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Burn Notice: "Mind Games"

Illustration for article titled Burn Notice: "Mind Games"
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Scott's in transit this week, so I'll be doing the honors with tonight's episode. Think of it as the TV Club equivalent of a very special Burn Notice with Jesse in the lead, because Jeffrey Donovan was in the hospital and Bruce Campbell was tweaking his commentary track for the fourteenth "definitive" collective home video edition of The Evil Dead. Actually, this was such an old-school, greatest hits episode of Burn Notice that Jesse was barely present, and the show seemed a little embarrassed about not just cutting him loose altogether. His role in the big plan was to meet Michael and some gangsters in a parking lot and spend a couple of minutes helping to convince the head bad guy that the second banana bad guy who worked for him was actually an undercover cop. "He's doing it on his lunch hour," Sam said, blushing slightly, "so we've got to make it snappy." I wasn't sure whether he was talking about the character or the actor.

As far as I'm concerned, the more old-school Burn Notice gets, the better. The show has been herniating itself trying to convince us that Michael and the other characters are flesh and blood human beings with real problems and traumatic family memories. And it's been getting its own mythology in a bit of a tangle as it's tried to keep its central MacGuffin, I mean, ongoing story line—i.e., the details of how and why Michael got blackballed from the espionage business and his efforts to get reinstated—moving forward. At times, it's been looking as if it might have to change its title and overhaul its explanatory, introductory narration. As Scott pointed out recently, the Michael who fills newcomers in at the start of the show is still referring to Fee as his "trigger-happy ex-girlfriend", in foggy ignorance of the fact that the two are now living together and seem to have left the "ex" in the dust some time back. And with Michael now welcome again in the CIA commissary and tagging along on errands of geopolitical importance, he doesn't seem all that burned anymore, unless there's a second definition of "burn notice" that covers "re-enacting old scripts from Mission: Impossible."

Happily, most of these issues were not relevant to tonight's entertainment. The episode did include a voice-over lecture on how hard it is to let go of one's "post-operation paranoia", setting up a scene in which Michael, misinterpreting an innocent bystander as a threat, attacks a man armed with a teddy bear. But once it had been established that Michael is an existential hero who can't help displaying some of the stressful effects of living out there on the edge, it seemed to shrug and forget about that. Michael's sorry brother Nate was in town, with a baby in tow, apologizing for the absence of someone called Ruth, who I'm guessing is supposed to be his old lady, and who preference for getting a mani-pedi instead of subjecting herself to Maddie's cooking does not go unremarked upon. I can't say this struck me as promising, either, but the baby and the burgeoning enmity between Maddie and the unseen Ruth person are quickly swept offscreen, and Nate barely sticks around himself. It turns out he wants Michael to help out Jennifer, the hot, yogurt-slinging widow of one of Nate's old buddies from Gamblers Anonymous. It seems that when her husband died of a heart attack, he left behind sizable debts to an even more sizable local thug. The brother wants his money back.

Carter, the thug in question, is played by Prison Break's Wade Williams, who Sam accurately describes as looking "like he's made out of scrap metal." Carter, in turn, reports back to Wallace, a slow-burning cauldron of sadistic impulses played by Michael O'Keefe, not my first choice to embody Miami's heart of darkness. I tensed up a little when Michael approached these two with an offer to cut himself in on their arrangement with Jennifer's dead hubby, with a plan involving forged documents that would make them the owners of a boat she owned. Would he go with the grating fake Slovenian accent, the fake Aussie accent that makes your ears bleed, or some lethal combination of those two and about five others, at least two of which have not yet been identified in this solar system? Not to worry. In a fit of pure silliness for which I am more grateful than words can say, Michael opted to impersonate "Trey", a fast-talking hustler from Vegas, whose lines in the script must have been tagged with the stage direction, "[Imitates Bugs Bunny imitating Steve Buscemi]." Carter and Williams quickly agree to his plan, probably for the same reason that one of the interview subjects in Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man gave for why it took so long for a bear to eat Timothy Treadwell. The bears probably would have eaten him sooner, the guy said, except they must have thought there was something wrong with him.

I found Trey  amusing enough that I was prepared to turn a blind eye to what at first seemed like holes in the plot, most of them related to the peculiar, fluctuating current of Carter's stone viciousness. As soon as it's agreed that the boys will be using Trey's masterly forged documents to lay claim to Jennifer's boat, Carter volunteers to waste the lady once the ink is dry, so that she cannot seek justice in civil court. I did find myself wondering why, if he was so eager to kill someone, he didn't go the direct route, eliminate the squirrelly middle man, and take the yogurt shop for good measure. I was also puzzled by everyone's behavior in the scene in which Michael, seeing that Carter was about to burn down a motorcycle dealership with the debt-plagued owner inside it, rushed to intervene. His technique consisted of running inside and annoying Carter until he got a punch in the face, which surprisingly did seem to have the effect of causing Carter to forget to burn the store down before storming out in a huff. All became, if not crystal clear, at least scannable when it was revealed that Carter really was an undercurrent agent for the FBI, a fact that Michael inadvertently revealed to Wallace while trying to frame Carter as, it turned out, what he really was. It was actually a good deal less complicated than I'm making it sound, which is probably why Matt Nix keeps sending back my spec scripts.

Not only did it all turn out right in the end, but they even managed to squeeze in one of my all-time favorite Burn Notice call-backs, the desperate chase on foot through the remote, grassy area, with automatic weapons being discharged among the palm trees. All in all, I enjoyed it, though I'll confess that I have never seen an episode of this show where understood less why the bad guys keeping company with Michael's alter ego didn't just thank him for his help, empty their guns into him, and leave his confetti-like remains in a dumpster. It looks as if next week, we should be getting back to Grant Show and Dylan Baker and the company boys, but it's also starting to look as if, who'd have thought it, Michael's new friends haven't been playing entirely straight with him and there may be yet another mysterious layer to his burning. "You're never going to answer all the questions, Michael," complained Fee, miffed that he was continuing to study the documents in his possession instead of feeding them into the shredder she'd brought him, so that he could reboot his life in a state of blissful ignorance. "There'll always be another thread to pull." So long as USA thinks there's life in this series, she's almost certainly right.


Stray observations:

Canonical Bruce Campbell moment: After Fiona refers to his having a "girlfriend", he corrects her: "Ilsa and I don't use labels. Except for 'boy toy'. Hah! She calls me boy toy." It's not the joke so much as his feeling the need to explain it, after he's been the only person to laugh at it, that makes it so perfect.


"Who's a better wingman—Sam Axe or Jesse?" You can apparently go online and vote on that. I'm thinking it's probably the one who, every time he appears, isn't greeted by a chorus of voices in living rooms throughout America saying, "Whoa, he's still on this show!?"