"Hard Time" S4 / E10
- B Community Grade
There are a handful of things you have to accept when you watch any TV show if you're going to enjoy it without beating your head against a wall. Every show - every fictional show, at least - has certain rules and ideas that it lives by, certain things it does from week to week that you have to agree to just not let bug you. The list of those things is rather long with Burn Notice - this is not a criticism; it's just a statement of fact for a vaguely genre-ish show, such as this one - and it seems like every one of them turns up in tonight's episode. For one thing, you have that whole thing where the Simon plotline is just starting to really heat up and get good, and now Sam steps away to help out an old friend who's in prison? And eventually Michael gets waylaid by it as well? Since I liked both plots on the show tonight, I didn't mind this as much as I might have, but it still made for some pretty goofy moments early in the episode.
Look, I get that Michael and his friends are do-gooders extraordinaire, Robin Hood-ing it around Miami, but there comes a time every season when it feels like the show should tip more over toward serialized storytelling, and, instead, it keeps steadfastly plodding forward with its standalone stories. I suspect there's a bit of gun-shy-ness on the part of the producers after last season's serialized stuff was seriously messy, but it often feels odd when the show abruptly cuts into the characters talking about Simon to bring up the main plot of the week (usually not horribly deftly, either). Or maybe this is me and my love of Garrett Dillahunt playing Simon like a leftover from a Flannery O'Connor story who's been dropped in Miami to wander around and say the modern equivalent of "Sakes alive!" a lot, then get in fights with people. His character may as well be named "The Misfit."
Another thing you kind of have to set aside every week is that Burn Notice is going to do its take on some storyline that might have felt at home in, say, The A-Team, only play it mostly seriously and bring it into the 21st century. Many weeks, this is easy to ignore because the show does a twist on that old formula, but this week, it was all right there on the surface: Michael needed to help a guy who was in prison. And that meant, in the time-honored tradition of "mission" shows stretching back to the '50s, that Michael had to break INTO prison before he could help that other person out. And then he, himself, would have to break out of prison as well. There are usually some sort of weird time constraints placed on everything - this time out, it was a one-week timeline that felt a little forced - and then there will be a marvelous plan which comes together.
Now, there was every chance this episode could have collapsed into an attempt to do the first season of Prison Break all in an hour (and given how important the infirmary was to the whole plot, there were times when I was very worried this would be the case), but it turned out that putting Michael in prison allowed the show to spin out a bunch of fun character combinations. Michael was hanging out with the guest casts of the week. Sam was on the outside, trying to get him what he needed. Fiona was checking up on Simon's Chest of Mystery with Maddy. Jesse was ... well, Jesse was mostly just there this week, but I didn't mind because all of the central four characters were being used very well.
Let's go back to prison for a while, though, because I largely enjoyed that plotline once it got going. For one thing, I was pleased that the series mostly dispensed with the "How will Michael get into prison?" question as quickly as possible. He had his FBI agent pal smuggle him in. That wasn't so hard, was it? Once he was inside, the storyline became a very condensed version of every prison story ever, but I kind of liked that about it. Burn Notice is usually very good when it's taking those old action show ideas or the old tropes from very specific movie genres and putting them to use for its own purposes, and Michael is generally a more interesting character when he's physically fenced in. It forces him to come up with even crazier ways to get out of the situations he's in (like how he blew up that room using only gumption and a little well-placed alcohol tonight). Plus, it generally leaves the other characters acutely aware of how Michael needs them or else the situation he's trapped in will get the best of him. Burn Notice is never flabby, but it's rarely as tightly paced as it is when Michael's trapped somewhere for whatever reason.
Practically speaking, I thought the client tonight was kind of a bore, though I get that he was mostly just a Macguffin to get Michael inside prison walls. This was clearly an idea the writers have been waiting to try out for a while, and once he was inside (and we could dispense with the idea that Juan was Sam's BFF or whatever), the show really hit the gas. It was an old conceit, sure, but it was one that the show gave a solid seasoning of action and adventure, and it was likely one of the more exciting episodes of the season, particularly since the show did cut to the Simon storyline every so often. Granted, it was mostly just Fiona wandering around in a graveyard, but what she was looking for - a mystery trunk - was automatically fairly interesting, just because everyone had to see what was in that box.
If I have a complaint about the episode, it's the fact that it seems like Michael is getting embroiled in a conspiracy that Goes Over His Head yet again. It's hard to care about a storyline like this, particularly on a show where there's a season-long plotline that probably won't have great ramifications on what's coming next season or the one after that. Plus, these storylines are carried out in the worst way possible, where one character shares information that shifts Michael's gaze in a new direction, toward a character we've never heard of before. I didn't mind, ultimately, because of the guest actors, but at the same time, it wasn't hard to be a bit miffed at yet another stall.
Still, this was a pretty great episode of the show. It's always fun to see both how the writers and Michael will get out of their respective traps from week to week, and this week had a good one. When I say that the show requires us to forgive a lot of it, I'm not complaining, not really. That's just the way this show is. The best episodes often will make you forget you're watching an overdone story, because they're so full throttle. This episode didn't do that, but it still gave the audience enough of a wink that it was easy to realize the show was just as aware as we were that if Michael went far enough down the prison corridor, he might bump into B.A. Baracus and the guys from Prison Break, chiseling fervently into a wall.