June 25th, 2009
While a strong second season and great episodes like “End Run” last week have created raised expectations for Burn Notice, the show remains a formulaic procedural at some level. The show is not formulaic in a negative way, necessarily, but it has its patterns and uses them to varying degrees of effectiveness. As it happens, the past season or so has been particularly strong, but the show is by no means blowing our collective mind week in and week out. So, when I say that “Fearless Leader” was a pretty typical episode of Burn Notice, this is to say both that it was enjoyable but also that it did nothing to really make me stand up and take notice.
The problem, however, is that to some degree it should have been one of those episodes, at least the way it was situated within the season-opening storyline with Moon Bloodgood’s Detective Paxson. Presented as a new obstacle for Michael now that law enforcement is no longer being kept off his back by the people who burned him, the police interest in him has seemed a legitimate threat even if there have been times where Bloodgood popping up at the beginning and end of each episode has felt shallow. It left me waiting for the episode where Michael’s mission would intersect directly with our newly arrived detective, thinking that would justify her presence as more than just a symbolic sign of Michael’s newly precarious position.
It’s ultimately this expectation, not some notion of every episode being like “End Run,” that makes me disappointed in this one, as Paxson remained a pretty uninteresting character and, more importantly, the story that ends up closing this chapter in the show’s run was not particularly connected to her or elevated in any way by her presence. The result is that it makes the show seem lazier and simpler than it really is, and it makes an otherwise solid episode into a bit of a letdown: as Michael says, you always need to have a plan, and it seems like the show’s plan was a little shortsighted.
What made Season Two work, as I’m sure I’ve written countless times, was that Carla was a compelling threat to Michael that felt permanent and more importantly out of his grasp. There was something about Carla that Michael couldn’t crack, and we got the satisfaction of seeing Michael infiltrate her security, complete her jobs while keeping something for himself, and basically having to handle two cases at once at all times. Tricia Helfer was good, don’t get me wrong, but the impact of Carla was less in her performance and more in the character’s position vis a vis Michael, as someone who could control him and wasn’t just a pawn to be moved aside.
That’s ultimately what Paxson becomes in this episode, someone who the first three episodes pretended was this immovable object incapable of being bribed or blackmailed but here is broken in 43 minutes flat. We learn that she, like any good police, has a long-running case that she can’t quite solve, and that her forceful behaviour with Michael is a pattern that actually got her slapped for harrasment of a particular local drug lord (Erik Palladino). So, she becomes Michael’s unknowing client (or so the chyron tells us), as he infiltrates the gang through a frustrated middle manager in order to take control of his police situation.
The actual storyline wasn’t in and of itself bad, and I quite liked the episode’s moral of sorts that people will surprise you a bit. The problem is that within the storyline itself that worked: Tommy proving to be too good a guy to let our heroes get killed in order to him to move up the ladder was a nice turn, and allowing the likeable and hapless criminal to come out a good guy was a good way to end the storyline on a lighter note for a change. Add in the charmingly quaint Dry Cleaners robbery, with Michael having to both appear like a follower and keep himself from getting arrested, and you have a number of scenarios that were entertaining, plus a nice bit of humanity.
The problem is that, for Paxson, that humanity was deadly – immediately, she becomes just another civilian, a threat that was never a threat at all. All it takes is one of Michael’s strongly conceived plans, and a bit of spy business here and there, and Michael manages to both remove his police tail and clear seven potential cases from the “Michael Westen was probably responsible for this” file with one cleverly placed piece of C-4. It’s the kind of simple resolution that we never got with Carla, which allowed the character to keep their mystique. Instead, whatever mystique Paxson got over the last few weeks was gone by the time we learned that she was really just another victim of the bad guy, waiting to be saved by our hero.
The show isn’t making Michael’s life uncomplicated, of course, and I think there’s some value to the episode’s final moment as Michael and Fiona realize they’ve both reached the moment they’ve been waiting for, and yet for one it means time to settle down for the future and for the other it means to head into even more danger trying to reconnect with their past. My problem is that we had this set up in the premiere, and realistically Paxson was nothing but a delay rather than a legitimate storyline. I don’t doubt that they have more up their sleeve all around, but Paxson ended up being such a weakling that I’m wondering if it was even necessary to put a face to the police threat against him. Some early on were blaming Bloodgood’s performance for some of the awkwardness of Paxson, but I think it ultimately falls on Matt Nix and Co. for not giving her enough of a reason to exist, and for writing her off (if not literally, then certainly in terms of her ability to challenge Michael in the least) in such a limp fashion.
The episode ultimately wasn’t helped by the extraneous “Sam gets both his finances and his philandering past audited” storyline, even if I do enjoy seeing Bruce Campbell work. I think he had some fun moments, as well as some strong dramatic ones, throughout the storyline, but I was way too confused trying to figure out just what Sam calls his job these days, and how precisely he could so non-chalantly talk about the gun he pulled off a dead body or anything of that nature. It just seemed like a really strange storyline to be distracting from what seemed like a slightly underdeveloped A story (could have used a bit more on Palladino’s character, whose name I didn’t even end up remembering – Matheson, I believe), and from a chance to really develop Paxson’s character.
It’s a testament to the show that even though it may not have been doing as much as I wanted to, it was certainly still entertaining – Michael got to tell us plenty of smart tips, Sam got to display his mad ink skills, Fiona got to blow things up, and we got some dramatic tension between Fiona and Michael that I really do think will be compelling in the weeks ahead. The problem is that it seemed like the episode was taking shortcuts all over the place (Paxson at the neighbour’s funeral being a particularly blatant example) to try to make things really connect, and it just wasn’t doing it for me. It is great in those small little moments that define the show, but for once it definitely seemed like it was the broader strokes that failed to live up to the show’s precedent, and my own expectations.
- I love Bruce Campbell to death, but I have a hard time believing Sam as a father figure in any capacity. Sure, he can take a protective stance every now and then, but it just seemed like an odd relationship for him to have with the young Stacey. Still, storyline was worth it for the Stacey’s Mom reference alone (she’s got it goin’ on, after all).
- Erik Palladino really did the midseason/summer guest star rounds (ABC’s Cupid, ABC Family’s Make it Or Break It as well), and I’m curious to see if he grabs a series job. This didn’t really give him anything to work with, but he’s not a bad actor, and he’s pretty recognizable from his ER days. He also did guest spots on Reaper, Fringe as well as Private Practice. He also, shockingly to me, is 41 – man doesn’t age.
- The opening scene kind of fell apart once Paxson showed up (I’d rather have seen Michael burst in), but Michael’s “make that two drinks” and their synchronization of their watches was a fun little opening.
- How much money would a dry cleaner seriously have in the till?
- We get it, Madeline can’t cook or bake – let’s find something else for Sharon Gless to do.