Episode Spotlight: Back Pay


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

“Back Pay” (#193, 08×24)
Originally Broadcast: Monday, March 10th, 1980
Written by Thad Mumford & Dan Wilcox and Dennis Koenig
Directed by Burt Metcalfe

Capsule Summary: While Charles deals with a bad back, a furious Hawkeye sends the Army a huge bill for his medical services.

Leave it to Hawkeye to blow a relatively harmless magazine article into a huge fuss and nearly get himself sent to the funny farm. Exactly why Colonel Potter was so worried that Hawkeye was going to wind up in the loony bin is never explained. If anything, he should have been more concerned that Hawkeye would face a court martial.

Considering that B.J. had money woes on occasion, I would have expected him to be a little more upset upon hearing that doctors stateside were making huge amounts of money. He seemed to think it was funny at first and even after stealing Captain Snyder’s jeep was clearly not as angry as Hawkeye.

Richard Herd does a terrific job as Captain Snyder and it helps Hawkeye’s A story immensely to have such a solid antagonist. He’s not just a mindless bureaucrat. Snyder truly detests Hawkeye.

The Charles B story is amusing but nothing special, although there are two parts I like: Charles describing the wonder of the human body and his honest gratitude after being cured by the South Koreans. Margaret’s role in the episode was pointless. She really had nothing to do and seeing her treat Charles like a child was embarrassing.

Hawkeye wants the Army to pay up.

The first scene in the scrub room looks incredibly grainy on DVD and when streamed via Netflix.

B.J. pours an entire shaker of sugar (or salt) into a bowl after giving up on breakfast. I wonder why.

Were doctors actually able to take x-rays in the United States rather than get drafted and sent to Korea?

This episode marked Jerry Fujikawa’s seventh (out of eight total) guest appearance on M*A*S*H. It was also Sab Shimono’s second and final guest appearance.

18 Replies to “Episode Spotlight: Back Pay”

  1. So is this the episode where Charles is lying around in his cot in the middle of the afternoon and Potter’s chewing him outbecause of it?

    1. There is a lengthy scene with Charles in his bunk and Colonel Potter trying to convince him to let the Korean doctors help. But he doesn’t chew him out.

      Could you be thinking of the scene in “The Yalu Brick Road” when Margaret rips through the Swamp to yell at Charles for being asleep rather than helping out during the salmonella outbreak?

  2. I was thinking that this was the episode where BJ learned from Peg that a piece of land they really liked was for sale and because of no pay he had to borrow money from Winchester to send home as a down payment. Because of the loan Winchester makes a servant (so to speak) out of BJ as gratitude for the loan.

  3. “The first scene in the scrub room looks incredibly grainy on DVD and when streamed via Netflix.”

    I seem to remember that entire scene is cut in syndication- on TV the episode starts with Winchester and the Korean doctors in the OR. And yeah, that scrub room scene is pretty bad quality, even on the DVD- possibly why it was cut out on TV…

    1. I enjoy the scene in which Hawkeye asks about compensation, and one of the Korean doctors says he would take a chicken.

  4. “Were doctors actually able to take x-rays in the United States rather than get drafted and sent to Korea?”

    Absolutely. (Was this a rhetorical question?)

    Even during the Vietnam War only a small number of eligible people, including doctors, were drafted. Most of those not eligible were for health or age reasons.

    Hawkeye’s major complaint in this episode is not about the doctors per se, but the civilian doctors working under government contract. They were being paid normal civilian rates for the same work he was doing, for the same government, while he received a flat monthly pay as a military doctor (which in one episode he states is about $450/month).

  5. BJ: Excuse me, Mr. Quixote. May I call you Don?
    Hawkeye: I thought tilting at windmills wasn’t your game, Sancho.
    Both references to “Man of La Mancha”
    I’d like to think that both lines were emblematic of the writing on the show.

    1. Actually I think both references were to the book Don Quixote. It’s a bit more widely known I think than the musical which incidentally was based on the classic book by Cervantes.

  6. You can REALLY tell the show was starting to fall apart around the time of this episode. The quality of the writing in this season is just so much worse than seasons prior. The newcomer writers in season 8 Dennis Koenig, Thad Mumford, & Dan Wilcox all collaborated on this episode. Such a huge difference from the days of Gelbart, Reynolds, Laurence Marks, Jim Fritzell, & Ken Levine.

    1. I just saw this one again, and have to say it’s not my favorite. They can’t all be gems of course, but this episode falls short of other episodes written by Mumford & Wilcox. I’m used to Hawkeye fighting for a cause, but he comes across as more petulant than purposeful, and his storyline and its delivery are too much. Most episodes meet a certain standard. This one fell flat by comparison.

  7. About the salt/sugar bring poured by BJ, I think it was a ploy that actors do to draw attention to themselves while someone else is speaking. Mike Farrell does this a lot but he’s not alone. Plenty of very famous actors in movies and TV will do inexplicable things when the attention isn’t supposed to be on them. Like they’re saying look at me. I’m still here too. Happens a lot in old Hollywood movies but also current pictures too. I’ve heard actors Clint Eastwood and George Clooney both talk about this and even directors like Barry Levinson and Louis CK have mentioned firing extras for doing it excessively. The salt thing had no purpose other than to remind people he was there and to look at him instead of Alan. Next time you watch anything try to focus on people who aren’t speaking and you’ll notice what I mean. Mike Farrell takes it to another level with his red suspenders, pink shirts, and Converse sneakers. All worn by design to distinguish himself from Alan. Some of these items were introduced into wardrobe at Farrell’s suggestion even though they would never have been worn in the 50s (pink shirts? Not likely). He’s just trying to remind people he’s there through flashier clothes. No real harm in it. Alan is such a big presence on the show that I’m sure it’s hard to deal with at times.

  8. This is a decent episode, although Hawkeye is very annoying throughout. No wonder Captain Snyder can’t stand him. The idea of Hawkeye wanting compensation from the Army is recycled from Season 3’s “Payday” (which is a better episode than this). However, in “Payday”, the trouble comes about because of a misunderstanding, rather than from Hawkeye’s direct actions.

    I agree that BJ should have been more outraged about the civilian doctors, but since it’s The Hawkeye Show, the focus has to be on Pierce’s actions. I doubt that BJ could have been so brazenly defiant, anyway. Stealing the Jeep and hiding it was more his style.

    Charles’ interactions with the Korean doctors show him at his most Burns-ish. However, unlike Burns, he was gracious in the end. Most of his lines are very funny, especially when he is laid out on his cot. Charles was usually comedy gold when he was ill.

    It’s hard to say if BJ dumping the salt in the sugar bowl was Farrell’s idea or if it came from the director. Either way, it’s just a random thing in the end, with no payoff. When Potter sits down with a cup of coffee, I always expect him to taste the coffee, then put a spoonful of “sugar” in the coffee, resulting in a spit-take; but it never happens.

  9. I thought the battle between Snyder and Hawkeye was a little over the top-Snyder takes his beef with Hawkeye personally, and Hawkeye seems to think he’ll actually get the money he thinks he’s owed (did he ever get it?) It seemed to be another one f those situations that Hawkeye really couldn’t do anything about, which BJ seemed to realize.

    Korean doctor translating: “Not bad for Three Stooges, eh?”

  10. This episode is line after line of a play on words, much more than a real story line – all delivered without smiling.

    Potter getting Charles to say okie dokie (twice!)

    Margaret’s reply to Potter about a fabric choice, “mmm, Are there any other swatches in there, sir?”

    B.J., “Big surprise, Uncle Sam always turns the other check.”

    Hawkeye, “…I’m getting minimum rage.”

    “Don’t try to sweet talk me. …” After being called hot headed and self righteous.

    Everyone’s lines giving Charles advice on what to do for his back.

    Potter, “At least it’s just his back that’s twisted, not his brain.”

    I really like the calm, realistic reaction B.J. has to Hawkeye’s over the top reaction (remember, this is a sitcom – like “The Three Stooges”!).

    I took the tag scene to mean Hawkeye didn’t really want the money (so didn’t ever really think he’d get it),he was just doing it for fun.

  11. If you look at the Goodbye, Farewell, and amen DVD set bonus features, there a select few PSAs made by some of the MASH cast. Mike Ferrell has one about cutting down on salt consumption. So my guess is that he does pour salt out of a shaker is a little wink and nod to one of his PSAs

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