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A darker direction for Westen and Co., but it works surprisingly well.
on May 1, 2012
This latest season of BURN NOTICE, one of the best TV shows on the air right now, was decidedly different in tone if not in execution as Michael Westen, Fiona Glennanne, Sam Axe and Jesse Porter face a much more insidious threat than they have before on this show, and this show has seen plenty of threats.
We begin with Michael being embraced once again by the CIA, under the purview of his old handler Raines (the always great, but sadly under-used Dylan Baker) and while he's in a probationary period, he's putting all of his old skills to work with his new partner Max (Grant Snow) and has a new case officer, the sharp and attractive Agent Pearce (Lauren Stamile). He's living in something resembling bliss also, with Fiona moved into his loft, desperately trying to make the place more hospitable. Sam is back down to his "fighting weight", as we saw in the tie-in TV movie THE FALL OF SAM AXE, and Jesse has a flashy job with an independent, high-profile security contractor. Madeline is also dating!
The first few episodes of the season deal mostly with Michael sliding comfortably back into working as a spy again, bantering with his pals, becoming somewhat domesticated by Fi, and outwitting the bad guys. Things turn for the worse with a shocking death that Michael is intended to be framed for, and our heroes scramble to track down the real killer, while keeping the intrepid Agent Pearce off their backs. This leads once again to another showdown with Dead Larry (the sleazy and great Tim Matheson in his recurring guest role) who is forcing Michael again to do something dangerous and traitorious (like stealing secrets from a foreign embassy), as they race to save the life of an innocent woman who is engaged to a psychiatrist named Anson (the GREAT Jere Burns) who has been kidnapped by Larry. As we find out shortly, Anson's fiance is already dead and when Fi tries to save Michael using small amounts of explosives (and as an ancillary bonus, get Larry out of their lives forever), the detonation seems to cause greater damage than anticipated and kills the small unit of innocent security guards in the building. Fi is utterly shocked and haunted by this; especially since she's never wrong about the explosives she uses. As guilt begins to bear down on Fi and the rest of the team, it is revealed that Anson is actually the man behind all of this. Anson is the LAST one of the group that burned Michael; he was the one who had Michael framed for a fellow agent's death, and he set charges in the embassy killing those guards to frame Fi, and unless Michael uses his regained CIA security to help Anson achieve his goals, he will release the evidence that will link Fi to the deadly explosion. The questions then become: How far will Anson make Michael go, and how can Michael defeat him when he proves time and again that he holds all the cards? Also, can Fiona live with Michael doing these things to protect her?
As you can probably tell from that summation, this is a considerably darker tone than any previous season has taken. While Michael may deal with psychopaths and international assassins and shadowy cabals on a weekly basis, never has a threat emerged in a more frightening and more immediate fashion as Anson. Being a psychiatrist, Anson is able to probe deeply into Michael's mind, shaking his faith in himself, and is also able to predict Michael's moves before he does them. That element of prediction is brought into shocking relief when it comes out that Madeline's boyfriend has been spying on Michael at Anson's behest. Even more shocking than that are certain truths about Michael's father.
While the primary cast members continue to work extremely well together, the biggest coup of the season is Jere Burns as Anson. He plays this part to perfection, and what's fun about him is his willingness to be in physical danger when he confronts Michael. Burns is not in any way a physically intimidating actor and he uses that as a strength during his scenes with Michael and the gang. Anson isn't afraid of Michael because Michael knows that the danger that Anson can put the people he cares about in.
As far as our primary players, Jesse is more or less persona non grata in this season, which is actually something I consider to be something of an asset. It's nothing against the character or against Coby Bell as an actor; I just don't find Jesse to be a truly necessary part of the team that showrunner Matt Nix has crafted over these five seasons to be three of the most unique and consistently entertaining characters on television. Jesse seemed to be shoe-horned in when he was introduced as kind of a sequel to Michael Westen, and his absences during this season certainly were not glaring. In the episodes he's in during this season, he plays usually a small but integral role, and that's how it should stay. Jeffrey Donovan gets to play things not quite so close to the vest this season and he really pulls off a difficult job of having to be less of the gang's stoic anchor and man of action, and it gives way to frustration, paranoia and fear. Gabrielle Anwar is still incredibly appealing and flirty and sexy (although I do think she should have a burger every now and then) and she's also dangerous as ever, but her more constant interaction with Michael does start to show and gives her character more dimensions to play at. BRUCE CAMPBELL IS SAM AXE. That's all you need to know about him. He's possibly the one person you would want backing you up for all of eternity. And most importantly, I think it's a sin that Sharon Gless hasn't been nominated for awards for every single season. Her performance and her character are the emotional core of this show, and if that goes, the whole show becomes something less, and the great thing that Nix is doing is giving Madeline more to do, which means Gless has more screen-time and we have more time to bask in the greatness of her character and her performance.
For all of the seasons of this show, I always felt that if the show got too dark, it would start to lose much of what makes the show such a breezy and effortlessly entertaining hour. This season of the show shows it at its darkest yet, and it does go to places that you wouldn't have expected it to go, but with the show's major arc (Who burned Michael and why?) inevitably coming to a close, things do get darkest before the dawn. I still think this show has a few seasons left in it, and I'm sure that Matt Nix will keep things moving and maybe allow our heroes to have things be a little easier. This season, however; they have it harder than ever before, and considering the events of the season finale, it might get harder and darker still.