Burn Notice – “Question and Answer”

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“Question and Answer”

June 11th, 2009

Moving into its second episode of the season, Burn Notice is no longer a show that needs to prove itself – the second season did more than enough to convince me that the show understand that works and what doesn’t, so the introduction of a new antagonist for Michael Westen isn’t something that raises any sort of alarm bells.

This isn’t the case with all shows, of course. House, in particular, is a show that insists on introducing short term rivals for its lead character, only to have them absolutely take over the show to the point of both distraction and devolution. I don’t think I can quite explain why Burn Notice does this so much better, but it’s an impressive feat: while House slows to a crawl during those sections, Burn Notice manages to pull off both tension and humour with the arrival of Moon Bloodgood’s Detective Paxson, someone who has drawn a line from Michael’s arrival in Miami with a sharp increase in explosions and the like.

(And based on the twitter responses, including one from Alan Sepinwall who discusses Bloodgood’s arrival in his own review, the humour might be a major part of how these characters work, as they fit into Michael’s world of calculated yet quippy and therefore don’t seem as contrived).

As a result, “Question and Answer” doesn’t let this new arrival slow things down, as the thing that works so well about Burn Notice is that not every episode needs to be about explosions, and that there are more than enough tricks up their sleeve to keep the show one of the most entertaining on television.

The introduction of Detective Paxson is really quite simple: she shows up early in the episode to put Michael through some questioning, and we discover through Sam’s sources that she has surveillance footage of him leaving a self-storage unit. It’s not a complex setup, largely because she is just a detective treating him like any other suspect, albeit a large one. There’s something special about Michael, this she seems to gather based on the explosions and three-car pileups and every other piece of carnage he’s created, but she doesn’t quite get that traditional methods are not really going to stop him. So when Michael sees her sting operation coming from a mile away, and when he eventually uses a rather awesome water saw to drill into said storage unit to get out his explosives, it’s a game of cat and mouse where Dextective Paxson is confused about which one she is (hint: she’s the mouse).

But it’s a situation where Michael has to be on his toes, something that isn’t always easy and something that makes the entire show feel more dramatic. Even though those scenes were largely standalone, they were just enough of an added distraction that the show’s missions will become that much more dangerous as he works against not only the people he’s trying to rescue a kidnapped child from but also against a detective who (although obviously not Michael’s equal) at least plays her game similar to how he plays his own. While our hero may currently still be the feline in their back and forth relationship, there exists the constant potential for that relationship to shift, just as it did with Carla last season (where Michael was the Mouse by default but was slowly but surely winning the war through his own investigative efforts).

It isn’t as complicated a setup as last season, no, but the stakes remain high enough for the show to continue operating, and the interpersonal relationships of the show have been heightened slightly to balance things out. Fiona and Michael’s relationship is that little bit more complicated (here with Fiona showing she is willing to enter into the trench warfare that is caring about him), and Madeline is slightly more aware of what her son is up to (and thus somewhat less of a distraction and more of a part of their little community). They’re not big changes, but they’ve helped to give the episodes that extra little bit of interaction.

But, this is all window dressing in many ways for the plot of each episode, which is not some forgettable procedural elements. Here, the kidnapping of young Brandon was not a complicated story, but it was a great excuse to try out the great technique of reverse interrogation, something that the writers have likely been hanging onto for a while looking for the right opportunity. It fits right into some of their best material: Michael playing a character (here the junkie Shep), Michael getting beaten up, Sam beating Michael up as part of their cover, Sam and Michael improvising on the fly, and Fiona and Sam working outside of the play in order to put all the pieces together.

And they all came together, largely because the show explains how it all got there. The reverse interrogation could have appeared too easy on another show, as things end up feeling pretty contrived in the end (Michael just happens to run off with Sam’s gun, for example). But the way that was all choreographed through a few clandestine looks and conversations, and how we saw everything that went into the plan (like Fiona taking the picture of Jimmy that Sam uses to help Michael with the description of Flowers), it emerged instead as a piece of spectacular writing, the narrative flowing not in a way that felt too easy but rather as it felt like it should. Michael came out with a cut or two, and nearly minus an ear, so it’s not as if there weren’t consequences. That they were successful in the end, reuniting a family in more ways in one, was a testament to their ability as character and not the writers’ ability to bring everything together into a nice, neat package.

And yet it feels so neat, doesn’t it? I mean, at the end of the day the show is extremely complex, and now that Michael’s on every police radar in the city things are as messy as they ever were. However, somehow the show has (especially through the second season) always maintained that level of uneasy peace, the Miami sun and its glistening vistas giving way to a seedy underbelly that we always enter into and that we always know we’ll exit in the end. However, somehow, we always forget that in the middle, and I find myself concerned about the mission going right even though some part of me understands it’s going to.

Perhaps that’s what makes Bloodgood’s arrival work so well: not only is she capable of a wink or two, borderline flirting with Michael in some instances, but she is also someone who is both dispensable in the end (the show won’t let Michael get taken down by a detective) and yet could also lead to legitimate tension while she’s still around. It’s a tension that fits into the show’s universe, and that rather than going from 0 to 60 (like House, which tends to depict authority as a non-entity until arcs where it is suddenly overbearing) it is a modifier to the existing tension between Michael and near death that the show manages to pull off even within a comfortable procedural environment.

Just another really enjoyable episode all around.

Cultural Observations

  • Bruce Campbell’s Sam often gets sidetracked in some episodes, especially those that follow Michael more closely, but this one really gave Campbell a lot to do playing the lactose-snorting bad cop and he nailed it – just a really strong performance that the believability of the segment was dependent on. If we didn’t believe Sam as the cop, neither would Santorum.
  • Speaking of, that was a dark conclusion to that storyline as Santorum is killed by his own men as Sam ignites a firefight. Sure, it was necessary (he obviously would have come after Sam/Michael had he not been killed), but it still somewhat surprises me when the show is quite so definitively conclusive as that.
  • Fiona should know that while bayonets were an important part of trench warfare theoretically, in reality it was trench foot and other medical conditions that proved the greatest threat. As a result, a good solid pair of boots and some anti-biotics might have been the better survival tool. That being said, swords are fun too.
  • I’m struggling to see how Jennifer Esposito would have ever played the role of Detective Paxson – perhaps her exit was due to miscasting rather than any sort of scheduling conflict? She’s a fine actress, but I think she’s a bit too comic for the role.

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