It took me roughly one minute to get back in the Burn Notice mood. Picking up where last season’s finale left off, “Friends And Family” began with Michael literally at sea, swimming five miles back to Miami Beach in his suit pants. When he reached the shore—bloody and staggering—the local authorities immediately started chasing him, so Michael grabbed some tourist-y gear from local vendors, who protested Doppler-effect-style. (“Hey put those baaaaack….”) Then Michael ducked into a hotel utility closet and tapped into the phone-line to call Fiona while he prepared to make a quickie incendiary device out of cleaning chemicals. And I thought to myself, “Ah, I’m so glad that Burn Notice is back.”
Then Michael bailed on his plan and let himself get arrested, realizing that, “It’s easier to dodge questions than bullets,” and I was reminded why I’m really glad that Burn Notice is back.
I wrote a lot last year about how Burn Notice pays heed to multiple cool pop culture traditions, from dime adventure paperbacks with sexy covers to Friday night ‘80s blow-‘em-up shows. But in the few short months that the show’s been on hiatus, I’ve been thinking that what’s really great about Burn Notice is how creator Matt Nix and company continually subvert those traditions. Don’t get me wrong: Burn Notice is in no way post-modern or formally daring. It’s a spy/detective show with a reliable weekly serving of pretty girls, punch-outs, gunplay and explosions. But all the while the hero is literally whispering in our ears that this isn’t how it has to be—that it’s better to feign weakness and humility than to swagger, and better to duck a confrontation than to be heedlessly aggressive. Burn Notice is an action series for a post-Bush-Doctrine era.
More than once in “Friends And Family,” Michael had to employ his modified rope-a-dope to get what he needed. Most notably, he tried to pass himself off as sickly, panicky attorney Tom Wellington—“You want to pick the names, you got to go the meetings,” Sam shrugs—so that he could get close enough to crime chief Rufino Cortez to engineer a snatch-and-grab. He even let Cortez’s right-hand-man and “gatekeeper” Falcone push him around and dislocate his shoulder, in order to prove that he’s no big shot. Though when Michael and his crew did manage to wrest Cortez from Falcone’s grasp, he couldn’t resist a spiteful, “If I were you, I’d think about another line of work other than security.”
Michael makes this play at the behest of “old buddy” Harlan, from special forces. “It’s always nice to meet Michael’s mysterious acquaintances,” Michael’s mother Madeline sighs, before warning her son that Harlan is clearly in over his head, and that hanging around with Michael just might get the poor soul killed. (“He’s got something to prove to you,” she astutely notes.) And sure enough, we see ample examples of Harlan’s hot-headedness, including him botching the first Cortez snatch-and-grab by barging into a nightclub’s VIP room with no security code. But as it turns out, Harlan has less to fear from Michael than other way 'round. Because as it turns out, the whole snatch-and-grab of Cortez has been a ruse. Michael is the real target. (I confess I saw this twist coming, but it was still slickly handled.)
This leads to Michael’s second rope-a-dope of the night. Keying off his mother’s insight into Harlan’s psyche, he begins flattering his old friend, saying, “You’re smarter than me,” all while he quietly carves away at the ropes binding his hands. (Michael cuts his own wrists in the process, but never winces once. That’s why he’s the iceman.) Yet while Harlan was smart enough to dupe Michael in the first place doesn’t mean that he’s really all that smart. Case in point: When Michael cuts the ropes, decks Harlan and dives out the window to the water below, Harlan tries to trap him underwater by tossing a barrel of oil into the drink and setting it ablaze with a gunshot. Then we hear Michael’s narration, telling us that when you’re underwater, “fire is your friend,” because it keeps you hidden until you can find an un-fiery spot to emerge.
And that’s just one of the many fun facts we learned in “Friends And Family.” Michael also explained how easy it is to steal a garbage truck (because there’s no security system) and how it’s better to hide a knife in a briefcase than a gun (because they’re harder to spot, and more handy in close quarters). As I've noted many a time, tidbits like these are why I so love this show.
And speaking of that hidden knife, was it significant that Michael hid it in his Dad’s old leather briefcase? Coming so soon after Sam blew up Madeline’s house—“Not the whole house, just the sun room,” Sam explains—having Michael defile another family heirloom might be considered a provocative act. Michael and Madeline reached a kind of rapprochement last season, but I wonder if they’re headed for a confrontation in Season Three over how he’s turning her life upside-down.
I also wonder if there will be repercussions to Michael betraying Harlan right back, and leaving him for the murdered Cortez’s angry countrymen to judge. In the past, the case-of-the-week on Burn Notice has largely been its own entity, unrelated to the master-plot and unrelated to Michael trying to get his job back as a credentialed spy. But now that Michael’s no longer under the “protection” of the mysterious “management”—as driven home to him the episode-opening run from the cops—he’s open to being pursued by the local authorities and by the foreign powers he’s crossed in the past. Every action could bring an unequal and deadly reaction.
Me, I still don’t much care about Burn Notice’s master-plot, so long as it doesn’t make Michael suddenly become brooding or tortured. I’m with Fiona when it comes to this show’s hero: “I’m glad you’re alive. Try to keep it that way.”
-Some Sam greatness, after Michael warns that his meeting with Cortez is “going to be on the move so no on can hit it.” Wiithout missing a beat, Sam says, “We’ll have to hit it on the move then.”
-Things consumed in this episode: a tray of prison goop, yogurt, Reese’s Pieces from a shot glass, and yogurt with beer.
-Tim Matheson was back at the helm for this episode, and staged the Cortez snatch-and-grab—with the garbage truck crash—just perfectly. I wonder if Nix reserves the car-chase-and-crash episodes just for Matheson?
-Important disclaimer: Calling Burn Notice a “post-Bush-Doctrine” show is in no way meant to cast aspersions on anyone’s political perspective. I have no clue as to any of the Burn Notice creative team’s actual political leanings, nor do I much care. An effective show is an effective show, no matter what side of the aisle it’s coming from. In this case, the “low key bad-ass” approach of Burn Notice’s hero strikes me as refreshing. I like it because it works dramatically, not because it reminds me of the way the current administration approaches foreign policy.
-Another important disclaimer, regarding my usual Burn Notice write-up style: I love this show, and think it’s one of the most entertaining hours of TV around—especially in the summer months—but it’s not a show with a complicated mythology or rich themes, and so I don’t treat it the way I’d treat something like Lost. This week was something of an exception, but generally I try to keep these reviews quick and lean, and to focus more on the copious amounts of awesomeness in any given episode than on attempting any deep character analysis. If you guys see anything I’m missing feel free to note it down below. In the meantime, mix up some Mojitos and lets kick back for a summer of super-spy hijinks.