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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Burn Notice: "Past & Future Tense"

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Ahh, stunt casting. When word came down that Burt Reynolds was going to guest star in an episode of Burn Notice, was there any doubt he'd be playing an older, retired spy? Someone who's seen some of the same horrors and violence that Michael Westen has, and can serve as a cautionary tale of Michael's potential future. Reynolds does his expected shtick, less acting than resting on his gravelly voice and iconic image, but it works. Partly because he and Donovan play well off each other, and partly because, well, I don't want to sound cruel, but… Reynolds is an old man now. His face is frozen, his movements are stiff, and he looks a little lost. Whether or not that's intentional (and the show lets him be hardcore and pathetic), it gives an edge to "Past & Future Tense" that most Burn Notices don't really try for. Paul isn't a winner, and if Michael keeps down the path he's on, he's liable to end up as bad or worse.

I've never been completely behind the "Is Michael losing his soul?" arc. I don't dislike it, and it seems the sort of expected thing for a show like this to do. I just don't have any real investment in it. Laugh all you like (no, go ahead, I can't hear you so I don't really care), and I agree, talking about "emotional investment" with such a beach breeze show sounds ridiculous, but the only way the Danger of the Dark Side works is if you care if a character goes full heartless or not. It can't be an intellectual thing. I don't think there's any danger of Burn Notice becoming a richly textured tragic drama, and that's cool—I like just enjoying it. The thing is, without that texture, Michael's whirling moral compass is never going to be all that powerful a theme.

So when Fiona got slap happy at the end of "Past," it was of course exciting, and I'm curious to see how this develops, but I'm not really connecting with it. I don't look at Michael and think, "Wow, he's really becoming a horrible monster!" I mean, earlier in the episode, Michael and Fiona kidnap a guy on suspicions that he's part of a Russian hit team. Of course he is, and of course kidnapping him leads them to the next step of the plot, but it's not like they're engaging in due process, or working as part of an official organization, or, y'know, not breaking a bunch of laws. I guess Fiona's live-wire nature means it makes sense she has a scale of morality—she's good at heart, so hurting bad guys and saving good guys is all that matters to her. I'm just not sure her frustrations with Michael's behavior are as impactful as the show seems to think they are. Like, she's been getting upset with him for seasons now, is this supposed to be an escalation?

Paul made a much better counterpoint to the dangers of Michael's ways, because for the most part, it was a show-don't-tell kind of lesson. (I'm not saying "Past" was subtle about the comparison. It was subtle for Burn Notice.) He's grumpy, trigger happy, and just on the edge of incompetence. That last is a sharp choice, really. It would've been all too easy to play Paul as either still amazing at his former work, or else as a complete, bumbling mess. By walking a line in between those (he mucks up a few times, but he's able to deliver the beat-downs when necessary), it means he can't be dismissed as a caricature. I love the last scene between him and Michael, when Michael realizes Paul's losing his memory. Paul says, all he has left are the stories. He doesn't finish the thought, but it's impossible not to—soon, the stories will be gone too.

As for the rest of the episode? Fiona and Jessie's attempts to get more info on Jessie's Big Burn were all right. I'm not a huge fan of Richard Kind, but I am still very curious what'll happen when Jessie finally learns the truth. The fight against the Russian wet-work team sent to kill Paul was fun, although I found the resolution, with Michael and co. managing to lock the Russians in a house, far-fetched even for this show. (I mean, surely someone would've heard the boards going over windows.) John Doman (better known as Rawls from The Wire) was more interesting as the Senator who screwed Paul over, and having Paul's attempts to blackmail him fail so thoroughly was great. Hell, even Maddy got a chance to shine.

So far, this has been a strong season for Burn Notice, and while I'm not convinced that the battle for Michael's soul is being handled as well as it could be, Burt Reynolds guest turn here made some good steps in the right direction. Beyond that, it was funny, clever, and (apart from my misgivings about the Russians), expertly done.


Stray Observations:

  • Todd's at Comic Con this week, so I'm stepping in for him briefly. Feel free to try and play us against each other. (And don't forget, Noel used to cover the show too!)
  • "Psychiatrists have nothing on spies when it comes to over-analyzing their friends' behavior."
  • Just once, I'd like to see Fiona seduce a fat man with a fat wife and come up empty. Marv is supposedly working in the intelligence community, surely there are videos he had to watch about how hot women offering possible sexual favors may have ulterior motives?
  • "Do you know where this bar is?" "Uh, yeah, it's a bar."
  • The fake Michael Westen ID this week? The Russian Boogeyman Michael Westen. And he really seemed to be enjoying himself.
  • I don't mean to undersell Reynolds work as an actor here, because he carries himself well. And few people could've sold the following as well as he does: "But if you call me an old-timer, you're going to be wearing your ass around your head. Like a hat."
  • "Are you telling me I can't kill Russians when they invade Florida?"