June 18th, 2009
It seems like every time I’m writing about Burn Notice, like in a quick catchup piece I put together ahead of the season premiere for Geeks of Doom, I’m talking about the progression of the show from its first season to where it stands today. Watching “End Run,” it’s clear that the writers are a fan of evoking this particular discourse, for this episode presents itself as a high stakes, no holds barred, greatest hits of what the first season used to do on a small scale, and what now feels more suspenseful, more entertaining, and simply more effective.
By bringing absent Nate (Michael’s brother) back into the picture, the show reminds us that there was a time when “annoyingly ignorant family members” was actually a trope that the show was relying on for some of its drama. Now, meanwhile, the show finds drama from a no hold barred arms dealer holding Michael hostage in order to utilize his skillset for an upcoming job, and from a police threat that shows no signs of going away anytime soon. There was a time when Michael was fighting against the people around him, whether it was Sam reporting to the FBI or his mother knowing nothing about his job and annoying him, but now everyone is banding together in an effort to assist Michael in keeping his friends and family safe, and staying out of jail in the process.
For now, the result is an episode that simultaneously contributes to ongoing storylines, connects with numerous satellites within the show’s universe, and gives us perhaps the best showcase yet for Michael’s unique skillset, all without feeling the least bit contrived or put together.
The return of Jay Karnes’ Brennan hasn’t been a secret, per se, but the way he returns is just an incredibly smart piece of writing. People popping up from Michael’s past is a very useful tool for the series now that it has developed some intriguing recurring players, as those who come in contact with Michael and who are dispatched but not killed have reason to go back to Michael when they need a job done. They know that he’s good at what he does, they know that he has weaknesses when it comes to his empathy and love for friends and family, and they know where to find him since he isn’t able to get on an airplane. Sure, it’s still a bit too convenient that Brennen’s various stops (the employee, the card key, the building) are all located in sunny Miami (is it really a weapons developer haven?), but nonetheless his re-entry into this world felt entirely natural.
It comes at a terrible time, and in a terrible form, for Michael – he’s in the middle of dealing with this situation with the police, Detective Paxson proving nothing if not persistent. In many ways Brennen and Paxson have the same approach, as both go for Nate at precisely the same time – of course, one is capable of luring him in with a fake business scheme and holding him hostage, while the other just wants to ask him questions, so it’s pretty clear which one is going to win out for that particular piece in the puzzle. Nate is just desperate enough to put a deal like this together that he’ll fall into the trap, and Michael is in just enough of a precarious position that it might make this a more challenging ride than it would be otherwise.
Fortunately for Michael, and for us as a viewer, there isn’t some sort of cat and mouse game whereby the cops are tracking Michael’s every move, or getting in the way of his work for Brennen – the situation is complicated enough, with time running out and the odds of him killing both brothers once he gets what he’s looking for, that all we need to see is how Michael Westen is going to pull off three separate missions, all different and requiring different skill sets, in the span of a single day. And thus begins that quiet balancing act that the show does so well: on the one hand we know that the situation is dire and that Michael is calling in Sam/Fiona/Barry to handle some backend work on his Brennen’s finances to try to cut him off somewhere, while on the other hand we’re watching Michael Westen kick a whole lot of ass in the span of Brennen’s mission.
It’s a balance that could easily go awry, and that it doesn’t says a lot about Jeffrey Donovan’s performance, the show’s writers, and perhaps more importantly Jay Karnes. There’s a great moment when Michael is attacking the gun nut employee in his effort to get the final number for his voice key where Brennen sits there laughing, enjoying Michael in action as much as we enjoy seeing Michael in action. There are some shows where a “bad guy” deriving pleasure in the same way as the audience would through everything out of whack, but Karnes brings such an off-kilter perspective on that characters, and the writers worked so hard to keep him on that edge of sarcastic and violent, that it only heightens my enjoyment of the scenes in question.
The three missions were really vintage Michael, perhaps some of the best we’ve ever seen (and certainly the best collection in a single episode). The first showed Michael’s ability to use his surroundings to his advantage to piece things together: the Cantenna seems a bit far-fetched (he had me until the USB part, which seemed particularly fishy to have pieced together from spare office parts), but it was still quite engaging, and his use of the alcohol and the broken glass to pull off the ruse was another moment of clever thinking. The second scenario then shifts into Michael’s ability to work on the fly and operate on two different levels: the actual conversation that’s taking place, and the dialogue going on in his mind as we can see him mentally counting off the various numbers and thinking two or three steps ahead of the mark (plus, he gets mad points for the use of the wiper blade in the midst of his attack).
The third situation, meanwhile, is a little bit less funny because the stakes are picking up: the parking garage was vintage stealth fighting, something right out of a video game in some ways, but coming off of Michael’s bold stance trying to get the details on what he was retrieving things felt that much more serious, as he had to find a way to take out the two guards without killing them in any way. It was just as clever as any other operation, the darkness allowing him to avoid the camera and gain the element of surprise (although I would think there would also be cameras outside and in the rest of the building, but that’s just me personally). But by that point, we’re so caught up in Sam and Fiona rushing to Brennen’s house to find that Nate has already been taken away that we’re no longer focusing on what crazy stunt Michael will pull off next, and left wondering how he’s going to save his brother’s life, and his own.
That we can successfully flip-flop between those two emotions is what makes this show so damn good, and the way that Michael manages to work his way out of things is similarly perfect. The tie clip having been foreshadowed early in the episode, as Michael talked about the little details proving helpful even when you wouldn’t expect them to, and Michael’s alcoholic cover even referring to child support and the like, the sudden emergence of a real, live human being inside Brennen was just the perfect note for this story. On the one hand, it does make him seem more like a human being, and shows that just as he was preying on Michael’s vulnerability in this area Michael is capable of doing the same. At the same time, it make him seem even less human, since the last time we saw him he had strapped a bomb to a child, despite having one of his own at a private school in Switzerland. As Michael’s plan unfolds, you realize that this is a more complex person than we realized, but not in such a way as to provide a saccharine or simple ending: neither condemnatory or redemptive, it is simply enough to complicate the situation so that Michael can live to fight another day, and Nate can survive much the same.
Now, while there may have been a time when a sideplot might hinder such an almost flawless main storyline, it wasn’t to be found here. The small Paxson story was dealt with in a number of simple scenes (Barry’s arrival, Fiona’s debit card swipe, etc.), and helped to explain why they wouldn’t have noticed Michael’s little escapade (caught up as they were with this mysterious bank account). The other little runner, meanwhile, has Madeline continuing to piece together just what’s going on, as they continue to lie to her while knowing that she’s not falling for it, and yet also knowing that she’s not actually going to do anything about it as long as, as she puts it at episode’s end, her two boys are safe at home. There’s something comforting about that.
And that’s just not right – there shouldn’t be something comforting about an extremely fast-paced adrenaline rush of near-death experiences and hostage situations, where we can flip back and forth between geeky spy gadgetry and suspenseful standoffs and come out feeling as if we’ve watched an incredibly tight and effective hour of television. But, whatever what you look at it, “End Run” was just pretty damn great.
- Just a bit of a nitpick: considering the time of day, and considering that out money laundering pal Barry was supposed to be British, there is no scenario wherein a money transfer would have been made in the morning, at least not GMT. You could argue that he was americanizing the phone all, but then why wouldn’t he also speak in terms of dollars? Brennen was probably too emotional to piece that together, but part of me was definitely panicked that he was going to figure out the ruse once that slipup was made.
- Similar to how the show can handle both adrenaline rush and emotional dramatic scenes, Fiona manages to turn even the most aggressive actions into ones of love: sure, her rigging the house with more C4 than was necessary was just plain fun, but her jumping the curve to get to that location as quickly as possible was because Michael was in trouble, and it showed.
- I always play a little bit of a game when I watch an episode that I know Alan Sepinwall is going to review, and I try to figure out what his “As soon as I” opening is going to be (those who read his reviews know what I mean, but those who don’t will see on his review of “End Run”). I was rooting for tire iron in this instance, but I guess I can settle with parking eight inches off the curb (which really was a clever way to get that final number out of him).
- On that note, did anybody rewind the episode in order to keep track of what numbers Michael had gotten and which he hadn’t? It would have been corny, but part of me wanted a counter. If anyone wants to put that together on YouTube, please do.
- The realization that Barry and Madeline have the same hair and are having a product party? Cracked me up, big time.