MacGyver’s signature move was making amazing inventions out of household items. Here are the best things he whipped up over the run of the entire series.
When I watch MacGyver, I’m in it for the crazy inventions. The “bomb out of a paper clip, a comic book and a houseplant” type of inventions.
Even though that’s the signature of the series, believe it or not, there are fewer of those than you’d think. In fact, there are a decent number of episodes where he doesn’t invent anything on the fly at all. Those are what we call the bad episodes. They’re so disappointing. Like an episode of Maury that isn’t paternity tests. Or a first-season episode of The O.C. where Ryan didn’t punch someone at a party.
But then there are the great episodes. The ones that have some invention that mixes the three key ingredients: An improbable scenario… pseudo-science… and plenty of dei ex machina on hand. I’ve pulled out 11 of those for this list; 11 of the most ridiculous and absurd inventions that MacGyver’s ever made.
And no, none of them involves a celery stalk.
1 | “The Prodigal” – Season 1, Episode 9
Items: Cleaning fluid, telescope, moth balls, rope, pulley that happened to be laying around in an attic, handlebars.
Result: “Rocket-powered” harpoon gun/zip line.
Execution: MacGyver and a guy are trapped in an attic while men with guns try to break through some furniture they’ve used to block the door, MacGyver gathers all the stuff listed above to make a harpoon gun that fires a rope to a tree outside. Then he and the guy zip line over vicious dogs and a tall fence to safety.
Absurdity: Not even jumping into the whole rocket-powered harpoon gun aspect… somehow the pulley and handlebars get returned instantly to MacGyver at the top of the zip line after the first guy slides down. I guess we didn’t see him attach a boomerang. Even though the scene is a very leisurely five minutes, that was probably cut for time.
2 | “The Enemy Within” – Season 1, Episode 15
Items: Candlesticks, microphone cord, rubber mat.
Execution: MacGyver cuts the microphone wire, attaches it to two candlesticks, wraps them with the mat to keep himself from being electrocuted… then resuscitates his friend who was implanted with a remote-triggered heart attack causing device by evil Soviet spies.
Absurdity: I mean… how are we supposed to believe it’s a viable, functional defibrillator when no one even yelled “CLEAR”? That’s an indispensable part of the televised defibrillating process. At this point I’m conditioned to believe that defibrillators are voice-activated.
3 | “Slow Death” – Season 1, Episode 19
Items: Blood pressure cuff, stethoscope, alarm clock.
Result: Lie detector.
Execution: While stuck on a train, MacGyver constructs a makeshift lie detector to determine who sold tainted medicine to some Arabian tribespeople. He hooks a concoction of the stethoscope and blood pressure cuff to the alarm clock so that when someone lies, it makes the alarm go off.
Absurdity: As we’ve learned from all future procedurals (that didn’t involve a master of improvised invention), lie detectors aren’t admissible in court. If Sam Waterston were on the train he would’ve shut down MacGyver’s plan almost immediately.
4 | “GX-1” – Season 3, Episode 6
Items: Homemade glue, random scraps of nylon, metal shed, gas canisters.
Result: Hot air balloon.
Execution: Trapped in the Swiss Alps and being hunted down by the Soviets (ya know, as it often goes), MacGyver builds a hot air balloon from scratch in a matter of hours. They are able to gently float away just as the Soviets find them.
Absurdity: About a dozen Soviets fire on MacGyver but, amazingly, none of their bullets hits the jerry-rigged balloon — just the tough metal shed. This isn’t the only hot air balloon moment in the series — in one of the first episodes MacGyver escapes from an unnamed Middle Eastern country in a hot air balloon. There, a bullet *does* hit the balloon, and MacGyver is able to climb it in midair and use a map and duct tape to patch the hole. Not sure which scenario is less plausible, but I do know that no other series has ever featured two high-stakes hot air balloon escapes.
5 | “Gold Rush” – Season 4, Episode 14
Items: Sleeping bag, vodka, tank of oxygen.
Result: Snow-destroying bomb to escape an avalanche.
Execution: Trapped in a plane that’s been buried in an avalanche, MacGyver wraps an oxygen tank in a sleeping bag, then puts that in a bucket of vodka. And not just any vodka, authentic Russian vodka. The kind of vodka that can take the paint off a building. Then he uses the sleeping bag string as an ignition line, buries the contraption in the snow, and blows a way out.
Absurdity: Not to say it’s cartoonish… but this escape from an avalanche is remarkably similar to the way that Homer and Mr. Burns would escape from a snowed-in cabin on The Simpsons years later. Between these two glorious shows, I now fully intend to bomb my way out if I ever get snowed in.
6 | “The Coltons” – Season 7, Episode 5
Items: Obedient dog, bottle of sulfuric acid, yardstick, jar.
Result: Catapult to launch acid into a position where it can burn binding ropes.
Execution: This episode opens with MacGyver and another guy tied up in a warehouse. There’s an ACME-looking bundle of dynamite with a timer on it. Less than four minutes and they’re history. Fortunately the world’s most obedient dog wanders into the basement. MacGyver and his friend exercise mind control over the dog, get him to carry a bottle of sulfuric acid off a table and place it on the end of a ruler-and-bottle see-saw that MacGyver’s build with his bound feet. Once the bottle’s there, MacGyver catapults the acid perfectly, having it land behind his back and in his tied up hands. He uses the acid to burn the ropes and free himself and his friend. They and the dog escape with seconds to spare before the explosion.
Absurdity: This one feels about 48 percent MacGruber, 48 percent Ace Ventura, and four percent actual “MacGyver”. Five seasons earlier he wouldn’t have needed to mind-meld with a dog to get out of this kind of a predicament.
7 | “To Be a Man” – Season 1, Episode 17
Items: Fallen U.S. intelligence satellite, its parachute, duct tape.
Result: Hang glider.
Execution: MacGyver manages to get to a crashed U.S. intelligence satellite on the Afghanistan/Pakistan border. See, even back then we were having intelligence issues with that border. When some communist sheiks (they all have turbans, as well as camouflage vehicles with red stars on them) pursue him, he quickly turns the piping and plastic from the satellite and its parachute into a factory-quality hang glider.
Absurdity: This doesn’t look like a ragtag hang glider. It’s beautifully, symmetrically constructed. Which he managed to do using pipes from a fallen satellite in a matter of minutes without any tools. In real life, his better option would’ve just been jumping and trying to flap his arms really quickly.
8 | “The Road Not Taken” – Season 2, Episode 7
Items: Branches, rocks, twine, rosary beads.
Result: Time-delayed rock catapult.
Execution: MacGyver configures a catapult, held back by twine, to shoot rocks at pursuing enemy soldiers. He wants it time-delayed to throw them off the path. So he uses his female companion’s rosary beads to refract the sunlight, gradually burn the twine, and trigger the catapult.
Absurdity: It works perfectly, and the rocks are fired just as the soldiers approach. Also, the beam of focused sunlight from the rosary beads is a very, very weak special effect, even for the mid-’80s. Someone in the post-production department should’ve had a powerful enough Tandy computer to make a more realistic effect.
9 | “Deathlock” – Season 1, Episode 10
Items: Batteries, electric mixer, rubber band, serving cart, half a suit of armor.
Result: Motorized heat-seeking gun decoy.
Execution: Trapped in a booby trapped house by a British madman out for revenge, MacGyver creates a decoy to get himself past the heat-seeking guns lining the perimeter. He takes a small kitchen cart and affixes the upper part of a suit of armor on top. (It’s a British madman’s house. All those types have suits of armor on hand.) Then he uses the electric mixer and a rubber band to get the cart’s wheels moving. As the guns fire away on the moving decoy, he is able to escape the other way.
Absurdity: He could’ve accomplished the same thing without the whole motorized part. For most of his escape he just crawls behind the cart (and behind some hedges). Then at the end he gives the cart a mighty shove in the opposite direction to distract the guns. The motorized nature never really factors in. Guess he just wanted to… wait for it… mix things up.
10 | “Gunz ‘N Boyz” – Season 7, Episode 11
Items: Heating duct pipe, full beer keg, wood crate, nylon strap, trash can, boards, whiskey, unused matches leftover in an ashtray.
Result: Steel door shattering beer keg torpedo.
Execution: Locked in a room at a liquor warehouse, MacGyver springs into action. He disassembles the heating duct pipes and uses one section as the main component of his torpedo. He straps it to a wood crate and puts a full beer keg in the back. Then he puts a waste basket of wood behind the device, covers the wood with whiskey, and lights it using matches he finds in an ashtray. Eventually the flames catch, heat up the keg, and make it fire through the pipe… and through the door.
Absurdity: I had a few problems here. One: In most TV shows and movies, someone would try to escape through the heating ducts. Not MacGyver. Instead he takes them apart to build a torpedo launcher. And two, he lifts up a full keg effortlessly. MacGyver’s got lean muscle, not “nonchalant keg lifting” muscle.
11 | “There But For the Grace” – Season 6, Episode 16
Items: Rubber glove, gas pipe, toilet bowl shards, random light bulb on a cord.
Result: Long-distance bomb.
Execution: In this episode, MacGyver goes undercover as a homeless guy to try to find out who killed a priest. (The later years of MacGyver had increasingly unusual premises and decreasing levels of evil Soviets.) The climax happens in a toilet bowl factory. MacGyver attaches a rubber glove to an open gas line, inflating the glove. He hangs a light bulb above it. Then, standing away from the bad guy with a gun, he throws chunks of a toilet bowl at the bulb. In two tries he hits it and shatters the bulb, causing sparks to ignite the gassed-up glove and explode.
Absurdity: Like a lot of MacGyver’s inventions, he’s lucky here that the armed bad guy walks… so… so… so… so… so… slowly in pursuit. The bad guy knew MacGyver was unarmed. Why not just run full speed at him? Don’t give him the time it takes to spot all of the random items necessary to create a weapon! This bad guy in particular even makes a Bond villain look focused and efficient.