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Series / The Equalizer

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This Cool Old Guy can equalize the odds in your favor.

"Got a problem? Odds against you? Call The Equalizer."
— newspaper advertisement.

An action-adventure television series originally broadcast on the CBS Network between 1985 and 1989. It starred British actor Edward Woodward as Robert McCall aka 'The Equalizer', a retired spy who assists people in need by way of atoning for his past actions as a premiere agent of the... er... 'Company'. Yeah, that's the ticket.

The character's past is never fully revealed to the audience, but is implied to be full of amoral shadows and secrets. He is a ruthless and pragmatic man, a killer many times over — but also a sensitive and honorable man, whose humanity has somehow survived years of terrible disillusionment. The series' expert juxtaposition of all of these elements — and the flat refusal to apologise for or justify any of them — is what has made it a cult classic. (Well, that and the cool Stewart Copeland soundtrack - check out the intro)


In keeping with this dedication to the grey areas, the Equalizer's clients are usually average New York City citizens seeking protection from stalkers, neighborhood hoodlums, abusive husbands, corrupt politicians, crooked businessmen and other largely untouchable villains. His fees are nominal and frequently waived altogether, while his services inevitably go far beyond simple bodyguarding.

A standard episode generally begins with the Equalizer convincing his reluctant client that hiring what appears to be a Brit-accented Charles Bronson is a good idea — or, occasionally, explaining why 'just shooting them all' is not the answer — and ends with the execution of a complex (and often cruelly ironic) extended mindgame that leaves his opponents so crazed that they're either sobbing for mercy or forcing McCall to shoot them in self-defense. There is not a lot in the way of redemption, on this series, and what there is has been hard-earned.


He is helped in his investigations by contacts acquired during his intelligence years, ranging from scientists to mercenaries. Notable among these — more so in later years, when health problems forced actor Woodward to slow down — is recurring sidekick Mickey Kostmayer (Keith Szarabajka), a junior agent who doesn't quite understand what drives McCall's crusade but is ferociously loyal anyway (it's stated in one episode that Mickey had been convicted of fragging his superior officer, and McCall proved his innocence). McCall also reluctantly does assignments for his former boss, known only as Control (Robert Lansing), who in payment turns a blind eye to this wholesale 'borrowing' of Agency personnel.

As of 2016, all 4 seasons have been released on DVD in both US and Europe. However, the US release has many of the songs, and some of the score removed, or replaced (copyright stuff).

A film of the series, with Denzel Washington starring as McCall, was released in 2014, and had a sequel in 2018. In 2020 CBS ordered a reboot of the show starring Queen Latifah.

This show contains examples of:

  • 555. The phone number on the Equalizer's newspaper advertisement. Spoofed on the Late Show when David Letterman rang the number and ends up talking to a woman in Information.
  • 10-Minute Retirement: After one case ends badly, McCall decides to give up his We Help the Helpless gig. Then a sobbing woman is heard begging for help on his answering machine. The episode ends on McCall picking up the phone to offer his services.
  • The Atoner: McCall helps people partly to expunge his guilt over the amoral things he did as part of The Firm.
  • Badass Boast: McCall gives too many to list, all of them terrifying.
  • Badass Longcoat: It's pretty much McCall's trademark piece of clothing; see picture above. Lampshaded in the episode "Christmas Presence" in the following exchange between Harley Gage (an associate of McCall's) and a little boy who's obsessed with The Equalizer
    Boy: So when am I gonna meet the Equalizer? You told me I was gonna see him.
    Harley Gage: Will you get off this Equalizer kick for me. That's all you ever talk about. What's he got that I haven't got?
    Boy: A trench coat.
    • You can pretty much tell how much of a badass a Company agent (at least one that has a significant part of the story) is by how long his or her coat is. McCall, Control (when he wears one), and Dyson wear the longest coats and they are three people who worked in The Agency who really, really shouldn't be messed with.
  • Batman Gambit. McCall is a master manipulator and uses psychological warfare very effectively.
  • Berserk Button: Rape and hurting or exploiting children will send McCall into a rage that may overcome his usual iron control over how far he will go to punish or see that the perpetrator(s) don't ever do anything of the like again.
  • Bluff the Imposter: Either involving someone from McCall's spy past trying to get him to reveal or betray a still-relevant secret, or involving McCall trying to earn the confidence of a wary high-profile target.
  • Brainwashed and Crazy: In "Splinters", the KGB kidnap Mickey Kostmayer to test this trope on, figuring that if they can break the Undying Loyalty of these Fire-Forged Friends, their brainwashing technology will work on anyone. After an extensive Mind Rape, Mickey is waiting with a gun when McCall turns up to rescue him. Fortunately The Power of Friendship proves greater.
  • Break Them by Talking: McCall is quite masterful at this, hitting every emotional and psychological weak point he can find in his enemies.
  • Brief Accent Imitation: McCall imitates a NooYawk accent for comedic effect to Mickey, repeating and mocking a very irritating and unhelpful New Yorker he was hoping would give him information.
  • Bruiser with a Soft Center: Harley Gage is a tough bad-boy sort who tends to poke fun at McCall for his idealistic mission, but you get him around kids or someone who is in trouble and his tough outer shell gives way pretty quickly despite all his protests to the contrary.
  • Brutal Honesty: McCall doesn't usually sugarcoat it, even at his most gentle.
  • Busman's Holiday: In "The Children's Song", Robert goes on a camping trip with his son Scott. Sure enough, they encounter a woman in danger from a gang of hoodlums.
  • Calling the Old Man Out: McCall's estranged son Scott doesn't hesitate to express how he feels about his dad being gone for most of his life. Neither is he impressed when he later finds out what McCall did for the Agency (like helping set up brutal dictatorships).
  • The Casanova: Harley Gage. And in "No Conscience", a compulsive womanizer is mistaken for a cut-out in a spy ring; he has to hire McCall to help him track down every woman he's dated recently to find out who the real spy is.
  • Coffin Contraband: In "Joyride", a coffin in a hearse is filled with crack cocaine. Two boys take the hearse for the title joyride.
  • Cold War: Occasional episodes revolved around the operations that McCall performed against the Soviets coming back to haunt him... some which ended in disaster and which he felt he needed to clean up.
  • Combat Pragmatist: While capable of using firearms, he prefers psychological warfare on his opponents, and is willing to work with cops given the right situation. He avoids direct fights whenever possible, and when he has to fight, he relies on his skills more than his weapons.
  • Consummate Liar: I Lied is practically Control's catchphrase.
    "It's what I do for a living, Robert."
    • McCall is also extremely good at lying, however he only does so in the interests of protecting people.
  • Cool Car: McCall drives a black Jaguar XJ6, much to the dismay of clients who naturally assume his services are expensive.
  • Crazy-Prepared: McCall set up a whole protocol Scott should follow if he (McCall) should be captured, including instructions for contacting Control, instructions for where to go should Control either choose not to or be unable to help which contained instructions to go to Mickey who has further instructions on who to go to for help, and, of course, instructions on where to go and what to do should they be unable to prevent his death (i.e. where his will is and his money).
  • Cultured Warrior: McCall is sophisticated, well read, regularly contributes articles on military history to journals of considerable repute, has an eclectic taste in music (though generally running towards classical and swing/jazz in genre), is an appreciator of fine art, prefers sports cars and tasteful clothes, and is an ex-black ops agent who can efficiently end you should you be foolish enough to come up against him.
  • Cut Phone Lines: In five episodes: The Children's Song, Torn, The Cup, The Rehearsal and Last Call
  • Cynical Mentor: Dyson tends to act like this to Scott.
  • Dark and Troubled Past
  • Deadpan Snarker: McCall is the undeniable master in the series.
  • Demolitions Expert: Mickey.
  • Dramatic Chase Opening. Subverted. The opening credits are a collection of dramatic chase openings, but they're so many that they get switched before the actual chases begin.
  • Drowning My Sorrows: Notably by McCall in one episode.
    • Though he often goes into smaller ones of these after having to kill someone.
  • Enraged by Idiocy: If there is one way guaranteed to get under McCall's skin it is by being idiotic; if it is simple stupidity which at worst puts you in danger, you are almost guaranteed some sort of scathing remark, however if your idiocy endangers someone else you may well be in for a Reason You Suck Speech.
  • Expy: If it weren't for their considerably different backstories, there are many occasions during the series in which Woodward is basically playing an older version of his earlier spy character Callan.
    • Made most explicit in an early episode when Robert breaks down and admits his job is simply to kill people, a major ongoing trope in Callan.
  • Floorboard Failure: Comes up as the Equalizer is being menaced by the villain on a building site. He warns the villain not to come any closer because there are broken boards between them; of course the bad guy doesn't trust this, so steps onto the broken boards and falls to his death.
  • Forgot to Gag Him: If one is going to hold Control captive, one must gag him or one may as well say he's not captured at all.
  • Friend in the Black Market: Usually when McCall needs a particular piece of equipment that is impossible or difficult to get legally or needs to be untraceable, he goes to Jimmy.
  • Friend on the Force: Lt. Jefferson, Lt. Mason Wells and Lt. Isidore Smalls, who rotated in and out throughout the first series.
    • Detective Alice Shephard
  • Friend to All Children: McCall is generally very fond of children (despite sometimes covering it up with empty gruffness or irritation), and children tend to gravitate to him. Also, see Berserk Button for what happens when McCall gets involved in a case where someone harms a child.
  • Girl of the Week: McCall generally has somewhere between two and four per season. It's usually implied that they have been or do date for a considerable amount of time but you never see each one beyond one episode, rather implied to be because even though McCall wants to have a steady relationship he's still not very good at maintaining one.
  • Grammar Nazi: McCall. Though he usually (with great forbearance) tolerates it from friends and clients (unless utterly terrible), bad grammar from baddies quickly irritates him and often causes him to snarkily or snappishly correct them.
    Assassin: I ain't telling you nothing.
    McCall: What a terrible double-negative.
  • The Gunslinger: Several characters, but notably Kostmayer, who always carries a handy Uzi or Ingram submachine gun.
    Mickey: So why can't we just bust in there and start shooting [the kidnappers]? Take 'em by surprise.
    McCall:: Mickey, there is a five-year-old child in that room!
    Mickey: Oh, yeah. [lowers Micro-Uzi sheepishly] I, uh, forgot.
  • Government Agency of Fiction: McCall's former employer is only referred to as "The Agency" or "The Company", both well-known nicknames for the CIA. Not actually calling it the CIA gets around the issue of how the mysterious Agency can legally operate inside the United States. One shot of Control's New York office shows an out of focus plaque that is still recognisable as being the CIA seal.
  • Handguns: McCall carries a stainless steel Walther PPK/S with Pachmayr grips. He's also seen using the .357 Desert Eagle, and the Uzi in its SMG or pistol variants.
  • Heel–Faith Turn: Brother Joseph Heiden in "Blood and Wine" used to be a terrorist until he saw the light. McCall is understandably skeptical about the transformation.
    • One of McCall's former assets was the head of the Cuban secret police, until he became a Christian and defected.
  • Heroic Neutral: Dyson. Had his idealism beaten out of him by years in the Company: seeing friends die, having to do terrible things, and being hurt time and time again by 'caring too much', and once out of the Agency takes considerable steps to make sure he's left alone by friend and foe alike.
  • Improvised Weapon: One episode has McCall accidentally held hostage, whereupon he proceeds to kill the terrorists using a coat-hook screw rammed through the jaw and strangulation with a tie.
  • In Harm's Way: Mickey loves being in on any sort of danger; the riskier the better. He lampshades it himself in his first appearance; McCall comes to ask him for his help (meeting Mickey while Mickey is fishing) but doesn't ever get that far before Mickey starts packing up his fishing gear
    McCall: What are you doing?
    Mickey: Packing up. I figured you're here cause you need some whacko who's willing to stick his finger in the fan.
  • Intergenerational Friendship: McCall (who is old enough to be Mickey's father) and Mickey became friends after having been assigned missions together while McCall was still with The Company. They tend to look and act rather like a Student and Master Team when they work together, but just hang out and joke around when not on a job.
  • Kangaroo Court: In "Trial by Ordeal", McCall has to act as defense advocate for Control, who's being tried by a secret court used for intelligence agents accused for treason, with immediate execution if he's found guilty so he can't publicly reveal any classified information. He has a jury of his peers, but as they're all underlings who'll be promoted if Control is killed, their motives are questionable when they find him guilty. The whole thing turns out to be a Secret Test of Character by Control to see who among his underlings is loyal.
  • Knight In Sour Armor: McCall is cynical in the extreme, but he's got a soft spot for people in trouble; hence his current occupation. He's also still an idealist (albeit a very jaded one), who is trying to do what it is he signed up for originally when he got into the army and espionage, i.e. protect people innocent people from those who would do them harm.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: Often invoked deliberately by McCall; examples include a man who was robbing deaf people temporarily losing his hearing after McCall blasts him with a sound weapon, and a slum landlord almost losing his life in a fire set by his own hired arsonists.
  • MAD: The Tranquilizer.
  • Manipulative Bastard: Control, of the coldly analytical type. Could count as a Magnificent Bastard on charisma and never knowing quite where he's coming from alone, but YMMV.
  • Manly Tears: McCall when recalling the death of his daughter, which is obviously still a very present pain.
  • Married to the Job: Well, he sort of had to be with the sort of job he had, but McCall apparently didn't realize that it (and the secrecy involved) would be a leading cause in his divorce with Scott's mother and major factor in his inability to maintain a steady relationship afterwards (even after becoming The Equalizer because he'd gotten so used to not trusting himself with anyone that he doesn't open up easily even if he wants to).
  • Mind Rape: A favourite tactic of McCall's, and has been known to completely reduce a villain to a quivering jelly. Also used to brainwash Mickey into (almost) assassinating him in "Splinters".
  • Mistaken for Spies: "Dead Drop" and "No Conscience" involve the client being mistaken for the next chain in a ring of spies.
  • The Mister and the Ex: McCall is on the ex end of things when he has to protect his ex-wife and her husband (who he actually ends up getting along with quite well).
  • The Needs of the Many: Control's reasoning for being willing to trade McCall for the return of several American agents. To be fair, he says he did have a plan to rescue him.
  • Nerves of Steel: McCall. Even the one time he did find emotions getting in the way of his cold reasoning and planning ( he found out that a girl he was trying to protect and had gotten abducted, was his daughter) he still (after admitting it to himself and Mickey) managed to go through with the elaborate chess game he had planned before the emotions had clouded his judgment.
  • Never Be a Hero: Scott sometimes tries to copy his father's methods, but usually ends up making an idiot of himself.
  • Police are Useless: Albeit presented sympathetically as hamstrung by the larger justice system.
    McCall: Who runs this city?
    Lt. Jefferson: We do.
    McCall: When your backs are turned, who runs this city?
    • It's also downplayed as McCall often has the police arrest the villains at the end, once he's sorted out the original problem.
  • Pop-Cultural Osmosis Failure: McCall and Mickey often miss each other's references, so often so that there is a rather amusing moment where McCall enthusiastically recounts an episode of The Twilight Zone in the expectation that Mickey never saw it and Mickey letting him go the entire way through before revealing he had, amusingly slightly disconcerting McCall.
  • Private Detective, Spy Fiction, Vigilante Man: The series draws on tropes from all of these genres.
  • Protectorate: Anyone McCall accepts as a client and/or whoever that client might think needs protection or extraction from a bad situation.
  • Real Men Cook: McCall is quite an accomplished chef.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: McCall is quite masterful at giving these.
  • Revenge Before Reason: Averted in "Torn" when McCall is tipped off by Jason about a double agent who betrayed his Love Interest to the Soviets during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. Unfortunately at the same time, McCall's client is attacked by her abusive separated husband. McCall chooses to protect his client and successfully talks the man out of harming his daughter. The double agent escapes, and Jason makes a point of telling McCall that his girlfriend was executed by the Soviets minutes after her betrayal.
  • Resignations Not Accepted: Subverted. McCall "rewrote the rules." McCall used three factors to his advantage to resign. (1) His 'friendship' with Control, who would rather not kill him and is savvy enough to realise he might still get some use out of McCall if he doesn't push too hard. (2) His loyalty has never been in question and Control knows McCall will hold the classified information he has unto death. (3) McCall is just so badass that it would be far more trouble than it would be worth to try to kill him.
    Control: You are the most dangerous man I have ever met.
    McCall: Hang on to that thought.
  • Running Gag: Harvey the pharmacy deliveryman who is constantly trying to get McCall into whatever ultra-health food, pill, or fad he's into at the moment.
  • Secret Test of Character: Comes up sometimes as McCall's method of getting clients to stand up for themselves by the end of a particular Mind Screw on once-untouchable bad guys.
    • Used on occasion with episodes involving McCall and Control regarding the spy agency, trying to determine who among their associates could be trustworthy. Especially in one memorable episode where Control is put on trial by the agency only for the trial to have been set up by Control to see which of his subordinates would go through 'executing' him on questionable evidence. All of them do, and fail the test.
  • Sharp-Dressed Man: McCall dresses impeccably throughout the show; whenever he doesn't, it's significant in some way. Occasionally includes Waistcoat of Style.
  • Shell-Shocked Veteran: McCall is very haunted man, having witnessed, gone through, and perpetrated terrible things, and he mentions he can't sleep for more than a couple of hours before the nightmares of those things wake him.
  • Shoe Phone: Subverted as all the spy gadgets used by McCall are available commercially in real life.
  • Shooting Gallery: In "Reign of Terror", McCall is shown on a shotgun range in which silhouettes of shoot/no shoot situations are projected on the walls, while he discusses with a former member of the Cuban secret police the decisions he's made in life. He ends up accidentally shooting two silhouettes of men with their hands raised in surrender.
  • Shout-Out: McCall's troubled past clearly draws on Edward Woodward's title role in the 1967-72 British Series Callan about a reluctant killer in the murky world of espionage; as well as issues raised by the trial of 'Subway Vigilante' Bernard Goetz and the movie Death Wish (as seen in a MAD spoof where Goetz, Charles Bronson and the Equalizer argue over who should shoot a subway mugger). His Walther PPK is an obvious reference to that most famous British spy, James Bond.
  • Showy Invincible Hero: While McCall seems unbeatable (see Escapist Character) it's still fun to watch him take out the bad guys and help people because he does it in the most unique and awesome ways, viewer's generally like watching depraved assholes get what they have coming to them, and McCall is a pretty good guy who's generally soft-spoken and friendly that you really don't want to piss off.
  • Sinister Subway: Also shown in the Title Sequence.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism: An in-depth exploration of this is pretty much the entire point of the series.
  • Smug Snake: Jason Murar, an up and coming agent in the Agency.
  • Spies in a Van: Quite a few of these. Sometimes they are The Agency, sometimes The Opposition, and sometimes McCall and/or people he's working with.
  • The Spock: McCall is very much this but has tempered it some on his own by choosing to stick to ideals he had put away for the greater good when he was part of The Agency. He always prefers logic, rationalism, and hard facts to intuition, never allows emotion to control him, is always calculating and manipulating the odds, and willing to pay the cost himself to save someone's life.
    • Control also, the only person in the series to out-Spock McCall and to whom McCall could look like The McCoy next to.
  • The Spymaster: Control.
  • Stepping Out for a Quick Cup of Coffee: Smalls does this sometimes.
    "I better not see you looking at this file, McCall."
  • The Stoic: Dyson, of the Shell-Shocked Veteran kind. He couldn't compartmentalize like McCall could, so he ended up burying his feelings as deep as he could and rarely shows more than shadows of any emotion other than bitter cynicism.
  • Sudden Principled Stand: McCall's quitting The Agency.
  • Sugar-and-Ice Personality: With friends and most clients McCall is kindly, soft-spoken, possessed of a sharp and mischievous wit, and (extremely) occasionally reveals flashes of endearing vulnerability; with everyone else he tends to be very formal, aloof, brusque, prone to be easily irritated, and quite sharp-tongued.
  • Surprise Incest: Averted. When Scott first meets Manon's daughter, Yvette they feel an attraction to each other. McCall has to warn him off. Of course, this angers Scott with the revelation that he has a half-sister he knew nothing about. She thinks another man is her father, so she doesn't know and isn't told.
  • Suspiciously Similar Substitute:
    • After Edward Woodward suffered a heart attack that forced him to cut down on his acting for awhile, the 'Equalizer' role was temporarily shared with Richard Jordan and Robert Mitchum (also playing former members of the Agency).
    • Also, throughout Season One, McCall's contacts in the NYPD are Lieutenants Jefferson, West and Smalls, who are all black, all reluctant to accept McCall's help (but grateful anyway) and in the cases of West and Smalls, possessors of an impressive Porn Stache.
  • Terror Hero
  • Title Drop: In the classified ad, as well as people who answer the ad when they first meet McCall
  • Undying Loyalty: Mickey to McCall.
  • Vigilante Execution: Averted. McCall never shoots anyone in cold blood, as noted preferring to use psychological warfare to inspire a confession or attitude-adjustment (though quite a few villains conveniently pull a gun at the climax so McCall can kill them in self-defense).
  • Vigilante Man: McCall's MO; he sees himself as helping people that the police can't or won't.
  • Vitriolic Best Buds: McCall and Dyson.
  • Wall of Weapons: Hidden behind a tool board in his apartment's workshop.
  • Warrior Poet: McCall is prone to think think deeply about - and incorporate into his life - poetry and music, and to discuss life, death, and war through them.
  • We Help the Helpless: McCall's method of advertising; see the page quote.
  • "Well Done, Dad!" Guy: McCall really wants to build a good relationship with his son.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: McCall is sometimes on the receiving end of this from Scott, and has given out some to cops and to Control.
    • Control tends to be on the receiving end of these a lot.
  • Where Does He Get All Those Wonderful Toys?: The question of how McCall can afford his Cool Car, expensive Manhattan apartment, and equipment is lampshaded several times, but never answered directly. It's implied that McCall was in a position to make (or perhaps skim) a large amount of money during his time with the Agency.
  • With Friends Like These...: McCall and Control often snark and butt heads (especially over Agency actions), but the other is usually who they turn to when they're in trouble or need someone to talk to. Can go into Who Needs Enemies?, especially on (but not limited to) Control's end.
  • Why Did It Have to Be Snakes?: McCall (to his chagrin and embarrassment) is deathly afraid of heights. However, it rarely impedes his competency.


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