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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Burn Notice: “Signals And Codes”

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Apparently it’s not just local law enforcement and disgruntled crooks that Michael's secret benefactors have been keeping off of his doorstep since he was dumped in Miami; they’ve been keeping the crazies at bay too. In tonight’s Burn Notice episode “Signals And Codes” we meet Spencer, a troubled young man—obviously suffering from some combination of schizophrenia, manic-depression and/or autism—who uses his phenomenal gift of pattern-recognition to ascertain that there’s a rogue spy in town, and that Michael is that spy. But Spencer means Michael no harm… at least not intentionally. He only wants Michael to help him blow the whistle on some alien beings who are posing as corporate spooks and getting American agents killed.

Once Michael sees past the whole aliens-among-us patter, he realizes that there’s a very big kernel of truth to what Spencer’s saying. Someone is targeting law enforcement agents in the field: corner office ice queen Shannon Park, described on-screen as "Murderer, Traitor, Probably Not An Alien.") Posing as an IT guy (the 21st century version of the leper, which used to be a spy’s go-to disguise) while Sam poses as a Teamwork Consultant (teaching the whole office about “the seventh sigma”), Michael is able to get Spencer close enough to Ms. Park’s computer to determine that she’s been downloading encrypted e-mails and then using a special code to decrypt them before selling the information she gleans to hostile foreign governments.

Initially I was a little put-off by the character of Spencer (played, weirdly enough, by the actor Michael Weston), because I felt like he was being played for laughs, and I have a tough time enjoying the wacky antics of the socially disordered. But “Signals And Codes” shifts its attitude toward Spencer as the episode goes along, making sure that the audience knows that his instability isn’t just an inconvenience to our heroes but an outright liability. The scene where Spencer freaks out in Ms. Park’s office while she’s on her way down the hall had me shouting nervously at the screen; and later when Spencer has to pose as a blackmailer (with specific instructions not to mention aliens), his quick-thinking guess at a future Park-target is thrilling to watch. Equally thrilling? When Michael confesses to Park that he’s not an IT guy, but is instead an amoral corporate security lackey. Her unjustified confidence then leads her to unlock the vault where she stores her passcode, where Michael proceeds to handcuff her and leave her for the feds to grab.

Burn Notice isn’t usually theme-heavy, but the A-story of “Signals And Codes” shadows the B-story quite well. The story of Ms. Park The Traitor is the story of someone who’s sold their values for a buck, and who's easily duped because she can be convinced that Michael’s for sale as well. All Michael has to do is to heave a world-weary sigh and tell her that as a representative of their company, he knows their bosses would rather sweep this whole incident under the rug than have her prosecuted. All of which Park has no trouble believing. Meanwhile, in the B-story, Michael thinks he’s found an inroad back into official government work when he tracks down a plane full of spy supplies, which leads him to Diego Garza, a mundane sort of secret agent who’s essentially a glorified shipping clerk. (Diego tells Michael that the hardest part of his job is that his forklift turns funny.) Michael ultimately gets a message through to his former bosses via Diego, but the portrait of the CIA here—as a slack bureaucracy, more interested in spite than justice—offers a counter to the latest of Michael’s big speeches to Fiona about getting his job back and saving American lives.

At the start of the episode I was kind of on Fiona’s side in this whole ongoing debate. I've been feeling a little worn out with the “Michael wants his job back” subplot, which I was sure we’d seen the last of at the end of the Season Two. But now I’m starting to see the possibilities in keeping this storyline alive. Michael seems to be the only one of his crew who sees the nobility in being an official government agent. Sam and Fiona—whom Spencer lauds as people Michael can trust—have found other ways to help, while Michael seems so blinded by his goals that he can’t even heed his own warnings. He of all people should know that “the most dangerous people in a covert op are the ones on your side.”

Grade: A-

Stray observations:

-This episode felt very old-school Burn Notice to me, like the writers are done with the aftermath of Season Two for a while and are ready to get back in the job-a-week-plus-masterplot groove. The spy hijinks weren’t top-drawer BN, though I enjoyed seeing Michael hanging out a window by an extension cord, and him making a pass-key with minimal cutting, and even him noting to Sam how far he is from the place Sam needs him to be. Burn Notice is one of the few action-adventure shows on the air that makes a big deal about logistics.


-I liked Sam’s presentation as a Teamwork Consultant, especially bullet points like “Talk To Me: Enhancing Your Empowerment Sphere” and “Those Voices In Your Head? Maybe You Should Listen To Them.”

-Michael makes Diego’s life difficult by stealing one of the antique bowls from one of his fake shipments and selling it on eBay under the user name “michaelheartsdiego.”


-“You just wrecked the most amazing dream. All these beautiful nachos….”