Tuesday, March 24, 2015

#15: The Invisible Killer

Editor's Note: Don't read this if you haven't seen the episode yet!  It's a phenomenal mystery and I don't want to spoil it for you! 

Season: 4

Synopsis in 3 sentences or less:
MacGyver is leading a group of 4 Phoenix Foundation employees on a multi-day trip through the woods as part of a stress relief program.  They hear on the radio that there has been a prison break nearby, and they begin to wonder if there's an escaped convict amongst them. 

Memorable Quote:
Well, you may not know each other, but you all have one thing in common.  It's what is referred to as "The Invisible Killer," or job related stress.  ~MacGyver

Can I say the entire episode?  This one gets my vote for the best script in the series and in television history.

Hard to think of anything.  I guess for both of the MacGyverisms it's not all that clear to me what he's doing, though that's not the first time I've said that.

Best MacGyverism:
Uses a telescope, grease, vinegar, pepper, and bed stuffing to create a mini cannon.  

Other thoughts, observations, and questions I didn’t ask when I was in fourth grade:
  • This episode was directed by Dana Elcar, as was The Challenge.  He obviously had a talent for directing because the attention to detail in this episode is immaculate. 
  • This seems like a good time to mention that of my top 15 episodes, 8 are what I would consider "nature" episodes in that a good majority of the action takes place in the pine forests of Vancouver.  I have these episodes rated disproportionately higher than most fans probably would. So why is that? Let's dig into my psyche a little bit, why don't we! Feel free to skip this part if you're only interested in the episode. 
    • I don't come from an overly outdoors-y family - in fact, we never went camping a single time. But we did take many vacations to national parks during my formative years including Yellowstone, Yosemite, Zion, Sequoia, Glacier, and the Grand Canyon to name a few. We didn't do anything crazy like 10 mile hikes or riding a donkey (though we did take the scariest bus ride ever at Denali), but the trips were more than enough to make a huge impact on me and help nurture a love of nature.  In fact when I was a kid, I wanted to be a park ranger. 
    • I also don't like cities. They can be nice places to visit, learn and experience history, and growing up in the East, it was easy to visit nearby cities and see amazing places such as the Statue of Liberty, the United Nations, Independence Hall, and the Smithsonians. Despite that, I would never want to live in a big city due to the congestion, traffic, and cost of living. Plus when I'm in a city, I feel a certain sense of corporateness and lack of spirituality which is somewhat soul-crushing.  I wouldn't want to live in the absolute middle of nowhere and be totally alone, either, but I really don't like cities. I think my ideal place to live would be a small town with a nice main street kind of like you see on the Hallmark channel - if you know where that is, let me know!
    • Back to MacGyver: there's just something about the episodes where he's out in the pine trees having adventures that really gets me going. It's hard to explain (I just tried), but all I know is that whenever I watch any of these 8 nature episodes from my top 15 (including this episode), it makes me feel quite happy. 
  • Lots of familiar faces in this episode, including:
    • Adam Arkin as Tony.  He's been in a lot of things (I know him from The West Wing) and is the son of actor Alan Arkin.
    • Andrew Rhodes as Chuck.  He was a good guy who got killed in Blind Faith.
    • Blu Mankuma as the Sheriff.  He was in Hearts of Steel and There but for the Grace as a police lieutenant.
    • Julie Downing as a deputy.  She played a starring role in The Gun.  
  • In the beginning we see Arkin's character taking the map in case "something happens" to MacGyver.  This is the first of a zillion moments (I won't point them all out since they're too numerous) where one of the four hikers is doing something suspicious and the audience thinks they may be the killer, at least until the next moment involving a different hiker. Like I said, as far as plots and mysteries go, it doesn't get better than this.  
  • As much as I enjoy nature, I don't think this stress relief program would be that much fun, especially when the other people are overly stressed and don't really want to be there. 
  • Regarding the suspension bridge scene, it's not clear if Chuck is acting and trying to find a less suspicious way to get rid of MacGyver or if he really is afraid of heights. I'm leaning toward the former, though Colter comes later to help MacGyver so I'm really not sure what is going on here.  There's a comment later about how if MacGyver had fallen then they'd never have gotten out of the woods so maybe that's why Colter helps out.  In any case, it's a very well filmed scene and looks pretty realistic (as if they really did film it on a bridge that is high up). And I have to agree with Chuck that it's not the best idea to make overly stressed out employees cross a bridge like that.
  • MacGyver has a nice little chat with Ranger Liz when she makes him the bird caller. Seems like his type of lady - too bad we don't see her in any more episodes.
  • The escaped convicts do a great job of assimilating and role-playing throughout this entire excursion.  
  • Awesome nighttime scene around the fireplace as the men look around at each other and openly wonder if one of them is an escaped convict.  There'd be no way that I could fall asleep - I would just run away and take my chances in the woods. 
  • Not sure why Colter kills Dr. Beam and not the rest of them, though he does leave them a pot of coffee filled with poison berries. And then a chilling scene as Liz is talking on the radio and we see Colter sneaking up behind her.
  • What a moment as Arkin apologizes to Chuck for thinking he's a con.  Brilliant.
  • Nice use of the bird caller by MacGyver, though I'm not sure what exactly he did with the leaves. Seems like starting a leaf fire in the woods like that would be pretty risky, but he and Liz are able to put it out quickly. All to the tune of our favorite Dennis McCarthy track.  
  • 38:16 - a shake after punching Colter.  
  • MacGyver should NEVER have left Chuck alone with Colter even if he didn't know Chuck's a con. Chuck was too weird and unstable up to that point to trust him - bad move, MacGyver.

I had a few quick-hitter questions and couldn't resist asking Executive Producer and friend of the blog Stephen Downing, and once again he delivered with some great behind-the-scenes information. 

NS: The episode was directed by Dana Elcar (he also directed "The Challenge" earlier that season).  I was wondering why he chose to direct this episode (or direct in general).  He does a great job - the entire episode is extremely well done with great attention to detail.

SD: Part of Dana’s deal for the season was to direct two episodes that season.  He did not choose which ones to direct but was scheduled according to which episode worked best for his schedule and that of the production company.  The deal was made at the top of the season, and this was the script that was ready when all else fell in place.

NS: The scene on the suspension bridge is very well filmed and it looks like they're actually on a bridge that is quite high, even when MacGyver is hanging off of it.  I was curious if you remember anything about how that was filmed. 

SD: That is the Capilano suspension bridge, just outside of Vancouver.  It was a very difficult job to film the sequence - - as it was done on the actual bridge.  Lots of safety concerns, but our stunt coordinator pulled it off with many hidden wires, safety procedures and multiple camera set ups. 

NS: One of the actresses in this episode is Julie Downing (she also appeared in a later episode), and I was curious if she's any relation to you. 

SD: Julie is my daughter and was an aspiring actress at the time.  She had done a great deal of voice over work. This episode was her first acting job.  She lives in Nashville today. Her husband is a retired Assistant Chief of Police from Culver City, CA and they have two children attending Belmont University, one a freshman and the other a senior.  She is my baby, of three. Number two is Tambree, a mother of two, one of which just graduated from Belmont University and the other a perfect 13 year old  My number one is Michael, he is a deputy chief of police with the Los Angeles Police Department in charge of Counter Terrorism.  He has two daughters, the oldest just graduated from Seattle Pacific University and the younger graduates this year from Azusa Pacific University. His wife is a real estate executive.  More that you asked for, I know, but I am very proud of my family.  They are all good citizens.

As always, thanks to Mr. Downing for sharing his knowledge.  Amazing how that scene on the bridge was filmed - a fantastic effort by the stunt coordinator and the crew.    

Final Analysis:
If I take my emotional attachment to other episodes out of the equation and be completely objective, this may very well be the #1 episode in the series (and tv in general).  The execution of the story is perfect, the details expertly crafted, the acting strong, and the filming brilliant.  Hard for me to imagine there's too many fans (or non-fans) that wouldn't get something out of this episode.  It doesn't get too much better than this. 


  1. I had a suspicion this could be your #1. I know someone for whom it is at the top of the pyramid. More on that later. This is an episode I've always really enjoyed and stands out as another example to me that the series was at the absolute top of its game in season 4, and the second half of season 4 in particular. The script is stellar, the acting first-rate, and MacGyver was really in his element out in the woods. I actually saw a clip somewhere showing footage of RDA wired in and hanging off the end of that bridge, so I knew the scene was real and that RDA did his own stuntwork dangling off the end of it. In that 1998 seminar, John Rich mentioned how he went to the set on the day they were filming that and almost flipped that they weren't using a stunt double.

    I have never seen the film "Shoot to Kill" which came out a year before this "MacGyver" episode but my mom said the premise was vaguely similar, at least the escaped killer in the woods part. I've debated over the years whether I wanted to see that movie or not because I would kind of prefer to keep my perspective on this episode pure and just admire its tremendous craftsmanship, which as you said was great throughout. Another actor you didn't mention who we saw again was James Sloyan who played Colter in this episode and George Fraley in "Live and Learn" for season 5. I think the reason Colter killed Dr. Beam was because he was being the mouthiest and most paranoid, worrying Colter the most and making him believe he didn't want to wait till the next morning to finish him off. Also he probably wanted to get his hand on Beam's gun right away. I will confess I do have one lowlight in this episode, a scene I was more than happy that USA cut from the original broadcast where the young boy sees his dad's dead body at the rest stop in the woods while playing frisbee. Season 4 liked to have some dark moments and I usually lapped them up, but that one seemed gratuitous for "MacGyver".

    I was pretty cocky when I originally watched this as I figured out Colter was the most likely villain. My mom felt the same way. But we were both humbled as we discovered there was a second killer, a plot twist that goes down as one of this series' best. I definitely preferred MacGyver's telescope cannon MacGyverism used on Laraby at the end over the confusing branch bomb in the woods, despite the great McCarthy music. I didn't get that branch thing that somehow wiped out Colter and it seemed like it would have taken hours to rig. Back to the observatory tower, every scene there was great, particularly that impressive falling scene with Laraby and Colter being lassoed like a rodeo bull.

    I had a feeling Julie Downing was Stephen's daughter. I don't see the surname Downing too often so I had that hunch. Thanks to Mr. Downing for sharing his additional insights on this one. And Dana Elcar certainly did a first-rate job of directing here, as did writer Chris Haddock with the script. The audience took notice too. This episode had the highest rating of any episode not only in season 4 (the show's ratings were rocketing in the spring of 1989), but of every episode that aired after March 1987 (late in season 2). You couldn't have asked for a better episode for such a large audience to sample and I'm surprised you don't have this one ranked even higher than me. I ranked it #11.

    1. Good call on James Sloyan in Live and Learn - I missed that. And your point on Colter getting Beam's gun makes sense. And on the frisbee scene, I thought that the boy was calling for his dad to come over to him because he saw a dead man in the woods (I wouldn't think the Phoenix guy would have brought his family).

      I like your story about how you and your mom got fooled by the second con. I noticed they make a reference in the beginning to two cons on the loose but it's a very small detail that most people probably miss or forget. I watched this sometime in the last 5-10 years and couldn't remember anything at all about who did it. And glad that my rankings are keeping you off balance!

    2. Hmmm.....I guess it didn't necessarily make sense that the guy's family would be there at the rest stop. You could be right that the boy was just yelling for his own father when he saw the dead guy (the real Henry Colter). If so, it's not in as bad of taste as I originally believed. I thought the radio reports referenced an entire busload of escapees and that several were still on the loose (reports on Liz's radio were citing some redheaded guy that we never saw who I presumed was still on the loose). Anyway, definitely one of the better murder mysteries ever done for a TV show and with much more impressive production values. This was the mystery I had hoped "Slow Death" would be like. I just can't believe the show got zero recognition from the industry back in 1989 in a season where they cranked out so many hours of first-rate television. There were so many great scenes in this one, but I think the ending on the observatory tower still has to be my favorite.

    3. And the guy who gets killed pulls up to the rest stop in a car by himself, and I think the implication is that the frisbee kids find him much later. And I took the description of the redheaded guy to mean that one of the two cons changed their appearance. But that's the sign of a good plot is that there is a lot to analyze and discuss!

  2. This is also the episode I most strongly associate with my ex-girlfriend Elise, the story I've been promising for months now. She was the only girlfriend I've had who I shared a huge "MacGyver" bond with, and I always loved getting calls from her when I got home from work asking if she could come over to binge-watch some "MacGyver" episodes. She had her definite preferences (the middle seasons, where MacGyver was in Vancouver, which she remembered most from when she was a girl) but this was the episode she loved most. We'd watch three or four episodes but then she would request to watch this one again. Kind of amusing from a neutral perspective as this was a mystery episode where you know the ending after you've seen it once and you would think it would lose some of its effect, but I'm with her (and you) in believing it doesn't. There are so many little clues that you pick up on with additional viewings that make this considerably better than your average police/forensics procedural of which there are so many on the air today. Unfortunately, Elise had some issues that led to irreconcilable differences and we didn't stay together. If she were still in central Iowa, I'd be inclined to invite her over for another "MacGyver" marathon again this week, and would promise to have the "Invisible Killer" DVD case at the top of the pile.

    1. Good story! At least her favorite was the #11 on your list and not MacGyver's Women. Any more ex-girlfriend stories for the 14 remaining episodes?

    2. I don't think so...watched several others of the remaining 14 with Elise back in 2007 but this episode had the top Elise story. Even MacGyver and I eventually run out of ex-girlfriends to cite!

  3. I knew about the filming on the Capilano Bridge. I never did make it over to cross the thing when I was in Vancouver those few times I was there. Though, I don't know that I would've made it across. Heights don't usually bother me, but a swinging bridge might.

    I think this is one of those episodes that I waffle on - going between really liking it and feeling 'meh' about it, but I can't pinpoint why. I'll have to watch it again to see if I can figure it out.

  4. Like Mark, I thought I’d got it figured the first time until the twist that there’s two of them. I can see why Nick likes the outdoors episodes so much; MacGyver’s in his natural milieu rather than the city landscape; he's comfortable in his skin and even his outdoor gear seems to suit him better than his urban wear.
    I also agree with Mark, even though you know the plot twist, subsequent viewings do bring out more details to notice and I preferred this one second and third times around. I read the body discovery like Nick; the boy and his family fetch up at the rest stop a while after the murder.
    I agree, the subtle dropping of suspicious clues is excellently done; is it the guy whose rucksack, doesn’t fit, whose boots are uncomfortable, the one with a plaster or the broken glasses or the one who’s really edgy and chainsmokes even though he’s a doctor. Why does one of them want to listen to the radio , why doesn’t one of them want the radio on? Which characters put their fingers over the id cards to cover their photos? Its great stuff and, as you say, the real cons play a sophisticated game of fitting in.
    The bridge scene is dramatic;I think we've all come across this before; I’ve seen an interview with RDA where he talks about doing his own stunt for that scene with the cleverly hidden safety wires but I hadn’t noticed the episode was directed by Dana Elcar – I’m with you, he did a great, detailed, job.
    I’m with Nick, Julie Downing is ideal as the Ranger and the character would have been be a great girl for Macgyver, she’s an outdoor type and they seem to get on pretty well; she gives him a definite simpering look as they leave and I liked her giving him the bird whistle (although he should have recognised what it was immediately as he’d made a similar one for Harry once). Its great of her dad to give us more low-down on the series.
    MacGyver knows about ‘field-stripping’ a cigarette and the con uses the botanical name Ranunculus (although not sure why he sniffs it as they don’t smell particularly) – always enjoy things like that.
    The whistle signal is a nice touch although I’m not sure why MacGyver doesn’t just jump the con, who’s not expecting it. I guess the MacGyverism is just more fun and we get a great leap, an overenthusiastic punch which makes MacGyver fall over too and a shake. Great stuff again! I wasn’t quite sure about the smoking leaves either but I think it was to make the con investigate and then the fire burnt through the line to make the leaves fly up in his face? For some reason, I'm not as keen on the ending but I’m not entirely sure why; MacGyver’s warning to 'stay away from the windows' was pretty pointless in a lookout tower! Would the pepper and spices in his face really have made con no.2 fall over the balcony like that? It all seemed a bit too easy somehow.
    Pete seems remarkably unconcerned that four Phoenix employees have been murdered. Remind me to never volunteer for a Phoenix Foundation stress relief course!
    Excellent episode; I’ve just moved it up the charts to no 26.

    1. Haha, yeah that's a good advertisement for the next year's Phoenix stress relief course - "all 4 employees may have murdered on it last year, but we'll do better this time around!" Nice summary of the clues, and I was thinking the same thing about wondering why MacGyver couldn't have just jumped the con in the forest. I guess because then we would have never gotten the leaf contraption. And Julie Downing's character was not the ranger with the bird whistle - she was the deputy officer helping Pete with the search.

    2. I always thought Colter's botany expertise was a question mark. Since the fake Colter killed the real Colter, did he find out from the information in his car that the real Colter was a botany expert and then just faked it from there? Or was he a real botany expert for some reason? It's hard to imagine there are too many botany experts in prison but perhaps I'm underestimating the educational attainment of prisoners being transported through the Cascades.

  5. I agree with everyone here that this is one of the best MacGyver episodes, and in general one of the most entertaining hours of TV ever. I remember that I watched this episode when I was about 10 years old, and the next time was many years later and I couldn't remember anymore who the killer was, or even that there were two killers. It was as exciting as watching it for the first time. But I find even when you know who the killers are, it's still great fun to watch over and over and it never gets boring.

    A couple of points:
    1) I always assumed that Beam snooped around in Coulter's backpack and found the gun he presumably got a hold of during the escape. That's why he had to kill Beam as otherwise he would have told everyone. Even though you could only see Beam's silhouette, I thought he looked surprised and shocked when he found the gun.
    2. I know Downing said that the bridge scene was filmed on Capilano Bridge. I heard from other sources that it was in fact the Lynn Valley Bridge. I live in Vancouver and have been to both bridges numerous times, and have to say I'm 99% sure it's Lynn Valley, as the small water fall or rapid you can see in the episode looks exactly like the one below Lynn Valley Bridge, and so does the rest of the scenery. Capilano is way more famous and many people mix them up, so I could imagine Downing did too.

    1. Thanks for that inside information. Would you say you're able to identify a good share of the location shots in the Vancouver area where "MacGyver" filmed? I have a co-worker who was an "X-Files" fangirl who vacationed up to Vancouver a decade or so ago in search of "X-Files" filming locations. I'm sure a number of them overlapped with those from "MacGyver".

    2. Good intel on the bridge - thanks for sharing. I did a quick image search and you're right, the Lynn Valley bridge does look just like bridge in the episode. And good point on Beam and the backpack - that makes sense.

      I had a similar experience as you in that I watched the episode many years later and also couldn't remember who did it or that there were two of them.

    3. @Mark - funny that you mention it. I come across MacGyver landmarks constantly, so MacGyver comes into my mind very often when I go out. My wife must be tired of constantly hearing "this is where they filmed this scene...' :). Most filming locations and landmarks haven't changed much in the last 30 years, and mostly look exactly the same today. I provided some info on filming locations to Kate from the RDA website over the years. For example I found the gas station from Easy Target, Papillon's residence from Fraternity of Thieves and Moorehead Lake rest area from Renegade, to name just a few. When I was still single and obviously quite geeky around 8 years ago, I spent considerable time and effort trying to locate MG filming locations, and I was proud to find more than just a few.

    4. Ha! I'd be just as geeky. I'm bad enough to road trip with in Minnesota and neighboring states because I have some piece of trivia to share about just about every tiny town I drive through....stuff that fascinates me but usually not so much my passenger(s). Does your wife at least pretend to be interested when you cite "MacGyver" filming locations? Was there any "MacGyver" filming location you're dying to find in person but can't pinpoint where the site is?

    5. There are a couple of locations that have eluded me to this day, such as Pete's cabin from The Widowmaker, Whistler's Cliff from Unfinished Business or the bad guy's office building from Ma Dalton.

      For the locations I did find there were usually some hints, like the Papillon Mansion was easy to find with Deer Lake being easy to recognize in the background, and the rest area in Renegade was clearly somewhere in an inlet near North Vancouver with the recognizeable tiny islands in the backgound. The gas station from Easy Target had a sign "Iron Mountain general store" or similar on the window which looked authentic and not made up, so google did the rest for me. Some locations simlpy don't have these hints so finding them is a matter of luck and patience.
      Fortunately my wife share my interest in MacGyver, but I'm certainly the more passionate one when it comes to these details :-).

  6. I love this episode!!!! Excellent episode! Dana Elcar did an awesome job! And Nick, I love when you share stories of your life with us. :)

    "Regarding the suspension bridge scene, it's not clear if Chuck is acting and trying to find a less suspicious way to get rid of MacGyver or if he really is afraid of heights."

    No he wasn't faking it. If he was faking it, they would have let us know that he was.

    "I had a few quick-hitter questions and couldn't resist asking Executive Producer and friend of the blog Stephen Downing, and once again he delivered with some great behind-the-scenes information."

    I'm confused. Why didn't you ask if Chuck was faking his fear of heights? :) Anyway great conversation! Glad he talked about his family. :)

  7. Now going through MeTV's second cycle of the series. Don't know why they are dropping it for the Summer of TV? Just a six month contract - that's why they've been showing it twice a day? Will they be bringing it back in the Fall? Anyway, this may be my favorite that I've seen. Here's my take on the burning leaves - Mac attracts him with the smoke of the fire - then when he is standing over it - Mac pulls on the wire which makes the "sphere" spring open, causing the embers to fly into his face.

  8. This episode reminds me of one of many weekend trips I took to the Andes Mountains in Venezuela(I was there for 9 months through University of Minnesota's study abroad program from 1998-1999). The group of 25 or more 20 year-olds was taken on an overnight camping trip about the 2800 feet up. Most were city kids. We camped in a cow pasture near a river. It was windy and cold. I loved it. Stressed the rest of the "kids" out.

    I did enjoy trying to figure which actors were the escaped convicts. The one whose backback was riding too high, the one whose boots weren't broken in yet or the one who insisted on taking the map. I was sure that the one who picked the holly berries was one of the escaped convicts. They are poisonous. You either use holly berries to decorate a Christmas wreath or what he intended to use them for(poison coffee).