Warehouse 13 – “Burnout”

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“Burnout”

August 11th, 2009

“This place is like “The Spine” – it’ll use you up.”

I don’t pretend that Warehouse 13 is a more complicated show than it purports to be: it’s a simple summer procedural, and to expect too much from that is to place expectations on the show that it’s never going to live up to. Thus far, it has done a strong job of developing the universe of the Warehouse slowly but surely, and that’s resulted in some entertaining television if not quite as much serialization as I might want in my procedurals.

However, the above quote is an effort to paint a far darker picture of the events taking place, and in many ways the show balances the more campy/supernatural side of its plot with attempts to emphasize the dangerous, potentially life-ending work being undertaken by the Warehouse employees. In “Burnout,” we got a crash course in both how this should be done and how it shouldn’t, as two different but connected devices create legitimate questions and suspense-free scenarios varying in effectiveness.

If we are to believe that the Warehouse is actually a dangerous mode of employment, it raises some pretty important questions about its past. To this point, the various threats have been dangerous, in some cases deadly, but almost always you could justify the work because of the menace being removed from society. The episodes usually end with a quick little coda, establishing that everything turned out okay in the end, so there’s a sense that the danger is temporary, a dramatic conceit for the sake of creating entertaining television rather than a sign that this mode of employment is a death trap (it wouldn’t have much longevity as a show if the job was not fit for, well, anyone). Either way, we have logical questions about what kind of agents came before Pete and Myka, and who was running the Warehouse before Artie, and what kind of life this Warehouse used to have.

As a result, this episode did some fine work in terms of branching out into past agents of the Warehouse, as we meet Jack Secord post-mortem and discover his partner, and lover, Rebecca alive and well and curious just what happened to her would-be husband all those years ago. In the process, we learn that Secord made the ultimate sacrifice, walling himself into a room with a device meant to turn him into a killing machine in order to keep him from murdering those around him, and to keep the artifact from jumping to another host once he passed away. It’s a tragic scenario, a sacrifice that has human consequences (Rebecca’s left to go on alone) and more importantly one that indicates how far the oath of the Secret Service evolves when you remove yourself from the President and begin dealing with mythical Saracen Electricity Spines.

This side of the story feels like the right way to create a sense of darkness in the Warehouse, a sense that this job will eventually claim your life in a way that protecting the President could not. For the most part, Pete and Myka are now adjusted to their new position; they complain about wanting a break at the beginning of the episode, sure, but they no longer raise their eyebrows at the tasks being placed in front of them. However, they’re not quite like Rebecca, who views the Warehouse with a cynical eye, knowing that it tore her life apart and that it could do the same for Myka. The episode only once really draws the parallel between Myka and Rebecca, each having lost partners who were more than partners, but it’s a powerful way to question whether the Warehouse isn’t a particularly risky form of employment for these people who apparently have bright careers ahead of them.

However, for all of the good that the story of Rebecca and Jack achieves for the show, a lot of it is ultimately taken away by the decision to yet again place Pete or Myka in direct danger as it relates to the artifact in question. Having Pete or Myka become impacted by the artifact is a cheat, a quick way to create dramatic tension and to play with their interpersonal dynamics: Myka tearfully tells Artie that she won’t lose another partner, and Rebecca knows at that moment that she needs to warn this girl about her own fate. And yes, Pete trying to replicate Jack’s heroism tells us something about his character, and their partnership, but it actually destroys any dramatic tension: we know that Pete isn’t going to die, so really eluding to a hypothetical situation would be equally as effective. Because we know what’s going to happen, the sense of danger the episode is trying to put together is actually undermined rather than heightened by Pete becoming the “agent in distress” at episode’s end.

The rest of the episode did what we expect, although Claudia’s impact deserves a bit of discussion. I thought some of her dialogue with Artie was a bit too precocious, but I think that she gives Artie someone to play off of, which is only good for the show’s dynamics. Her technological implementation, meanwhile, helps to open up some new avenues for the show, and keeps Artie from just being a handheld talking Wiki of crazy artifacts. The show is leaning closer to forensic territory with episodes like this one, but I think it works so long as they maintain the quirky antiquity of it all – the new-fangled, old-fangled holograph machine is kind of great.

I’m ultimately happy with what this episode did for the series, establishing the potential dangers to the agents’ lives while revealing a bit more about past agents and the way the Warehouse operates. I just wish that they could have done it without attaching that spine to Pete, as it cheapened the episode’s impact for me.

Cultural Observations

  • A couple of nice bits of plotting, though, beyond my concerns about the agent participation: I enjoyed how Claudia woke up the projector much as Myka woke up Pete, and the foreshadowing of the large generators at the police station was quite subtle but well handled in the end.
  • I think they need to bring Pete down just a tad – yes, he’s a bit of a goofball, but taking all of the cookies seemed like one of those notes that just didn’t fit, and there are times when he will tell a joke, people will laugh, and the conversation will just go on as if it didn’t happen. I think we get that he’s supposedly really funny, so such jokes feel unnecessary.
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