The big question I'm wondering about after tonight's episode of Burn Notice is whether or not it was originally planned as a midseason finale, and then producers had to scramble to change that when USA decided to schedule the midseason break after episode 12 instead. I can't imagine this being the case (since networks and producers usually get together on this sort of thing before a season begins shooting), but the show's teaser felt like it was setting us up for a finale-esque episode, an apocalyptic series of events that built on each other and got wilder and wilder until we saw some sort of crazy, over-the-top cliffhanger. Instead, the episode backpedaled from what it seemed to be setting up as quickly as possible and got right back into a fairly normal, standalone plot. The standalone plot wasn't bad, but there was a pretty big flaw in the episode from the very first.
A frickin' hurricane hit Miami. And the show didn't do a damn thing with it. It mostly just seemed to be there to symbolize that Vaughn had come to town to barter with Michael (and, eventually, Fiona) to get Simon's Bible from them. You introduce a natural calamity on a TV show when you're going to do something with it, when your character are going to have to brave it to pull off some sort of major storyline. You can't just have a hurricane over the horizon and suggest it's going to be a wicked storm, then immediately cut to stock footage of the streets of Miami covered in debris, followed by a scene where some tree branches and things were thrown around on the set and the characters were there picking them up. If you're going to say that a hurricane is coming, I want to see some stuff happen during the hurricane. If I can't get a full episode of Michael rushing to beat the storm to complete a mission, I at least want a scene of him chasing down a bad guy in the howling wind or something.
I get that the characters are from Miami, and a low-grade hurricane is probably just a minor rainstorm for them. I also get that they'd never, ever go out in a hurricane (a suggestion I've seen bandied about online for why the show didn't make much of the storm). But this is fiction. This is TV. You totally have license to pull off some crazy, implausible shit, if you really want to. But, honestly, this wasn't even half of the problem. The bigger problem was that the hurricane was entirely reduced to symbolism. It was just a thing that happened, and then the show tried to put it behind itself as quickly as humanly possible, as if to say, "Pay no attention to the hurricane in the corner" or something like that. This was just stupid, stupid plotting, and it's the kind of thing that the show rarely trips itself up over, making me think that maybe the episode was originally supposed to focus on Michael trying to stop Simon in the midst of a hurricane before the producers found out the midseason finale would be episode 12. It's unlikely, but it makes it easier to forgive, ultimately.
All of that said, I thought the central meat of the episode had some good elements but was let down by the rapid backpedaling from the first ten minutes. I generally like the way that Burn Notice slowly ramps up how important its serialized plot is to its overall storyline over the course of a season, which reminds me of the way Buffy used to do it. You get elements of it in every episode, but it doesn't start to take over the show until the season is well on its way. So I liked the idea that Michael was going to see Vaughn to find out just what Simon had to do with everything, and I liked that Vaughn sought out Fiona to tell her that he'd be willing to give Jesse his job back if she just got Vaughn the Bible. All of that was more or less fun, as was the final scene, where Michael used his uneasy FBI allies to intimidate Vaughn and buy himself a little time (though I doubt it will buy him all that much).
But the problem with this sort of season structure is that once you get down to these sorts of episodes, the standalone plot can often feel that much more perfunctory. I don't think this one was terrible, but I always wanted to get back to what was up with Vaughn or the Bible or Simon or even the hurricane's aftermath. The story of Michael teaming up with a ruthless hitman who slowly reforms his ways over the course of the episode had promise, and Jon Seda played our ruthless hitman very well, but there was always a sense that this was a sideshow distracting us from the real action going on in the center ring. This is a problem the show has always had trouble and has always been forced to combat, and I'm not sure there's an easy answer to it, but it certainly unbalanced the action in this episode.
There were plenty of good sequences in the midst of this main plotline. It's always fun to see how Sam and Michael are basically an old married couple who can communicate with each other via wobbling a radio antenna on a car or a seemingly psychic bond. And I liked the way that Michael and Cole (the aforementioned hitman) slowly built a kind of trust, from that very first scene where Cole caught Michael dead to rights inside the apartment, trying to figure out a way to de-trigger the booby trap through everything after (particularly the scene where Cole ended up stranded on top of that truck in the midst of an electrified puddle).
But the storyline itself - which involved Michael trying to get to the star witness in a trial against a Turkish syndicate - felt kind of played out. This is the sort of thing the show has done before, and while Seda and Jeffrey Donovan had a nice chemistry that played itself out slowly, it also felt as if everyone involved in the episode was far less invested in this storyline than they were in the Vaughn storyline. There was nothing here that was egregiously bad - not like the way the show completely ignored the hurricane, largely - but there was a sense that it wasn't as compelling as it could have been, as if the show got to a certain point and decided that point was just good enough. Add that to the weird story choices in the Vaughn storyline, and you have an episode that was uneven and slightly disappointing.
- Nice Hold Steady reference, Maddy!
- Another largely useless "When you're a spy ..." tip that I still found entertaining as hell: Michael's escape from the steering wheel he was handcuffed to was a fun moment.
- The usually reliable USA press site has no photos from this episode, so you can look at Sam and Maddy from a couple of weeks ago.
- Some of you have been complaining about the Hyundai product placement in this show, and it has been egregious in certain weeks, but I didn't think it was too noticeable in this episode. On the other hand, I've gotten so immune to product placement that I sometimes don't even notice it, so feel free to tell me about the scene I missed where Michael turned to the camera and said, "Hyundai is the bomb, don't you think, Fiona?" and then Fiona ran her hands over one of their cars and softly purred to itself about its reliable engine.