Monday, September 2, 2013

#FinalBurn: Burn Notice Fans Get Ready for the Ending Blaze

Burn Notice  made its debut during the first summer of Mad Men (AMC), with .006 percent of its buzz but an audience many times its size. 
Gina Bellafante, Jan. 2009, The New York Times

Interesting observation. We all know that buzz is much more important than audience size. Otherwise
SNL could not have had such a convincing game show sketch, "What Is Burn Notice? (A video clip that has now been completely deleted from the web) "

As someone pointed out in comments somewhere, the confusion over what the series is about is crazy, because it's clearly explained in the opening credits before every episode:

My name is Michael Westen. I used to be a spy.  Until...
'We got a burn notice on you. You're blacklisted.'
When you're burned, you've got nothing: no cash, no credit, no job history. You're stuck in whatever city they decide to dump you in.
You do whatever work comes your way. You rely on anyone who's still talking to you. A trigger-happy ex-girlfriend...
An old friend who used to inform on you to the FBI...
Family too...if you're desperate.
Bottom line? Until you figure out who burned you... you're not going anywhere.

It could not be more clear. Compare this with the opening credits of The Mentalist. Now that really tells you nothing about the series.

I've been a fan from the beginning, June 2007. It was a sleek, fantasy place with good stories to spend an hour each week, and helped to balance the TV landscape from the heaviness of Breaking Bad, Criminal Minds, Boardwalk Empire etc.

In an (unplanned)  nod to the pop culture gods: when the series ends on Sept. 12 it will have 111 total episodes, the same number as its great uncle, Miami Vice.

Interesting Narrative Structure

So Michael Westen, ex-CIA spy, is dumped in his hometown of Miami, and from the pilot on is trying to find out why he was burned, and specifically by whom. In town he has his mom Madeline, his ex-girlfriend Fiona, an old ex-Navy SEAL friend Sam Axe, and later Jesse, another ex-spy he accidentally burned, who work together as a team.

The weekly episodes had two tracks: furthering the burn notice story, and a client of the week, where Michael uses his skills--and those of his merry band-- to help average people in trouble with loan sharks, drug dealers, etc.

All the while we get a Michael voiceover with how he is approaching the problem:  the importance of tactical support, how he can turn a microwave into an effective bomb, and so on, as though he is narrating a training film for young spies.

"In any operation, whether going into an embassy, or collecting debts for a bookie, it's important to layout a plan before you go into action. If you're going to disagree, it's best to get it out of the way before any shots are fired."

The charm of the series is watching these talented people with professional, military-grade skills work as a team. The Big Bad each season was sometimes strained, but looking back, the large story arcs  track well. The humor is dry all around, no matter how many mojitos they drink together,

This final seventh season has been entirely different.

Instead of Michael "playing" spy for Miami residents, we see him as an actual spy, in a deep cover operation that he has to do as a deal to keep his friends out of prison. And it's grim. He's infiltrating a band of psychopaths who are running their own version of the CIA. He is under such deep cover--so isolated from his friends and who he is---that he's starting to believe in their "cause" (even though that hasn't been revealed in its entirety).

There are two episodes left. We don't know how this is going to end. But a different creative choice would have been to have this reveal about Michael--showing us what he's like as a spy, instead of just telling us over and over-- in the middle of the series. And then have him go back to helping people in Miami. Then all the narration would have a lot more meaning for the viewer.

Jeffrey Donovan has talked about how because of the comparatively light nature of the client of the week,  the deadly nature of Michael Westen's skills wasn't emphasized. Season 7 is putting those skills back into their original context.

Michael and Fiona: A Fine Romance

Another draw of the series is Michael & Fiona, our on again/off again,  lovers. That's how the show is packaged for the DVD market, no matter how much Sam and Jesse add to the mix.  And the state of their relationship is a defining part of Michael Westen.

I have compared the duo to their TV predecessors, Steed and Mrs. Peel, for the super on-screen
Fan art: Steed & Mrs. Peel salute Michael & Fi
chemistry and the working relationship being more important than the personal one. They are both a pairing of "a top professional" and  "a talented amateur."

The couple has taken a lot of hits from the professional critics, Fi in particular:

Alessandra Stanley:

"For one thing he wants to get away from his overbearing mother, Madeline, played by Sharon Gless.

This one not only has a mother problem, but an ex-girlfriend one, too: an old flame, Fiona (Gabrielle Anwar), a former operative for the I.R.A., shows up and also smothers him with expectations."

Gina Bellafante
"Her unrequited lust for Michael is a running joke, given that her looks and inner fire make her a spy’s dream girl . . . "

"Michael regularly reminds her that he just can’t be in a relationship and that they don’t jibe, when his resistance to her — and the thousands of women constantly shown roaming around South Beach in doll-size bikinis — more and more suggests that he is the anti-Bond in his utter lack of libido."

And from a later piece

"Fiona is a character with no memorable precedent: a genius joke-take on girls with gun lust, the joke being that above all else she is every woman who needs to be sent a copy of “He’s Just Not That Into You,” next-day delivery." 

"And she locks right into the real source of Fiona’s masculinity, which has less to do with her Glock fetish, than her refusal to regard her romantic pursuit as a pitiable behavior in need of reform."

Ouch, ouch, and ouch.

Bellafante then maneuvers her idea into some feminist stand. Whatever.

"Every pull of the trigger now feels like retaliation against love gone wrong, even if Fiona isn’t the kind to go about trying to decipher psychological cause and effect. Burn Notice may have set out to say something about espionage in the post-9/11 age, but it has turned into a winning post-feminist revenge fantasy. Fiona fights for us all."

In fairness these articles are from the first two seasons, and the story lines have brought Michael and Fi together on & off since then, although always fraught with different expectations. Donovan defends Michael's love for Fiona in interviews, which I find interesting.

To me, Michael is just no fun outside of work. Fi enjoys everything about doing ops with him (except the real CIA ones), but she also wants to go to the beach, have a nice dinner, basic normal stuff.

It has become more clear in this final season just how damaged a human being Michael is, and that he hasn't been withholding from Fi, he just doesn't have an off-the-clock side to share. It's all work & duty, all the time. That's what keeps his shattered self together.

The fan videos are the best way to see the relationship over the last six seasons.  This one, set to Adele's Skyfall, is just great:

Sea Change
When last we left Michael in August, he had actively chosen James and his gang over finishing his job for the CIA. He revealed his cover to James and Sonya, whom he had started sleeping with. He is completely cut off from Sam, Jesse, his mom, and Fiona, and he could not be more lost.

Sea Change, the name of the penultimate episode, is a line from Shakespeare, The Tempest:

Full fathom five thy father lies,
Of his bones are coral made,
Those are pearls that were his eyes,
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change,
into something rich and strange,
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell,
Hark! now I hear them, ding-dong, bell.

Nice literary touch, but we know how a lot of Will's plays end: lots of people dead.

We'll see. Thursday, Sept. 5 at 9:00 pm.

Seems I was almost right about the voice-over narration, in my second Burn Notice post. I was only off by a generation.