurses and doctors around him. The camera speeds up here, with episode director William Wiard quickly cutting between the looks on the faces of each person around the operating table. It’s a visual tactic that effectively conveys how grave the situation’s become without testing CBS’ tolerance for on-screen bloodshed. The death looks bloodless, just like the faces of the people witnessing it. Priest Father Mulcahy’s (William Christopher) sudden presence is as grim a sign as any, but Hawkeye refuses to accept that his friend is gone until Henry tells him to step away.
We don’t see the moment Hawkeye sheds his first tears. Instead, we see him holding that blank look again, like a child who’s fallen but hasn’t yet realized he’s gotten hurt. Then he walks outside, and when the camera finds him again, it’s from behind his shoulder as Henry approaches. When Alda’s face is finally visible again, it’s streaked with tears. “This is the first time I’ve cried since I came to this crummy place. I don’t understand that,” he says. He gets why he’s crying for Tommy, he says, but doesn’t get why he doesn’t cry for everyone else, too. Henry says rule number one of doctoring, paraphrasing a lesson he heard once without much conviction, is that young men die. “You believe that?” Hawk asks, still an idealist and a cynic all at once. “I don’t know,” Henry answers plainly. “Do you?”
“Sometimes You Hear The Bullet” is the first of countless emotional gut checks M*A*S*H would deliver over the years. It’s a brisk tonal tightrope, and Carl Kleinschmitt’s script conveys painful truths that few wartime stories of its era dared to. But in a testament to the show’s excellent writing, it also finds a way to end a story that could have been hopeless with a moment of bittersweet victory. Hawkeye, realizing he can save at least one life that day, breathlessly rushes to report Wendell for underage enlistment. The boy is hurt and betrayed, telling the surgeon he won’t forgive him for the rest of his life. “Let’s hope it’s a long and healthy hate,” Hawkeye says, mustering a small smile. It’s a nuanced, sadness-tinged ending that Tommy would be proud of. After all, it’s nothing like the movies.