‘Burn Notice’ – ‘Out of the Fire/Last Stand’: The spy who came out from the heat?

12.17.10 9 years ago 40 Comments

I took “Burn Notice” out of the regular reviewing rotation a few weeks ago, but last night’s double feature was notable as both the end of season four and the strongest pair of episodes the show has done in a very long time, and so I have a review coming up just as soon as I try to kill you with my mind…

Earlier in this half-season, I said that the “Burn Notice” mythology had outlived its usefulness – that I neither knew nor cared anymore what it was that Michael was working on in the opening and closing minutes of each episode. “Out of the Fire” and “Last Stand” were pretty much all-mythology, but they were terrific. Why was that?

Well, for starters, they were the clear end of this part of the mythology. Vaughn and the rest of the secret cabal that ruined Michael’s life have been exposed and arrested. Michael’s name has been cleared, and he’s even been invited to rejoin the intelligence community (by super-special guest Dylan Baker, of whom I hope we see lots more next season). It was well past time for this to happen, as the last season and a half had demonstrated, and this sets up a lot of interesting possibilities going forward.

Obviously, Michael’s not going to stay a full-time spy, and these four seasons have laid plenty of groundwork for the idea that he’s no longer interested in following someone else’s orders and hurting or killing people for reasons he doesn’t fully understand. But as a starting point, it’s very promising. A Michael Westen who leaves the CIA on good terms, who has access to his old contacts, and who maybe even agrees to do the occasional job for his old bosses is a different sort of animal than we’ve seen these last four years, and could really liven up the show.

But back to these two episodes, not only did they bring a long-overdue end to the burn notice part of the arc, but they did it really, really well.

First, they brought back both Brennen and Crazy Larry and let Jay Karnes and Tim Matheson do a wonderful I See Your Smirk Is As Big As Mine duet. Episodes with one or the other have tended to be highlights, so the two together? Fantastic – and good enough that I’ll even forgive them for killing off Brennen. Because if he had to go, getting knifed by Larry while Michael watched – and insisting “You didn’t beat me, Michael” with his dying breaths – was as good a death as they could have given him. And as we saw with the burn notice itself, there’s something to be said for not overusing a particular device or character, and now we never have to worry about Brennen turning up for a dud episode.

Working with Matheson has always brought out the best in Jeffrey Donovan, whether it was the hammy fun the two had while running their courthouse scam or Larry apparently goading Michael into going over to the darkside. And I can’t remember the last time the show made me laugh as much as it did at Michael’s “You’ve got something on your…” line as Larry noticed the laser sight from Sam’s rifle.

Just a terrific penultimate episode, and the finale was nearly as strong. They put Robert Wisdom to good use for the first time in forever and the hotel siege allowed for both good improvisation (fighting with breakfast equipment, using a bad guy as a counterweight) and real emotional stakes for Michael, Fi and Jesse. (Michael’s belated apology to Jesse was especially nice.)

So the question is where the show goes from here – not only with Michael being welcomed back, but with how these stories are told. “Burn Notice” is still a huge commercial success for USA, and Matt Nix has made it clear to me in previous interviews that USA has a formula it wants its shows to stick to, which means mostly self-contained stories with a sprinkling of mythology each week. But if that ratio worked creatively once upon a time for “Burn Notice,” it doesn’t anymore. I like the cases of the week just fine – and in periods when the mythology is floundering, they’re the reason to watch – but It’s not a coincidence that  these two very good episodes were all-mythology, all the time. USA is never going to let Nix turn the show into something heavily-arc’ed, but I’d like to see more flexibility going forward so that we don’t only get these types of episodes at the beginnings and ends of seasons. If we’re on episode 7 and the big story arc demands a full hour, give it a full hour. (Or give it the bulk of the hour and let Sam and Fi run around on a really easy case in the background.) Conversely, if there’s nothing interesting happening with the mythology – if our heroes are just chasing around a list we don’t care about that keeps passing from one person we don’t care about to another – then scrap it and work on making that week’s standalone extra-cool.

There were a few weeks this season (both the summer and winter halves) where I was beginning to wonder why I was still watching “Burn Notice” at all, nevermind writing about it. Last night’s episodes were a strong reminder of how good the show can be, and I hope Nix and company can keep that momentum going forward.

What did everybody else think?

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