Friday, January 23, 2015

#54: The Assassin

Season: 1

Synopsis in 3 sentences or less:

An infamous assassin, Piedra, is in town to do a job, and MacGyver and Pete capture him in a clock shop.  MacGyver impersonates Piedra to ascertain his target, but then Piedra escapes from his cell in the safehouse.  The target is an archbishop, and MacGyver attempts to find Piedra in the crowd of worshippers before it is too late.  

Memorable Quote:
What took you so long?   ~MacGyver
Well, I wanted to see who was gonna win.   ~Pete
I had him right where I wanted him.   ~MacGyver

A toss up between the battle in the clock shop and the confrontation in the chapel, but I'm leaning toward the opening in the clock shop.  I'm not sure why Piedra feels the need to kill MacGyver (posing as a crooked shop owner selling explosives), and I don't know why MacGyver just waits to be strangled even when he sees Piedra coming in the reflection.  Nevertheless, the whole scene is electric, and Piedra is a total bad-ass especially when he has MacGyver on the ground and starts twirling the knives with maniacal flair.  

This is a good time to mention that Piedra is played with exceptional skill by Anthony De Longis, who we just saw in Lost Love as a Soviet officer.  De Longis plays Piedra with a kind of smug intensity and lights up the screen every scene he's in.  Piedra is obviously going on our top villains list, and at this point I'm putting him at #1 as the toughest villain MacGyver has faced, even ahead of Murdoc (I'll save my thoughts on Murdoc for later - in fact, I still may move Murdoc ahead of Piedra, but time will tell).  The fact that he's a master of disguise means that he's already more competent than 90% of the bad guys MacGyver tangles with, and he does some other smart things like bring the kid into the clock shop.  He's also very skilled with all kinds of weaponry and in martial arts.  A memorable villain to be sure.  Kind of makes you wish that all the villains were this capable.   

A silly conversation at the end.
  • "Well, it’s just that I’ll never know for sure."   ~MacGyver
  • "Oh?"  ~Pete
  • "Know what?"  ~Terry
  • "Whether or not he could have taken him."  ~Pete
Are we talking 1 on 1 combat?  Let me answer that, MacGyver:  No, there's not a chance you could have taken him.  In fact, we have evidence of this in the clock shop as he was about to carve you up like a pumpkin before Pete stepped in.

Best MacGyverism:
Picks up the phone and puts it down on a ruler, then pushes hard on the ruler to pop the phone up and distract the Archbishop's head of security. 

Other thoughts, observations, and questions I didn’t ask when I was in fourth grade:
  • Dark, gritty opening with a woman getting stabbed in her hotel/apartment room in cold blood.
  • Great old school clock and watch shop where MacGyver goes undercover.  Looks very similar to a place called Laufix's that did watch repair in Northampton, PA that I went to as a kid. They don't make shops like that anymore. 
  • Smart and gutsy move by Terry to go undercover to find her sister's killer.  Nice to have a strong female heroine.  
  • When they're inspecing Piedra's weapons stash, it'd be nice of MacGyver to give Pete a little more notice before firing the big dart, which looks like it lands only a few feet away from Pete. 
  • Good scene where Terry is ready to kill MacGyver (thinking he's Piedra) but then MacGyver uses Piedra's explosive toothpaste to distract and disarm her.  And then a classic MacGyver move: wiping her tears away (literally with his hand), pushing the hair back, and offering to listen, followed by a hug.  What more would a lady want?
  • Great escape from the cell by Piedra using a pea, styrofoam cup, and needles hidden in his scar and moustache.  I'd think it would be hard for a needle to penetrate another man's suit and bring him to his knees, however.  And a great move by Piedra to then hide up in the ceiling, and quite a moment as he pounces and the camera cuts away right as he's about to strike. 
  • Fun moment at 36:57:
    • "Terry fill ‘em in." ~MacGyver says, handing the phone to Terry.
    • "Please hurry."  ~Terry, who then hangs up the phone. 
  • It's negligent of them to let the Archbishop go out to speak when they know Piedra is on the loose in the building.  They shouldn't have even made it a discussion with the Archbishop and given him a chance to insist on going out to speak. 
  • When MacGyver dresses up like the Archbishop, wouldn't the other nuns react as soon as they saw him?
  • Piedra has a needle in the chapel and stabs at MacGyver, but somehow the needle doesn't factor in when he pushes MacGyver backwards.  Then once they move outside, Piedra trips and falls with his hand pushing through another needle that he fired at MacGyver.  I wouldn't think a needle piercing a hand would be enough to kill someone, though maybe it was laced with something.  Lots of questions about needles today.  

Final Analysis:

This episode is kind of phenomenal.  It's even better than I remembered - a great plot, solid acting, memorable villain, and end-to-end excitement.  Several of my higher-ranked episodes are ones that are meaningful to me, yet I can understand why they wouldn't appeal to others.  But I'd think most people would like this one - it holds up very well.  Coming up, let's take a little trip to Season 6! 


  1. I agree with you - this is a good episode for all the reasons you mentioned. Good evaluation.

  2. I feared this one would be next when you mentioned a "memorable villain". This is an exceptional of the best. It had a masterfully crafted story, a strong female sidekick, a brilliant villain in which Anthony De Longis gave one of the best acting performances of MacGyver's entire run, and a grippingly sinister and suspenseful tone that we saw flashes of in season 1 (and again in the series' middle seasons) that I wish they would have continued with in season 2. I loved this episode when I first watched it in 1986 but ABC never re-ran this one in the summer for whatever reason, so I was blown away again when I finally got to watch it again on cable in 1992 at how first-rate it was.

    There was a lot going on early on with the killing of Terry's sister, MacGyver posing as the clock shop owner to entrap Piedra, the archbishop's (rather incompetent) security team keeping tabs on the threat, and Terry immersing herself in the flesh trade to find her sister's last contact and exact revenge, but it all weaved together like a fine movie script. The scene at the clock shop was one of the series' best-choreographed fight scenes...and its most entertaining by a mile. I also loved the unearthing of his secret weapon stash at the motel room leading up to MacGyver taking his place. But for me the episode's best scene--and one of the top three or so scenes of the entire series--was Piedra's great escape from the FBI safehouse. De Longis' cocksure demeanor made it clear he had more dirty tricks up his sleeve and you just knew he was gonna escape from that cell, but never knew exactly how. When that perfectly coiffed 80s mustache came off, I was caught by complete surprise, and the poison-tipped needle's removal from a fake appendicts scar was the sort of thing that inspires an 8-year-old boy to become a writer....or at least it did for this one!

    The remainder of the hour was pretty violent for an early season MacGyver episode, but still executed with all cylinders firing and generally good acting by everyone which was no sure thing in season 1. It was years later before I picked up on the crucifixion metaphor of Piedra falling hand-first onto his own poison-tipped needle as the "wages of sin" for daring to mess with the archbishop in God's house! I will concur, however, that MacGyver's musing of "whether or not he could have taken him" made for a silly final scene. He's dead, MacGyver! You took him! Of course it required two people running interference for you to get the job done! Kind of intriguing to ponder if De Longis' Piedra may have voided the rise of Murdoc as MacGyver's archnemesis if he hadn't been so definitively killed in this episode. If they could have brought Piedra back, you gotta figure they crew would have loved to. One final bit of trivia with this episode is that it was the final TV script by veteran TV writer James Schmerer who wrote some of my favorite episodes in season 1 (and of the whole series for that matter). Schmerer retired in 1986 after about two decades in the TV business and became a novelist. He sure went out with a thunderous bang though. I rank this episode #5.

    1. I never disliked this one, but for whatever reason it didn't stand out to me as a kid, but I enjoy it much more as an adult. If I was doing a more objective ranking and removing my feelings from the equation, like what episodes would stand up the best to a random group of 100 people, I'd likely put this one in the top 20 or maybe even the top 10 - I'd throw The Madonna in there too (well, I wouldn't actually "throw" her). I'm pretty sure that the episode I have as my #3, my random group of 100 people would pan and say that there's nothing at all special about it, but for whatever reason it just resonates with me perfectly.

      Back to this episode, I do remember as a kid that his escape from the cell was really a powerful scene and made an impression on me. I suppose if they really wanted to bring him back, they could have made him "rise from the dead" ala Tony Almeida, but probably for the best they let it go. One thing that stands out to me doing this project is how weak many of the villains were, especially by today's standards, so Piedra stands out in a good way.

    2. Yeah I get it. I have connections to certain episodes high on my list that are outside the fan mainstream as well. I've been that way with certain movies too.....they just stuck with me for no obvious reason and I watch them repeatedly despite their only being two or three-star films. Very curious now to learn what your #3 is. Of the episodes you've reviewed so far, which villains were you most disappointed in? I'm guessing Axminster is high on that list but who were some others?

    3. Regarding the villains, I'd say the ones from Deadly Silents, Honest Abe, and The Lost Amadeus stand out as slapstick but also not amusing to me. For some reason I just thought of Jet Li's character in Lethal Weapon 4 as an example of a great villain who was exceptionally talented in martial arts, much more so than the heroes, so it feels like an underdog story. Dr. Zito (who I don't want to say too much about just yet) is very talented mentally. Maybe that's the trick is to make sure that the villain seems untouchable due to his overwhelming talent, thus making the hero's path that much more challenging and ultimately rewarding. A lot of the MacGyver villains aren't necessarily bad per se, but they often just seem kind of ordinary and end up blending together in my memory.

  3. I do unfortunately have one negative connotation with this episode. You speculated how "most people would like this one" and that was my exact mindset when I selected it back in 2003 for viewing with a girl I was dating who had only dabbled mildly in MacGyver up to that point and knew of my passion for the show. She suggested I pick out a favorite that we could watch together one Friday night and I thought I couldn't possibly go wrong with "The Assassin". She gave it a mediocre review and I could tell by her body language while watching it that it wasn't doing much for her. Now I guess there wasn't much for MacGyverisms in this episode, which she was probably looking for and disappointed when they didn't transpire, but from that point forward all I could think about when I was with this girl was "How could you not like "The Assassin"!??!?! We never got serious as a couple but I'm still friends with her. Fortunately, I'd eventually have a much more fruitful MacGyver bond with a future girlfriend a few years later.

    1. Interesting story - I would theorize that while it wouldn't be a deal breaker if a girl didn't like a favorite MacGyver episode, it would be an awesome sign if she did. I'm interested to hear more about the "more fruitful bond" - will that story have to wait until I get to a particular episode?!

    2. I remember in college watching a "Goldeneye" video with a girl which was a movie I loved at the time, and in retrospect it was kind of stupid of me - would have been better off going with a romcom or something of that nature.

    3. Yeah it wasn't a "dealbreaker" for me but if I don't have some pop culture connections with someone I'm dating it's a huge red flag of problems ahead. Such was the case with me and this girl (Maggie). Definitely a story ahead centered around an episode ahead on both our lists and my most MacGyver-friendly ex-girlfriend. Fascinatingly enough, just tonight I posted a comment on Facebook about "my boyhood hero being Medicare-eligible" as of today (RDA turned 65 today) and my first elementary crush/girlfriend blew my mind when she responded that "her boys are watching MacGyver right now" and that she always thinks of me when they watch it. I had no idea I got inside her head that much back in

      Now I'm not sure how much you knew this girl you watched "Goldeneye" with back in the day. Not every girl would prefer a romcom over James Bond and I think a quick way to discover if she's a good fit is to pop that Bond video in the DVD player. One old standby movie I play quite a bit for the "girl comes over to watch a movie" date is Kurt Russell's "Breakdown", which I always find to be the best movie nobody's seen. It's getting older now (1996) but holds up well and isn't a straight-up action movie but has some of those tendencies. The girls I've had over have liked it and I don't have to pretend to be a romcom-lover to get the thumbs-up. How did the girl respond to "Goldeneye"? Not well I'm assuming since you look back at it as a miscalculation.

    4. I don't remember much else, but I don't think she had outwardly had any negative reaction to 007. Nevertheless, while some girls may like Bond, I wouldn't expect most to like it to the same degree that I did, so it wasn't really the most sensitive choice on my part, but still a good learning experience. I've never heard of Breakdown, maybe I should give a shot?

      I did hear that it was RDA's 65th birthday today! A big milestone - hope he had a good one. It's a little scary sometimes watching these episodes and then realizing how long ago they were - I still like to think of him as the same age as MacGyver.

    5. I'm as old now as MacGyver was in season 3! That's scary! The newest episodes of the series would be old enough to be graduating college now if you look at it from that timeline perspective. And yeah, I would highly recommend "Breakdown".

  4. I'm on the other end of the spectrum with this one. I'm not a big fan of this episode. I think a large part of it is Terry - I find her more obnoxious than 'strong'. And Pietra sort of rubs me the wrong way. Though, that's probably the point. His disguises are good, but his arrogance is a bit to 'over the top' for my tastes.

    1. Interesting to know - thanks for sharing!

    2. Another great episode and what a way to end season 1! As you say, a dark and creepy opening and another MacGyver series minor character meets an explicit violent death! Its very cool that MacGyver can step in as a watchmaker but I hate those rather clumsy 'let the audience know why we're doing this' explanations that we get, this time from Pete over the two-way.
      The fight scene is excellent and immediately we know we've got a serious villain. I like the running joke about MacGyver making light of how nearly Piedra wins. Loved MacGyver trying out all the gadgets and his sensing, from looking at Piedra's smile, that the pen is armed. Its also cool that he knows its curare. MacGyver is even more laid back than usual here as he relaxes on the sofa waiting for the phone call while Pete's fussing and I love his 'Got anybody else?' in response to Pete's 'You could get killed'. He nearly gets killed every week so why should this particular occasion be any different!
      I liked the simple MacGyverism of escaping from what he thinks are villains by driving over the spikes with a plank. A minor nitpick here but wouldn't MacGyver use the NATO alphabet when calling in their car registration. Where does he get 'Peter, Jackson, Peter' from instead of Papa, Juliet, Papa?' I noted the standard 'MacGyver comforting women' scene as you did; it works every time!
      Uh Oh... the villain's in a 'safe house'. Alarm bells should be ringing - safe houses are never 'safe' in tv adventure shows, especially in MacGyver and some more minor characters bite the dust.The scar and 'tache tricks are brilliant. I agree; we truly have a villain worthy of MacGyver here. Like you I didn't get why Piedra doesn't use the needle when he pushes MacGyver as the Archbishop, backwards. It was pretty easy to tell it was MacGyver straight away as he is so much slimmer than the real thing and his hands are quite distinctive.
      MacGyver is up for anything here, as he goes straight for Piedra even though he know how dangerous he is and we have suspenseful moment as Piedra is pointing the gun at MacGyver but the poisoned needle finishes him off first. I'm assuming it was poisoned with curare as they had already discussed this in the gadgets scene which brings on another minor nitpick; if that was the case ;a) would it really have worked that quickly and b) MacGyver would have known that they could have kept Piedra alive with artificial respiration but perhaps I'm over-complicating things!

      I actually enjoyed the joke at the end about whether MacGyver could have 'taken him' or not. Its a bit more macho than usual for MacGyver and kept alive the running joke from the first fight.

      All in all a great episode, full of action and suspense, an excellent villain, deserving of a place in your top 5 villains list, and strong female lead. In my top 15. For now, I think I'm just going to continue going with the flow regarding my rankings and just indicating where I feel they should be rather than allocating them an exact place - that way I can have 30 in my top 20 if I feel like it!

    3. My assumption was that the rosary necklace around the "archbishop" MacGyver's neck stopped Piedra's needle from breaking the skin.

    4. Thanks for pointing out the curare. I was trying to figure out what they said and couldn't tell, and I'd never heard of curare before and was just now reading about it.

    5. Its often used in murder mysteries and I'm pretty sure it turns up in Sherlock Holmes.

  5. This is an outstanding episode. I’m not sure why I didn’t tape it all, perhaps because of how inept MacGyver looked fighting in the clock shop, unfortunately through some of his own wrong moves and not just because Piedra was awesome. MacGyver spotting him pulling out the string was a great observation but one he would have been better off without, as, for some inexplicable reason, his reaction to it is to walk right up to him and even turn his back, pretty much offering himself up to get strangled, which could be why Piedra wasn’t worried about getting spotted (MacGyver could see Piedra’s face in the reflection so Piedra could see him staring). Once that starts, I’m immediately reminded of something out of David Morrell’s The Brotherhood of the Rose novel I read around the same time I first watched MacGyver. The book is about secret agents / assassins and I still remember some interesting, usually common sense-based little hints and tips, such as avoid reflexively staring at light sources at night if you want to see properly. Another advice was that the last thing you do when being strangled from behind is to, again reflexively, grab the rope or wire, with the only exception being a wire with blades specifically to cut throat very quickly, and even then you’re only supposed to use one hand so you can get your attacker’s face with the other, taking advantage of that he’s got both his hands full. This is mentioned in the book as common knowledge of trained agents, and indeed, when I brought it up to an ex-secret agent friend (he thinks the show is absolutely ridiculous) while we were watching another strangle victim in a movie cutting off his means of defense by getting both hands trapped under the rope, he immediately asked if I had any combat training. It took 12 year-old schoolgirl Megan in Along Came a Spider half MacGyver’s time to figure it out when Sonji grabbed her from behind! Catching the knife with the mallet was a very cool move (evoking a facepalm from my above mentioned friend), but not standing idly twice until Piedra come up to kick him! No wonder only his luck in the form of Pete saved him!
    So, I don’t know if I should see this scene as a high or a low point. The choreography is great, therefore MacGyver is doing terrible while he’s really on the ball for the rest of the episode, like when discovering Piedra’s armoury while keep checking his face for reactions, or realising why the watch was set on the wrong time. If they knew about MacGyver, they would probably have agreed in a code to memorise instead of a visible one with a hope it wouldn’t get found out what it is.
    It was funny how polite Terry and MacGyver were with gun in hand. I think I would have fired it if startled like Terry was with the toothpaste. The only things I was surprised about were that MacGyver didn’t report who the target was as soon as he could and then that the archbishop’s security took him to where to the target was while they still thought he was Piedra, though in the end it saved the archbishop’s life. I think Emilio made sense when he thought MacGyver’s phone call would alert Piedra’s accomplices but I don’t know how Pete and Piedra found out who the target was.
    My favourite and best remembered part is when Piedra gets out of the cell as an evil version of MacGyver. Offhand I would say he is the best villain of the series in terms of efficiency which Murdoc sometimes trades off for the sake of showing off and playing games (which of course is a large part of the fun of his character).

    1. Always nice to see someone who loves this one....and especially Piedra's spectacular jail break scene, one of this series' shining creative moments.