As we come to the end of "Burn Notice" season three, I thought in lieu of a review of what I felt was a strong episode with a couple of smartly-chosen guest stars, I'd talk to the show's creator, Matt Nix, about the ins and outs of a season that began airing all the way back in early June of '09. Matt's thoughts (and, of course, spoilers for season three, plus one question at the very end that discusses some of the direction for season four in the vaguest of terms, and which will get its own spoiler warning) coming up just as soon as I meet you at the emergency-emergency spot...
So we ended last season with Michael jumping out of Management's helicopter, free from his control but also from his protection. What was your plan going into this year, and how, if at all, did it change?
We wanted to explore what was Michael's life like if he wasn't under the thumb of the folks that burned him. That fell into two categories. One is the people that were interested in getting to him, who might have been reluctant to do so before, which is something we did some of, notably in episode 301, "Friends and Family." And then, when presented with a situation where he was still burned but not where he had people working actively against him, what efforts would Michael make to get his job back and his life back, and what challenges would he face there?
One thing that evolved for us over the course of the season is that we didn't want to get into a series of repetitive, And here's another person from Michael's past coming to get him! And here's another one! And another! That can seem appealing when you're thinking about it, and we've done that over the course of the seasons, but ultimately, there are only so many ways to skin that particular cat. And one of the things we're conscious of is having people show up just wanting to kill Michael - well, it's not that hard to kill a guy, even a trained guy, if you set your mind to it. So it has to be about asking "To whom is Michael useful, and what uses do they want to put him to?" Part of the Strickler character came from that; it might not have been the hell that people were expecting, but it is something that people in that position do have to deal with.
In season two, there were essentially two big adversaries: Carla and Victor. Here, we had Detective Paxson, and then Diego, and Strickler, and Gilroy, and, in the finale, Simon. Why did you decide to pit Michael against so many ongoing people? Was it a matter of just trying to find the right fit, or was there a specific plan that required all of them?
We felt like we were on the hook for cops. It's a question that had come up. People will sometimes say, "Why haven't the cops come after Michael?" - as if it's something we'd never thought of. We wanted to address that the cops hadn't come before because he was disappearing from police computers, so what would happen if there was suddenly a cop who noticed him? So that was one thing. And then, of course you are right to mention Michael's CIA contact (Diego), but he wasn't really an adversary. He was someone Michael was cultivating. He wasn't a season-long adversary. Paxson was a straight-up adversary. That was interesting, but it's not really a show that lives in the realm of the police force. Strickler was really kind of our first cooperative "Burn Notice" seasonal adversary. He's kind of Michael's friend. He was working with him specifically. There's reason to believe that he might not be a good guy, but he's not at odds with Michael. And Gilroy, the big thing we were exploring was Michael's sense that some things are worth pursuing whether or not somebody's making you do it. It's not like anybody came to Michael and said, 'Go after this guy.' It was more like Gilroy was around, and Michael felt he had to go after him, and he did. And Simon was just our opportunity to bring a season-long arc that didn't have a lot to do with Michael's ongoing mystery and bring it back around in a new way. Answering a question that I think is a really interesting question, but that people maybe hadn't asked, which is, "If Michael didn't do all thsoe things in his file, who did?"
Well, why would Simon be so upset that Michael had been given credit for his deeds? Once he was broken out of prison, wouldn't he be pleased that he was no longer being accused of this stuff?
The truth is that if you look at the history - not that we expect people to watch "Burn Notice" with a compendium of recent history - but that grew out of reading up on folks like Abu Nidal. The true international terror types are in the business of building themselves a little dossier, cultivating a particular reputation. And they do steal things from each other. It is actually useful for one international bad guy to borrow the jacket of another intl bad guy. There are a few kind of superstars of that genre. Carlos the Jackal did not do all the things Carlos the Jackal was credited with. He found he could make more money by having a great reputation and threatening to hijack planes than hijacking planes.
So in the end, was Gilroy working for anybody, or had he just been hired directly by Simon?
You'll have to watch season four.
I ask because fans were asking for a while why Michael didn't just put a bullet in Gilroy's head, and then last week Michael explained that he was worried Gilroy might be working for someone else. But we get to the end of this episode, and it seems as if there wasn't anyone else in the picture.
It turns out in season four, he's not Simon's only friend in Miami. As season four progresses, we find out, yes, Simon had other friends. It makes sense. Simon didn't get off the plane and then find a cache of explosives.
In the back half of this season, Michael seemed to really be embracing his new life as a vigilante who helps people from week to week, even as he was going after Gilroy. Do you see a point at which the show can exist without the mythology about the burn notice and the arcs with various spy types? Could it work as just a detective show where stuff blows up, or does the series need the arcs?
I don't really anticipate a point at which, to speak in mechanical show terms, we just do A-stories. The show is sort of built around the idea that Michael participates in helping people in Miami while at the same time operating in a larger context, albeit in a sort of clipped wings fashion. In season 20 of "Burn Notice," when everyone is riding around on their motorized scooters and shooting their laser guns at each other, do I think that Michael will be engaged in year 20 of dealing with the folks that burned him? No. But I think in year 20, will he be engaged with a larger overall intelligence world in some way? Yes.
And another thing. I guess this is not really the way you're supposed to answer these questions as a show creator, but it's the truth: We are really in kind of an unusual situation vis-a-vis serialized stories. It isn't a serialized show - we don't want people to feel like if you missed last week's show you shouldn't watch this week's - but at the same time we want to create something that's rewarding for people who watch each week. We don't want to do a long "Previously on...," or make it seem like a show that's not friendly to people tuning in in season 4. So we're limited in our serialized stories to things we can explain succinctly at the top of an episode. That's what USA does. We're not on a network that wants a heavily serialized show, so even if I wanted to go in that direction, USA would have strong words with me. We can never be "Lost" or "The Shield," but neither can we ever be just a straight-up episodic show.
I also think it's the way of the world now, that shows get more serialized as they go on. "House" was very self-contained in the beginning, but now has heavy serial elements.
Well, the longer that you're on the air, and the farther you get from Michael having been burned, does it become more challenging to keep coming up with these larger spy arcs?
We're trying to keep things fresh and do different things. As I say, Strickler was, "Let's do a guy Micael's not fighting." And Gilroy was "Let's do a guy that Michael is going to volunteer to fight, and he has to prove himself," and we hadn't done that before. Honestly, the first season was more challenging than anything that came after. Is it maybe more challenging to reproduce the immediacy of season one, like, 'Who burned me a few days ago?' Yes.
Bear in mind we have two (half) seasons, so we're doing at least two, that's kind of the deal. We're going to have some version of a serialized arc for the winter episodes, and some for the summer. So we're doing two of those a year. Do I have my favorites? Are some more successful than others? Absolutely. And that is just to be expected. I don't feel like it's just a law of diminishing returns, because there are different ways of coming at those arcs. Some of them are going to be really fun. that also has to do with the chemistry of actors, how things mix thematically with A-stories. I can't say that it isn't sometimes a challenge, but it's not as simple as, "Michael is going to forever try to figure out who burned him." We haven't searched for the person who burned him in a long time.
So when you have an arc that maybe isn't working as well as you had hoped, what do you do? Do you bail on it early? Or do you have to stick with it for as long as you had planned and hope you can make it work by the end?
I would say, in any show, you just have to adjust on the fly. You make contracts with actors, you don't bail out on something. You don't call the network and say, "I know we have this guy for 12 episodes, but..." I've never wanted to do that. But certainly you find a groove with actors. For any particular arc character, there will be fans who say, 'That was the best one ever!' and others who say, 'Why did you do that one?' But watching the evolution of Michael's relationship with Strickler, that started in one way, and what we found was what we were enjoying about that relationship was Strickler did not seem like a physical threat, did not seem particularly evil. And so what became fun about him was seeing him kind of blandly get his hooks into Michael and then start working it. So seeing him transform from this guy who's kind of smiley to this guy who shuts down Fiona really sharply and makes very reasonable arguments for why Micahel should betray the people he loves, that was really fun with us. But can I say, when we started out, we said, "Let's make him just like this! In episode 4 of his arc, let's make him snap at Fiona. That'll be pretty badass"? No.
I actually really liked Strickler. Michael shooting him to save Fiona was one of the seaosn's high points, but was there ever a moment where you felt you didn't want to lose the character so soon?
My wife and I watched "The Sopranos" together, and she was very clear with me when I started working on "Burn Notice," that as far as she was concerned, what made "The Sopranos" good was, when characters died, they stayed dead. And part of you didn't want it to happen. There's certainly not a network problem or a writer problem, but I would have great marital strife if I ever shied away from kiling characters I like. She's hardcore about it. There were a lot of big Victor fans from season 2, Michael Shanks became a friend over the course of that, I loved him. People asked, "Can't Victor come back to life?" And one time that came up, my wife was like, "If you do that, don't come home."
Speaking of relationships where threats are sometimes involved, you kind of casually had Michael and Fi hook up again a few episodes back, and it hasn't really been mentioned since. Where does their relationship stand at this point?
Bear in mind that "at this point" for me is different from "at this point" for you (because he's working on writing season four). One of the things that they have sort of fallen into is a kind of defacto relationship that does not involve them living together and cooking dinner for each other, and that has its challenges and ups and downs, and may even include them being with other people at certain points. But I think that I have come to think of Michael and Fiona as, essentially, a particular kind of couple, with an extremely unconventional relationship. But let's just call a spade a spade. It's not like they date a lot of other people or can date a lot of other people. That doesn't mean their relationship is always comfortable or easy or even alive. It may be on hold at any particular time. I think that even when Fiona was nominally with Campbell, was she really with Campbell? of course not. She was with Not-Michael.
(MILD SEASON 4 SPOILER WARNING)
At this point for me, we've ended on Michael being taken to a prison that has a really nice drawing room. What do you feel comfortable about saying will happen in season four?
In season four, Michael finds himself in a whole new relationship with the people that burned him that has a whole new set of opportunities and a whole new set of challenges. Michael, Fiona and Sam make a new friend who is both very useful and very complicated. Is that coy enough? I can say next year we're going to see a new character who's going to be helping Michael, Fiona and Sam in their exploits around Miami, but there's a lot of reasons for him to work with them, and when he's working with them he's a great member of that team, but for various reasons, he's not someone they can get entirely comfortable.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com