I just got back from short family vacation—with as much swimming, ice cream, rollercoasters and museum-going as we could fit into a 36-hour stretch—but watching tonight’s Burn Notice made me feel like I was still luxuriating in a happy place. From the moment Jay Karnes walked on-screen as the pissy, always-thinks-he's-one-step-ahead arms-dealer Brennen—cackling “You wouldn’t happen to know where I can find a burned spy?” before ventilating the hood of Michael’s car—I kicked out the footrest on my easy chair and settled back to be entertained.
I loved the character of Brennen when he debuted in Season Two’s “Sins Of Omission,” because in some ways he’s the perfect foil to Michael: He’s a bad guy with know-how, who distrusts Michael implicitly, and makes moves so fast and so ruthless that Michael can’t always count on careful planning to trip him up. When Brennen’s around, Michael has to improvise even more wildly than usual.
In tonight’s “End Run,” Brennen shows up out of the blue and tells Michael to clear his schedule. Brennen and his associate The Butcher—an enforcer from Sicily—have conned Michael’s brother Nate into believing they have a job lined up for him, when they’re actually detaining him and threatening to kill him unless Michael does everything Brennen asks. And here’s what’s on Brennen’s Honeydew List: He wants Michael to dress up as a maintenance man and steal a computer hardware key from an under-guarded building; then find a way to get a high-clearance employee at a weapons manufacturer to speak a set of numbers into a voice-recorder; then use those numbers to get through a security point at said manufacturer, in order to steal a box containing a potent new weapon. And here’s what Michael has planned in return: Getting Sam and Fiona to find out all they can about Brennen in as short a time as possible, so that he can uncover something to use as leverage against the malevolent prick.
So while Michael’s doing his usual routine of breaking-and-entering and play-acting on behalf of Brennen, he’s also engaging his opponent in a series of moves and counter-moves, partly to feel him out, and partly so Brennen won’t notice what Michael’s really up to. If Michael didn’t refuse a few orders and make some demands of his own, Brennen might get suspicious. And in return, Brennen has to let Michael know who’s ultimately in charge. So when it comes down to the nitty-gritty of whether Michael's actually going to steal the weapon he's supposed to steal, Brennen has to prove he’s serious by shooting Nate in the shoulder. And Michael has to show his strength by having Fiona blow up Brennen’s house.
And when the explosion doesn’t faze Brennen—because Brennen’s played by Karnes, who does “Damn right I think I’m better than you” better than just about anybody on TV—Michael starts throwing everything he has at Brennen, including some things that he’s just making up on the spot. He reveals that he knows the dude’s first name, and where he banks, and he pretends to have drained Brennen’s accounts. Finally, he extrapolates from a family photo, a piece of jewelry with obvious personal meaning, and the name of Brennen’s shell corporation (Bella Anna), and guesses that Brennen has a daughter named Annabelle, who just might have a Michael-friendly assassin at her doorstep.
Thus Brennen withdraws, with a bitter, “You’ll hear from me again, Michael.” And I’m sure he will, because the Burn Notice team has to know what a good thing they’ve got going with the Michael/Brennen conflict. And the next time Brennen appears should be even juicier, because once he realizes how much Michael was bluffing, Brennen’s going to be even harder to fool.
Was Michael’s final bluff a little bit of a stretch? Maybe. But I liked it because even Michael knew it was a dangerous play. (Jeffrey Donovan played the moment perfectly, seeming to hold his breath a little as he said, “Annabelle.”) Besides, this episode was full of plenty of smart, plausible spy shtick, such as Michael hacking Brennen’s data with a Pringles can, some pencils and a Bluetooth signal; or him swilling some booze and slicing his arm with a shard of glass in order to convince a pair of security guards that he broke into an office by accident; or him showing how a tire-iron can be used to shatter a window, hot-wire a car, disable the lighting in a parking garage and lock a security guard in a trunk. (I’m not sure Michael needs to worry about the Miami police as much as he needs to sweat the local Security Guards' union.)
In the end, the scene that sells the whole episode—and the whole chess match between Michael and Brennen—comes when Michael says he won’t steal the weapon until he knows what it is, and Brennen pushes back, just for the sake of asserting his authority, by calling up The Butcher and putting him on immediate standby. In voiceover, Michael explains that, “The problem with blackmail is that it’s like a gun with only one bullet,” and that he’s counting on Brennen not to waste his only bullet with so much still to gain. That’s a precise, reassuring way to explain the situation he finds himself in. And yet right as he says that, the camera cuts to an exterior of Brennen’s car, so that we don’t get to see Michael or Brennen sweating out this suddenly very tense moment of decision. Michael’s telling us what’s going to happen, but for a moment, we don’t know if he’s going to be right. Because when Brennen’s around, plans tend to go awry.
Come back anytime, Jay Karnes.
-I'm bumping this episode down just a notch because it was a little choppy at the start, with a lot of awkward ADR on some early scenes. Director Dennie Gordon (who also helmed “Sins Of Omission”) made up for it later on.
-And while I’m crediting the Burn Notice creative team, a tip of the hat to Craig O’Neill, who wrote this episode. He’s been on the front page for about a half-dozen prior episodes—including one of my Season Two favorites, “Double Booked”—but he’s been partnered with Jason Tracey before. I believe this was his first solo Burn Notice effort. Kudos, sir.
-Meanwhile, in the master-plot, Sam, Fiona and Barry worked a little magic with a stolen credit card number, and got Detective Paxson’s partner in trouble with the Mayor’s office. Not much going on here yet; next week Paxson figures to play a bigger role in the main plot.
-My favorite Michael-persona tonight had to be the swaggering, dim, U of M alum he played for the benefit of the high-clearance gun manufacturer. He got the gun-nut to say the necessary numbers by misidentifying gun makes (“Is that a 45?”) and asking him about his GPA (“I had 1.9, what’d you have? 4.0?”).
-Stupid questions department: “Does Fi have any C4?”
-Is the Burn Notice team overdoing the yogurt jokes?