Season Premiere: Burn Notice – “Friends and Family”

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“Friends and Family”

June 4th, 2009

“Danger isn’t always Obvious”

This is not a new edict for Michael Weston, or Burn Notice in general: since the beginning of the show, Michael’s greatest tip for the audience as told through his narration is to be able to spot danger before it happens, reading a situation in a way that few others can. He made his living being able to spot and avoid dangerous situations, and he has used those skills in his post-blacklist existence to find success in new areas of his life.

But moving into the show’s third season, danger is more unpredictable than ever before on the broad, serialized level the show has gradually built into its procedural frame. In the first season, Michael knew that he had been burned by someone in particular but was largely acclimating to his new existence and only occasionally interacting with the danger they represented. In the second season, Michael began to better understand that danger, even infiltrating it by using their interactions through Carla and others against them, and while they never became less dangerous he at least understood how they, as operatives similar to himself, might operate.

But now, as we open the season with Michael swimming five miles in suit pants, we discover an environment where even the observational technique of Michael Weston can’t really comprehend the dangers that could befall him on an individual mission. The show’s structure remains mostly unchanged, but more than ever before they are capable of (as we see in the premiere) spiraling into a far more dangerous situation than Michael first realized. Adhering to the old adage, the devil you know is often better than the devil which could take a multitude of forms ranging in danger and, more importantly, ranging in their approaches.

The result is “Friends and Family,” a setup for another great season, one presents another explosive and rewarding variable to the show’s already winning formula, and one which highlights some of the show’s best elements.

The question of what motivates Michael Weston has always been quite complicated: in the first season he was helping people as a way to live, and in the second season he was motivated by a desire to discover through Carla who it was that had burned him. Of course, there are other motivations such as doing what’s right or helping people which have been pretty constant, but there is usually one base motivation that dominates each season. What’s funny is that in some ways this season’s motivation seems new, but it’s really been around all along. Now with police and foreign intelligence agencies aware of his presence, leaving him open to more traditional investigations and old friends from his past who he might not want sniffing around, Michael is both in more danger and, more importantly for his motivations, closer than he was before to being able to get back into the game.

The scenes in the episode that deal with this (Fiona and Sam’s conversation while bomb-making, Michael and Sam’s conversation at episode’s end) are the most telling: here is a man who used to be solely defined by his work, whose work influences a majority of their current “life” of sorts, and who still clearly feels connected to that line of work. As Sam said when he told Michael the situation as he sat in jail at the opening of the episode, it’s good news and bad news that he is on their radar – while Michael seemed incredulous to this duality at first, there is obviously some part of him who wants to recommit to the goal that has always been hidden by notions of necessity, or the drive for revenge, or any other motivation that has overlapped with it in the past.

Of course, Fiona is quite adamant that Michael should realize that there are other more human motivations he should be considering: with some of his restrictions lifted, a light at the end of the tunnel, this shouldn’t be a chance for him to re-enter but rather escape entirely, finding solace with those friends and family who he has been working with but never quite living with. The nature of the show is such that we know this can’t entirely happen, but that doesn’t mean that Michael shouldn’t be giving them more consideration than he is currently. Fiona’s love for Michael is driving the majority of her emotions here, no doubt, but even his mother is in on the act by emphasizing that the three of them (Michael, Fiona, Sam) need to stick together, and Michael running off into the world of espionage isn’t exactly part of that plan.

The show could have overdone this with a tearful scene with his mother or something of that nature, but Madeline is far too flippant and more importantly Matt Nix and company know that the show has better ways of handling it. The complicated nature of this storyline was best represented not in a single scene but in the episode’s “case of the week”: nothing painted a better picture of the new Michael Weston existence than discovering that his former “friend” in the world of espionage has become not a friend at all, and is willing to turn him over to the authorities as a scapegoat for the Venezuela scheme. It’s the ultimate sign that any notion of normalcy that Fiona might want to achieve, or any escape that Michael might want to plan, is all going to be complicated by the fact that anyone could now know who Michael is, know what he’s up to, and want to use his skills for something less wholesome than saving a poor man wrongfully imprisoned in South America.

If I had to use an analogy, I’d say that it’s like playing Grand Theft Auto, and all of a sudden going from a Wanted level of Zero to a Wanted Level of, let’s say, Three. For those who play video games, that will probably make a lot of sense, but for those who don’t it is similarly simple. In the game, where you drive around doing missions not too dissimilar from Michael’s, there’s a meter which measures the level of pressure from police. If it’s at zero, you can get away with certain things, taking your time as you drive about. But if it gets up to Five, you’re essentially running for your life from cop cars. If you’re at Three, however, you’re somewhere in the middle: the cops might not be chasing you, but if they see you they’re going to pursue, and if you do one more thing to draw attention to yourself you’re going to be moving up to Five dangerously quickly.

That’s a highly dangerous, but highly rewarding dramatically, situation for Michael. There’s an irony to this situation: just as he is more open to escape, so too is he more open to being held back by new restrictions. The people who burned him did this on purpose, of course, knowing that by refusing to join their organization he was going to have to live with the consequences: their card said as much, noting that he can just let them know anytime when he’s had enough of the constant police supervision (which will get stronger in subsequent episodes with the arrival of an interested investigator played by Moon Bloodgood) and interest from foreign agencies. For the show, meanwhile, it gives them a whole lot of new options: whether it’s the police or a foreign intelligence agency, the people who can both hire and, more importantly, endanger Michael have grown in number, and the show is far more inpredictable as a result.

At its core, though, the show is able to remain the same: as long as Michael has a beating heart and a moral streak, he’s going to be helping people and finding himself hired to do some dangerous but ultimately satisfying work. But Michael now has even more people pulling him in various directions: his mother and Fiona towards a quieter existence, himself towards the espionage work that was all he knew, and Management towards a life of forcing people like himself into situations like his own, not to mention people coming from afar to try to pull him to pieces. I don’t blame Michael for being a bit overwhelmed and falling back on what he knows best in that situation, but as viewers we can’t help but hope that he stays with the other characters we know so well: the trio really is best when they work together, and note how all of their various missions were highly dependent on each person fulfilling their role.

Yet, for all of this more dramatic development, the show remains as strong as ever at just being really entertaining. Whether it was Michael’s various words of wisdom (breaking into a utility closet for an untraced phone call was particularly ingenious) or his cover I.D. (which shows Jeffrey Donovan’s skill, with the little coughs really adding to the errand boy persona), the characters is still just a hell of a lot of fun to watch. Pitted up against Brian Van Holt’s Harlan, Michael was even able to break out his fighting skills, and their right shows how the series also has the choreography and production values to sell high octane moments alongside the smaller ones.

During that fight, there’s a moment that kind of tells you where Michael’s head is at right now. Having opened the episode in the water, he finds himself back in the water, but this time swimming to find a way out. When Harlan throws an oil barrel into the water and shoots it, igniting the surface of the water, you think that things are actually more dangerous for Michael. However, as he helpfully points out in one of his MacGyver-style bits of narration, fire is actually helpful: it serves as a mirror, and lets him more clearly know where is a safe place to exit away from its oxygen-stealing flame. In short, that which appeared most dangerous actually could have saved his life.

It’s not yet clear if that’s what will happen with Michael’s new existence, but that’s part of the fun of the show’s serialized elements: the sheer uncertainty of them has always been the show’s greatest asset, and with that amped up to 11 the show could be in for some of its most inspired work. While not quite as focused as Season Two’s mission, the show has more than proven itself stable enough to handle a little spontaneity, and that certainly appears to be what is on the horizon. Consider me excited.

Cultural Observations

  • As I noted on Twitter, every time I hear the name Marta I immediately think of “Hermano” – and for those who don’t get THAT reference, I have a little series called Arrested Development for you to visit.
  • I’ll be curious to see when this new reality really does start affecting Michael’s friends and family: for instance, is Barry going to be particularly in danger now that he’s working for someone who is more closely monitored by the police? While there is less concern over Michael’s family being killed or taken hostage since the threats are from a more reputable source, there’s still every chance for things to get complicated for those complicit in Michael’s actions from a legal standpoint.
  • I never could take Brian Van Holt seriously as a good guy – dude is just too good at playing scumbags for me to realistically believe that he was only in it for justice’s sake.
  • For more thoughts on the finale, R.A. Porter has some over at DreamLoom, while Alan Sepinwall has both a quick review and an interview with Matt Nix about the season to come, which is pretty much spoiler free.

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