As viewers learned at the end of the previous season, Michael has finally "come in from the cold." After spending years uncovering the nefarious deeds of the bad guys who got him 'burned' (or exiled) from the spy community, he's been embraced by the CIA once more. So everything's groovy now, right?
"One of the things that emerges early in the season is that the typical intelligence agency job is not necessarily a high-stakes, high-octane thrill ride," the show's executive producer and creator, Matt Nix, said in an interview. "It's not necessarily something Michael is even particularly interested in doing anymore."
"It's still 'Burn Notice,'" Nix hastens to add. "I didn't want to be like, 'Okay, now he does paper-shuffling."
The way Nix sees it, un-burning Michael opened up a host of new possibilities for the kinds of stories 'Burn Notice' can tell. And he admits there was also a little element of rebellion in having Michael actually achieve his longtime goal. If people tell Nix something should never, ever happen on his show, he said his mind "will start working in overdrive" to figure out a way to defy the conventional wisdom.
Some said "the minute Fiona and Michael kissed, the show would be over," Nix recalled. His response: He had Michael (Jeffrey Donovan) and his ex, Fiona (Gabrielle Anwar), sleep together in midway through the show's first season.
"I don't think it killed anything," Nix said in the deadpan voice that sounds remarkably similar to Michael Westen's droll 'Burn Notice' voiceovers.
It took longer -- four seasons, in fact -- for Michael to find those responsible for burning him and to get the CIA to recognize that he was framed. Though I'm not in this camp, some 'Burn Notice' observers feared the show would be drained of tension if Michael ever cleared his name and went back to the spy game. But Nix said that development will actually introduce a host of interesting complications for Michael, weapons expert Fiona and Michael's ex-Navy Seal buddy Sam (Bruce Campbell).
"Re-engaging with the spy agencies does not make everything simple for him," Nix said. Michael's new situation, in which he is sort-of employed by the CIA but not yet 100 percent, officially reinstated, "creates a whole different set of complications."
According to Nix, the new season of the show explores the question of whether "Michael Westen is the same Michael who got burned," Nix notes. "At that time, he hadn't spoken to his family in eight years. He hadn't been around Fi. Sam was an old friend he saw occasionally. Now he's much closer to Fi, he sees his mother all the time. What does it mean when when someone who intentionally disconnected from that world before he went into espionage" gets back into the spy game -- but with all those connections intact?
"Bruce Campbell characterized the show as being, on some level, about Michael becoming a human being. That idea has always been in the DNA of the show -- the idea that Michael, in order to be able to do the things that he does, had to give up a lot," Nix said. "Obviously the agenda for him on a personal level is you shouldn't have to give up those things -- [he's] a human being, he should be able to live a life like the rest of us. But you don't get to be him by living a normal life, and that's a tension inherent in the show. So I don't think we can answer it in a really settled way, but it's certainly a question to explore."
The new season, which has Dylan Baker and Grant Show recurring as Michael's new boss and handler, will explore the old saying, "Be careful what you wish for -- you just might get it." The truth is, Michael has led his own makeshift team for a long time and he hasn't had to follow other people's orders for years. As viewers will see in the season premiere, going back to the more structured world of the CIA isn't going to be easy.
"If a [CIA] guy like Michael gets a job, it's 'Go grab this thing, go infiltrate this.' It's not like he is also on the team that gets to find out what the information is," Nix said. "He is the 'getting guy' and Michael hasn't been in that position in a long time -- 'Hey, don't ask questions, just do this thing.' That's not a position he particularly enjoys."
Given that Michael isn't one to meekly follow orders, his relationship with the CIA will become complicated over the course of the season. And, for the show itself, having Michael work for the spy agency allowed Nix and his writers to mix up and "blend" episodes in ways they haven't been able to in the past, Nix said.
Before, Michael's adversaries and his weekly clients usually existed in separate stories, and there would be a few big, mythology-oriented hours per season featuring a bad guy or three. But now, "the mythology characters are not simply antagonists," Nix points out. Michael will still do investigative work for "little guy" clients in Miami -- for example, everybody's favorite money launderer, Barry, will bring his brother to Michael as a client -- but some weeks, Michael will do CIA work with characters who have their own agendas but aren't necessarily villains.
When the new season begins, Michael exists in an ambiguous state in which he's no longer "burned" but not quite officially rehabilitated either. For one thing, it suits his new boss to have a freelance agent who can do things outside the boundaries of the CIA's rules.
"Everybody you talk to in intelligence has that dream of not having red tape, to be able to do stuff without restraint," Nix said.
And even though Dylan Baker's character, Lane, knows that Michael did not do the things that got him burned, it's not as if everyone in the intelligence community is willing and eager to work with a spy who had a terrible reputation for a long time.
"Everyone has learned this person is a bad guy," Nix said. "You could do the paperwork and say, 'Okay, this person is now officially reinstated,' but it doesn't mean that everybody in these organizations wants to work with him or is willing to work with him. They've heard bad things. [Being blacklisted] is like Hollywood that way."
Speaking of formerly burned spies, Coby Bell's character, Jesse, is back in the season 5 premiere. Though Jesse served a particular story purpose in season 4 (Michael unintentionally burned Jesse and then worked to clear him), Nix said that keeping the character around gave the writers another vehicle for expanding the show's storytelling possibilities.
"I realized at a certain point that just for the sake of the longevity of the show, having a slightly larger ensemble would be really helpful," Nix said. "Speaking frankly, looking at last [season], we were in a funny position vis-a-vis Jesse -- he was a both a kind of mythology antagonist and then a story ally. It made some of the storytelling very tricky and sometimes, I'll confess, a little murky."
But having Jesse stick around as an friendly contact allows Team Westen to field two different pairs of operatives (one season 5 episode has Jesse and Fi pretending to be corrupt cops), and this season will allow Bell to give Jesse a few different emotional colors.
"There was so much time being angry last year, you know, 'Cut to Coby being angry,'" Nix said. "He is a really funny guy and he can do this wide range of things, and not having him [always] be serious and upset this year is really useful. In some episodes, he is very much actively part of the team and in other episodes he is more of a supporting character that may come in and out for a scene."
Keeping Jesse around and occasionally revisiting characters such as Barry, Larry and Sugar the drug dealer has certainly helped keep the show from becoming too claustrophobic, and Nix said the show would continue to have episodes in which Sam, Fi and Michael's mother, Madeleine (Sharon Gless), step to the fore and take the lead role in a case (He was particularly enthused about an upcoming Madeleine-centric episode: "It's not Sharon Gless running around with a gun the whole time, but it is sort of handing her the central relationship with the bad guy," Nix said.)
Nix may not be able to assemble a bomb out of a soda can and a penlight (though surely his technical adviser could), but in talking to him, you realize that he has Michael's penchant for tinkering. Nix likes to take apart the elements of his show to see what makes it work, and five seasons in, it sounds as though he's still enjoying the process of learning what makes 'Burn Notice' tick and figuring out how to help the show evolve without losing its strongest elements.
And after running both 'Burn Notice' and the canceled Fox series 'The Good Guys' last year (in addition to writing the Sam Axe prequel movie), he said he's decided to stick with Miami adventures for the foreseeable future. If he develops other shows, which he said he's open to doing, they'll be the kind of projects he can hand off to a partner who can handle most of the day-to-day showrunning responsibilities.
"Last year when I was working on two shows, I realized it's 'Burn Notice,' for better or worse," Nix said. "That mode of storytelling is kind of baked into my DNA. I get on the treadmill at the gym and start thinking of 'Burn Notice' stories. ...Last year was a good learning experience for me -- I got to learn which are the things that I can delegate and which are the things I can't."
"We showrunners sometimes talk like, 'You know, I'm just serving the Lord,'" Nix said with a dry, Westen-esque laugh. But "part of it just comes down to your preferences and what you want and how you like things, so you realize the more idiosyncratic and specific your preferences are, the more you better stick around."
Here is our exclusive clip from the June 23 'Burn Notice' season premiere, and below that is some information about season 5 guest stars. The clip and the next sentence could be considered spoilery. In the clip below, Michael, his handler, Sam and Fi are on CIA a mission to find a man who could supply vital intelligence about the orchestration of his burn notice.
Here are a few final bullet points from my interview with Nix. They contain a bit more intel about the season and the new (and familiar) faces we'll see in season 5:
• This season will once again consist of 12 episodes in the summer and then six more early next year. By the way, some time ago the show was renewed for both its fifth and sixth seasons.
• Lauren Stamile ('Community,' 'The Good Guys') will have an arc this season as well. "She plays a really smart CIA officer, and she has a sense of humor," Nix said.
• Tim Matheson will be back as Michael's frenemy Larry in episode 6 of the new season (which Nix will direct). Matheson, a busy director in his own right, hasn't yet been booked to helm any season 5 'BN' episodes, but never say never.
• Todd Stashwick, who played Miami's second-biggest heroin dealer in season 1, will return this season. In that episode, we'll also see Sam doing his Chuck Finley character. "He does this kind of corrupt, half-bad guy, a tow-truck driver," Nix said. "He is really great fun and it's an incredibly high-stakes episode."
• TV Line reports that Matt Lauria ('Friday Night Lights,' 'The Chicago Code') will also have a guest arc this season.
• Check back here on June 24, the day after the 'Burn Notice' season premiere, for my thoughts on the season premiere and more excerpts from my interview with Nix.
• This bullet point has to do with the ongoing arc of the season, so look away if you don't want to know it: "Michael is dealing with re-engaging with the CIA and dealing with what that means, but as it turns out, there's a big, season-long, ongoing, dangerous mystery [that he encounters] in the CIA," Nix said.
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