Episode Spotlight: The Merchant of Korea


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

“The Merchant of Korea” (#134, 6×14)
Originally Broadcast: Tuesday, December 20th, 1979
Written by Ken Levine & David Isaacs
Directed by William Jurgensen

Capsule Summary: Hawkeye and B.J. hope to take Charles for all he’s worth at the poker table only to discover he’s far better at cards than they thought.

There’s only one storyline in this episode, with numerous plot threads that lead up to the big poker game, all related to money: B.J. needs $200 for a down payment; the military screws up pay day; Colonel Potter needs $50 to buy Sophie a blanket; Hawkeye has tapped out his tab; Margaret is worried about her allowance.

While it’s nice that everyone fits into the storyline rather than there being several unrelated storylines, it still feels like some of the characters (Margaret and Colonel Potter) were shoehorned into the script, while others (Father Mulcahy, Klinger, and Radar) are little more than afterthoughts.

I actually felt sorry for Charles at the end of this episode. Sure, he’s smug and his demands of B.J. and Hawkeye are petty, but the glee with which everyone took advantage of him at the poker table was pretty extreme. It’s one thing to realize that a card player has a tell and use it to beat them. To do it with such joy, to relish it the way they did, was something else entirely.

It’s also impossible to believe that someone like Charles would have an obvious tell like whistling loudly. At the start of the game he was playing incredibly well. There’s no way he could have gotten that good if he announced via whistle when he had a bad hand. Of course, I’m of the opinion that Charles was a brilliant poker player who tricked everyone into assuming he was inexperienced. If, on the other hand, you think he just had an incredibly run of beginner’s luck, the whistling might seem more plausible.

A highlight of the episode is the story Charles tells B.J. about property his family once owned:

Dad owned some property like that once out on the Cape. Hyannis Port. Gee, we loved to go there. Then this large family moved in next door. Nouveau riche. Played a perpetual game of touch football on their lawn. Naturally, we moved out.

The large family he refers to, one obsessed with touch football? None other than the Kennedys. It’s a wonderful reference that you might just miss if you’re not familiar with the location of the Kennedy Compound on Cape Cod.

Other highlights include Charles explaining how he doesn’t sweat, he perspires (and he doesn’t perspire) as well as his incredulous “Are you implying I should clean up?” when Hawkeye suggests he tidy the Officers’ Club.

“Are you implying I should clean up?”

Hawkeye uses the title of this episode in conversation while complaining to B.J. about Charles.

I don’t recall B.J. and Peg’s plot of land ever being mentioned again after this episode.

Where did the huge tray of sandwiches at the poker game come from? Hawkeye said the game was starting in ten minutes. That’s not a lot of time to pull together a few dozen sandwiches. There’s also a tray of what look like chicken wings.

9 Replies to “Episode Spotlight: The Merchant of Korea”

  1. One other little thing you forgot to mention too, RJ, this was one of the show’s almost-annual heat wave episodes, even though in this one, the heat wave itself was treated more like a backdrop to the story, as opposed to be used to drive the plot(s) unlike “None Like it Hot.”

    Still, one of my favorites: one of my favorites from Season Six, one of my favorite heat wave episodes, and one of my favorite poker episodes.

  2. Another good episode from Season 6. I love how the entire camp bands together and plots Winchester’s downfall. I’m not sure he didn’t deserve it…what with holding that little loan over BJ’s head and making him do all those tasks for him.

    I just love that little nudge Hawkeye gives BJ after Charles remarks that it is not worth playing poker with penny ante. That little gesture was so well done.

    A scene where it becomes very obvious they are filming indoors is when BJ walks up to Hawkeye who is hosing down Kelly and Gwen and complains about Charles’ attitude. Their voices echo during this exchange clearly indicating an indoor location.

  3. Margaret came across as shrill and one-dimensional in this episode. Incidentally, how did they alter Margaret’s t-shirt into a halter top? Isn’t it against Army regulations to alter clothing into something inappropriate?

  4. This episode was aired on ME TV tonight (11/22/2016). Re-watching it I was reminded of a line by Hawkeye that has always bothered me (I wonder if it might have been an error that went uncorrected). After Charles gets his clock cleaned in the poker game Hawkeye remarks to him “you have been proverbially washed, dried, folded, and put in the dryer”. I have always wondered if the last part of that was supposed to be “put on the shelf”, “put in the closet”, or “put in the drawer”. Is it just me or does Hawkeye saying “dried…” followed by “put in the dryer” make no sense?

  5. Just got done watching this one, and one thing I noticed that’s interesting is in Margaret’s story about Donald and sending him money. This episode came just after Comrade’s in Arms, where Margaret finds out he’s cheating and decides to divorce him. Seems strange that she would go from that to still sending him almost her entire paycheck still.

    I assume it would be because this episode was produced before Comrades in Arms, because otherwise it’s a pretty big oversight on the part of the writers.

  6. one of my all time favorites. I loved any MASH where they played poker. “He whistles louder when he has nothing!” still cracks me up. Also when Father Mulcahy hands Charles a sympathy chip “from the orphans.” And Charles singing “Manana” as he cleans up after the game. Great moments

  7. Watched it again and noticed another “cut for more commercials moment” I distinctly remember Hawkeye describing to a potential player that “We are going to turn Winchester into LOSE-chester!” Gone, I can only assume it involves Margaret.

  8. As far as a poker “tell” goes, a table might share another player’s tell, especially one that smug and lucky. But no one could miss a tell as obvious as Winchester’s whistling. A tell is something seemingly insignificant, a sigh, the way a chip is touched, a blink. Certainly not a sonata. Charles should have picked it up himself and the rest should have picked it up a lot sooner.

    Then again, it’s a TV show I should really just relax.

    Great Potter line “See those boots, picture them kicking you across the compound”

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