Burn Notice Season 4: A First-Half Look

This Thursday, USA has given us appointment television at its best: the sure to be smoldering summer finale of Burn Notice season four. As the first half of the season comes to what’s sure to be an impressive conclusion (9 PM ET/PT), let’s take a look back at what you need to know, and what we just plain loved.

Michael’s New Mission

As season four opened, Michael Westen (Jeffrey Donovan) had made ‘friends’ in the loosest sense of the word with a man named Vaughn (played by Supernatural‘s Robert Wisdom). Much like Management before him, Vaughn wanted Michael’s help, this time in investigating people who were helping to fund wars, crimes, and other illicit dealings in foreign countries. We haven’t yet gotten details on the exact scope of their crimes, but we were assured that they were very bad people. Of course, because this is Burn Notice, Vaughn was never exactly trustworthy himself.

The as-then-unidentified bad guys were eventually found out to be after the contents of a safe deposit box at a local bank. Michael got to the box first, and discovered it contained a Bible belonging to none other than Simon Escher (Garret Dillahunt), the psychotic madman from Season Three’s finale. The Bible was actually in use as a book code to decipher something else. This made Michael eager to meet up with Simon, who had a massive chip on his shoulder regarding their mutual former employer. Simon led Michael to an audio recording which proved Vaughn had been directly involved with whomever had burned him.

However, on the other side of the coin, the face of the people Vaughn had Michael hunting was revealed to be John Barrett (Robert Patrick), the head of Drake Technologies, a telecommunications company. Barrett wants the Bible for his own agenda, and to bring down Vaughn. Vaughn may have been involved with burning Michael, but is hurting him worth letting the bad guys win? It’s a moral dilemma Michael has to struggle with, as Barrett and his men have arrived in Miami looking for the Bible. Being stuck between two bad guys is nothing new, but this is a conflict in which Michael has reasons to go either way.

Making New Friends (or Enemies?)

The main plot this season is what normally would be Burn Notice‘s B-story: who burned Michael and what exactly is going on behind the scenes? While the battle between bad guys is no less important, it took a backseat when the show decided to completely reverse its formula. In the season four premiere, Vaughn loans Michael a set of credentials to get into an annex office and procure some needed information. Michael finds out only after the job is done that the credentials belong to a counterintelligence agent, who is subsequently fingered for the theft. Michael has done what was done to him: he’s burned a spy.

That now ex-spy is Jesse Porter (Coby Bell), a counterintelligence expert riding a desk after his temper and unwillingness to turn a blind eye got him moved out of fieldwork. Jesse was working on the same thing that Vaughn had Michael working on, at least until he lost his job. He has obviously heard the Legend of Michael Westen, as in the second episode, “Fast Friends,” he comes to Michael looking for help. While Michael helps Jesse out of a jam with one of his former assets, he also struggles with lying to Jesse about what is happening behind the scenes, especially when Jesse’s temper rears its head and he vows to kill whomever is responsible for his burn notice.

Jesse joins Michael’s team, ostensibly because he has nowhere else to go, and proves his worth on a few occasions. For example, with some help from Sam (Bruce Campbell), he cracks hired killer Kendra in “Entry Point.” He also bonds with Fiona (Gabrielle Anwar), with whom he shares a hot temper and a love of firearms. The addition of Jesse puts Fiona in a hard position, as she is loyal to Michael yet she loathes what their cover-up is doing to Jesse. Vaughn later tries to use this to his advantage, as he tells Fiona that he will give Jesse his life back if Fiona gives him Simon’s Bible. Even Michael’s mother, Madeline (Emmy nominee Sharon Gless) has difficulty watching Michael lie to Jesse and in “Blind Spot,” plans to leave town until the situation is settled.

Yet Jesse is not sitting passively by. He tracks down his former supervisor, Marv (Richard Kind), in “Past and Future Tense.” Marv agrees to get him information on his last case – the information that directly leads Michael to the bank and the discovery of the Bible. In the same episode, still feeling loyal to Jesse, Marv provides Fiona with evidence that Jesse is innocent of the theft that Michael perpetrated, but Fiona destroys it after a crisis of conscience. In “Blind Spot,” however, Jesse tells her — at gunpoint, having expected Michael instead — that he’s spoken to Marv again, and uncovered security camera footage from across the street from his former workplace. On that camera is footage that shows Michael leaving the annex right as Jesse is being taken away. Jesse now knows that Michael burned him, and while he can’t bring himself to harm Fiona, she tells Michael that she believes he’s going to make them all pay.

Clients of the Week

Aside from its two season-long plots, Burn Notice has also featured its usual impressive array of guest stars. Some of my favorites included a great performance by The Shield‘s Benito Martinez (“Neighborhood Watch”), and veteran TV actor Steven Culp as a well-to-do businessman whose wife is kidnapped along with Fiona (“Where There’s Smoke”). Burt Reynolds made a heavily promoted appearance as a glimpse into Michael’s future in “Past and Future Tense.” This was to say nothing of the much-welcomed return of Garret Dillahunt in “Hard Time,” whose Simon is one of the show’s more memorable villains. Casting Robert Patrick was a coup in and of itself.

So Far, So Good…

Season four of Burn Notice may be its best yet, as the reversal of the show’s core formula has altered the relationships between the show’s main characters in a way that has allowed them to grow and change even further. Helped by the solid writing, the stellar cast hasn’t missed a beat in their performance. Gabrielle Anwar has been a standout this season with her portrayal of an honestly conflicted Fiona, and the writers made a genius move in making Sharon Gless’s Maddie an active part of some of the team’s missions, therefore allowing her to do more than just worry over Michael. The only thing that’s missing would be a cameo from Michael’s ne’er-do-well brother Nate (Seth Peterson), though that would probably only complicate the elder Westen’s life further.

The show also made a bold and successful move in bringing in a fifth regular in the person of Coby Bell. Introducing new main characters to a series is always hit and miss, especially when fans are loyal – sometimes too loyal – to a show in its current incarnation. Yet not only did the character of Jesse Porter reinvigorate and expand the show’s narrative, the actor behind him is a find. Jesse has taken the audience on a journey as he struggles with his life falling apart, yet he’s also shown the temper and cocky streak that no doubt hampered it. The final scene in “Blind Spot” still brings me to both tears and chills because of Coby Bell’s impressive work, and Jesse’s fate is probably the biggest question on my mind. I couldn’t have been a bigger and more public doubter of his addition, but now I couldn’t be a bigger supporter of making sure he stays.

If the show had one misstep, it was trying to institute any hint of romantic tension between Jesse and Fiona. I never saw any hint of it on-screen, yet in “Where There’s Smoke” Madeline tells Jesse in no uncertain terms that she belongs to Michael. Things get further awkward when Jesse and Fiona end up kissing to protect their cover in “Blind Spot.” The on-again, off-again romance between Michael and Fiona is one of the great relationships in Burn Notice, and I was hoping that the show would resist the tired idea of a love triangle. Not to mention it hampered the introduction of a perfectly good new character by making him look like the guy coming between them — the fastest kind of character assassination I’ve ever encountered on TV. Thankfully, this seems to be something that isn’t going to go any further, so we can assume the writers have learned their lesson.

Where is the show going to go from Thursday onward? I honestly don’t know, and that’s refreshing in a TV climate where skeptical viewers can pick apart a show before it even airs. I do know that I’m so excited, I’m counting the days, and I’m certainly thankful Burn Notice is returning in November instead of January this year.

If you love good television, you’ll be in front of your TV watching the summer finale on Thursday night. And if you’ve missed a minute of this intense and engaging fourth season, USA will run the entirety of it leading up to the finale with a season four marathon beginning at 10 AM (EST) on Thursday. It’ll be the best way you could possibly spend a day, capped with one heck of a summer finale.

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