Tonight we come to the end of a basically entertaining if at times a little scattered Burn Notice half-season. As Matt Nix and his writers have been figuring out the next phase of the show, post-Carla, they’ve thrown a bunch of new characters at us, all while working to set up what might become Michael’s future disillusionment with the job he so desperately wants back. So much of this half-season has felt like foundation-laying, and while that foundation’s been laid, the cases-of-the-week have been pretty hit-and-miss, almost like afterthoughts at times. There’s been nothing egregiously bad, but there’s been only a few episodes (primarily “End Run” and “The Hunter”) that I’d show to a Burn Notice novice to explain why I enjoy this show so much.
“Long Way Back” is a curious episode, in that it’s tense, twisty, action-packed and even thematically rich (the latter a rarity for Burn Notice). And yet I found a lot about where it ended up--and how it got there--to be, honestly, a little confounding.
Following up on the previous episode’s promise that Michael’s case would be reviewed by the agency, “Long Way Back” has Michael’s Miami intelligence contact Diego telling him at the outset that he’s going to be meeting with a string of evaluators who will put him through his paces. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, Michael’s sleazy fix-it man Strickler has been spreading lies about what Michael’s been up to during his time out-of-pocket, in order to build our man’s reputation for viciousness and thus jack up his price on the market. All Michael has to do is confess to some dirty deeds he didn’t do, and keep his head low until the evaluation process is over, and everyone involved will get what they want.
The problem is that Michael’s personal life—something he didn’t have to worry about when he was in the field full time—is in turmoil. His mom’s making plans to sell her house, while his girlfriend Fiona is about to head back to Ireland and return to her old life. Or Fiona would be, if she hadn’t just gotten notice from her brother Sean (who complains that she’s “lost her accent”) that one of her old nemeses from the old country, “bloodthirsty hooligan” Thomas O’Neill, is in Miami planning to either assassinate her or abduct her... whichever pays better. Michael immediately rushes to her rescue, and even though Fiona barks, “I am not one of your damn clients!” the on-screen text says otherwise.
Saving Fiona involves a bunch of spur-of-the-moment Michael moves, from recovering his old Irish undercover persona "McBride" for Sean’s benefit to crashing poor Ms. Reynolds’ car to distract O’Neill’s crew at a key moment. He also has to infiltrate O’Neill’s crew himself, posing as an arms dealer who works with Fiona and can produce her on cue, provided that O’Neill takes on an assignment Fiona was going to do. But Michael’s plans get knocked askew when his cover’s blown by—dunh-dunh-dunh!—Strickler, who needs Fiona out of Michael’s life so that they can get some work done with no further emotional distractions.
Here’s what I liked about “Long Way Back:” for longtime Burn Notice fans, there was a lot of subtle playing with the characters’ traditional roles. Fiona becomes the client. Michael, in his efforts to broker O’Neill’s services, becomes like a mini-Strickeler. All of Sean and O’Neill’s speeches about patriotism mirror what Michael has said in the past about why he wants his job back. There’s an unsettled feel to the proceedings here that was quite exciting, and as unpredictable as Sean Glenanne himself, who keeps threatening to mess up Michael’s plans because he thinks he can do it better himself. (Easily the coolest scene of the episode is the one where Sean’s the last to turn off his laser sights and stand down from an opportunity to shoot O’Neill.)
Ultimately, the unsettled feel leads to a big shocker moment, as Michael shoots and kills Strickler, who’s blocking his way and preventing him from saving Fiona’s life. At the end of the episode, after Michael does save Fiona, we learn that he arranged to have O’Neill blamed for Strickler’s death—thanks to a well-placed explosive device that bears O’Neill’s personal recipe—but that he’s still in danger, because Strickler’s death has put several operations in jeopardy, and has called down the cleaners in a major way. (Diego, for one, doesn’t survive the mass tying of loose ends.)
I was initially a little irritated by the neatness with which Michael’s culpability in Strickler’s shooting was resolved, but then I remembered that in Burn Notice, having Michael on the hook for his misdeeds is a distraction the master-plot doesn’t need. And besides, he’s clearly become a target in the intelligence community because of his past dealings with Strickler, so he’s hardly off the hook.
What really bothered me then wasn’t how Strickler got killed or how Michael got away with it, but that the whole Strickler storyline—and with it Michael’s potential re-introduction to government work—was ripped to shreds so quickly and so dramatically. Until I see how this is going to play out, I can’t judge it too harshly, but still… I feel like much of what the first half of this season has been building to has just been rendered moot. Are the evaluators not coming now? Has Michael lost interest in his long-term mission? What have we learned, Charlie Brown?
That said, I’m glad that we probably won’t have another half-season of Michael and Fiona playing passive-aggressive lovers’ games with each other. Although I did think their near-break-up led to some interesting moments, such as when the two of them spoke intimately about her approaching goodbye, all while Michael retained his ridiculous fake Irish accent just in case Sean came back in the room. That combination of silliness and sincerity is what makes this show go, and will carry me to part two of Season Three much more forcefully than any fleeting threats to our hero’s life.
-Last thought on Michael until 2010 rolls around: The scene where Madeline asks him to look through a box of his old stuff and Michael declines pretty well sums up what I find fascinating about Michael in comparison to other TV action heroes. With so many TV shows, the writers feel the need to humanize their leading men by giving them relatable bits of boyhood nostalgia. A favorite old rock band, or a toy, or a high school sweetheart, or something that can make the audience say, “Hey, I know who this guy is.” But outside of the nagging mother, Michael doesn’t really have anything like that. He’s a character we like and trust, even though in some way he’s as remote from us as he appears in the opening scene of tonight’s episode. He’s a guy on an austere higher floor, perched just above us, alone with his own thoughts—and even those thoughts have been pared down to the bare essentials.