Tuesday, May 5, 2015

#1B: The Gauntlet -- Episode


Editor's note: This post only covers the portion of the episode beginning after the opening credits. 

Season: 1

Synopsis in 3 sentences or less:
MacGyver goes to Central America to find Kate, a photojournalist, and bring her back to the U.S. Before leaving, Kate takes pictures of a corrupt general doing business with an American crime lord from MacGyver's past, and she and MacGyver are caught.  They escape the hacienda and then must figure out a way to get out of the country and into Mexico over 100 kilometers away with the entire army hot on their tail.  

Memorable Quote:
I thought your camera was broken?  ~MacGyver
I fixed it.  MacGyver style!  ~Kate

Highlight:
The last five minutes are spectacular.

Lowlight:
The campfire scene is great, but the dialogue makes me cringe.  More on the highlight and lowlight below.

Best MacGyverism:
Making the exploding barrels used in rolling down the hill and attacking the heart of the army.

Other thoughts, observations, and questions I didn’t ask when I was in fourth grade:  
  • We start things off with scenes of villagers and soldiers in a small Central American village followed by MacGyver arriving on a blue bus. As he disembarks from the bus, he gets into full hick mode and tells a story about he and his father delivering "a truckload of apples to market in another town" in which there was a lynching long ago. And then he bribes some soldiers with a 20 dollar bill to stop them from harassing a local girl. I'm seen this episode enough to know for sure that this entire segment was a deleted scene from the USA broadcast.
  • Normally in these reviews I like to mention when a particular shot comes up that is from the opening credits, but I won't be doing that here because there are simply too many. 
  • "So, your name's MacGyver and you're harmless."  ~Kate.  Our first look at Kate Connelly played by the great Robin Curtis.  More on her later. 
  • Strong moment as Kate is turning pictures over in the film lab and MacGyver recognizes the picture of Dave Ryerson, played admirably by veteran film actor John Vernon.  And we're only a few minutes in, but already some strong music from Randy Edelman and a sign of things to come.
  • I've never quite understood why the pictures were so important.  It's no secret that General Vasquez is the head of the secret police.  Should it be a great shock to anyone to learn that he is buying weapons from an arms dealer?  Vasquez, by the way, is played by Gregory Sierra who appears again as a villainous army commander in Jack of Lies and The Treasure of Manco.
  • Goodness, Kate, can't you possibly invest in a quieter camera?  How do you think they would not hear your camera snapping like crazy from 10 feet away?
  • "I haven't had the pleasure of meeting the lady before, General, but I'd like to introduce you to an old buddy of mine I'd been hoping to run across again.  Welcome to our country, MacGyver."  ~Ryerson
  • Clever MacGyverism as he hooks the camera up to some plastique (aka "silly putty with a bang").  
  • An all-time classic moment: MacGyver slipping through the gate as it's about to close. If I had a nickel for every time I imitated this moment by slipping through a door as it was about to close, I would be retired and living on easy street.  I still like to do this when the opportunity presents itself, by the way.  
  • Not the best idea for MacGyver and Kate to return to the photo lab, and they're very lucky that they are not spotted considering that they're not making any attempt whatsoever to take cover. 
  • Great scene in the church as Kate pays tribute to the fallen Diego, and then she and MacGyver discuss their next move.  Of course the moment is set to some beautiful Edelman themes.  
  • Fantastic moment as MacGyver stands in the bell tower looking down at the soldiers in the town square below.  Then he starts doing things like crawling underneath the bus - he's in true action hero mode now. 
  • 24:36 - The cable unwinding.  A sight for my sore eyes.  This visual brings me such unexpected joy that's hard to rationally explain.  It must be because I associate it so viscerally with "long song."  I don't know if I've ever gotten into my love of what I call "long song," so now seems like a good time to do it.  When watching the show on USA Network growing up, nine times out of ten the opening credits would be the short version.  But every once in a while, we would get treated to the longer version (almost twice as long as the shorter version) which now has become commonplace on the DVD.  But back then, seeing "long song" was more than a treat - it was an event for young Nick.  When I would see the shot of the cable in the opening credits, I knew that it meant "long song," and I went nuts (you can ask my Mom).  "Long song! Long song!" I cried happily.  And whether it was long song or not, I would always dance and fly around the room like crazy when the song was on, and I would act out things like the imaginary pole vault and flare shooting roll from The Golden Triangle.  Didn't take much to make me happy at that age.  In any event, I think that's why seeing the cable fills me with such wonderment. 

  • Great moment as MacGyver is driving the bus and Kate is taking pictures of him and asking him about his life.  "Mostly I wanted to see how the world worked.  Meet people.  Learn how they're different.  The same."  He just summed up his ethos perfectly in 17 words. 
  • 31:36- Uh-oh, she's eating the lizard as they're playing some silky sweet music.  I didn't remember until seeing it just now that it's the same track as in Ugly Duckling when MacGyver is telling a different Kate that she's special.  After finishing the lizard, the conversation takes an expected yet still cringeworthy turn:
    • "You're a very...unexpected man, MacGyver.  You...keep me off balance."  ~Kate
    • "I'm sorry."  ~MacGyver
    • "No.  I think...I think I like it."  ~Kate
    • She stretches on her side and rests her face in her hand.
    • "Wanna share?"  ~Kate
    • "That's quite an offer."  ~MacGyver
    • "Is that a yes, or no?"  ~Kate
    • As a kid this scene always made me cringe, and that was even before I understood that they were getting ready to share more than the same patch of dirt.  I don't mind it as much now, but I'm still glad when it's over and we see the rising sun.  And by the way, shouldn't they have been hiking through the night?  They could have beaten the army to the border and had plenty of time for extracurriculars once they got to Mexico.
    • In any case, Kate is my favorite heroine and the #1 gal on my top MacGyver love interest list. Normally I just included his longer term girlfriends on that list, but given that MacGyver and Kate took things to the next level, you might say, I feel that she is appropriate to include. She's extremely likable and fun, and she and MacGyver have great chemistry. Too bad she had to marry that ex-football player (seen in Friends), because she and MacGyver could have had something special. 
  • "I betcha we can get it [the camera] fixed about 9 miles up that road!" ~hick MacGyver.  Sure, MacGyver, I'm sure they'll have a camera repair shop waiting for you on the other side of the border.  That's followed by MacGyver saying, "I like that kind of talk" and giving Kate a noogie. 
  • Great scene as Kate asks why MacGyver is stopping the jeep.  The camera pans to the river and then down to the military camped out in front.  MacGyver makes a reference to the border being locked up tight and how there's no way to go around them, but I find it hard to believe that the entire river border would be fortified by a mass of soldiers unless there were an insane amount of them.  
  • 42:37 - there's a 4 second shot of some soldiers in a jeep driving away from the hut where MacGyver and Kate put the barrels together.  Seems like this scene should have been cut since it implies that the soldiers are on their way to the hill where MacGyver and Kate deploy the barrels (unless the hill was much farther away from the hut than it seems).
  • Love the barrel scene - high adventure at it's absolute highest.  What a seemingly insurmountable problem of trying to get past the soldiers and across the river, and what a creative bit of storytelling to have them "start a war" by rolling exploding barrels into the heart of the army.  Stephen Kandel, the episode writer, said:
    • On "The Gauntlet" I actually built a tiny toothpick model of the bridge for the original crossing -- which involved MacGyver driving onto the bridge, then picking up the tread planks behind the vehicle and re-laying them in front, i.e. - driving a movable platform across.  That sort of thing made the series fun.  We ended up with the barrels...and like a lot of the gimmicks, it was worked out on location. Fun.
  • They clearly made the right choice with the barrel scene.  I do wonder how the barrels kept rolling down the hill even while MacGyver and Kate were swimming the water, and they were very lucky that the barrel they were in was not shot and that it landed in the water (rather than hitting a jeep).  Nevertheless, some great visuals in an amazing scene. 
  • As a kid I used to wonder why the soldiers couldn't just follow MacGyver across the border, similar to the end of Thief of Budapest or Bushmaster.  I guess I wasn't old enough to understand the finer points of international law, though I do wonder if in real life the soldiers would be that disciplined.  
  • Did Kate have time to fix the camera while she was rolling the barrel or swimming across the river?

Final Analysis:
In general, I love chase stories and also man vs. army, and this episode combines the best of both worlds.  I mentioned during the Bushmaster review how I love the concept of the hero in the middle of a foreign country with a million hostile soldiers around, and this episode is the one where that concept resonates the most with me.  In fact, just thinking about it makes me want to start writing again. The perfect MacGyver season would alternate like this: 1 episode in the woods followed by 1 episode in a hostile country surrounded by a jillion soldiers.

Back to this episode: it's first season magic with end to end action and MacGyverisms at every turn. This type of high adventure was not sustainable from a financial or creative perspective, but it sure was fun while it lasted.  Throw in the great Edelman music, my favorite heroine, and boatloads of good feelings/memories from watching it a million times as a kid and you've got a top 10 episode on your hands.  What takes it to number 1?  You'll have to wait until Part 2 (aka "1A") to learn the answer to that!  

16 comments:

  1. I can see why this one is tops for you – its pretty high upon my list too.
    There’s immediate chemistry between MacGyver and Kate from their introduction ‘So your name’s MacGyver and your harmless’. Couldn’t help but notice him staring at her behind as she walks away – wonder if that was in the directions! Liked the shot of MacGyver looking back and forth at Kate and Diego and, of course, agreeing to help them. I also like the idea that there’s ‘previous,’ as we Brits say, between MacGyver and Ryerson – it adds to both the interest and the threat level.
    Some great lines; ‘its got enough juice in it to straighten your (very curly) hair’ about the electric fence. ‘Alright, you’ve convinced me, we’re in a lot of trouble’. ‘Two men with guns.. what do you see’ – ‘Opportunity knocking’. ‘What does the MacGyver-Connolly team call it (the smog)? – ‘A long shot’
    Kate has actually got more bravado than MacGyver at the hacienda but then takes it too far with her ‘one more shot’ As you say, a quieter camera would have been a good idea. There’s real apprehension on MacGyver’s face as they’re caught because of the Ryerson backstory. I’m with you – the ‘plastique’ escape is great stuff as are the following scenes in the church and the bus with some great effects with the crashing jeeps. I always enjoy MacGyver crawling around under vehicles and he’s very cool and self assured here. The scene where he looks down from the belltower over the dusty little town is an echo of the opening gambit too. I like your boyhood memory of the long song triggered by the reel of wire!
    Their relationship develops during the bus ride – Kate probably gets more from him about what he does than most people and although that’s still pretty scant information, you’re right, it does sum up MacGyver in a very few words and enough though for her to dub him a romantic.
    I actually don’t mind the campfire scene; its probably the most romantic scene in the whole series and I fully support your decision to make Kate the no. 1 girl for MacGyver. Kate Malloy comes very close but we never see them together so I don’t think she counts. He’s still so polite, saying ‘excuse me’ as he goes off to inspect the lizard trap. I agree the theme tune played in that haunting way in this scene is excellent.
    Amusing banter as MacGyver says ‘you know, you could stand to lose a few pounds’ and ‘Would you mind holding her she weighs a ton’ just before he throws Kate at the soldier – what a great move but maybe not such a good idea from the point of view of romance. Their relationship is teasing and fun rather than soppy.
    On last viewing I think I got why they had to cross the border there; either the General or Ryerson says they are closing them down from behind and from the sides, I think; the shot of the soldiers driving off from the abandoned farm where they were emphasises that point- they're closing in from behind.. Liked MacGyver’s ‘That’s to stop me thinking about how scared I am’. Always honest but not necessarily reassuring. The rigged jeep careering down the hill is excellent but I wasn’t quite so sure about the barrels either, what was the likelihood of them being shot up? Pretty high.
    Its at no 15 for me but could just as easily be in the top 10 - there’s just too many favourite episodes at this level.

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    1. P.S. The 'Central American' country must be either Belize or Guatemala as they are the only ones to border Mexico.

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    2. Thanks Al, good stuff as always! I enjoyed this line in particular, "Couldn’t help but notice him staring at her behind as she walks away – wonder if that was in the directions!" I like your description of "previous" which is not a term that we use that way in the states. Ryerson is great, and the actor had a big role as the dean in Animal House. And you're right about the great lines - the entire episode is like one giant memorable quote. I like how he leaves a few coins in the church and says, "We need all the help we can get." Glad to hear that you're a Kate fan too - they really do have some great chemistry.

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    3. Al, the Central American country in this episode was later referenced as the fictitious "San Sebastian" when referenced the following season in the clip show "Friends". It's a fair guess that the country was really supposed to be Guatemala or Belize, but they never used real names for non-Soviet bloc countries on "MacGyver", be it this episode, "Jack of Lies", "On a Wing and a Prayer", "Blind Faith", or "Obsessed".

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  2. While I would never have predicted this would be your #1, it doesn't completely surprise me that it is. Of the early first season high adventure episodes, it holds up the best, even though I still have a more emotional connection to the less polished "Golden Triangle". ABC sure must have had high hopes for it. Even though it was the second episode produced, it was the fourth episode to air, and the reason they held off is that they were hoping to give this episode the World Series audience. The intention was to air the episode after Game 2 of the 1985 World Series but that would have been pretty late in the evening on a Sunday night, so they ultimately aired it the following night (its future Monday timeslot). It worked to a degree getting its highest rating yet but it still had a ways to go before becoming anything close to a success.

    On about half of the episodes I videotaped from USA I remembered the deleted scene from the original viewing. This was definitely one of them with his goofy Jack Nicholson accent getting the peasant girl out of trouble by bribing the military guys pawing on her. While that moment alone was a touch cringeworthy, I actually liked his narrative leading up to it about "lynching an innocent man"....and I also loved the geographically spot-on Randy Edelman music, another of his all-time best compositions that delivered almost nonstop over the course of the hour. I liked Kate Connolly as well. Great spunk and chemistry with MacGyver. I think if the show wasn't so interested in keeping MacGyver this roaming adventurer who was impossible to tie down in those early episodes, we may have seen Kate develop into a more serious love interest. And all things considered, I thought his campfire scene with Kate wasn't that cringeworthy. It actually fit the character that MacGyver's intimate moment with a woman would be a little shy and awkward, as most of his future romantic encounters with women on the show were. It was a good scene but I'm glad they didn't make a habit of MacGyver sleeping around with the damsel of distress of the week, James Bond-style. The lead-up to the scene may have been my favorite moment of the episode though, when Kate's acrobatics to get a better camera shot led to the bus crashing into the lake.

    Going back to earlier in the episode, the scenes at Vasquez's "hacienda" were full of iconic moments, although it was insane that Kate had these expensive cameras but had to stand 10 feet away from them clicking that shutter repeatedly during the handshake and expecting not to get caught. The escape from town was great and I loved how he dropped the change in the church's collection plate and said "we need all the help we can get". Another interesting parallel is how MacGyver used Kate's cameras much as he used Guy Roberts' Cadillac convertible in "Three for the Road".

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  3. And while I'm with you that the final escape with the barrels was fun, it doesn't surprise me that they were originally planning a different ending and improvised because as much as I enjoy the optics of the escape, I always walk away with a half dozen, "Wait, what?" moments regarding the logistics. You pointed out the obvious one regarding the laws of gravity (how were barrels still rolling down the hill as MacGyver and Kate were escaping a hundred yards away? Nobody else was up there pushing the final barrels!) but also a couple of the earlier comments. There was no bridge in the first place so even if Vasquez and Ryerson weren't there, they'd still have to swim across the river to get to Mexico! And "there's just no getting around them!" There isn't? You couldn't have walked a mile on foot through the woods, snuck down the hill, and then swam across the river? The barrel gambit was undoubtedly more exciting than Kandel's original makeshift bridge assembly would have been, but for me it was the weakest part of the episode because so much didn't make sense. The excitement level was sure there though and lucky for MacGyver and Kate they were welcomed by the only two friendly, wisecracking border guards in Mexico in a fun final scene.

    Solid episode and as I said I can see why it would be your favorite with so many adventure elements coming together with great pacing. I ranked it #46 which is a solid ranking, although this one never quite made the top tier for me despite my acknowledgment that it was extremely well done.

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    1. Your point about them crossing a mile downriver was exactly what I always had wondered and was getting at with my comment about how the army would need an insane amount of soldiers to guard the entire river (unless it's a really small river). And what do you think of my wondering why the film was so important? It's as if Vasquez is thinking, "I'm ruined! They have pictures of me shaking hands with a gun dealer! Just what the international community needs to mobilize against me!"

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    2. Yeah the only thing I can think of is that Vasquez feared a military rebuke or sanctions of something along those lines from the West if there was evidence that he was engaging in an illegal arms deal. The more likely scenario for the time was that the U.S. would have been orchestrating the arms deal to Vasquez to head off a potential Communist government. But yeah in general I would suspect Vasquez would laugh as the premise of those pictures getting out "ruining him".

      Do you figure you would have rated this one your #1 even without the additional sizzle of the opening gambit?

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    3. It'd be somewhere in the top 10, but not #1.

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  4. A couple of other quick anecdotes. The "long song" on USA reruns meant one of two things that probably didn't occur to you as an elementary boy. Either USA cut an especially significant number of scenes from the original broadcast or it was a very short episode on the original broadcast and they didn't have to cut much. Especially in the early seasons there weren't many episodes where they aired the long song on USA. I think "Out in the Cold" may have been the only episode in season 2.

    Perhaps your "perfect MacGyver season" that was all either woodsy episodes or international adventure episodes comment was only half-serious, but I don't think you'd still feel that way if such a season existed. It was variety of content that made "MacGyver" interesting for seven seasons. I suspect you would tire of the familiarity--as would the writers--if they went to the same well for stories and settings every week.

    And I mentioned my ex-girlfriend Elise who had "MacGyver" viewing parties with me back in 2007. The first night she came over, I picked out three episodes to watch to give a cross-section of what the series offered, and this was the first episode I showed to her. She didn't hate it, but it was pretty clear it wasn't what she expected. I was nervous when I put the next episode on--her favorite, "The Invisible Killer"--and in moments she connected immediately saying that "this was more like the "MacGyver" she remembered". She was younger than me and apparently didn't remember the early ones and didn't connect with them...or at least "The Gauntlet". From that point on we watched mostly middle season episodes which held up well for her. Still a little surprised she didn't love "The Gauntlet" though as it was definitely more polished than most of the early episodes.

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  5. I like this episode. The barrel trick at the end - while a little far-fetched w/ the later ones coming down after Mac and Kate aren't there anymore - is still fun, sort of a Trojan Horse misdirect.

    I don't remember where this one is on my countdown, but it's in the upper-half for sure.

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  6. This was a great fun episode but, and this will seem like sacrilege to you, not a truly great episode for me. I wasn't keen on the love interest or the villains in this one but of course it was full of action and the opening gambit was a treat. I feel that so far my opinion of season one is greatly affected by viewing it out of order and, although there is lots of action and MacGyverisms aplenty, the show, obviously, isn't as well rounded and developed yet. As I said elsewhere, it is MacGyver but just not quite as I thought I knew it, although having only recently got into the series who am I to judge?!

    One thing that I noticed which isn't mentioned in your discussions above happened when MacGyver entered the South American printing office. As he went through the doorway it didn't look as if his mouth moved but a voice, and it didn't sound like Mac unless he was in real hick mode, said "Hullo"! The scene was dimly lit and he was turning to close the door at the time but after watching a few times I'm sure his mouth never opened when the word was said. It couldn't have been Gomez because he was in another room with the noisy printing press. Was it just an overdubbed afterthought? I wonder if anyone else noticed?

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    1. That's all right, I won't hold it against you! I just rewatched that clip you mention and you're right, it doesn't look as if his mouth moves -- maybe a tiny bit on the "lo" part of hello, but even that is very slight.

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  7. “...first season magic with end to end action and MacGyverisms at every turn. Throw in the great Edelman music, my favorite heroine, and boatloads of good feelings/memories from watching it a million times as a kid and you’ve got a top 10 episode on your hands.”
    Nick, this is sooo spot-on. This is my favourite episode too within the top ten, for the same reasons! If I were to introduce the series to someone, this is the one I would pick; if I had just ten minutes then the opening gambit as best representative of who MacGyver is, what he does and the nature of the series. The set, again, is very elaborate and convincing and MacGyver is busy with assignments in contrast of later seasons. He saves the girl from the soldiers without a confrontation, then at the photo lab Diego goes from pointing a gun at him to a “We would be most grateful if you could help us” in less than three minutes – what a start!
    Good Kate has camera and bag straps for the occasions when for some reason MacGyver doesn’t have his duct tape. Tying up the electric fence was clever though looking at it today I’m not sure there would be no arcing. The next MacGyverism is less than five minutes away and the whole episode is peppered with memorable ones!
    MacGyver setting up the bell is one of the best example the unigue atmosphere of the first few episodes of the show. And he was lucky not getting spotted up there especially when he stuck his head out!
    I think the camp fire scene is one of, if not the best romantic ones especiallly for the conversation as they found such a polite and non-intrusive wording to express intimacy. Compare it to the camp fire and morning after scene to the one with Nikki Carpenter. Or, better, don’t.
    I liked John Vernon and he kept reminding me of Anthony Hopkins! Great camera move to reveal the border patrol at the river with a perfectly fitting little piece of music – how the hell could they get past there?
    I think the photograph taken of the photograph taking was confusing and cool at the same time.
    “The military calls it chemical fog, the civilians get more to the point, it’s air pollution.”
    “What does the MacGyver-Connelly team call it?”
    MacGyver gives an unsure “A long shot...?” answer which didn’t make sense to me as it sounded either like he didn’t think that he could give an explanation or that Kate was capable of understanding one, so I checked the Hungarian version. It’s got translated to “Camouflage”. So much better.
    How could barrels roll down the hill after them? I like to think that MacGyver set a little wedge up in front of them which he pulled away with a rope from their rolling barrel and they just forgot to show it to us, but in any case – it’s a great escape in the best episode!!!

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    1. Thanks for the comment and glad you are a big fan of this one too! That is funny to think of MacGyver up in the bell tower just sticking his head out and looking down at the soldiers as if no one could see him up there! And I can get behind your wedge theory!

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  8. The great John Vernon (Dean Wormer!) certainly adds a touch of class. Gregory Sierra didn't just play villains - he was initially Crockett and Tubbs' boss on Miami Vice (the year before this episode aired).

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