Mid-season finale review — Burn Notice, “Dead to Rights”

If you know me and you know this blog, chances are you’ve come across me discussing USA Network and its series before. At a certain point, I feel like my analysis and regularly frustrated view on how USA series like to use somewhat empty devices to keep moving the chains away from the lead characters probably grates. This is part of the reason I chose not to write about Burn Notice too much this season – well that, and the month I took off so I write 150 pages about Burn Notice elsewhere – it just wasn’t worth it for me to waste your time or mine beating the same, very old and dead horse.

As I said a couple weeks ago when I did check in with Burn Notice, I think season five has been pretty solid. It’s readily apparent that the series will never recapture its season two glory and that’s fine. However, the first half of this season at least had a clear “objective” and had some fun with the new equilibrium that wasn’t really that new at all. Michael working with the CIA didn’t really lead to much of a change for him as an individual or for the series on an episodic basis, but it provided enough additional storytelling pathways that I cannot complain too loudly. Season five has been much better than season three and slightly improved over last season as well. This is basically the point with Burn Notice: There is an appearance of “change,” but one that really only introduces more convoluted storytelling and shadowing figures played by our favorite television character actors. Things got lost there in the middle episodes like always, but this has been a solid exercise in typical Burn Notice rhythms.

Unfortunately, if there’s one thing that Burn Notice always does poorly, it’s the mid-season finale. Because of USA’s scheduling practices, its series are forced to come up with a climax that feels as dramatic, intense and heightened as a season finale, but also still have to leave enough open for a handful of episodes once the break ends. Of course, Burn Notice’s narrative is basically like one long serial cliffhanger with no real consequences so it really doesn’t matter; yet, it does seem like Matt Nix and his team fumble things a bit more at this point in the season than they do when it comes time for the true finale. Events that are played as MAJOR REVEALS mean even less when anyone who has watched the series knows nothing will truly change when Michael comes back on our screens in eight weeks.

Like the season that it is a part of, “Dead to Rights” isn’t quite as tepid as the last two mid-season finales (I distinctly remember last season’s end making me want to punch a wall) and yet it follows the exact same pattern that all of them do: Overdramatic stakes, false drama and a twist that unveils another layer of the conspiracy to burn Michael Westen. The good news is that “Dead to Rights” eschews most of that stuff for 35 minutes of its running time so it can focus on the always enjoyable presence of Dead Larry (Tim Matheson) and his hold over Michael. The bad news is that in doing so – along with a few other mistakes that I’ll get to – the effort doesn’t have time to make the big reveal, one that is legitimately “big” mind you, make sense or feel as important as it should be. For a series that’s made its bank by over-exaggerating small surprises, it seems odd that the largest piece of the puzzle is introduced with minor, somewhat quiet fanfare.

When Larry shows up, good things happen for Burn Notice. Matheson and Jeffrey Donovan have a great time bouncing off one another and it is always nice to watch Donovan play the slightly fearful Michael while Matheson gets to act like an insane man. In the past, I’ve felt like Burn Notice has used its recurring characters like Nate and Brennan too often, but that’s not the case with Matheson and Larry. He brings the worst/best out of the other characters by shifting the mirror back onto them, reminding Michael and Fi (and us) that they can and have done some horrible things in their lives. Fi blaming herself for the deaths of the security guards probably took that beat too far, but it wouldn’t be a midseason finale of Burn Notice unless Fiona was kidnapped or crying.

Last week’s promo suggested that Larry had substantial involvement in Michael’s burning, but I’m glad that isn’t really the case. We saw no body so he’s most certainly alive. I always prefer it when Burn Notice avoids any weekly case in their finales, but if there had to be something to distract Michael from Max’s murder and the aftermath this was the best way to do it. And even the twist about why Larry was in town to begin with worked for me.

However, those last seven minutes were murky at best. I’m all for Burn Notice finally letting Michael figure out what happened after he was burned. I also think the explanation given about Anson’s decision to use his psychology background/knowledge to use burned spies to take on jobs official government agencies wouldn’t makes a whole lot sense. This isn’t the flashiest of answers about why Management and apparently this Anson guy wanted Michael or why there was a season about codes in a bible, but it makes logical sense. At certain points, the mythology has seemed convoluted and stupid – this defies that. Screwed up agents can be talked into things, I got it. Plus, Jere Burns is always a treat to have around and the series works best when Michael’s primary threat is an intelligent one, not a physical force. This is the good news.

The bad news is that there have been too many of these reveals covering who played a part in Michael’s burn notice that the series no longer seems capable of making one that truly does matter feel important or weighty. The execution of the twist just sort of sputtered out, with Anson didactically telling Michael exactly what’s happening. Not only does this make the main character seem a bit daft, it’s simply a boring way to uncover a sizable piece of your primary narrative. Of course, this is what I’ve been saying for a year now. Once you continue to go to the exact same story well, only shifting the names and faces and a slight tinker of weekly episodes, eventually it will come back to haunt you. Anson is approximately the seventh person to reveal his master plan to Michael and even though he is actually the guy who had a legitimate master plan, the turn in the story has no gravitas. It’s just there.

This is also not helped by the fact that the season premiere sprinted through Michael’s work cleaning up this organization that was out to get him in the teaser. I get that is why there were quick cuts to former middle-management guys and bits from the premiere where Michael was doing said cleaning, but eliminating a major threat in four minutes only to jump out of a corner 12 episodes later and yell “surprise!” doesn’t create the same kind of pay-off the story could have had we seen Michael challenge the organization across multiple episodes.

So Burn Notice has reached a somewhat big moment in its narrative and that moment has logic behind it. But has absolutely no weight and I therefore cannot imagine anything will change in the final six episodes or into the next season.

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