Thursday, March 04, 2010

Burn Notice, "Devil You Know": Post-morteming season three with Matt Nix

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.

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


Anonymous said...

The show continues to lack a point. On the plus side, the melodrama is at an all-time high.

Anonymous said...

Nix should've just said, "Are you confused? Good. That was the point. We're confused too."

I just watched the finale and got to the end and ... yawn. I felt like the script said, "Let's blow stuff up. Have Michael run fast. Have him shoot guns. Have him look menacing. The end."

So the otherwise incompetent FBI agents that took Michael have him arrested (by local police?). Management helps him escape custody to take him away, only to bring him back to Miami at some point in season four so he can continue to help people and run through the same melodramatic arc next season. This show used to be so good.

Sharon Gless was the only bright spot in the finale. Donovan got to showcase himself too, of course, but the story was lacking from start to finish.

Anonymous said...
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LyddieGal said...

I loved the finally, and Michael's look as he was holding the gun to Simon's head on the pavement was so perfect and awesome.

Burn Notice is truly one of my favorite shows and I'm really looking forward to season four.

Anonymous said...

Dillahunt was great casting as Simon. Dude plays intelligent amorality so well.

But dayum, Gitmo has good decorators....


WhoDatAGoGeaux said...
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dez said...

I liked it, and I'm very intrigued to see what happens next season. Also felt for Fi when she thought Michael was going to say he loved her, but he walked away instead.

Sharon Gless rocked this ep, too.

Alan Sepinwall said...

Guys, plain and simple: Talk about the show, not each other. Probably the cardinal commenting rule around here.

JanieJones said...

I felt S3's finale was a bit lacking. It proved, to me, that I enjoy the Michael, Fi, Sam and Maddie dynamic much more working together. While there was interaction in this episode, it was more about Michael and his pursuit of what? Besides Simon's menacing and pursuit of vengeance, Mike's burn notice was not a big factor. Michael burying the barrel of the gun in Simon's head delighted me.
I always enjoy an appearance by John Mahoney (who I thought looked particularly gaunt).

I enjoyed it, no doubt with Dillahunt and Gless' performance.
The first half of the season with Strickler and Diego was more interesting to me because there was a complexity to those relationships with Michael.

The detective Paxson story line was weak, imho. I think it was miscast of Bloodgood.
Vance was entirely too smarmy for me as Gilroy.

Don't be mistaken, I love BN. I just would like to see the show stretch it's legs a bit more.

Anonymous said...

I like this show. I don't need to dissect each and every episode, like I do Lost. Sometimes I just want to watch a show to be entertained for an hour and not have to think about it too much. I also watch the Mentalist for the same reason - hot guy, good stories, escapism. Every TV show doesn't have to be an earth shattering, meaningful, cultural phenomenon.

WhoDatAGoGeaux said...

I enjoyed the finale and I think it was the first time I had seen Michael look scared and unsure of himself even while holding a gun to Simon's head. He looked like he had hit the wall. On the other hand, Madelaine looked, as my Daddy used to say, like she could 'go bear hunting with a switch!' Sharon Gless was simply great--tossing the smokes in with her shotgun was visually funny and then mixing in a little background on the emergency emergency phone. Sam and Fiona took care of business and I enjoyed their scenes together and I learned a little something about freezing a detonator-- always good to know.

Management did a shoddy job of scouting helipads and I'm a little confused on the Simon/Michael file mix-up. Can't quite connect the dots on that.

I hope Seymour makes an appearance sometime in Season 4 and it's always a treat to see Larry. I thought Gilroy was just creepy and I think Simon is psycho scary and thanks, Matt for keeping Michael and Fiona in a non-traditional, though very deep, relationship. Good show, take a bow.

medrawt said...

WhoDatAGoGeaux -

The relationship between "Management" and the legit gov't intelligence community is hazy to me, so I'm not clear on who did what with whose tacit approval, but essentially when Simon was put in a secret prison, the people who wanted to burn Michael used Simon's body of work to frame Michael - they needed real horrible crimes for it to be a plausible setup, and as Nix discussed in the interview, the sort of guys who do real horrible crimes aren't shy about taking credit for their work, so Michael's body of work needed to be "unspoken for," as it were, and I presume it also needed to reflect something like a consistent MO.

I enjoyed it as a resolution to a season where I liked individual moments but didn't think it hung together as well as prior seasons. I think Nix was right that there were certain limits to what they could do with the storylines they established, but then maybe they should've focused on other storylines, then.

I'm a big Dillahunt fan, but I don't know how I feel about some of the odder moments in his performance - it felt like very well trod territory. I liked the concept, though.

Anonymous said...

Wow! Great episode to end the season. It makes me want to see more of course.

Sharon Gless was great and had a lot to chew on. Trying to fit the shotgun in the bag cracked me up and throwing the smokes in was a nice touch.

When I saw Garret Dillahunt's name in the credits I said to myself "Cool!" and he was psycho cool.

I hope work on "Code 58" doesn't cause too much distraction for Nix on "Burn Notice"

Billiam said...

Garret Dillahunt is so great. And this is definitely a show that was begging to have him on eventually. While the episode didn't have the full weight of last season's finale, it was, I thought, a very good episode. I'm also intrigued as to where things go from here. It sounds the showrunners may have some good as to where things go from here (which is what we all were hoping for, since this season kind of wandered some).

Anonymous said...

One thing to remember about intelligence...

Just because its NOT a sanctioned alphabet agency doesnt mean its not tied to the government in one function or another.

Take Blackwater. Guess who is tied CLOSELY with them? VP Cheney. Now, did you notice that Blackwater got away with assasinating Iraqi villiagers recently, but when they went to trial here in the states they were aquitted.

And all they did was change their name to Xe.

Add in KBR and a whole assortment of non-government contract agencies doing any number of tasks and it is NOT HARD to see how a special ops master like 'management' can create one of these to do specific tasks that the government agencies under their charters cannot.

While Burn Notice scenarios may not be perfect, most of the audience doesnt know or understand the complexity of contractors anyway, so its definitely not out of the ballpark in the least who interacts with Michael.

As you noticed... the govt ABC's didnt appear to think twice about management hacking state and federal dbases...

DeeTV said...

I really liked the season finale this year (I liked last year's too). I think it opens up all sorts of possibilities. Will Michael really be able to get his old life back? Does he still really want it back?

I also like what they did with Michael and Fi's relationship. No long drawn out UST, just friends with um, benefits.

Anonymous said...

I think some folks may be looking for too much out of this show. It will never be in the same league as shows like The Shield, Sopranos, Sons of Anarchy, etc. It's much lighter fare than that, and intentionally so. I never miss an episode of those shows, but more often than not I'm recording them on the DVR and watching them late. Burn Notice (and White Collar) are shows I watch with my kids. There's a good dynamic amongst the main characters, some interesting story lines, and overall worth coming back to every week. But let's be honest, if you overthink this one the whole premise of the show will start to unravel quickly. But if you just enjoy it for what it is it's pretty entertaining for an hour once a week with the family.

kwas said...

I thought the season finale was one of the better hours of TV this season. It is great to see a show that is firing on all cylinders. Season 3 was a little uneven but this was the payoff. Dillahunt rocked and it certainly seems like we haven't seen the last of Simon...

Jim said...

I liked this episode, loved the way Simon drew Michael in with the TV screens, Maddy was great, and I always love to see John Mahoney. My only complaint was that it felt rushed: Not enough Mahoney, not enough Sam and Fi, who got to the bomb a little too fast, Michael took Simon out a little too fast. I think this epi actually could've been stretched out to two hours.

Did anyone else think, when MGMT said he had Simon's crew under surveillance, that Simon had set up Sam and Fi?

Mapeel said...

I liked it too. The series is opening up nicely. We are seeing more and understanding more about Michael's old life,and seeing more of Fi's own talents firsthand. The scope of the show feels bigger than when it started.

Maura said...

I agree that Burn Notice isn't a show that requires deep analysis and dissection. I actually told my husband to stop thinking about it so damn much while we were watching the finale. I don't think I could handle watching only shows that are complicated and fraught with meaning, metaphor and symbolism. There are a few things about BN that confuse me, but, as with all the shows I watch on USA and TNT, I watch BN because of the characters, not the plot. Also, it's fun to see stuff blow up.

Good finale, with Sharon Gless kicking butt as one scared and pissed off mother. And it's always great to see Dillahunt.

fgmerchant said...

Here is what I didn't understand. How did the cops suddenly know they were after Michael Weston? He certainly didn't leave any clues for them to know who to track! And how could some lowly FBI guy get his hands on the Michael Weston Dossier?

I'm not a fan of cliffhangers at the end of a season; if I like a show, I'm going to tune in to the next season regardless of the cliffhanger from the last episode. Not only that, but half the time I don't remember what the cliffhanger was and when I start watching the next season and they pick up where the previous one left off, I have to pause the show and go online to read a recap of what happened in the finale episode months and months ago. Cliffhangers should only be used in-between normal episodes, not at the end of a season!

ravage said...

Im a little concerned with that last scene that they're entering into prison break territory.

cgeye said...

The end was way 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY for my taste, but at least it gave us insight on how much Michael's mom didn't know about his covert work.

I don't know if he was responsible for those murders the Fed's pictures, and frankly, it doesn't matter -- if he didn't pull the trigger, he helped people on whichever side to do it. Caring about long-term consequences, in his world, are for amateurs. That's what he valued about serving in Iraq and Afghanistan: Working with bad guys to stop someone worse.

The only nagging point was the Feds nagging Maddie, when we know this is Light Entertainment and there is absolutely no way she will lose faith in Michael, or think badly of him. If this was anywhere near real, Mrs. Westen would be renditioned herself for being a terrorist sympathizer -- Fi's still connected to the IRA, and Sam's no innocent flower. I expected thus ever since Management withdrew his protection.

Which is why I'm certain next season will feature Westen being played by Management, to some obscure end, to keep his family out of the gunsights. If the rubber masks start getting pulled off and tapes start self-destructing, I'm changing the channel.

michael said...

More about the new character and who will play him (Coby Bell from "The Game") over at Ausiello Files at

Kelex said...

I think s3 has done a great job in raising Michael's story to the next level! I don't think the show is perfect; for example, I'd like to have seen both Victor and Gilroy stick around awhile longer, but that's also one of the good things about this show. They give you a chance to get attached to the characters, and then kill them off! Keeps you on your toes.

I'd like to see a bit more utilization of Sam and Fiona, especially together, because I think they've got great chemistry together.

I'm curious to see where season four is taking them, and if Management really did rescue Michael from this black-ops prison!

cgeye said...

One question:

Howcum Michael can dial four digits and get in touch with Sam? One digit held, or one digit plus Send, sure. But three plus Send? On that truck driver's phone? How?

Also, did we know from the beginning that Michael was burned by assigning a wilder assassin's file to him? I never saw the pilot, so I don't know.