Burn Notice – “Friendly Fire”

“Friendly Fire”

January 28th, 2010

Noel Kirkpatrick put together a post on “formula TV” over at Monsters of TV yesterday, and in highlighting Burn Notice he points out the following:

…each episode will also find Michael trying to get back into the CIA (originally to find out who burned him and why), often near the end of the episode or throughout the episode while trying to help the Client of the Week.

And while this is ostensibly true, it’s important to note that not all such efforts are built to the same standards: Carla was a distraction which forced Michael to multi-task, while the police detective at the start of the season was a nuisance that forced Michael to be more cautious. And while I thought Carla felt as if she created character-driven drama, in that Michael was distracted and perhaps too focused on returning to his position within the CIA (the same goes for Strickler, to some extent), Moon Bloodgood’s detective was just a barrier who made the show less interesting, a muzzle that kept Michael Westen from being Michael Westen.

It’s too early to judge Gilroy yet, but “Friendly Fire” is the ideal demonstration of how fun Burn Notice’s formula can be: a compelling story is made more explosive and more enjoyable by the presence of an external figure who is looking for a good show. And while it might not be as psychologically complex, it presents no barrier to the show being its fun, high-energy self, which makes it a story with quite a bit of potential.

While it’s true, as Noel points out, that Burn Notice’s serialized stories tend to be about Michael rejoining the CIA, that goal has been pushed to the background for the time being. Michael is going after Gilroy because Gilroy is going after him, and because in some ways he feels responsible for his CIA contact’s death at his hands. In that sense, rather than Gilroy serving as a different type of story, it’s more just a large-scale version of what Michael does every week: there may not be a client (in this case, perhaps Esteban’s family), but Michael is nonetheless getting in with Gilroy in order to deal with this problem (the people who have hired Gilroy) as opposed to trying to get closer to getting his burn notice lifted.

I think this is intelligent for a lot of reasons, not least of which is that I still don’t entirely get why Michael would want to go back to being a CIA agent. Look, I understand that it is his calling in life, and that it was all he was ever trained to do, but it’s clear that his skills are well at use here, and the show has always been at its worst when it turns Michael into a one-minded robot and has him throw away his relationships with his Mother and Fiona for the sake of his goal. Last week showed that Michael’s current job has plenty of tension with his mother to draw out some drama, and Fiona is just as easily annoyed when Michael goes too far to help someone than she is when he’s being selfish. I know that the show is called Burn Notice, so that’s always going to remain in the picture, but the idea of Michael basically doing the equivalent of a “long con” as opposed to trying to find an “out” is more compelling to me.

And “Friendly Fire” proves this point by being just a whole lot of fun, and showing that the serialized element can fairly nicely integrate into an existing story as opposed to serving as a distraction. Rather than causing Michael to second-guess himself, or resulting in the mission going off target, Gilroy just gives the show an excuse to blow a bit more stuff up. Michael’s missions, including this one, always look more villainous than they actually are, so it makes sense that Gilroy would read Michael inserting himself into a dispute between two rival gangs as something that would make Michael an excellent partner. And since said story had Danny Trejo, and Jeffrey Donovan having a lot of fun playing a soft-voiced man in red and black, it enhanced the impact of both the story and the next stage in the Michael/Gilroy journey without having to go out of its way to create conflict between the stories. Sure, it’s convenient that Gilroy just happened to be a good excuse to make the story more exciting, but it’s also awesome, so I’m not going to complain about it.

As for the rest of the episode, Madeline went back to being nosy as opposed to meaningful, but it helped draw out some nice subtle dramatic stuff from Sam (which didn’t feel like it was given enough time, but which might have seemed forced if drawn out), so it worked out in the end. And while Trejo didn’t get a lot to do (and, as Alan Sepinwall pointed out on Twitter, was sadly never allowed a Machete), the story about the rival gangs really felt like Michael being dropped into a world both lively and unpredictable, which made his calm under pressure all that more impressive.

Any show with a formula has to be adaptive: while Burn Notice has never thrown away its formula, or fundamentally changed its rules, it has adjusted how the serialized stories impact Michael’s efforts. And while it is, as mentioned, still a bit early, I think that Gilroy is bringing out the best elements of the show in both his specific scenes and in the other stories, which makes for a strong start to the back half of the season.

Cultural Observations

  • As a general role, serialized elements that are more or less just a hindrance are uninteresting: House, in particular, has two odious examples of this (Chi McBride’s character in Season One, and David Morse in Season…three, I believe). Gilroy seems like someone that Michael can potentially control, more volatile than actually prohibitive.
  • I thought they took a few too many shortcuts in terms of Rincon, as we never really got to know him, but getting to know Omar (who would eventually become accomplice as opposed to enemy) made more sense in terms of the story. It just seemed a bit weird for the show to just say he’s a child predator and then turn him into a madman, without any real evidence until late in the episode (most one-off characters get a scene were Michael observes their behaviour in some way).
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