And so we come to the end of another Burn Notice summer season, with twelve episodes down and only six more to come later this fall. And as is usually the case when Burn Notice approaches one of its finales—or semi-finales—the master-plot is at multiple crisis-points. At the end of last episode, Jesse found out that Michael’s responsible for him getting burned, and is now out for revenge. Meanwhile, the International Power Player that Michael was trying to bring down when he burned Jesse in the first place—one John Barrett, played by Robert Patrick—is in town to recover an encoded book that Michael has retrieved. Michael’s handler Vaughn, from the super-secret-covert agency that’s promised to help bring Michael back into the intelligence fold, is excited about the chance to take down a man responsible for heinous misdeeds around the globe, but Michael’s plan is to convince Jesse to return to the team so that Jesse can turn Barrett in to his former bosses and get his job back. That’s a lot that Michael needs to get done in a short amount of time, and a lot to prep and finesse.
So naturally, “Guilty As Charged” devotes more than half its running time to a completely unrelated kidnapping case.
Look, at this point it’s fruitless to complain about the Burn Notice formula of mixing case-of-the-week action with incremental movement in Michael’s big “pleeeeeease can I be a spy again?” drama. I haven’t written about Burn Notice in about a year, but back when I was the TV Clubber on the BN beat, I used to say that I generally preferred the COTWs to the master-plot. But I’ve long since conceded that this is what the show is.
Still, I find that when I’m not writing about Burn Notice, it gets easier to fog out the parts of the show I don’t care about, and only perk up when the case is cool, or the spy tips are awesome, or the guest star grabs my attention. I’ve spent a lot of time lately watching ‘70s detective shows on Netflix’s instant viewing service, and the best of those—The Rockford Files, Columbo, etc.—have plots and character moments as rich as classic pulp novels. By contrast, I almost feel like Burn Notice’s structure gets in its own way, because it forces Matt Nix and his writers to divide their attention, and keep from giving their stories the fullness of a great TV action-adventure show. Watching “Guilty As Charged,” I kept thinking about how cool it would’ve been if the kidnapping story and the Barrett story had dovetailed in some way, even if it was just to have the work on one case impact what Michael and company were able to accomplish on the other.
Because for all my gripes about the structure, I thought both pieces of this episode were strong, individually. The kidnapping plot in particular featured a neat little gambit. A local criminal lawyer asks Michael for help getting his young daughter Becky Scott back from a thug named Dale Lawson (played by the always creepy Michael Rooker), who wants Mr. Scott to get his brother Rod out of prison. Michael’s first plan is to borrow a submersible from one of Scott’s drug-dealer clients and stage a sneak-attack on the Lawson compound, but Scott screws the plan up by spilling it to his ex-wife on a tapped phone. And so he turns to the gambit: Michael stages a fake prison transfer (using one of Lawson’s rude lackeys as bait), and a fake prisoner escape, to convince Lawson that his brother is free. Very cool indeed. Plus, Michael gets to keep the submersible as payment.
Michael then uses that submersible in his plan to snare Barrett, in the lone crossover between the two storylines. Fiona, Madeline and Michael in turn do their best to persuade Jesse that they meant him no harm, and that they’re his friends, and that on balance they do good work in the world. But Jesse’s feelings are still hurt, and it doesn’t appear that he’s on-board with Michael’s Barrett-hunt. So Michael has Fiona and Sam u-boat out to the meeting spot so that they can work their mojo to stall Barrett’s henchmen while Michael grabs him. Only the plan goes awry when Vaughn rolls in with a team of his own and starts shooting. And it goes further awry when Jesse pops out of the bushes and shoots Michael in the shoulder—for a good reason, to get Michael free of the bad guys’ clutches, but still in a way that leaves Michael partly incapacitated. He does end up in a speeding car with Barrett as he’d planned, but he’s not in charge of the situation. So he makes his last-ditch play: he grabs Barrett’s steering wheel and crashes the car. In the waning moments of the episode, we see Michael crawl to safety and pass out, while Barrett appears to be dead, and someone grabs the briefcase containing the encoded book Barrett wanted.
Maybe it’s just that I was paying attention more tonight that I usually would be, but it seemed that “Guilty As Charged” was more packed than usual with spy tricks—always my favorite part of Burn Notice. Tonight we learned how to draw out your tails by running a bunch of errands so that they have to stop a lot, and how to track a target’s patters of movement in order to figure out where their hideout might be. We also learned how easy it is to get specs for government vehicles, and how approximating the look of something can easily fool someone who’s not looking closely to see if it’s fake. All in all, very entertaining.
On the other hand, haven’t we seen some of those tips and tricks before? There comes a point in the lifespan of shows like Burn Notice where the novelty starts to wear off. Typically, my wife and I watch Burn Notice and Royal Pains on Friday nights, as a winding-down-from-the-week ritual, and it’s gotten to the point where I look forward to Royal Pains more—not because Royal Pains is a better show, but because it’s fresher. I’ll be watching Burn Notice when it comes back later this year for the remainder of Season Four, but when this season’s done, unless I sense that the show’s heading into an exciting new direction of that the cases are getting more clever, it may be time for Burn Notice and I to part ways. It’s nothing personal; I still think BN is basically good at what it does. And as you can see from the grade below, I liked this episode. But part of being a fan of a formulaic show is knowing when the formula has lost its potency for you. It may be getting to the point where even the best episodes of this show leave me mildly buzzed, but not incredibly high.
-Michael Rooker is too good not to bring back at some point in the future. I hope we haven’t seen the last of him.
-Some weird ADR in this episode, as when Michael tells Scott’s associate, “I don’t get into cars with people I don’t know,” and then we hear an overdubbed, not-quite-matching addendum: “Without a good reason.”
-Fi’s shoulder-blades could put an eye out.
-I liked Michael’s specificity to Barrett when he pretended to ask for a job. “I’m not talking about joining the black T-shirt and sunglasses squad.”
-I’m working on turning Burn Notice’s blatant product placement into Burn Notice-themed commercials. Like: “When you’re tracking a target, a cold bottle of Miller Genuine Draft 64 can be a refreshing break. It slakes your thirst and relaxes you, but isn’t so heavy that you’ll be unable to spring into action.” And: “If you want a record of your kidnapping victim, use a Flip Ultra HD. It’ll capture the information you need, with a clear picture and great sound. Plus it’s portable in a way that bulkier video cameras aren’t.”