As I wrote when I started the “TV Post-Mortem” posts, Burn Notice is one of my favorite current TV shows. I actually came into it a little late, sometime around the middle of the second season, but one of the nice things about Burn Notice is that it’s the kind of show which is accessible and easy to pick up. Michael Westen is a spy for the CIA who has been blacklisted for crimes he didn’t commit (the “burn notice” of the title is the notice given to drop all contact with him.) Cut off from all resources, his financial assets frozen, he is stuck in his home town of Miami. He reconnects with his mother (Sharon Gless), his weapons-crazy ex-girlfriend Fiona (Gabrielle Anwar), and his friend Sam Axe (Bruce Campbell). Later (season 4) the team is joined by Jesse Porter (Coby Bell), a spy that Michael inadvertently burns himself. Michael’s goal in the series is to find out who burned him, get his revenge, and hopefully get back into the CIA’s good graces. In the meantime, he takes on odd jobs for money, helping out clients who have been victimized but who have no other means of helping themselves. Often this involves explosives, but it always involves using his spy training, which is narrated by Westen as he goes along.
The show typically runs for a few months in the summer, then takes a break and runs for a few more months in November and December. The second half of the fifth season just concluded tonight, and as always, it’s set things up for the next season in an explosive manner, both figuratively and literally. So, spoilers ahead, it’s time to look back.
One of the formatting oddities forced by the show’s nature is that the plot arc for each season (or half-season) is mostly dealt with in small doses; this is one of the reasons why the show inspired me to take a season post-mortem approach in the first place. Usually the first and last episode of each half-season deal with the arc, and it is otherwise regulated to small scenes within the episodes, which are primarily dedicated to the team helping this week’s victim. It’s a great format, but after four seasons, it was understandably getting a little stale; so when the fifth season switched the degree of focus, it made sense to me as a minor tweak to the format. More time focusing on Michael’s goals, less time (but still enough) on the victim of the week.
This was particularly important, because this season brings about the biggest change to the status quo: the fourth season finale had Michael catch the bulk of the organization that had gotten him burned, and turned them over to the government. It ended with him walking into CIA headquarters. The burn notice hasn’t been entirely lifted, but the CIA is talking to him again. He’s working his way back in… but it can’t be that easy, can it? That would work for a series finale, but the show wasn’t done with season 4, and it’s not done with season 5 either. An apparent disaster strikes early in the fifth season, when Michael’s CIA handler is assassinated — and evidence is planted to make it look like Michael was responsible.
This provides an interesting twist on the series’ original premise. Now, instead of trying to get back in the CIA’s good graces, he has to fight to stay there. And this means he has to find out who’s framing him, while at the same time keeping his new CIA contact, Agent Pearce (Lauren Stamile) from finding out about the evidence that points to him in the first place. Nobody’s going to take the word of a burned spy, after all. There’s a lot of dramatic tension the whole way, as Pearce is far from stupid, and Michael’s framers were very thorough. It’s difficult to show your boss you’re making progress on the case when all the evidence points back to you.
He breaks the case open, however, and even manages to convince Pearce to trust him a little by the end of it. Just in time for it to be revealed who the orchestrator of the frame-up was, in the mid-season finale: An old adversary from previous seasons, Larry Sizemore (Tim Matheson), the sociopathic nut job who had spent the better part of a year blackmailing Michael before, and is now doing so again. The mid-season finale has Michael, Fiona, and Sam trying to figure out how to get out from Larry’s attempt to use a hapless victim, Anson Fullerton (Jere Burns) to coerce them into breaking into a federal building where state secrets are being held.
I have to admit that as I was watching the mid-season finale, I was wondering what the writers were planning by bringing him back, but I didn’t mind much, as it was always interesting to watch Michael and the gang have to interact with Larry, the psycho. Larry, the show’s leading candidate for the devil incarnate. Larry, the guy who just got blown up, along with most of the federal building, by explosives that were far in excess of what Fi had been using. Wuh oh. Then comes the reveal: Larry wasn’t using Anson. Anson was using Larry.
Anson’s been using every one all along. Michael had suspected the sweeps for his enemies had missed somebody, and Anson was the one. The organization which burned Michael was his organization, and his interference in Michael’s life goes back years before Michael was even burned. All to build up a network of burned spies willing to do anything for the right price. He just miscalculated on what it would take to recruit Michael. But he knows now. Although Fiona had used only enough explosives to blow out a window, all the evidence is going to look like it was her that blew up the federal building. Anson has only to blow the whistle and Fiona will go to prison for the rest of her life.
The second half of the season consists of Michael doing jobs for the CIA, earning back their trust while simultaneously betraying them against his will by doing jobs for Anson, all while trying to find a way to get out from under Anson’s blackmail. This puts tremendous strain on Michael and Fiona both. Michael because he’s desperately seeking a way out before he goes too far and hurts good people. Fiona because she thinks doing anything for Anson is already too much; she wants to turn herself in, face the consequences, and hope the trap blows up in Anson’s face. Failing that, she’s not adverse to just killing Anson and then facing the consequences when Anson’s fail-safes reveal the information.
This plot arc has provided a much-needed spark to the show, as shows can start to get a bit tired in a fifth season. By giving Michael most of what he wants, and then threatening all of it plus what he already had, the writers have put a tension back in the show that was starting to ease away. And Anson makes for a diabolical, if weaselly, villain. He’s always two steps ahead, always has plans within plans, always has a back-up if the first plan fails. By making him the head of the organization that burned Michael, the show has set him up as the “Big Bad” of the show — and it seems like that’s confirmed by the way the show is handling him. Usually the season’s main villain is brought to justice somehow at the end; this time, Anson has gotten away. His plans have been wrecked, but he’s still out there, and it can be assumed that he’s still planning on rebuilding his organization.
What’s just as bad, Fiona has turned herself in. Michael is almost certainly back in the CIA now, but he’s lost what he gained in the interim. The “burn notice” of the title may be an anachronism in the sixth season, but it’s likely the show will maintain the tension levels for the duration. I also suspect, given that the villain is both continuing to the next season and is the architect of all that has gone before, that season 6 will probably be the show’s last season. I could be wrong, but it would seem like a natural place to end it. Season 5, like all the seasons before it, went out with a bang. The show seems on track to do the same.