This post contains spoilers through the July 28 episode of Burn Notice.
Confession: like in Bones, I find myself at a point in Burn Notice where I find it almost impossible to pay attention to the case of the week because I’m so vastly more interested in the larger narrative, and because frankly, the faux-louchness of Michael Westen’s Miami is starting to feel a little contrived. At the rate Michael and company burn through drug dealers, arms dealers, flesh peddlers, and assorted lower-level ne’er-do-wells, the larger Miami area’s going to end up with a desperate surplus of white suits and a seriously depressed underground economy. More than that, I worry about the way that the show’s handling the larger arc of the season.
It’s not so much that I worry about Michael being back to square three or four with the people who burned him and his tense relationship with the CIA. I just worry that it’s getting cliche rather than prickly and interesting. “It’s been personal since Max bled out in my arms, since he told me to say goodbye to his wife,” Michael declares at the beginning of the episode, when his cohorts point out how hard whoever framed him worked to make the setup plausible. It’s a dreadfully cliche line, and delivered without any particular sense of conviction, and of course it’s false, because the burning was always personal.
And it’s not just that we’re stuck in retreads. Last week, Pearce, Michael’s new CIA liaison, was talking about what a tough bitch she was. Now, she’s dissolving into tears at the thought of blowing an asset because “They do that, and my asset gets killed…The guy coaches soccer and he’s got a life…This happened to me before…he was more than an asset. We were getting married when it was over. The brass got impatient…I buried him a month before our wedding day.” All of which serves as a setup for Michael to shout at a couple of squeaky, patently fake CIA functionaries that he’s not flip because “I put my friend in the field,” by which he means he had Fiona scrape up Sam’s face with a zester so he’ll look like he got grazed with a bullet and let him be taken into the uncertain custody of a volatile Miami drug dealer. Which…whatever, we’re back in the haze of Miami corruption.
But I think the show needs to figure out what it thinks about the CIA. Is it a desirable, competent, admirable organization to belong to, or is it just the only thing Michael can visualize as a goal, so he, and we, are expected to overlook the expendable handlers and squeaky bureaucrats who are totally out of keeping with the styling and presentation of the show? Is being loyal to Michael worth it? As Fiona notes about Michael’s decision-making tonight “He knew it was dangerous. He knew it. And now Sam is in real trouble.” If the show wants us to believe that there are serious consequences for Michael’s singlemindedness, it might be worth it to start demonstrating that, rather than playing another round of Michael’s-loyal-to-Sam-and-Fiona-but-the-CIA-couldn’t-care-less-but-Michael-wants-to-rejoin-the-CIA. Michael doesn’t need a lecture from his mother on why not to play with fire. He needs to get burned, but in a whole different way. Burn Notice has succeeded by being fizzy and sunny and not exceptionally substantive. But it’s time for the show to actually start laying down some value judgements and using them to drive characterization.