USA’s BURN NOTICE returned last night with the season six premiere, “Scored Earth.” Picking up the moment that season five left off, Michael (Jeffrey Donovan) goes on a very personal vendetta against Anson Fullerton (Jere Burns, Justified), determined to make him pay for his part in landing Fiona (Gabrielle Anwar) in jail. But Anson is not done yet, and has a few more tricks up his sleeve.
Generally, no matter how much serial plot is included in a BURN NOTICE episode, the writers still force a case of the week in to keep with their formula. “Scorched Earth” does not have such an addition, which makes it that much better. BURN NOTICE has some wonderful characters with a very interesting story. Why it insists on being a procedural is beyond me, when “Scorched Earth” proves that they can do better. I’m not saying ditch the clients entirely, but they are not needed every week.
Admittedly, “Scorched Earth” starts a little rough. For some reason, the acting between Donovan and Bruce Campbell, who plays Michael’s best friend, Sam, is absolutely horrible in an early confrontation. The scene just sets one’s teeth on edge. These performers usually do so much better, and it feels like a bad, cheesy TV movie for one entire scene. Then it recovers beautifully, and the two men remind us why they can carry a series, playing more subtle, nuanced, and less hammy for the rest of the hour.
Michael’s anger, which oozes through every minute of “Scored Earth,” is an awesome thing to tackle. Yes, viewers know that Michael is a spy who has done some seriously questionable things in his life. But never before has he been this scary. This episode changes that, showing fans exactly how bad Michael can get, in a situation that no one would want to be in. Anson is threatening Fiona, the love of Michael’s life. As bad a guy as Anson has been, and as dangerous as he seems, one is more concerned for his safety than Michael’s in this episode.
There is also something primal about Michael’s emotion, and there is a worry of how it might change him. Should he lose Fiona permanently, it is very easy to picture how Michael might go over the edge, blazing through everyone in his path, single-mindedly destroying his own life while focused on one purpose. He could not be easily stopped. This is a Michael that is not the likeable characters fan of BURN NOTICE have grown accustomed to, and it’s a side of him that, while thrilling to see here, is not one that anyone is eager to have brought out again.
Sam’s loyalty is really driven home in “Scorched Earth,” as he is the only thing that stands between Michael and psychotic. Unlike in other episodes, where Sam is content to let Michael work through things, he never leaves Michael’s side this time. While Michael does give up a little too easily in the factory, giving Sam a weird, unwarranted smile, Sam’s constant presence, as well as wise words, are what keep Michael from flying off the handle completely. Were Sam not present in this situation, there is no doubt that things would have ended much more tragically for someone, or multiple someones, possibly Michael himself.
Agent Pearce (Lauren Stamile) also ends up being a calming factor. She doesn’t take Michael’s crap, talking back to him as he berates and bullies her. But she doesn’t give up on him either. She does find men to back up Michael, and comes to his aid. Her chemistry with Michael, and what she represents for the show, have really earned her a place on BURN NOTICE. Should the series want to add another main character, and it should, she is candidate number one.
Anson is the lowest of the low, killing innocents and going after Michael’s loved ones to get what he wants. He is also incredibly smart, which makes him the perfect villain for Michael to go up against. Not easily defeated, every bit a match for our hero, thank goodness BURN NOTICE does not kill him off, as it has done with so many other recurring characters before their potential has been fully realized. Look for Anson to reappear again, hopefully as the ultimate antagonist at the end of the series.
In “Scored Earth,” Anson sends a killer after Michael’s mother, Maddie (Sharon Gless). We have seen Maddie handle herself time and again, and helped by her very quick mind. Which is why she manages to hide from the murderer, and survive until help can arrive.
Jesse (Coby Bell) runs to her rescue, but letting Madeline save Jesse is a great twist, really giving the actress something fun and brave to play. Every time Maddie gets a scene like this, it reminds us that she is often wasted. Get her more involved, writers! She can handle it!
While all of this is going on, Fiona sits behind bars, being interrogated by a familiar face, Jason Bly (Alex Carter). Bly is the prime example of how the good guys aren’t always all that good. On one hand, he is just doing his job, questioning a known criminal. Lying to Fiona, telling her that Michael is dead, is a smart tactic. On the other hand, though, viewers have come to love Fiona, knowing that she has a good heart, and doesn’t deserve to be put through this pain. That’s why Bly comes off as the one to hate here, even if, from a totally objective viewpoint, he isn’t doing anything wrong.
Of course, Fiona doesn’t buy that Michael is dead. At first, it looks like she might believe it, but she figures out the deception. She is worthy of Michael, and an equal partner for him in every way. While behind bars, she will definitely be missed in any hairy emergency that Michael and the others might face.
“Scored Earth” does a good job setting up the larger arcs of the season, with Michael, Sam, and Pearce working to clear Fiona’s name, since Anson is not brought to justice, or yet proven responsible for the crimes Fiona is accused of. It also gives Michael somewhere to grow, both on a personal level, and a professional one, as he must trust the system to maintain the new, legitimate life he is building, even though his instincts are to fight it.
Will BURN NOTICE stretch out this story for an entire season, only spending scant moments on it each week, while helping client after client? Or will it stick to this much better strategy of letting the characters fully explore themselves and their situation for the entire hour? Common sense says the former, unfortunately, but tuning in is the only way to know for sure. And even when BURN NOTICE falls short of its potential, it still a pretty darn entertaining show.
Watch BURN NOTICE, Thursdays at 9 p.m. ET on USA.