This post contains spoilers through the second episode of the fifth season of Burn Notice.
Early in this episode, Fiona explains to a real estate agent who’s showing her and Michael an apartment that “That man doesn’t really focus unless an international conspiracy is threatening to ruin his life.” And therein lies the problem with the fifth season of Burn Notice. Michael Westen qua Michael Westen isn’t actually that interesting. He eats a lot of yogurt. He doesn’t know what Frogger is. He interprets his entire life through the lens of operational doctrine, which when it’s applied to something like dirt bike racing with Fiona, feels more than a little pretentious. What’s intriguing about him is the collection of people who have become loyal to him over the years, and his zeal to get back to the CIA. Now that he’s reinstated, the show needs a new conflict to animate Michael, to make him more than a man in a sharp suit and a blank expression.
It appears that the central conflict is going to be about whether government work is exciting enough to engage Michael’s interest — and whether he can do more good work inside the CIA or outside of it. This week, that question comes in the form of Michael’s official assignment — babysitting a physicist with a lot of access to secrets and an infinite capacity for alcohol and women — and the help someone outside the government is asking him for — saving 20 girls who are being trafficked in from Asia by a Yakuza gangster. That’s a little too on-the-nose for this particular choice to seem like a real one. If the CIA’s going to keep him doing make-work, then obviously Michael will be back to running his own outlaw operation by the end of the season, and there’s no dramatic tension. More to the point, it’s not a critique of the CIA and of the government more generally that any reasonably intelligent viewer can take seriously, especially not with constant promos for Covert Affairs airing in commercial breaks.
The more interesting part of last night’s storyline involves the ongoing problem that Sam, Fiona, and most importantly, Michael’s mother, have grown to like working as part of Michael’s unofficial agency. And when Michael brings in his mother to take care of an injured gangster, a role that requires her to play a coerced nurse, they end up playacting the trauma of her violent marriage — and Michael’s violent childhood. Watching him take on the role of his father in abusing his mother is genuinely uncomfortable*. You know he doesn’t mean to hurt her, but the episode’s very clear that what’s happening between them isn’t meaningless pretend, either. The moment when she tells him “It’s not like I haven’t been hit before” is a reminder of both her power and her weakness. She couldn’t stop Michael’s father from abusing him when he was a child, but she can make the choice to be hit now if she thinks it’s necessary. “You can play your father in there, but not out here,” she tells Michael. And that’s the exciting and scary thing about what would happen if Michael chose to walk away from the CIA: he’d have to accept Sam, Fiona, and his mother as full partners, people who are no longer engaged in the temporary project of rescinding his burn notice, but in the more permanent enterprise of working together to make up for the limitations of government. That would require a significant shift in the balance of power, and that’s where interesting stories happen.
*I’m watching Luther right now, and so thinking a lot about intimacy and violence. Longer post to come next week.